The Project | The Vision | Quick Facts | The Ornaments | The Electronics | The Proposal | The Group | Contact Us
In the fall of 2011, our student group conceived, designed, and built a light show. Tens of thousands of lights decorated an outdoor plaza, all of them fully computerized and synchronized to music.
This year, a new student from the group saw an opportunity to make his dream into a reality. In front of the room, he proposed a light show. This show would be a large-scale endeavor, and require the commitment and skills of the entire group. It would be a spectacle of flashing lights and music, and a centerpiece to the busy winter experience of students at the University of Minnesota. We decided that we would go big or go home. It became a shared vision amongst the whole organization, and we strove to use this project as an opportunity for everyone to get their hands on new technical skills.
Why a light show? What was special about this project? Well, for starters it required a massive amount of collaboration. Not only with people within the group, but with other university faculty and groups, and with commercial suppliers from around the nation. It meant funding, which took grants, bureaucracy, and board meetings. It meant designing, ordering, and building our own electronics all by ourselves. It meant programming our lights to flash to music. It meant searching for commercial quantities of LED lights and wiring. We lead this project from start to finish, organized by students at every step. There was a place for everybody, and plenty of opportunities to develop and apply our technical skills. In short, this project was not about building a light show. It was about designing, engineering, and learning how to build a light show.
Not only was this a great organizational and technical challenge, it was a conceptually beautiful and engaging project. A light show is a wonderful synthesis of art and science. It displays the power of science and what people consider otherwise "drab" technical fields to evoke a sense of wonder and allow a submersion of the senses as the lights and music build an exciting and communal atmosphere. By making the technical side more visible and accessible to the public, it encourages individuals to investigate and think of the applications of the sciences in new and creative ways.
People are drawn to lights, as we are all visual creatures. Like moths to the flame, we wished to gather people from all over the university campus and from around the local area. As the project developed, it became clear we were laying the foundations for an event that could be more than a light show and a display of science. We realized that this project had the power to inspire and engage the entire community. We quickly joined forces with the university radio station, Radio K, and asked many other technical student organizations to bring their creative elements to the show. We brought in a stage for performing student groups, and even brought in local businesses that provided free food for the opening night. It was a night of lights and music, food and community. The show consisted of the Trans-Siberian Orchestra's Wizards in winter, and Also sprach Zarathustra, best know for its use as the opening theme in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey.
The show didn't stop there. We continued the next night, and the next again. With media attention from local news stations, papers and the university, people from around the Twin Cities continued to flock to this community event. Hundreds have attended the show, and we plan for an even bigger and more engaging spectacle in years to come!
A light show is useless without lights! In addition to wrapping trees and lamp posts, we created several types of lighted decorations, which we call ornaments. We made stars, snowflakes, trees, and even a heart. It was slow starting, but once we came up with a solid design, the rest were easy. If there's one thing we learned from this project, it's how versatile zip-ties can be.
We made seven stars, and hung them on a curved wall of the plaza. Each star was made out of five sticks of bamboo. A string of rope light was affixed around the perimeter with zip-ties. The stars were held in place with a combination of wooden stakes and twine.
Keeping with our winter theme, we built some snowflakes. We started with a square of chicken wire mesh, and attached a single string of rope light bent in an artistic manner. This method allowed for some creativity. Since (almost) no two snowflakes are alike, our team members tried out their favourite design styles.
We made a set of twenty trees out of bamboo using a similar technique as the stars. Each tree was wrapped in a net light, and staked into the ground.
Instead of buying expensive commercial DMX light dimmers, we decided to build our own. While it turned out to be much more difficult than we expected, we gained a valuable learning experience on designing and manufacturing electronics. You can download our schematics and PCB layout here.
The requirements for each dimmer was simple: use a DMX signal to control sixteen strings of LEDs.
Although a modern switched mode power supply is much more efficient, we decided to stick with a simple linear power supply. The power supply has three main sections: an isolated RS-485 receiver supply, a microcontroller supply, and the LED driver supply.
The DMX input of the circuit board uses a separate supply voltage to power an RS-485 receiver chip, and is fully isolated through an optocoupler. The microcontroller has its own 3.3 V supply, but shares a common negative with the LED drivers.
