2010 – A Recap

First of a little warning, this is going to be a long post, and by long I mean big, large, humongous, gigantic, etc. My last post was in April of 2010, and even then posts were far and in between, so I’ve got a lot to catch up on while I still remember some of it so I can go back and see what I accomplished last year.

Well, as of last night, the lights are off for 2010. I killed the main breaker, after the last sequence played at midnight last night. That’s always kind of a sad moment because it means that all of the hard work is coming to a close and it’s time to put everything away and start work on next year’s show.

What didn’t get accomplished
First of all, what didn’t I get done in 2010. On January 18th, I wrote that there still a few strings of lights wrapped in one of the trees because they were a pain to get out and I would do it when it got warm. Well guess what? They’re still there. Another display has come and gone, and there are still remnants of the 2009 display floating around. I hope to get them down when I take down the 2010 display, but with my track record, I make no promises.

The only other thing that I didn’t get done that I wanted to was adding strobes to the mega-tree. I bought 135 TP1 strobes from the group buy on DIYC/AUSXmas, but by the time they arrived in September I was already way behind and knew I just needed to set them aside for 2011. As of right now that’s all I have to play with, so hopefully once 2010 is down and put away I can starting messing with them. I’m still trying to figure out what to wire them with, but I’ve got some ideas I’ll have to see how they work out.

What did get accomplished

This year I said I was going to have a mega-tree and indeed I did. I put up a 20′ mega-tree with 96 strands of 50CT C6 LEDs. If I was going to do it over, I would have went with 70CT LEDs because it doesn’t come to the ground as far as I might have liked. I went with the 50CT to save money. I ended up moving the arches to in front of the tree to fill in the gap between the tree and the ground and that worked out pretty well. All in all I’m pretty pleased with how the tree turned out. I was going to make all of the fittings and things to make the tree out of, but after analyzing everything, it was just easier to buy them from Darryl at christmaslightshow.com. I would highly recommend his products and his customer service was excellent. I kept reading horror stories about mega-trees coming down in the wind, so I over engineered mine. It has four wire rope guy wires attached to Darryl’s ground anchors. The thing didn’t budge all season. I got a lot of great comments about the mega-tree. Many of which didn’t even see it animated, just static either before or after the show, when I had it slowly transitioning between the colors during a ten minute span.

For my tree topper, I had a 3′ wire frame star built by Gregg Jones. I had met him at Light Up Ohio in 2009 and liked his work, and as an added bonus, anything you want built prior to LUO, he’ll deliver to LUO for free. So, since I knew I was going in 2010, this worked out well. I used 16 of JEC’s RGBYW through hole pixels on the star. I fought with what the weatherproof them with. One night I was putting leftovers in a small round ziplock container with the screw on lid, and a lightbulb went off. I ran downstairs and put a pixel in it and it fit perfectly. I had my enclosure! Next was how to diffuse it. I tried frosting paint, white spray paint, paper mache, paper, nothing worked right. One night, while thinking of things we had at work that might diffuse well, I came across a Styrofoam soup bowl. I was worried it wouldn’t let enough light through, but I tried it anyhow, and it was perfect. It diffused wonderfully, and yet it was still bright enough.

Another feature I was determined to have for 2010 was a Ledtriks (LED controllable sign). A lot of people didn’t realize that the show was set to music last year, so I wanted to be sure they knew the radio station this year. The ledtriks seemed to do the trick. It was a lot of work soldering in all those LEDs, but well worth it in the end. It looks great! From the git go however, it had problems with one or the other panels going off and the only thing that would fix it was a power cycle. I thought it might have something to do with the cold and put at 60W bulb behind it. I switched to a dedicated 11A 5V power supply, and built a PI filter thinking noise was getting on the line. I also switched from RS232 to RS485, and I added #SHW commands to my script files. All of these solutions seemed to help improve its reliability quite a bit, but it was never 100%. It still had blanking issues on the 2nd panel once in a while. None of the solutions on their own seemed to indicate one problem or another, so it’s been a very interesting problem to troubleshoot to say the least. I’m hoping for next year to build a wooden enclosure for it, so that if need be, I can put a heat source in it to keep it a bit warmer. The cardboard box with a light bulb in it wasn’t very elegant this year, but seemed to make a difference.

