Maker Movement Mania

Makers Hack Holidays with DIY Programmable Christmas Lights

Ken Kaplan Executive Editor, iQ by Intel

Decorating Christmas trees in the Year of the Maker.

Many end-of-year traditions will never die, but some have an uncanny ability to get smarter thanks to human creativity and technology. Just look at holiday lights. In the past two decades, Christmas lights have evolved from thumb-sized color bulbs to white icicles to smartphone-programmable, multihued lights.

This being the Year of the Maker, as proclaimed by Make Magazine founder Dale Daugherty, rather than hunting for cutting edge, high-tech Christmas lights, go find a do-it-yourselfer. You know, a neighbor, friend or family member who always tinkers with things.

We hit up our talented maker pal in New York, Ricky Bacon. He may be separated by less than six degrees from actor Kevin Bacon, but Ricky is the real deal. Vice President of Engineering at Deep Focus by day, by night he’s a bona fide maker, known for building an Intel Galileo-powered moon night-light for his son and the Signal Fish, a flying robot that lights up whenever it senses a Wi-Fi signal.

Lucky for us, Bacon was bitten by the maker holiday decorations bug after seeing the Epoch Christmas Tree on Hackaday.

“I love the tradition of the holidays, but fitting a 10-foot tree into my apartment wasn’t going.”

So instead of a big tree, he opted to make a smaller but smarter tree powered by Intel Edison.

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“It’s a three-foot-tall fir, and the lighting schema is where the smarts and uniqueness lie,” he said.

He used NeoPixels, available from Adafruit, a programmable RGB LED.

“They come in ready-to-use strips, but I was looking for the light to be less visible, so I bought the breakout version and soldered them together manually.”

This allowed him to weave the lights into the tree with greater ease.

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But the magic happened after Bacon turned to Fadecandy, a hardware-software solution for doing visual effects.

Most Christmas-tree lights have one of two states: they are either on or off. For Bacon’s smart tree, it’s a constant state of interaction because of the built-in passive infrared (PIR) sensor. The sensor is placed in the tree and detects motion. Whenever the dog, cat, young child or brother-in-law nears the tree, it performs a light show.

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Bacon took things to a new level by adding an audio sensor, allowing the tree to react to sound as well as motion. When the noise level in the room increases, the light show shifts as if it’s alive, feeding off of the vibe in the room.

But there’s more. Bacon trained the tree to do something spectacular even when nobody’s around. That’s because, as the song goes, “He knows when you’ve been bad or good so be good for goodness sake.”

So in addition to reacting to motion and sound, the tree has LED lights that do a dance interpretation of what Bacon considers the best Christmas movie ever, “Die Hard.”

That’s Christmas geekery!

Bacon dubbed it Nakatomi Tree. Film nerds might know why.

Next he plans to connect the tree to a web server so it can be controlled remotely via Bacon’s smartphone.

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Todd Krieger contributed this story.

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