We say "negative" and not "ground" because the LED drivers are powered directly by the unisoltated, rectified 115 V mains. The negative rail has an 80 V potential with respect to earth ground. This is definitely not the best design, but it eliminates the need for a bulky and expensive isolation transformer capable of powering all the lights. A bleeder resistor connected across the main capacitor safely drains any residual charge.
The RS-458 receiver chip converts the differential signal to UART, which is read by the microcontroller's serial port. We used a PIC18F24 to decode the DMX protocol. Five DIP switches allows us to select which of the 512 addresses in the DMX universe the lights will respond to.
From the microcontroller, two PCA9624 LED drivers are addressed over the I2C protocol. These drivers output a PWM signal for each of the 16 channels of lights. Each channel is amplified with a FET driver, and finally a large MOSFET. The resulting output can drive a string of LEDs, and is fully dimmable with eight bits of resolution.
To actually control our lights, we used a program called Q Light Controller, and a USB to DMX interface. Our lights were painstakingly sequenced to music, choreographing a visually stimulating show. This was one of the longest processes in the entire project, but in the end the show could be started with a single keystroke.
After the design was complete, we had our circuit boards professionally fabricated. Once all the materials arrived, we began the long and arduous process of soldering.
We chose to use mainly surface mount components, since through-hole designs are nearly obsolete these days. Most of our team members had never touched a soldering iron before, so our project took on a teaching phase. Fortunately a couple members were seasoned experts, and under their guidance, everyone was soon soldering away.
We built everything ourselves, right down to the DMX cables. We used a spool of outdoor rated CAT5 cable, and carefully soldered the requisite 5-pin XLR connectors on each end. While the connectors were expensive, we decided it was worth being able to reuse our electronics with any standard DMX setup.
We were especially honoured when a young man saw our show as the perfect opportunity to propose marriage to his soon to be fiancée! At his request, we quickly programmed an extra song for the show: The Black Keys' Everlasting Light. We also created a heart out of rope lights in a similar fashion to our snowflakes, and timed it to glow just as he got down on one knee to ask for her hand in marriage.
In case you're wondering, she said yes.
We are the Nikola Tesla Patent Producers, and we are a unique group of science students and technology enthusiasts heralding from the frigid climes of Minneapolis, Minnesota. As students attending the University of Minnesota, we have a burning passion for knowledge and see ourselves as active participants in the future of science and engineering. We believe in big ideas and the positive influence visionary leadership and creativity in the technical fields can have in the world at large.
At a university with such so much human potential, we were not satisfied with simply taking classes and learning for a future career. We craved a hands-on approach to our education, and the chance to apply our skills and knowledge to scientific projects of our own. Having founded the group only one year ago, we set out with a simple task in mind. We wished to provide a flexibly-structured environment where students and tinkerers of all vocations might gather and produce unique projects; expressing their creativity and developing their organizational skills. By establishing a positive community atmosphere and nurturing a can-do attitude, we embarked on a mission to produce visionary leadership in the sciences and technology by allowing students to experiment and collaborate on challenging projects, all the while developing their own sense of confidence and resourcefulness.
It is said that if you build it, they will come. From a humble vision to positively influence the world grew a community of scientists and engineers whose dedication and entrepreneurial spirit has surprised and inspired each other and the Minneapolis community at large. In the short time we have been operating, we have grown from a handful of students tinkering on our Friday nights to a full-fledged, student-led organization sustaining more than 35 regular members.
Our projects have included a 10,000 volt Tesla coil, a near-space balloon launch and recovery, a rail gun, and many more. The breadth of projects proposed is telling of the variety of technical backgrounds represented by the group. The depth and quality demonstrate the dedication and passion invested. We investigated and searched out the resources and equipment available at the University of Minnesota.
As a group with such diverse needs, we are always in need of new and specialized equipment to speed along our projects. By allowing individuals to propose their own projects and providing quality resources to make them successful, we encourage students to dream, design, organize and carry out every step in the process of discovery and invention.
Like what you see here? Have any questions, or want to know more about us? Then please, by all means, contact us!