Another goal of mine was to get the lights that outline the house mounted in some manner to facilitate easier installation and removal. ended up coming into a bundle of free 1″x2″x8′ strips of wood and these worked perfectly. I attached the four sets of lights (incandescent icicle lights, and red, green, and blue C6’s). I put large screw in hooks in the tops of the boards and they just hooked right over the gutters. With the pole from the no-ladder light clips, it was trivial to lift them onto the gutters and have them in place in no time. Once they were up all I had to do was connect the SSRs. I build them so that each section was what was connected to a given SSR, which meant that some sections had to be attached together. I made them so they could come apart and fold, but found they are a bit bulky when folded and don’t like that all the stress is put on the four sets of lights. I’m hoping for 2011 to just have individual sections that can be lifted and plugged into each other once up, rather than having the folding sections that needed to be linked together. Depending on the pricing, I’m hoping to replace the 3 sets of C6’s with one set of RGB pixel nodes or RGB pixel strips. I think they will solve some of the problems I had with the C6’s and they are individually addressable and blend nicely into ANY color I want them to be not just red, green and blue. Since they are individually addressable and can combine to make white, I would have instant strobes too!

One of the issues I had with the C6’s is they weren’t the right length for the sections of the house, so I cut several strings and made them shorter using new resistor values and making new rectifier bridges. To the best of my knowledge all of my calculations were correct and the components were over speced, but I still had about half of my custom strings go out and ended up having to just lay new (full length) strings over top of them. With the RGB nodes, they can be any length from 1 node to 128 nodes, so I can make custom length strings with no problems. The strips are 1 meter strips, so I would be constrained by that, but I think I can work around it. I still don’t have pricing on any of it so I don’t know if it will work out, but I’m hoping one or the other will.

Going Live
My goal was to go live the day after Thanksgiving, but after two solid weekends of putting stuff up, and losing a lot of time the weekend prior to Thanksgiving (pre-Thanksgiving celebrations) and work being crazy the week leading up to Thanksgiving, I was quite behind. I had a lot of bad connections at the SSRs and the grinches and I had circuit that kept tripping the GFCI. To add to the pressure, my soon to be brother-in-law wanted to propose to my sister-in-law in front of my display on Thanksgiving night. I busted my butt to find all the problems and ended up temporarily bypassing the GFCI for that night just to get it working. I didn’t have the Ledtriks working, which was how he was wanting to propose, but with the store right behind us, I set it up so I could make our LED sign at the store display his proposal with my cell phone. Once the whole family was at the house and watching the display (which was a miracle that it was working), I triggered the sign at the store to change. Eventually everyone noticed what it was saying, and Melanie too noticed eventually. She was shocked, because she wasn’t expecting it. What’s funny is one of her friends was driving by and noticed it and texted her about it before she even noticed it. Luckily she didn’t ruin the surprise.

The weekend after Thanksgiving I got the chance to get most of the other kinks worked out and let the show run from then on. I fought with Vixen this whole season. I didn’t seem to have as many problems with the scheduler last year (same version 2.5.0.8), but it just hated me this year. The show just did not want to start when it was supposed to, and it often took several “timer restarts” to get it finally catch and run. I was getting tired of having to manually start it every night and hated that it was not starting when I wasn’t home. For the most part I got around that by VNCing to the Vixen PC with my phone, and could start the show from there, but it was still a pain!

