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Independent Project: Interactive LED Board

Designing a multipurpose interactive light display for a unique user experience

Location: Michigan State University, Independent Study

Date: Sept 2020 – Dec 2020

Collaborators: Nick Kopec (Technical Lead), Dr. Andrew Mason (Supervisor)

My Role: Project Lead, UX Design, Physical Construction Design

The Challenge: How can one visualize the senses through light?

How can LED lights best display one’s interactions with sensors using the senses, such as sound, motion, and heat?

The goal of this project was to explore the vast possibilities of interaction with LED lights. Some of these possibilities included transcribing 30×30 pixel images, detecting distance using ultrasonic sensors, detecting sound using microphone sensors and finally to display information using a Teensy 4.1.

I helped initiate, designed, and led this project for the benefit of those who enjoy interactive light displays. This project was inspired by Cyberdog, a store in Camden Town District of London, WNDR Museum in Chicago, Illinois, and other unique light displays I have come across while traveling.

Design Process

Ideation: Brainstorming unique user experiences. How are the LED lights going to be displayed? What parts do we need? How can we make all the parts work together?

Design: Constuction of the physical display board. Designing pixel images. Installing and testing sensors.

Conclusion: Broader implications. Limitations. Future Work.


Brainstorming – I have always been interested in music and lights, especially the combination of both in music festivals and Christmas light shows. I thought it would be interesting to build a wall of lights that could show the range of music in the form of an equalizer. When I visited Cyberdog in Camden Town, London, I was fascinated by their large LED equalizer that spanned the wall behind the DJ booth. At the WNDR museum in Chicago, I enjoyed watching the floor light up as I stepped acros to get to the other side. I also experienced a wall depicting my movements using a heat sensor and projector. I then thought, “Wouldn’t it be cool to have all these components together on a large set of LEDs?” That idea was shared with Dr. Mason and Nick. As we discussed it, they both agreed it would be a unique and interesting project and decided to help me persue my idea.

Parts – What parts are we going to need for this project? How much should we invest in this project?

First and foremost, we had to decide what parts we were going to need to complete this project. We wanted to use sensors but had to decide which were worth investing in and how many were reasonable to have working by December. We also had to think about how close we wanted the LEDs to be to one another. We had to think of what we needed to construct the board for the lights to be displayed on as well.

Layout Design – The first major issue we needed to solve is how big we were planning to make this light display. After multiple discussions, we decided to go with a 4×5 foot wooden display, something similar to a Polaroid photo layout but much bigger. We also decided to use a total of 900 LEDs, which ended up being extremely bright even at 50% brightness. We designed the board to be longer than it was wide because we wanted to store the power supply, Teensy, switches, sensors, and wires all below the lights to allow easy access for maintenance and controls.

Function Design – How are all the parts going to work?

I soldered power, ground and data to each strip of lights and soldered each strip of lights to the next. The strips were then attached to the board usinga combination of tape and glue. Next, the power and ground were attached to busses that connected directly to the power supply which in turn was hooked up to a power switch. Data was connected to the Teensy, which was given commands via an SD card. The sensors were also connected to the Teensy.


Physical Construction – The board was assembled by Dr. Mason and myself. We constructed a wooden board using screws and painted it white to help enhance the light of the LEDs. We used plywood as the backboard for the LED strips to attach to later on. We had to add a supprt beam down the middle of the plywood backboard due to beveling. The sides were left longer at the bottom to accomodate the many working parts that would be situated within that section of the board.

Designing Digital Images – How can I make realistic images of something using a 30×30 pixel grid? How can I show change?

What image would you like to see displayed by LEDs? That was the first question I had to ask myself. I originally wanted to see a palm tree swaying in the wind, however, that later proved to be more difficult than I thought. I uded to create a 30×30 grid. Each pixel represented an LED on the board. You might think 900 pixels is a lot but once you start trying to construct an image with only 900 pixels, it quickly becomes much smaller than you anticipated. My first design was a basic pattern – an X that changes into a square, and a square that fills the whole board. Next, I tried a firework starting at the bottom, moving to the top, and exploding into a lovely array of lights. Then I tried a Christmas tree with Christmas lights that flickered on and off. My hardest works were a sunrise over a valley and a sunset over the ocean. What I saw in the 30×30 pixels on my laptop were very different when they were displayed using the LED lights. Larger images were much easier to recognize.

Installing + Testing Sensors – Where will the sensors be placed? How can we eliminate discrepancies?

Once the board was constructed and LED strips were attached, sensors needed to be added to the board. We were careful not to place them in locations where interference would disrupt their capabilities. For example, we designed a 3D printed box for the microphones and ultrasound sensor.


Broader Functionality – This project was designed to have more functionality than what Nick and I were able to contribute to the LED light display. More sensors could be added to give users more ways to interact with the light board. This is not your ordinary equalizer.

Limitations – Some of the limitations we faced were inexperience, shorting wires, time constraints, and limited man hours. In the earlier weeks of the project, I learned how to solder wires together for the first time ever. I eventually got the hang of it, however, it took longer than expected. After all the wiring was completed, we had a small incident where a set of wires were short circiuted in which case I had to pull the wires and replace them with new ones. We were able to salvage some of the damaged wires. After we had the board constructed and the lights properly running a simple test, we only had a few weeks to complete anythign else we hoped to complete. Of course both Nick and I were interested in working beyond our time frame to see what else we could get done with this project and opted to continue work into the spring. However, it became much harder to continue work with finals coming up.

Future Work – This project is a continuous work for future students to invest their time and talents. The project was designed to see how far we could get for now and have some working interactive sensors but ultimately be flexible. The light display has much room for improvement. I am continuing my efforts to add and test more sensors to see how we can display other avenues, such as heat or UV detection. This project has come a long way since the initial ideation phase but has a ways to go before it could be sold to mass markets.

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