Microcontroller firmware for Charlieplexed LED displays

Previous posts illustrated hardware building Charlieplexed displays (1 2 3 4). However, building the display hardware is only half the work: one also needs a display driver.

This post covers strategies for writing firmware to drive Charlieplexed LED displays. I'll be working with the Arduino Uno, which uses the AtMega328 microcontroller. These strategies are general, but the hardware-specific optimizations will need to be adapted if using a different microcontroller.

This post walks through the basics of bringing up custom display driver code for a new LED display, including:
  1. Testing the display after soldering
  2. Row/column scanning for brighter Charlieplexed displays
  3. Display memory buffers
  4. Getting good performance by optimizing IO operations and the display memory format
  5. Scanning the display using timer interrupts
  6. Double buffering to improve animations  
It also briefly outlines some extensions that may be of interest
  1. Achieving graded brightness values
  2. How to mix LEDs of different colors (different forward voltages) in one grid
  3. Cheating on current limits to get brighter displays
Finally, there are some (hopefully) useful notes in the appendix
  1. LED resistor calculations for Charlieplexed LED displays
  2. Timer interrupts on the AtMega328 with the Arduino platform, in detail. 

0. Build the display

I've constructed my LED display out of discrete 3 mm LEDs, placed on cardboard from a cereal box using a template. The 'diagonal Charlieplexing' layout is, I think, the easiest for hand-crafting, since it gets the maximum number of LEDs using the smallest amount of wire and microcontroller IO pins. This particular build is a larger multi-color version of the Fibonacci spiral layout, and the construction steps are similar.

The basic steps are:
  1. Prepare a template for the LED layout, and attach this to some thin but stiff cardboard
  2. Perforate the cardboard for the component leads, and place components
  3. Connect and solder the components
Depending on how you attach the components, it may or may not be easier to do steps (2) and (3) concurrently.

Make a cardboard PCB Attach components Connect and solder

p.s.: It took me about a month to finish the hardware, a little bit each day. Like knitting.

1. Test the display one light at a time


The first thing to do is to verify that all LEDs work.
Before starting, ensure that all control lines have appropriate current-limiting resistors to avoid damaging the LEDs (it is frustrating to burn out a LED matrix before even getting started).

I'm working on a 306-light project that uses 18 control lines (the maximum number that one can use on the Arduino Uno while still leaving the serial pins free). I've arranged the display in a circular pattern, but these code examples will assume an ordinary rectangular layout for simplicity.

The Arduino sketch below will light-up each LED in a Charlieplexed display in sequence. Follow the steps in the top comment to adapt it to your project.

 *  - Build Charlieplexed display hardware
 *  - Hook up all lines with appropriate current-limiting resistors
 *  - Set the constant NPINS to the number of lines
 *  - Place the Arduino pin numbers used in the `pinmap` array
 *  - Upload this sketch and confirm that all lights work

#define NPINS 18
const int pinmap[NPINS] = {

void setup() {
  // put your setup code here, to run once:

void loop() {
  // put your main code here, to run repeatedly:

  for (int j=0; j<NPINS; j++)
  for (int i=0; i<NPINS; i++)
    if (i==j) continue;
    int anode   = pinmap[i];
    int cathode = pinmap[j];
    // Turn everything off
    for (int line=0; line<NPINS; line++)
    // Turn on one anode-cathode pair
    digitalWrite(cathode,LOW );
    digitalWrite(anode  ,HIGH);
    pinMode(anode  ,OUTPUT);

Before turning on the next light, we first set all pins to INPUT mode, with pull-up resistors disabled. This avoids triggering any LEDs accidentally as we switch the other pins.

For full source code see sketch Example 1.

Dead pixels

For home-made displays, I usually have a few LEDs that are burnt out or installed backwards. Testing the display will reveal such 'dead pixels', and now is good time to replace or re-solder them.

In Charlieplexed displays, attempting to light a dead pixel will cause current to flow in unexpected ways, spuriously lighting up the wrong LEDs. Sometime it is impractical to replace broken LEDs. For now, it suffices to note the anode and cathode pin numbers of any dead pixels. We can explicitly avoid turning them on in the display driving code late to avoid this issue.
Note: Watch out for quality control in bulk discrete LEDs. I usually find some where the anode/cathode labels are reversed, or where the LED isn't embedded properly in the plastic housing. (Mechanical stability is especially important for home-made projects, since movement during use or soldering can break the connection between the LED chip and its leads.) I often check each LED before soldering.


2. Row/column scanning 

Lighting LEDs individually works for small projects, but not for large ones. As the number of lights increases, the fraction of time that each light spends on decreases, making the display dim. There also isn't enough time to scan a large number of lights without introducing noticeable flicker.

The solution is to scan an entire row or column of the matrix at once. One can drive multiple LEDs simultaneously by (e.g.) turning on one anode and multiple cathodes (but take care not to over-current the microcontroller IO pins). Appendix 1 (at the end of this post) gives notes for setting resistor values, but the usual series resistance for lighting a single LED is a good upper bound.

Single-light scanning

  • Good: If only a sparse subset of the LEDs are on at a given time, this can lead to a brighter and more uniform display.
  • Bad: The display will be dim if there are many LEDs to scan, and this approach fails if a large number LEDs need to be lit.

Row/Column scanning

  • Good: Reduces the amount of CPU time needed to scan the display. Reduces flicker and increases brightness for large displays.
  • Bad: Current-limiting resistors set a fixed current per row or column. This means that the brightness depends on the number of LEDs being lit per row/column, which can lead to non-uniform brightness if not compensated in software. Handling displays that mix LEDs with different forward voltages is also more complicated.
Here is an Arduino sketch to test common-anode row/column scanning of a Charlieplexed display. (Set NPINS to the number of LED control lines in your project, and define the Arduino pin number for each line in the pinmap variable.)

