How to be a peacock engineer in the world of EDM with an outfit from a few LEDs to 148,032 LEDs while avoiding getting arrested by cops or airport security.

Version 4, ESP32/SmartMatrix 64x96 (2019)
Version 5, ESP32 Pro+rPi3+3 channel active-3 RGBPanel board 128x192 (2021)
Version 5, ESP32 Pro+rPi3+3 channel active-3 RGBPanel board allows nice enough graphics now :)

Top Q&As/FAQ:

  • Where did you buy it? => I didn’t
  • How much did it cost? => A few hundred dollars in material but much more time than money (several months of work over 3 years). Well, v5 is now $300 just in panels (plus the spares), plus electronics and batteries, so it’s closer to $500.
  • Can I have one/Will you make me/sell me one? => Sorry, no, but here is my page with build info and code if you’d like to make your own. You have to earn it :) Also, it’s somewhat fragile, requires some engineering skills to fix when it breaks, and programming (C++) to modify, which at this point includes adding pictures. Yes, it’s not user friendly, that takes even more time :) Everyone has a price, but honestly I wouldn’t want to have to support this for anyone else than myself and only encourage people who can understand it and support it themselves, to make their own.
  • How long do the batteries last? => At least 14 to 16H with 160Wh for the single computer (ESP32) v4 outfit that ran 64x96. The newer v5 outfit has 4x more pixels (128x192), uses 2 computers (ESP32 + rPi) and a bit more power. I had to add a 3rd battery and now have around 240Wh of batteries for about 12H of runtime. 240Wh is enough power to run my entire house for 15 to 30mn :)
  • Is it hot to wear? => Actually barely, which is good as heat is wasted energy (v5 is slightly warmer due to the rPi)
  • How many pixels? => 12480 or 37440 LEDs (actually it’s not an FAQ, but it should be 😄). Actually V5 that is now rPi based has 148,032 LEDs total.
  • No seriously, I want one! At least give me the code! => Sure, if this page is too long, skip to the end of the page with all the links, including the code.

How my LED outfit obsession started

So, I like EDM (Electronic Dance Music), and more specifically melodic Trance Music. Whether Trance is your thing or not, EDM festivals have become more fun over time as some people started coming with outfits

you could do things simple enough, but still nicely
or take the job more seriously
totem poles became a way to find your friends and express yourself in various ways
nice (and lights up)
funny, if you understand the reference
also funny if you get this one :)
Insomniac’s Beyond Wonderland at Shoreline in 2014

2016: LED shirt version 1

Conveniently, I had recently come back from Japan with an obligatory stop in Akihabara where I picked up a string of colored LEDs and an 18650 battery holder. Honestly, I had no idea what I’d use them for, but it felt like a good idea at the time :)

EDC 2016: Silver shirt with some colored LEDs. Not super fancy, but a good start
not a great soldering job, for safety it’s all melt in resin I had to melt through
while I was at it, I also got LED shoelaces
  1. do not take a brand new pair of shoes and go to EDC or Burning Man with them. You’ll walk a lot in them and if the fit isn’t good, you’ll end up with very unhappy feet or terrible blisters like I did once EDC when I swapped my LED shoes at the last minute
  2. LED shoes are a huge compromise, you end up bending them repeatedly and pounding on them. My little battery hack with flimsy wires didn’t last that long with all the flexing and pounding. Sadly the LED strips are also perpendicular to the direction of flex, so the strips themselves tend to break after a while.
  3. I so wish I could have spend $100 on a nice pair of LED shoes with a built in 12H battery and LED strips that don’t break, but so far I have 4 $40 pairs that have broken one after another because people are cheap and don’t want to pay more.

2016 Burning Man: LED shirt version 2

After EDC, as part of a monthly visit to my local electronics flea market, I picked up a strip of RGB LEDs. They were not individually controllable, but they could change colors (unlike the other ones that were of fixed color)

Burning Man 2016, I thought I didn’t suck too much, but there was much work left to be done. The bike itself uses some 28V LED strips I got for $1 each and put to use that way, using a step up voltage converter.
the big black battery is 6Ah 16V or 96Wh
This was supposed to look all white but didn’t because of broken traces. Most people couldn’t tell the difference, but I knew it was wrong, and it drove me crazy :)

Addressable Pixels and Infrared Reading

So by now, the slope sure started to get slippery. An evil coworker ended up giving me some unused Neopixel (WS2812B) strips from a 64x64 array project he was working on.