I started looking at alternative ways to run the show and xLights looked very promising, but it didn’t have any way to run my Ledtriks sequences, so that was a no go for me. I looked at ways to run my own “Vixen player”, but being the busy season at work, and being rusty on C#, let alone C, it just wasn’t in the cards. I looked at ways I could quickly write something in PHP, but there was immediate way to play the songs and have them be in sync with the show. I fought with Vixen all through December up until around the 20th when I came across DavidAVD’s excellent command line sound playing software, da_Sound. This was my saving grace because I could call his program from PHP and then control the show from there. I did some timing tests to see if PHP could push the data out to the DMX dongle fast enough, and my initial tests were very promising. I kludged together a quick test to see if it would work, and my first try, it played the song and kept the lights right with the beat. Over the next three nights I worked to get a PHP Vixen Player working and on the 23rd had something I felt was solid enough to use. I didn’t want to interrupt my show on the 23rd, so I waited until after it was over to try it on the show computer. My tests on the show computer worked even better than the tests on my development computer. I decided this was the way I was going to go, because I would not be home on the 24th to make sure the show was running and I needed it to be running. Christmas eve is a critical night in my mind. I was a bit nervous, never having actually run a full show with my program, but felt it couldn’t be any worse than Vixen and all the tests I did were promising. So I left it in control of the show for the 24th. I started the show early, at 5:20 because that’s when I had to leave to be at the church, and I wanted to know the show was running for peace of mind. Sure enough as I sat in the car at 5:20, the show started right up and kept up right with the song!

I stopped by after Church and everything was still running well. It was a huge risk, but it payed off. I left my program in charge of the show the rest of the season, and it worked every night as it was supposed to, with no problems. Many programs like xLights and Vixen are supposed to have big improvements this year in scheduling, and I’ll be sure to take a look at them, but I really like that with my program I can have it run the show exactly how I want it run, so I may use it again for 2011. The only changes I might make would be to write the actual player in C# so that I don’t have to rely on an external program to play the songs. Even though my method worked flawlessly this year, it would still make me feel better if the song playing and the sequence playing were all done from the same program. I still like the idea of running the schedule using the power of PHP, so I would just make my player be a command line player, and just call it from my PHP scheduler. I would also like to have it have a web interface, so I can control the show from my phone, but that one isn’t a huge priority.

What I want to do Different
This year I once again used The Demented Elf for my voice overs. As usual, Kevin did an excellent job on them. I just didn’t have time to make sequences to use them all. In fact the only one I ended up using was the opening sequence. I noticed that I didn’t get near the comments on the web site this year, and I suspect it’s because I only advertised it on the Ledtriks and not using a Voice over like last year. 2011 will definitely have to have a web site voice over.

When I made the videos this year, I put a tripod on the front seat of the van and sat with the Van running so I could stay warm. Big improvement over standing in the cold last year. I considered videoing from inside Grandma’s house across the street, but was afraid the street light would ruin the videos. Come to think of it there might be a way for me to make that turn off. I’ll have to consider that for next year. Anyhow, with the engine running in the van, it made all of the videos shaky which I didn’t anticipate at all. I wasn’t in the mood to redo the videos, so they will just have to be shaky. I downloaded the trial version of Vegas video and it’s a lot more usable than Microsoft Movie Maker. I might just have to bite the bullet and pay the $50 for it so that can make good videos. Next year I guess I’ll have to sit with the van off in order to make better videos. The quality is still really crappy, but until I can afford a better camera I guess it’s all I’ve got.

What’s on the agenda for next year?
Well I’ve already covered the possibility of using either pixel nodes or pixel strips to outline the house, and adding the strobes to the megatree. April got 8 artificial trees at the dollar store for $10 a piece, so we are planning on having 8 trees scattered throughout the side yard. I put myself in for 1 Lynx Express in the current group buy. I’ve wanted one to play with, and with the 8 trees needing more channels, I could finally justify it. I wanted to get more, but am hoping to use the money on RGB nodes, so I only got the one. Yourbroadbandstore.com went out of business the end of December, and with the lack of places to get enclosures right now I went ahead and stocked up. They had a minimum on 20 in place, so I picked up 20 more CG1500’s, which is my enclosure of choice. So I well be plenty good on enclosures! Other than that there’s no additional plans. I’m sure something will come up here and there, but I’m not planning any really major expansions this year.

Thanks for a great 2010, and we hope to see everyone for the 2011 show!

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