 *  - Set up the electronic circuit, with appropriate series resistors
 *    to protect the LEDs *and* *microcontroller* if something goes wrong.
 *  - For common-anode row/column scanning:
 *    - Set all pins to INPUT mode to avoid spuriously lighting LEDs
 *    - Set the anode pin to HIGH and all others to LOW
 *    - Switch to OUTPUT mode the anode, and any cathods from this row
 *      that you wish to light up.

#define NPINS 18
const int pinmap[NPINS] = {

void setup() {
  // put your setup code here, to run once:

void loop() {
  // put your main code here, to run repeatedly:
  for (int i=0; i<NPINS; i++)
    int anode = pinmap[i];

    // Turn eveything off
    for (int line=0; line<NPINS; line++)

    // Set cathodes to LOW and anode to HIGH
    for (int line=0; line<NPINS; line++)
      digitalWrite(pinmap[line],LOW );

    // Turn on Anode, and any cathodes we want to light-up
    for (int line=0; line<NPINS; line++)


For full source code see sketch Example 2.

3. Display buffers


At this point we're ready to start coding a display driver. The first step is to add a display memory buffer so that other drawing routines can turn pixels on and off.

We'll do this by storing one bit for each directed pair of LED control lines. We'll pack this display memory into an array of 32-bit integers, so that if the LED between line $i$ and $j$ is on, then the $j^{\mathrm{th}}$ bit of the $i^{\mathrm{th}}$ column will be 1 (and 0 otherwise). This background on bitwise manipulations in integers might be useful.

Bit-packed representations save memory, and speed up IO operations, both important on microcontrollers with limited RAM and slow clocks. Since I have 18 control lines, I use a 32-bit unsigned integer (uint32_t or unsigned long on the Arduino). If you have fewer control lines, you can use a smaller unsigned integer type.

In the sketch below, we've modified the row/column scanning example
  • We add an array of unsigned integers, which store the bits of our display buffer
  • We explicitly clear the buffer in the setup() part of the sketch
  • We draw a test pattern into the buffer
  • In the row-column scanning loop, we now check the display buffer to see which lights to turn on for each row.
The code:
 *  This sketch extends Example 2, row-column scanning,
 *  to read data from a display buffer.

#define NPINS 18
const int pinmap[NPINS] = {

uint32_t display_buffer[NPINS];

void setup() {
  // Initialize the display memory
  for (int line=0; line<NPINS; line++)

  // Draw a test pattern
  for (int i=0; i<NPINS; i++)
    for (int j=0; j<NPINS; j++)
      if (i!=j && ((i>>2)&1)==((j>>2)&1))
        display_buffer[i] |= 1<<j;

void loop() {
  // scan based on the information in the buffer
  for (int i=0; i<NPINS; i++)
    // Turn eveything off
    for (int line=0; line<NPINS; line++)

    // Set cathodes to LOW and anode to HIGH
    int anode = pinmap[i];
    for (int line=0; line<NPINS; line++)
      digitalWrite(pinmap[line],LOW );

    // Turn on Anode, and any cathodes we want to light-up
    for (int line=0; line<NPINS; line++)
      if (display_buffer[i]>>line&1)


For full source code see sketch Example 3.


4. Tight loops: optimize it


So far, we've been setting the states of the IO pins individually. This is a bit slow, so let's optimize things. On most microcontrollers IO lines are grouped into "ports", each of which contains 8 IO pins. One can set the state of all 8 pins simultaneously by writing an 8-bit integer to the port. I'm using an AtMega328 board, which has three ports (B, C, and D). Quoting the Arduino tutorial on port manipulation, each port is controlled by three registers:
  • The DDR register sets whether pins are in input or output mode (1 means OUTPUT, 0 means INPUT)
  • The PORT register controls whether pins are high or low, in output mode, and controls whether the internal pull-up resistor is active in output mode (1 means HIGH, 0 means LOW)
  • The PIN register is used to read input (we won't use this)
On this project, I'm using Arduino pins 2-17. We need to refer to the Arduino pin mapping to identify which ports these correspond to.
  • Pins 2-7 correspond to PORTD 2-7
  • Pins 8-13 correspond to PORTB 0-5
  • Pins 14-19 correspond to PORTC 0-5


Subroutines for fast IO

First, write some helper functions to set all of the PORT or PIN states for these pins at once, based on a single bit-packed representation of the IO state. This encapsulates the translation from a bit-packed representation of the LED-control line states into a sequence of PORT or DDR register writes, simplifies the display driver design.

// Set the PORT (HIGH/LOW) status of all LED control lines
inline void PORT_LED(uint32_t states) {
  PORTD = (PORTD & 0b11) | ((states & 0b111111)<<2);
  states >>= 6;
  PORTB = states & 0b111111;
  states >>= 6;
  PORTC = states & 0b111111;

// Set the DDR (INPUT/OUTPUT) status of all LED control lines
inline void DDR_LED(uint32_t states) {
  DDRD = (DDRD & 0b11) | ((states & 0b111111)<<2);
  states >>= 6;
  DDRB = states & 0b111111;
  states >>= 6;
  DDRC = states & 0b111111;
Note: The inline in these function declarations tells the compiler to insert their instructions directly in any calling function, eliminating function-call overhead (although the compiler is free to ignore this).
Note: When we write to port D, we first read and copy the value of the first two bits. These are the port states for Arduino pins 0 and 1. Since I'm not using these pins for the display, I need to leave their values unchanged. In your project, you'll need to do this for any pins sharing a port with the LED lines, if those pins are being used for other functions.


