Hacking the holidays for a good cause

How we replaced our print holiday card with a website, 1,400 LED lights, and support for an invaluable community resource

The holidays and New Year inevitably get everyone reflecting on what went well, what didn’t, and how we can improve. So it’s no surprise that when a few Pixo colleagues went out to lunch in early December, the conversation turned not only to ways we can improve Pixo, but to ways we can send big love to our community as well.

They decided to focus on the traditional holiday card — something we’ve sent out as a signal of goodwill for years — and turn it on its head.

Our custom-built LED display (basically a 4x4 foot Lite Brite).

We love creating exciting opportunities for Pixo talent to shine, so we wanted to find a way to bring some of our connected engineering elements into the holiday campaign — and thus, the Holiday Card Hackathon was born.

How we’re lighting up C-U this season (and hopefully many seasons to come!)

Let’s time travel back a few weeks

In November, our Director of Business Development, Jason Berg, spoke at the Future of Tech in C-U in November at an Inter-Pygmalion event. For the event, one of our engineers, Steve Zazeski, created a progressive web app connected to a lightbox that allowed attendees of the event to upvote live as the panelists talked.

Once we knew firsthand how much fun the upvote app was to use, we started exploring similar ideas for the holiday campaign.

See the blue box? It gets brighter and bluer as more upvotes are counted. COOL, RIGHT? Steve is great.

A hack is born

The Holiday Card Hackathon was split into two parts. The first began on Friday, Nov. 30 when the idea of incorporating the Eastern Illinois Foodbank, a custom-made light system, and our holiday card began to come together.

Pixonauts began designing holiday-themed patterns for the LED system and programming the Python script for the Raspberry Pi that controls the lights.

Designing and hacking on a Friday night. (Nicole may just be showing off her favorite memes. Who can tell.)

After much — perhaps too much — brainstorming, we decided that for every 1,000 clicks on the site, we would add another month of giving — up to 12 months for all of 2019.

A hack grows up

On Saturday, Dec. 8, a group of Pixonauts gathered again at the office to design the website (all hail Allie and Mallory) and finish programming and constructing the LED system — which consists of a whopping 1,400 LEDs! When it finally lit up at the end of the day, it was a truly beautiful sight.

Over the last week, a dedicated group kept in touch through a Slack channel, making sure that the site was built beautifully (by the wonderful Landi Najarro), that all our LED strings were straight (we saw you, Mel Miller!), and that no task or to-do fell through the cracks (bless you, Joanna).

Why an LED system?

Pixo has dabbled in creating IoT (Internet of Things) devices over the last few years. A couple years ago, we built light-up hats using addressable LED light strips. This year, we’re taking it up a notch by drawing individual pixels. The hats had 12 LEDs… so the lite brite has 1,400 LEDs, which I’m sure we can all agree is a very reasonable and natural step up from 12.

How does this LED system work, exactly?

Create a holiday design, get the gift of corresponding JSON.

Each LED contains a micro controller. Pixo developers BDub and Alex built a JavaScript drawing app in React (above) that turns drawings into arrays for the Python script to read. A Python script running on the Raspberry Pi converts the drawing into the LED array. The Pi sends multiple messages per second, telling the LEDs what color to be.

When you’re on the website, you connect to a device in our office (set up by Pixonaut Matt Fotzler), so nobody is directly connecting to our network. When you tell our website that you support the Eastern Illinois Foodbank, the Pi in our office connects to your clicks. And then we set up a Twitch stream, so you can watch a stream of it lighting up!

C’mon Champaign-Urbana, let’s get merry and bright!

We hope you (Yes, you!) will add to our support of the Eastern Illinois Foodbank by clicking like crazy on our holiday site. You’ll light up the Pixo office and help us spread joy in our beloved community for months to come.

Happy holidays!

Cafe Pixo

A-ha moments and lessons learned as we build people-first websites, apps, and software.

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