Setting Up a Halloween Light Show – Part 3

In part 1, I talked about how to build your own holiday light show by combining computer hardware with a light controller. In part two, I also looked at how to set up a light show sequence and schedule your display using specialized software.

Now that your show is almost ready to go, there are a few extra items to consider before settling down with a big bowl of candy for the trick-or-treaters to arrive.

Lights!

It seems obvious, but you can’t have a light show without lights. However, even here you have a technology choice to consider. Over the years, holiday lights have improved. The old strings of colored lights with large glass bulbs prone to breaking were replaced with smaller, more efficient incandescent lights. And in recent years, even those have been replaced by LED lights.

LED lights use much less power, and last much longer, than older incandescent lights. For a static display, that’s great, but in a light show, you want lights that can fade in, twinkle and dim. Basic LED lights have an issue in that they often only have two states: “on” and “off”.

Thanks to improvements made for home LED floodlights, dimmable LED holiday lights are starting to arrive on the market. These lights will help eliminate flicker, and allow a wider range of light levels that are not subject to outages created by the voltage fluctuations your light show requires.

Before purchasing any lights for your display, take the time to research the dimming capabilities of the lights to avoid finding out they won’t work as intended.

Sound!

You may wish to consider how your light show visitors are going to enjoy the music you have setup along with your visual display. Hooking up a set of large speakers to a stereo to play your holiday music may not provide a great listening experience for those who pull up on the street to enjoy the display from their car. The extra noise can also be an annoyance to your neighbors who have to listen to the same holiday tunes for hours on end.

One technological solution is an FM transmitter. You can find both self-build kits as well as pre-built units from several makers, but the basic premise is the same. The device takes the audio output from your light show computer and broadcasts the music across a FM radio channel of your choosing, just like the Mister Microphones of the 70s.

The transmission signal is very weak, which is why no FCC license is required to use and operate one. It is strong enough, however, to broadcast a steady signal out to the car radios of the visitors on your street.

When looking at FM transmitters for your display, look for a device that allows both stereo and mono audio options. This gives you some flexibility, as stereo will sound better, but mono signals generally transmit further. You’ll also want to make sure that it’s reasonably small enough to fit in whatever outdoor weatherproof housing you may use, and use a standard outlet or battery supply.

A nice optional feature to check for is “automatic gain control” (AGC), which helps to keep the music volume from being too loud or soft between different songs played.

Once you have your transmitter, visit the website www.radio-locator.com to find the best unused FM frequencies in your area to use with the unit.

Getting all of these different technologies together can take time and effort, but the payoff of seeing the effect your light show can have on visitors makes the project worth it.

Setting Up a Halloween Light Show – Part 2

In the my previous post about how to setup a Halloween light show, the specialized light controller and PC were introduced. In this entry, we’ll talk about the technological glue that brings those two together, and that is software. There are two pieces of software you’ll need when creating your display, known as a sequencer and a scheduler.

Sequencer Software

A holiday light show is just a sequence of instructions sent to a light controller that time light displays with music. There are a number of different free and paid software suites available that include a sequence creation tool. For this year’s show, I am using the sequencer included with the LightShow Pro software suite.

This software makes the task of creating a show easier by showing a visual display of the music that helps you created slices of time within the show that you essentially “paint” with various lighting effects using the different light setups you have for your display.

Making your lights turn on, off, shimmer or flash at just the right moments in your show can take a few hours of work, even for a 5 minute sequence. For those who don’t have the time to craft elaborate shows on their own, there are collections of pre-made sequences available through groups that share their creations, as well as professional sites that provide light show equipment.

Scheduler Software

Once you have your collection of sequences and music, you’ll want to setup a playlist to entertain your holiday guests. Scheduler software allows you to place your work on a calendar and repeat shows as often as you wish.

Many scheduler tools will allow you to setup more advanced options, such as having the current sequence selection automatically posted to a Twitter account, and even upload webcam footage of the current show.

Remote Desktop Software

If your software is properly setup, you shouldn’t need to access the PC while the show is running. As a geek, I like to be able to connect and troubleshoot any issues with the show without having to drag a monitor, keyboard and mouse to the outdoor box housing my controller and PC.

Instead, I use the Remote Desktop Connection tools built into Microsoft Windows to connect across the network via my home PC. I have also installed a software tool that works with the Splashtop app that is available for both iOS and Android. This allows me full access to view and control the PC using my tablet anywhere that has access to the Internet. In my case, when I am standing outside and realize that I’d like to rearrange a sequence or two on the fly.