Preparing display data for faster IO

Now, we need to prepare bit-packed IO states to send to these subroutines. Mapping from LED control lines to pins takes time, so we don't want to do this inside the display scanning loop. One solution is to ensure that your LED control lines are hooked up in a sensible way to the underlying ports, but this isn't always possible.

A more flexible solution is to store the display_buffer memory in a format that is convenient for scanning the display, and handle the pin-to-line mapping when we read/write pixels from the display buffer.

The advantage of this approach is that Charlieplexing layouts can be a bit weird in terms of how pixels map to control lines. By handling this is wrapper functions that read/write display memory, we can hide all this messiness and expose a clean interface in terms of pixel coordinates.

// Write a 1-bit pixel to display memory
void setPixel(int i, int j, int value) {
  // (add code to convert pixel to display coordinates here)
  if (value)
    display_buffer[pinmap[i]] |=  ((uint32_t)1)<<pinmap[j];
    display_buffer[pinmap[i]] &=~(((uint32_t)1)<<pinmap[j]);

// Read a 1-bit pixel from display memory
int getPixel(int i, int j) {
  // (add code to convert pixel to display coordinates here)
  return (display_buffer[pinmap[i]]>>pinmap[j])&1;

The code to scan the display is now relatively simple:

for (int i=0; i<NPINS; i++)
  // Turn eveything off
  // Set cathodes to LOW and anode to HIGH
  uint32_t anode_mask = ((uint32_t)1)<<i;
  // Turn on those LEDs which are on
  DDR_LED(anode_mask | display_buffer[i]);    

For full source code see sketch Example 4.


5. Timer interrupts for multi-tasking


For uniform brightness and to avoid flicker, we need to scan through the rows of the display at regular intervals. But, if our main loop is dedicated to the display driver, we can't really handle much computation for actually showing things on the display!

The solution is to move the display scanning code into a timer interrupt routine that is called at regular intervals. There is a good introduction to timer interrupts for the Arduino on Adafruit, and Appendix 2 goes into more detail. For this example we'll use the AtMega's Timer 2 for scanning the display. (This works provided we do not also use the Tone library, which needs Timer 2 for other purposes.)

To trigger the timer interrupt routine, we need to set up Timer 2 and enable the Timer 2 overflow interrupt. I've wrapped this and the display-buffer initializer code in a new function setup_display(), which is called when the device starts.

void setup_diplay() {
  // Initialize the display memory
  for (int line=0; line<NPINS; line++)

  // Set up Timer2 interrupts
  // Timer/counter 2 control register A
  // Set to 0 do disable PWM and output-compare functions
  TCCR2A = 0;
  // Timer/counter 2 control register B
  // The first 3 bits control the prescaler
  // (i.e. clock divisor for timer tics)
  // 0:off     4:64
  // 1:1       5:128
  // 2:8       6:256
  // 3:32      7:1024
  TCCR2A = 3;
  // Enable the Timer 2 overflow interrupt
  // Timer/Counter2 Interrupt Mask Register
  TIMSK2 = 1;

We then place our display scanning code inside the Timer 2 overflow interrupt signal handler:

// Interrupt handler for scanning the display
volatile int scan_line = 0;
  // Reset timer; 
  // We want to update 18 rows at 400 Hz
  // I used the following python code to calculate
  // the reset value, using a prescaler of 32.
  // >>> CLOCKRATE = 16e6 # 16 MHz system clock
  // >>> NLINES    = 18   # 18 LED control lines
  // >>> RATE      = 400  # Hz; Display scan rate
  // >>> PRESCALE  = 32   # Timer prescaler
  // >>> TIMERMAX  = 256  # 256 if 8-bit, 65536 if 16-bit timer  
  // >>> trigger_every = (CLOCKRATE/PRESCALE)/(NLINES*RATE)
  // >>> reset_to      = int(TIMERMAX-trigger_every+0.5)
  // >>> print('Reset the 8-bit timer to %d'%reset_to)
  TCNT2 = 187;
  // Scan one row of the display
  uint32_t anode_mask = ((uint32_t)1)<<scan_line;
  DDR_LED(anode_mask | display_buffer[scan_line]);    
  if (scan_line>=NPINS) scan_line=0;

To get finer control over the scanning rate, one can manually reset the timer in the overflow signal handler. Here, I set it to 187, which means the timer will overflow (i.e. reach 256) again in 256-187=69 timer tics. (The other way to do this is to use an output-compare interrupt with the 'compare to counter' mode.)

With the display-driving code out of the way, one can now add interesting rendering code in the main program loop. As a first test, I've set it to randomly change pixel values:

void loop() {
  // The main loop is now free for implementing program logic
  // For example we can randomly flip some LEDs

For full source code see sketch Example 5.


6. Double buffering for better animations


Updating pixels one at a time can cause artifacts when drawing a new frame to the display. For cleaner animations, one can use double buffering to draw the frames off-screen first, then show them all at once.

Without double buffering With double buffering

We define two copies of the display buffer (buffer1 and buffer), as well as two pointers, one for drawing and one for scanning the display. We alternate which pointer points to which buffer to achieve double-buffering.

uint32_t buffer1[NPINS];
uint32_t buffer2[NPINS];
uint32_t *display_buffer;
uint32_t *drawing_buffer;

// FLip display and drawing buffers
void flipBuffers() {
  uint32_t *temp = display_buffer;
  display_buffer = drawing_buffer;
  drawing_buffer = temp;

The setPixel and getPixel (section 4) routines are modified to use to accept a buffer pointer as a parameter.

