LED multiplexing layouts for hand-crafting

Have you ever wanted to build a LED matrix display using hand-crafting methods, such as sewing, weaving, or papercraft? Designing and fabricating complex LED projects by hand, while making use of limited input-output (i/o) pins on microcontrollers/Arduino, is challenging.

Previous posts have covered how to organize LED matrix displays using "Charlieplexing", which simplifies printed circuit board (PCB) assembly and makes efficient use of i/o pins. But, what if we don't want to go through the hassle of ordering a custom PCB, or what if we want to work with individual LEDs in a craft project? Cost is also a factor: a cardstock "papercraft" display could be built from a cheap Arduino-compatible board and bulk LEDs for under $5 on Ebay, far cheaper than even the cheapest LED scrolling marquees.

LED multiplexing involves attaching multiple LEDs sharing a common anode (+ side) or cathode (- side) arrangement. Only one row or column is active at a time, and rows/columns are scanned rapidly so that all lights may appear to be on.
Carlieplexing is similar, but uses the same set of microcontroller pins for the anodes and the cathodes. Grid locations where the anode and cathode are now the same pin are excluded (blacked out LEDs, right, below). A previous post covered how to make the best use of the layout space for Charlieplexing LED matrices.

For hand-crafted projects, we'd like a way to build multiplexed layouts as simply as possible, without extra "wires" tracing throughout the project. This can be done by using a diagonal slice of the charlieplexing grid layout, which allows the driving lines to wrap around the edges of the project:

This diagonal layout is unconventional, and at first might not seem to lend itself to projects that need a rectangular grid, for example to display text. The geometry is flexible, however, and allows for distortion and rearrangement of the LED positions.

For example, individual rows can be shifted to create a rectangular layout (a), and the grid may be stretched to create a hexagonal grid (b), which is convenient for tiling red, green, and blue LEDs for a full-color display (but see caveats about mixing different color LEDs in the example project, below).  Since the layout is periodic in the long axis, it can be wrapped onto polar (c) or cylindrical coordinates (d), creating some fun possibilities!

Find more proposed layouts in the post "Some more LED layouts for hand crafting".



Project 1: LED bead weaving

To illustrate this layout approach, I've built a small woven display using a "bead weaving" approach. Individual LEDs are strung on a copper wire, which is decorated with glass beads for insulation and stiffness.

For this design, I first determined the layout geometry on paper, and mounted the LEDs in cardboard for stability when soldering, clipping the cardboard away once the project was complete. It's hard to replace damaged LEDs, so take care when assembling and testing the project.

If mixing different color LEDs, ensure that the lowest forward voltage is no less than half the highest forward voltage, otherwise the current might "skip" higher-voltage LEDs by passing through two low-voltage ones. Check the maximum instantaneous current ratings for your LEDs, and be sure to add current-limiting resistors.

I made several mistakes in this assembly, including forgetting to leave gaps in the beads to allow for soldering, and soldering at a temperature high enough to damage the LEDs. Be careful not to overheat the LEDs: without the added mechanical stability of a PCB, melting or softening of the plastic can damage the chip inside.

To construct: (A) Design the layout grid on stiff cardboard. Use round-nose pliers to form the LED leads into loops, (just the cathodes at first). Place the LEDs in the cardboard layout, then form the loops for the anodes other side. Thread copper wire through the project to connect the LEDs, optionally attaching glass beads for insulation and aesthetics, and solder. (B) This example project uses 6 control lines to drive 5 columns of colored LEDs.  (C) Finished project; (some LEDs were damaged in assembly). The Arduino source code scans each light one-at-a-time.


Project 2: Papercraft LED marquee

This project tests the square marquee layout in Figure 1a. The LED grid was soldered onto cardboard from a cereal box. Interlocking cardboard separators partition the lights into little cubes. The display was then covered with a black display mask, printed on ordinary paper. [more here]

Because some LED leads were soldered on the front of the board, they prevent the light separators from sitting flush. This causes a bit of light leakage, and could be fixed by routing both leads through holes to the back. It's also not too bright, and the LED lens shape created a spotlight effect. I recommend using a LED that will shine brightly when charlieplexed (red works well), and getting flat "hat top" LEDs that have a wide view angle and reduce the spotlight effect. 

Project 3: Dreamcatcher display

This project explores the Fibonacci spiral layout in Figure 1c. We rendered a spiral template in Python and printed and taped it on to a cereal box. LEDs were attached, with anodes on the front and cathodes on the back. This was similar to the LED weaving example 1, but we also used 1mm spacer beads. [more here]

I also tried a big version of this project, with 18 control lines and 306 LEDs in four different colors. It was slightly nontrivial, but it is possible to drive such a display with PWM brightness control. [more here]