Setting Up a Halloween Light Show – Part 1

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DcKdmY9rA5o

Holidays bring out both our creative sides, as well as a bit of our crazy side. Of course, nothing quite brings out both of those traits like holiday decorating. As a geek, I love to use technology to get the most out of things, which in this case can only mean one thing: A computer-controlled holiday light show. (Naturally)

I am currently in the process of setting up this year’s Halloween light show, with a front yard “graveyard” as the back drop. To setup your own light show, regardless of holiday, you’ll need some components to add to your digital decorations.

The first item on your light show shopping list will be a light controller. These boxes are the heart of the show. You can find a number of different build-it-yourself kits and as well as pre-made controllers from different manufacturers, such as Light-O-Rama or D-Light.

One nice thing about most of these controllers is that you can mix and match different controller brands, as most will support a common set of light show standards. In my case, I went with a D-Light ACx16 controller, which allows me to setup up to 16 different “channels”, each of which can control one set of lights.

The light controller’s purpose is to take a pre-programmed sequence of instructions on when to send electricity to the various lighting decorations around your display. They can control how much electricity is sent, which allows the creation of dimming or shimmering effects, and with the right setup of lights, even animation. The controllers can even be used to control other electrical devices, from actuators to move animated figures or other items like fog machines.

When the instructions sent to the box match up with music that’s played at the same time, you get the holiday lightshow many of us are familiar with. For that, most consumer-grade controllers will need a PC of some sort. If the light controller is the heart of the show, the PC is the brain.

The requirements for a PC to be used with a light show are not very high, but it will help your stress levels when setting up your own show if you make sure yours meets (or exceeds) the specifications required by the controller hardware and software.

For most setups, this means a Windows XP, Vista or Windows 7 PC, with a processor that’s clocked at 1.5GHz or faster, and has 1 GB of RAM. Many home setups can made due with an old, hand-me-down PC that’s been cleaned up and put into service as a secondary computer.

Of course, being a geek, I didn’t want to just go with an old PC, I wanted to push things on the tech side. That didn’t mean getting the biggest or fastest PC I could find. If anything, since this PC needed to be running constantly, and would need to be placed in a sealed box to protect it from the outdoor elements, I looked for simple and small.

I found my simple and small components in the form of a “nettop”. Nettops are the desktop equivalent to netbooks that many own. I purchased a Foxconn nt-A3700, which is a “barebones nettop” that is roughly the size of hardcover novel and weighs less than a pound. The system is considered “barebones” because it comes with the case, motherboard and processor, but no RAM or hard drive.

One nice thing about nettops like this one is that the AMD E-450 processor uses very little electricity. The system as a whole uses a 65W power supply, which will help when placed in that protective box with other gear. The processor is far from powerful performance-wise, but you could easily use it to surf the Internet and play many reasonably sized multimedia files, which it will do as the brains of the light show.

To complete the computer, I added 4GB of DDR3 system memory. I could have gone with far less, but RAM is one of the cheaper upgrades for a PC, and will help with performance. I also added a relatively inexpensive SSD hard drive.

Solid state hard drives may not be familiar to everyone, but as a new technology, their advantages over traditional hard drives are quickly taking over the laptop market. These drives feature no moving parts, which means they can be made smaller and lighter. That’s a boon for the laptop market, but in my case, I liked the idea of not having to worry about a bump to the protective box causing an issue with a traditional hard drive. SSDs also tend to be faster, which will be helpful in a system with a basic nettop processor that has to process multimedia files for the show.

In Setting Up a Halloween Light Show – Part 2, I’ll cover the light show software setup, as well as how to control a PC in a box on your front lawn remotely with your tablet PC from the comfort of your home.

Halloween Countdown – Dimmable LED Floodlights

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lpHQmAvkrDo

One of the changes I am making to my home Halloween light show is the use of LED floodlights to replace the standard incandescent bulbs.

LED lights will use much less electricity than standard floodlights, saving both on our electrical bill, as well as making the light show less likely to trip a breaker. The downside to LED lights is that they have traditionally not been dimmable. These LED floodlights are designed to get around that limitation, for use in home lighting.

For those interested, these LED lights were purchased from WOWLights.com.

Fox 8 News – Halloween Tech Tips for 2011

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3Je7O95c_Os

Halloween is known for the paranormal, but it can also be about technology. I gave a few examples of how you can use apps and websites to track your kids, light their way and enjoy the holiday to Wayne Dawson of Fox 8 News in Cleveland this morning.