// Write a 1-bit pixel to display memory
void setPixel(uint32_t *buff,int i, int j, int value) {
  // (add code to convert pixel to display coordinates here)
  if (value)
    buff[pinmap[i]] |=  ((uint32_t)1)<<pinmap[j];
    buff[pinmap[i]] &=~(((uint32_t)1)<<pinmap[j]);

// Read a 1-bit pixel from display memory
int getPixel(uint32_t *buff,int i, int j) {
  // (add code to convert pixel to display coordinates here)
  return (buff[pinmap[i]]>>pinmap[j])&1;

In the initialization code, we assign the underlying buffers to the display/drawing pointers, and clear both display memories:

// Start with buffer 1 for display
// and buffer 2 for drawing.
display_buffer = &buffer1[0];
drawing_buffer = &buffer2[0];

// Clear the display memory
for (int line=0; line<NPINS; line++)

This lets us prepare the next frame off-screen, and show it all at once. For full source code see sketch Example 6.
Note: I'm still using the Charlieplexing grid coordinates for i and j, rather than screen coordinates. For this reason we skip the i==j slots, since these would correspond to the anode and cathode being the same pin. In your own project, you would use i and j in display coordinates, and add code in setPixel and getPixel to map these to Charlieplexing-grid coordinates.
Note: One can also synchronize the buffer-flips with the display driver. This avoids updating the display halfway through the scan. However, there really isn't a natural place to flip the buffers in the 'diagonal multiplexing' layout approach I'm using here, so I omit this.

Additional extensions

The code so far illustrates the bare essentials for a working display driver which supports one bit per pixel, runs in the background, and supports double buffering.

This is enough for most projects, but there are a couple more fun things to try. These include supporting multiple brightness levels per pixel, supporting a color display, and increasing the display brightness by calculating resistors based on average total current limits rather than peak instantaneous limits.


Extension 1: Multiple brightness levels (more than 1-bit per pixel)

If you have CPU cycles to spare, then one can vary the brightness of pixels via PWM. This is a tricky, however, since for $N$ control lines we're already
effectively PWM-ing each LED with a duty cycle of $1/N$. In my experience it is difficult to get more than 3 distinct brightness levels.

The way to do this is to scan through the display multiple times. The brightest LEDs will be lit during all scans, but we'll skip intermediate-brightness LEDs during some of the scans. For this example, I've implement 2-bit color, which supports four states: "off", and then three brightness levels. Human brightness perception is nonlinear, so I double the amount of time each light is on for each brightness increment.

I scan the display three times:
  • Scan 1: Duration 10 timer ticks
  • Scan 2: Duration 10 timer ticks
  • Scan 3: Duration 20 timer ticks
And implement 3 distinct brightness values like so:
  • Pixel value 0, i.e. 0b00: Always off.
  • Pixel value 1, i.e. 0b01: On during scan 1 for 10 cycles.
  • Pixel value 2, i.e. 0b10: On during scans 1 and 2, for a total of 20 cycles.
  • Pixel value 3, i.e. 0b11: On during all scans, for a total of 40 cycles.
An example sketch is given in Extension 1.


Extension 2: Driving multiple LED colors in the same grid

If you mix LEDs with different forward voltages (e.g. red, green, and blue), it can be hard to balance the current to each color channel using fixed resistors. In this case, different LED colors may end up with different apparent brightnesses.

The solution to this is to separate each color into its own "virtual row", and then scan each color separately. This prevents lower-voltage LEDs from stealing current from higher-voltage ones. You can also adjust the time between interrupts for each color separately to balance the brightness of different color channels.

Scan colors separately Pixel location → color Nice.

An example sketch is given in Extension 2. This approach is also used in the "zoom in" sketch shown at the end of this post. These examples were optimized for the weird spiral layout of my project, which split the lines into "high" (blue and white LEDs) and "low" (red and green LEDs) voltage to simplify color scanning. More generally you might need to manually specify bit-masks for each color, with one entry per pixel.


Extension 3: Cheating on current limits for brighter displays

So far, we've been strict about not exceeding the 40 mA current limit for our microcontroller pins, and the 100 mA peak instantaneous current for our LEDs (see Appendix 1). Can we relax this to achieve a brighter display?

I was hesitant to include this section because it involves doing technically unsafe things. You don't want to exceed the microcontroller specifications for a professional system, but as long as you're willing to risk destroying a hobby project, why not push things a bit.

If only one LED were lit per row, then we could allocate the full 40 mA current budget to this single LED. So, for sparse displays, it might be safe to reduce the current-limiting resistors a bit. If you enforce that no more than $K$ LEDs are ever lit from the same row, the safe current-limiting series resistor value is:
$$R_{\text{ch}} = \frac K {K+1} \frac {V_{\text{supply}} - V_{\text{LED}}} {I_{\text{pin}}}.$$

Strict current limits Average current Visible in diffuse daylight

What if we were to re-interpret the 40 mA/pin current limit as an average current draw? This should be ok if the main thing limiting the current is heat dissipation.

That said, we still need to keep the total current draw below 200 mA for the arduino. For projects with 6 or more contorl lines, you need to set the maximum average current per pin to $200/N_{\text{pins}}$ mA (this is $200/18\approx11$ mA for my project).