EDC 2017: LED shirt version 2.5: Neopixels on Arms and Legs

It seemed like an obvious improvement to add my addressable LEDs to the arms and legs

Maintenance LEDs was becoming a problem

I know that by now you probably feel truly sorry for my problems which are totally not self induced at all :)

EDC 2018: LED shirt version 3: 32x24 NeoPixel Matrix, 1728 RGB pixels, 5184 LEDs

So, the first step is that I got a new shirt, and I bought a special more expensive shirt that is water repellant for both sweat and random beer or whatever that others may end up spilling on me. It was only $80 or so, and given the use I have for it, well worth the money.

yeah, this, don’t do it.
There is a bit of wiring complexity due to all 3 panels being driven in parallel for a better refresh rate and cross talk between the signals on longer runs, so I used Cat-5 cable with twisted pairs to take care of the cross talk
ok, this guy’s outfit was truly bad ass though

2019: LED shirt version 4: 64x96 flexible RGB Panels, 12480 RGB pixels, 37440 LEDs

This is where stuff got out of hands a bit. While you may think the matrix looked pretty cool, 32x24 pixels just isn’t enough for many animations or even most animated gifs. I had to dig out animations back from the 8bit computer days when then screens were small and every pixel counted. 64x64 is where things get more interesting.

  1. Power: I made a 64x64 Neopixel array for Burning Man because I was lacking common sense and sunk a couple of weeks of solid work to build it after a coworker gave me the LED strips. At full power it used 160Amps at 5V. Even by knowing that you can get away with 1/4th or 1/8th of the power required for full white, that would still be 20A which is a bit over the top for a wearable system.
  2. Size: neopixels are 3 LEDs attached to a small computer chip. This makes them not so cheap and they can’t be that small. At that time, I couldn’t find a pre-made matrix at a size smaller than P10 (pitch 10mm, i.e. 1 pixel per centimeter), and even at P5 which I couldn’t buy, 64x64 would have been 32cm across, which is too wide for my body size (25cm was about the limit)
64x64 array, took 1 week to lay out by hand and wire, solder, and glue. Uses 160A at peak and measures 1m² with P16 strips (1.66cm per pixel)
2018 EDC totem pole
Saw this at EDC in 2017, it was blocky/thick and the refresh rate was poor for pictures
Finally what I needed all this time
3x 64x32 RGBPanels daisy chained together
I used a flexible plastic cutting board trimmed to size with round corners as a diffuser
you can see how the panels look with different levels of diffusion
The rear panel has extra diffusing foam so that it’s not as sharp and blinding to people behind me
original prototype before I switched to a pre-made ESP32 board with level shifters ordered from tindie

2021: LED shirt version 5: 128x192 P2 RGB Panels, 49344 RGB pixels or 148,032 LEDs

The next level version took close to 1.5 years to design. It’s based on a port of my code and the arduino environment on Raspberry Pi which is required to refresh 3 high resolution RGB Panels at high speed so that you don’t see refresh bars when you take pictures.

It doesn’t look as great from the other side :)

So airports must love all this stuff, right?

It’s been hit and miss. If the security agents happen to open my luggage and see the self made box full of wires, some freak out. I’ve actually started putting black tape over the LED digits because they look like countdown counters for bombs, and agents can tell they’re not, but don’t get over the initial “this seems unsafe” feeling.

And what’s with the not getting arrested?

Oh yeah, that. So I designed my system to be modular. I can change the batteries, replace the dual battery system with a single bigger one, remove the in line power counter (it’s hard to estimate life left from measuring voltage, but I have a meter that measures how many mAh went through the wire and from that I know more or less how many Ah are left in the batteries and can easily calculate from the current battery use, how many hours I have left).

everything but the panels goes into my fanny pack. The batteries are somewhat big and heavy (160Wh)
Yes, it’s just a couple of flimsy cardboard boxes with holes, nothing professional, but good enough to hide the scary stuff.

Credits

My pretty extensive demo collection was now over 70 different patterns that would give about 45mn before looping. This did include a fair amount of animated gifs, as well as demos that I wrote, or inherited from other people who were nice enough to open source their code (special credit goes to Jason Coon for his demos in Aurora, Mark Estes for his own demos, and Louis Beaudoin for his AnimatedGifs code that I modified a fair amount, but sure made my life easier).

What’s next?

Yeah, that…

What’s next? 2021 Update

Well, I did go bigger, that’s v5 running 128x192 using a dual computer setup (ESP32 + rPi with active3 board). Scroll back up and look for “version 5” for details.

Great, please help me make my own

If you are motivated, did due diligence/reading, and need help, please let me know and I’ll try to help you, that said, please read the stuff below first:

More help/blog posts with information:

See you at an EDM festival or Burning Man?

Come say hi, show me your work, I’ll shake your hand and we’ll take pictures :)

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Trance Fan, LED Geek

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