Each pin needs to source $I_{\text{peak}}$ of current as anodes $1/N$ of the time, for an average current draw of $I_{\text{peak}}/N$. This current needs to go somewhere, which means that all pins are also sinking $I_{\text{peak}}/N$ of current, on average. This suggests that we can (transiently) source up to
$$I_{\text{peak}} = \tfrac{N}{2} \cdot I_{\text{pin}}$$
of current. For 18 control lines and a 11 mA average current, this means we can (briefly) source up to 100 mA per pin. In this scenario, the average current per LED will be
$$I_{\text{peak}} = \tfrac{1}{2} \cdot I_{\text{pin}}$$
or 5.5 mA in this case. One can configure the current-limiting resistors for these new limits to increase display brightness:
$$R_{\text{ch}} = \frac 2 {N+1} \frac {V_{\text{supply}} - V_{\text{LED}}} {I_{\text{pin}}}.$$
For 2 V LEDs on a 5 V power supply, with 18 control lines and a 11 mA average current draw limit, this gives series resistors of 28 ohms.

White and blue LEDs can have a forward voltage up to ~4 V (but check the datasheet for your specific components), giving at resistor value of just 9.4 ohms. This is so low that I often omit resistors entirely. But beware, this could (in theory) brick the microcontroller! Also, If your display driver crashes without series resistors, it can send continuous current to a single LED and burn it out. However, I find that higher voltage LEDs can survive this, and I've never seen actual damage to the microcontorller with these higher current draws. Under no circumstances should you try this with red or yellow LEDs on a 5V system, as these can burn out if there is a software glitch.


Happy hacking (:

At this point, we have constructed a LED display and verified that the hardware works. We've written a display driver that uses row (or column) scanning, runs in the background using timer interrupts, and supports double-buffering.

The final thing you might want to do is modify the setPixel and getPixel routine to accept display coordinates and translate these in to coordinates on the Charlieplexing grid. This code depends on the particular layout of your project, so I don't include it here.

This is enough to start doing something nontrivial with the display. I'll end the main tutorial here, but provide some additional notes and a couple extensions at the end of this post. Here are some ideas, to get things started:
  • Implement text rendering to show messages on the display
  • Render psychedelic animations
  • Code up a Game of Life
  • Add support for serial communication to drive the display from a computer
If you'd like, please link to your own blinkylights projects in the comments. Stay safe, stay well, and remain indoors. Best,




Appendix 1: Current-limiting resistors

LEDs have two current ratings. The number we usually care about is the maximum continuous current, which is usually ~5-40 mA for discrete LEDs. When scanning multiplexed or charlieplexed arrays, however, we briefly turn LEDs on in sequence. In this case LEDs can handle slightly more current, and the peak instantaneous forward current is the number we need to use. This is usually given in the LED datasheet, and is often ~50-100 mA.

One can use this higher peak current limit to achieve a brighter display. I advise against this while prototyping, however: If the display driving code stalls, it could deliver excessive current and burn out the LED. This is especially the case with high-brightness red LEDs.

For Charlieplexing, however, LED peak current is not the limiting factor. Assuming we are using no additional hardware, the current limits for IO pins on the microcontroller itself are the limiting factor. The maximum safe current per pin on the Arduino is 40mA. When we drive multiple LEDs at a time, one should ensure that the total current does not exceed this.

Assume that all LEDs being driven have the same forward voltage $V_\text{LED}$. We can then calculate the total series resistance as if this were a single LED with forward voltage V drawing 40mA of current. We use the Equation V=IR. In this case we have Vpower = 5V. We set the current-limiting resistor based on the difference between the supply voltage and the LED voltage. We want to find R such that
$$ V_{\text{supply}} - V_{LED} = I_{\text{LED}} R,\qquad\text{i.e.}\qquad
R = \frac {V_{\text{supply}} - V_{LED}} {I_{\text{LED}}} $$
For a 5V supply current on the Arduino, a 40mA current, and a LED with a forward voltage of 2V, we get
$$ \frac {5V-2V} {40\,\mathrm{mA}} = 75\,\mathrm{\Omega}$$
Now, the fun part. This gives the total series resistance, not the value of each resistor. Since we're using the same control lines for the anodes and the cathods, we need to distribute this 70 ohm resistance over multiple resistors. One part of the resistance will come from the resistor on the anode. The remaining part will come from the network of resistors on the cathodes.

Resistors in parallel have decreased resistance. So, for the network of cathods, we need to divide our resistor value by the number of cathodes currently active. In the example project, I light up at most 9 LEDs at a time, so I would calculate this as 9 cathodes. We need to solve for a resistor $x$ such that
$$x + \tfrac 1 9 x = 70\,\mathrm{\Omega}$$
which, in this case, solves to:
$$x = \frac 9 {9+1} \times 70\,\mathrm{\Omega} = 63\,\mathrm{\Omega}$$

In summary, the following equations give resistor values for different LED driving scenarios:

For a single LED with sustained current rating $I_{\text{cont.}}$:
$$R_{\text{cont.}} = \frac {V_{\text{supply}} - V_{\text{LED}}} {I_{\text{cont.}}} $$
For single LED, briefly pulsed with peak current rating $I_{\text{peak}}$:
$$R_{\text{peak}} = \frac {V_{\text{supply}} - V_{\text{LED}}} {I_{\text{peak}}} $$
For driving $N$ LEDs simulataneously in charlieplexing from a pin with maximum current of $I_{pin}$:
$$R_{\text{ch}} = \frac N {N+1} \frac {V_{\text{supply}} - V_{\text{LED}}} {I_{\text{pin}}}.$$
To be absolutely safe when experimenting with a charlieplexing layout, set $R$ to the minumum of $R_{\text{ch}}$ and $R_{\text{cont.}}/2$. Once the display driver code is debugged and working reliably, once can relax these constraints.


Appendix 2: AtMega328 timer interrupts

This section is surveys different ways to use display-driver timer interrupts on the Arduino. The AtMega (datasheet) has three timers available for generating timer interrupts. On the Arduino, these timers are used for the following functions:
  • Timer0: for the Arduino functions delay(), millis() and micros().
  • Timer1: for the Servo library
  • Timer2: for the Tone library
  • All three timers are used for the PWM pins on the Arduino
Each timer counts upwards, from 0 up to to 255 for 8-bit timers (Timers 0 and 2), and up to 6555 for 16-bit timers (Timer 1). AVR chips support several different ways to trigger interrupts based on these timers. For further reading, there are many good introductions to AVR timer interrupts online (e.g. Adafruit, Oscar Liang, RobotFreak, Amanda Ghassaei, or Ankit Negi). I also found Nick Gammon's and Pramoth Thangaval's overviews of AVR interrupts helpful.

We need to scan the rows/columns the display at a suitably high rate to avoid a visible flicker. The typical "flicker fusion" frequency for humans is about 60 Hz in the fovea, but higher for some people and in the peripheral vision. A target a refresh frequency of about 200 Hz works well. For a display with $N$ rows/columns, one must scan the rows at $N\cdot200$ Hz. (For this project, I have 18 control lines so I need to scan the rows of the display at 3.6 kHz, or about every 280 microseconds, ideally.)

To control the scanning/refresh rate, we need to be able to specify the intervals between timer interrupts. There are a few ways to change the frequency of timer interrupts on AVRs.
  1. One can change the system clock rate: This is possible if working with bare AVR chips.
  2. One can change the timer prescaler: This is the multiple of the clock rate at which the timer "tics". E.g. a timer with a prescaler of 32 increments by one every 32 clock cycles.
  3. One can change the value of an "output compare" register, which sets when then next interrupt will trigger. This quite flexible, as it allows timer interrupts to be triggered in non-power-of-two multiples of the timer tic rate, e.g. every 33 tics.
Option (1) is unavailable on the Arduino, since the system clock is fixed. We also can't change timer pre-scalers (2) without disrupting other Arduino libraries, and using approach (3) to reset the timer at a certain value would also be disruptive.

All is not lost. It would be rare to use both the Servo and Tone libraries on a LED display project. This means that Timers 1 and 2 will usually be available. Smaller displays can also be run of Timer 1 without changing its configuration.

Timer interrupts as used by the Arduino environment on AtMega328-based boards

Let's look in detail how the various timers and associated interrupts are used by the Arduino library in the default configuration. The header file avr/interrupt.h defines the interrupts available on AVR microcontrollers. On the AtMega328 chips, we have the following timer interrupts:
Timer 0
  • TIMER0_OVF_vect Timer 0 Overflow is used for the millisecond clock in Arduino. On a 16 MHz Arduino Uno, this counter increments every 4 μs, and overflows every 1.024 ms.
  • TIMER0_COMPA_vect and TIMER0_COMPB_vect Timer 0 Compare Match A and B are both available, and can be used to register an interrupt routine triggered every every 1.024 ms on a 16 MHz system. This is sufficient to update a display with 16 rows/columns at 60 Hz, but only 5 rows/columns at 200 Hz.
Timer 1
  • TIMER1_COMPA_vect Timer 1 Compare Match A is unavailable if using the Servo library, which sets Timer 1 to increment every 2 MHz (0.5 μs) on a 16 MHz system. This is a 16-bit counter which overflows every 65,536 tics, approximately every 32.8 ms.
  • TIMER1_COMPB_vect and TIMER1_OVF_vect Timer 1 Compare Match B and Timer 1 Overflow are available, but set to trigger every 32.8 ms if using the Servo library. This is too slow for driving a LED display.
Timer 2:
  • TIMER2_COMPA_vect Timer 2 Compare Match A; This is unavailable if using the Tone library. When playing a tone, the Tone library may reset the value of Timer 2 after a certain value that depends on the tone frequency.
  • TIMER2_COMPB_vect and TIMER2_OVF_vect Timer/Counter2 Compare Match B and Timer/Counter2 Overflow are available, but the frequency at which these interrupts trigger depends on the tone being played by the Tone library, and might not trigger at all during tones. This makes it unsuitable for scanning a LED display.
In summary, we have the following options:
  • Strict compatibility with the Servo and Tone libraries leaves us with the ~1 kHz system Timer 1 output-compare interrupts A and B, which is sufficient for driving smaller displays.
  • If only using one of the Servo or Tone libraries, once can use Timer 2 and Timer 1 (respectively) for display updates. This is by far the easiest approach, provided you do not need to use these libraries.


Hacking Timer 1

Here is a hack to get ~4 kHz interrupts on the ~1 kHz Timer 1 without disrupting any Arduino timer functionality. This is compatible with the timer configuration for both the Servo and the Tone libraries (although things may break if you run out of CPU cycles to handle all interrupts promptly).

Use both output compare interrupts A and B with a phase offset of 64 tics. In the initialization code, set OCR0A to trigger on tic 0 and OCR0B to trigger on tic 64:
// Enable Timer 0 output-compare interrupts A and B
OCR0A = 0;
OCR0B = 64;
TIMSK0 |= 6; 

Move the display scanning code to its own subroutine e.g scan_display(). Call this subroutine from both the output-compare A and B interrupt handlers:

  OCR0A += 128;
  OCR0B += 128;

Last but not least: change the output-compare register values in the interrupt handlers (e.g. OCR0A += 128). This causes each interrupt to be triggered every 128 tics rather than 256 tics.

Since we have two interrupts that trigger twice, this gives us 4 evenly-spaced interrupts during the Timer 1 cycle. For the default configuration on a 16 MHz AtMega*8-based board, this gives us a scan rate of 4.096 kHz. If you don't need a 4 kHz scan rate, you can just use one output-compare interrupt to achieve a 2 kHz rate with this trick.

When I tried to push this even further, for example trying OCR0A += 64 or OCR0A += 32, I ran into issues with flickering in the display. I'm not sure why; it might be related to the large (18) number of control lines that I'm using. You might want to experiment with this and let me know how it goes!


Building a 'dreamcatcher' LED display

This post outlines how to construct a dreamcatcher that also functions as an LED display. For this design, we'll use a "charlieplexing" layout to drive many LEDs with few pins. There is a version of the charlieplexing layout that works well with the spiral pattern used for our dreamcatcher. The construction approach is similar to the paper LED marquee project.

 Step 0: Materials

  • LEDs. If using N driving pins, then at N*(N-1) LEDs plus a few spares. I use 110 here. Bright LEDs in clear packaging are best. I also prefer ones with a wide viewing angle.
  • glass "bugle" (long thin) and "seed" (small, round) beads
  • Bare copper or brass wire, intermediate guage: small enough to thread through beads easily
  • Soldering tools
  • Scrap paper and cardboard, scissors, thumbtack, hobby knife, printer
  • Arduino and hookup wires


Step 1: Prepare the "circuit board"

For this project, I opted for a pattern based on 110 LEDs controlled by 11 pins. I used this template, made by the Fibonacci_layout.ipynb iPython notebook, available on Github. This pattern is based on the golden ratio, and is adjusted so that the density of LEDs is approximately uniform (with some distortion near the center. )

Tape the template to some scrap cardboard (cereal boxes seem to work well), and use a push-pin or thumbtack to puncture holes for the LEDs.


Step 2: Add LEDs

We will affix the LEDs to the board, and then thread wire and beads through them to make electrical connections. I used round nosed pliers to shape the LED leads into loops.

One problem I had with previous attempts at LED bead weaving was damage to the LEDs during soldering, due to heat and mechanical stress. To fix this, I added glass seed beads as spacers. Spacer beads allow a bit more distance between the solder point and the LED itself, and dissipate some heat and mechanical stress.

Add a spacing seed bead and shape the top loop first (I kept the anodes on the top). Add another spacing bead to the other lead, insert the LED into the "board", and shape the lead on the back. It is also possible (and probably easier, to be honest) to wrap the LED leads around the wires as you solder them, although I have not tried this approach.

Step 3: Wire up circuit with beads

We'll use medium-gauge bare copper or brass wire to hook up the LEDs. To make things beautiful, and to insulate the driving wires to prevent shorts, we'll wrap the wire in glass bugle and seed beads.
  • Use a wire that is thin enough to thread through the beads easily, but thick enough that it won't break from fatigue.
  • Avoid excessive force; this could crack the glass beads or damage the LEDs.
  • Leave 2-3 mm clearance around each LED lead, to make sure there is space to solder properly.
I found it necessary to carefully pull the wire through the beads with pliers, as it did not slide easily. Using thinner wire seemed to help.

Prepare the reverse similarly.

Step 4: Solder and electrical test

Solder the LEDs to the wires. With this specific template, the driving lines for the front and for the back meet at the center and the perimeter. Solder these together as well.

Remember to use the correct current-limiting resistors to avoid burning out the (painstakingly assembled) LEDs. The resistor calculator here is nice.

All working! (almost)

Step 5: Mounting

Remove the cardboard support carefully to avoid damaging the LED circuit. I peeled away the paper with pliers, 1-2 millimeters at a time. The patience is worth it, since it is difficult to repair damage at this stage. (That said, I did break a few solder connections during this step, but they were easy enough to fix)

Using short pieces of copper wire, tie several willow branches together to form a circle. I used branches that had been formed in a rough circle by tying them around a kitchen pot as they dried. A better shape was possible by tying several branches together and tightening things incrementally.

Attach the LED bead dreamcatcher to the willow loop using wire ties. Space these evenly around the circumference, one for each driving line (I'm using 11). Leave the ties loose at first. Once all are in place, slowly and incrementally tighten them in a star pattern, as you would a lug nut. This should further pull the willow loop into a circular shape. Do not over-tighten, and be careful not to damage the circuit.

Run insulated wire around the willow loop to connect each of the driving lines. Old Ethernet cables are an excellent source of twisted pair copper wire, and that's what I used here. Another useful trick for cable management twisting two strings together to form a larger rope. One nice thing about charlieplexing is how few driving lines it uses: all 110 LEDs here can be driven with a single cable.

Step 6: Software

Once everything is hooked up to the Arduino (pro mini in this case), you can start to play around with programming. In this case I got a bit lazy, and hastily ported some old game of life code, with some added zooming and rotation. It's not quite right, but looks nice.

Not bad for $5.50
  • LEDs: $1 from Ebay;
  • Pro-mini compatible: $2 from Ebay.
  • Beads: $1.50 from Ebay
  • Copper wire: $1 from Ebay
  • Willow branches: free
  • Cardboard, paper, insulated wire: recycled
  • Soldering and crafting supplies: already available.

Building a 'papercraft' LED marquee

Long, dark winter nights demand some tinkering and crafts. Arduino LED projects are fun, but custom circuit boards might not always be in the budget. Thankfully, discrete LEDs can be found on Ebay for less than 1¢ apiece, and cardboard circuits are a thing. Can we build a scrolling marquee display with nothing more than some LEDs, cardboard, and paper?




We'll lay out and solder our LED marquee on cardboard, and build some dividers to separate pixels, and print a little screen on top to diffuse the light.

We will use a "Charlieplexing" layout to control many LEDs using only a few pins. This can be a difficult to lay out by hand. Thankfully, there is a trick: if we're willing to tilt the grid diagonally, we can use a pattern that is easy to layout and assemble. The code to drive the display gets a bit confusing, but one can always manually map the LED locations one-by-one, if push comes to shove.

Past project links


Step 0: Gather materials

I recommend bright LEDs, since the paper diffuser blocks some light. "Super bright" LEDs inside a clear packaging should work. "Hat top" wide-angle LEDs are nice because they cast light in all directions, making it easier to get a good display even if all the LEDs aren't quite aligned.

Other materials include a soldering kit and wire snips, as well as paper crafting supplies: scissors, tape, paper, scrap cardboard, and a hobby knife. We'll also use a pin to punch holes in the cardboard for the LEDs. Oh! and an Arduino, jumper wires, and current limiting resistors as well, of course.
  • LEDs (110 in this build), scrap wire, current-limiting resistors, and an Arduino
  • Soldering station, wire snips, low-temperature solder
  • Paper crafting tools: scissors, tape, x-acto knife, push pin
  • Scrap cardboard, paper, pen, printer


Step 1: Prepare circuit (card)board

First, we'll need to design our layout. We'll use a diagonal version of charlieplexing, to simplify soldering. Design files for this project are on github. I used this template.

For "diagonal multiplexing", we'll have the cathodes on the front of the board, zigzagging diagonally, and the anodes on the reverse, zigzagging the other way. The lines wrap around at the edges. This can be a bit confusing at first, so reading through the blog post and working through some layouts by hands might be helpful!

For the cardboard, we want something stiff but not to thick. Cereal boxes are perfect. Tape the template to cardboard, or draw the pattern by hand. Use a thumb-tack or push-pin to poke one hole in the cardboard for each LED (just one hole as we'll wire up the other pins on the front).

After punching holes for the LED leads, trace the circuit on the reverse, for reference when soldering.

Step 2: Solder LEDs

I wired up the anodes (positive, +, usually the long wire) on the reverse, and the cathodes (negative, -, usually near the flat edge of the LED) in the front. It doesn't matter whether the anodes or cathodes are on the front/back, but it does matter that all LEDs go the same way. Be careful not to switch any!

Without a rigid PCB, the LEDs get a bit wobbly, which makes soldering tricky. I soldered the LEDs one row at a time, soldering both the front and the back of the board, so that the previously-soldered LEDs are held stiffly in place.

Test the LEDs as you go, making sure that they light up as expected. It's easier to correct fixes before the whole matrix is soldered in to place. I accidentally put some lights in backwards, and also damaged some from mechanical stress when soldering. A couple mistakes are not so bad!

Try to minimize mechanical stress and overheating, as this can damage LEDs. A temperature-controlled soldering station and low-temperature solder may help. 

Step 3: Test circuit

After step 2, you may want to pause and test that all LEDs are working well. If your following this example, you should have 11 control lines controlling a 5x22 LED matrix.

You'll need to write some code to scan the LEDs. Scanning them one at a time (at first) is useful. When testing, use current limiting resistors, and calculate the resistance correctly for the color of LEDs you used. To be conservative, I used 330Ω resistors. It is very sad to burn out all your LEDs after spending all that time soldering them. This online resistor calculator is handy.

To get a brighter display, you might want to consider row-column driving, rather than lighting the LEDs one at a time. This is a bit out-of-spec in a charlieplexing setup, since each pin on the Arduino is only technically supposed to source or sink 40mA of current. So far, I haven't had any issues with it.

Once everything is working well, you can consider lowering the current resistors to match the peak current of the LEDs. Most LEDs can handle extra current briefly. If you're scanning a multiplexed display rapidly, LEDs will be on only a fraction of the time. Lowering the current limiting resistor increases the power, and the brightness, of the display. Still, take care not burn out the display!

Step 4: Build case

We need to build a case for the LED matrix, to help confine and diffuse the light, and give everything a polished look (or as polished as can be, for a paper marquee).

To divide the light between LEDs, I cut thin strips of cardboard. These should be only slightly taller than the LEDs themselves, to avoid absorbing excess light. These strips then supported a paper overlay, which helps diffuse the light and blacks out any regions except for the "pixels".

The paper dividers leak light, and the paper overlay absorbs too much, so things are dimmer and fuzzier than on a proper LED marquee, but it looks ok in indoor lighting.


Step 5: Software

Now that we have our "papercraft" LED marquee, we can play around with programming it. I enjoyed designing various bitmap fonts, and hooking up to the serial port on a computer to print outputs from the terminal.

This display is a bit tricky to code for, owing to the unusual LED layout. If all else fails, you can store the anode/cathode pins for each light in a look-up-table. To start, try lighting up the LEDs one at a time. Once this is working well, you may want to try row-column scanning.

In charlieplexing, we use the same pins to source and sink current. Arduino pins are limited to 40mA, enough for 4-5 LEDs. In practice, you can drive more, but they will dim slightly. This is out of spec for the Atmega*8 chips, but I've never had an issue. One benefit of the unusual layout, which is a bit scrambled, is that it's somewhat rare to need more than 4-5 LEDs on each driving line, for scrolling text.

To get a smooth and bright display, you might want to write groups of pins directly by writing to the PORT and DDR registers. To make this even faster, its worth storing the required PORT/DDR register states directly, and using a small timer interrupt routine to rotate through the configurations for each scan-line of the display. For best results, you may need to turn off internal pull-up resistors, since these can source enough current to dimly light LEDs. 

If you end up with dead LEDs, you may need to mask them in your driving software so that they do not turn on. In a charlieplexed grid, a dead LED can force current through the other LEDs, leading to artifacts. 

I eventually affixed an Arduino pro mini for a more stand-alone solution. At the moment, I've hooked it up to battery power and set it to scroll some poetry.