Another Christmastime Blathering | Linux Powered Lighting

Christmastime is a time of hope and joy, despite the cold and darkness that comes with it. It is like it stands in defiance against the darkness, warms people and brings out the best, or at least, has the potential to do so.

Link to YouTube video of light show.
Link to Second YouTube video of light show

I had a life event three years ago where I went through the darkest time in my life. It was the most horrible event of my life that I would wish upon no one. That awfulness combined with the lack of light and the blowing bitter-cold in the winter months in Southwestern Michigan was loudly overwhelming. In such situations, you have two options, give up and die or defy the oppressive darkness and stand against it. Since I am responsible for three kids, I was not about to just roll over and give up. The only answer was to not permit all that is negative swallow me up and make a stand against it. I had to do something and that something was Christmas lights; to drive the darkness from my house and from my soul.

It started out with just the run-of-the-mill lights you would get at any store. Strings or nets of lights in varying lengths. The house looked pretty decent. I only did a bit of the front of the house, hanging them off of the gutters and wrapping the columns and so fort. It was enough, essentially, to stave off the dark from the front of the house. I was able to turn on and off the lights through a remote system that I had used years prior but this was the first year I put some real effort into it.

It was in 2017 that I stepped up my game a bit. I purchased a photocell enabled remote system that would automatically shut down in the morning. I put lights completely around the roof line and on the dormer. This was officially my first “Griswold like” effort where my house was noticeably brighter than anyone else on the the street. This was the first time I wrapped my trees and made a walkway of lights or put lights on my bushes. I also had the lights wrap around the house entirely because I wanted to see light outside of any window.

I also decided to keep those lights up well past the Christmastime. I had to continue to drive the darkness back and thrust joy upon myself.

My next year, I added more lights, changed up the light wrap on the lamp to multicolored and a blindingly bright spiral Christmas tree. Another enhancement was made to my back gate to make entering the home an even greater experience. One that would welcome me and give me a great smile. Having the light truly made coming home late or leaving early a welcoming and warm experience, even when it was ridiculously cold and unpleasant. It helped to take the sting out of life’s unfortunate dealings quite nicely.

It was this year that a coworker friend of mine introduced these “Pixel Lights” to me and showed me some of his creations using these lights and what he did with his house. I was impressed, very, very impressed and this particular sequence was, and still is my favorite.

I knew that I must do something similar but my largest concern was, I didn’t want to toss out my current investment in LED lights that I put into my house. Many discussions of discovery later and I had a plan which I initiated this past September for my own home. I now had a plan for what I was going to do different for my home. I had a very limited idea of how to execute it but I knew what I needed and obtained all the various parts and how I was going to utilize much of this throughout the year, not just for Christmas. I will have more in-depth post on this later but I was able to build.

Bit by bit, the pieces arrived and I started to build my light system. This wasn’t going to be just a dumb box you flip a switch, but rather a Linux powered system that I would breath life into and almost give a kind of personality. It would automate my lights, turn on and off with reliability and maybe even save me some energy (I can’t verify that but I can pretend).

This particular device is a Kulp Lights F8-B connected to a Beagle Bone Black and running Falcon Player which sits on top of a Linux core. I also added a board to turn those Pixel signals to power AC things. In my case, 8 channels of AC light strands and 1 channel for the inflatable Santa.

At this point, I could only get the lights to work in test mode. I tested to see how far I could run the Pixel Strands and maintain fidelity in the lighting quality and I wanted to see how the AC light strands would be implemented. My next step was to understand how to sequence them properly. That was done through this application called xLights. It took several YouTube videos to understand how to set up the layouts to coincide with the physical layout and channels of lights from the controller. I didn’t figure out most of this until the light channels were mounted on the house. I was also at this point where the weather was becoming less cooperative so I had to get the lights up without me fully understanding what I was doing. I also had to make quick fixes of lights along the way that had, for whatever reason left me with a “pixel being out of place“.

The final result, after getting all the Pixel Lights mounted and programmed left me pretty pleased with the results. I now had lights that were much, much more robust that I wouldn’t have to take down that could change for each of the seasons. I had better control over the AC lights and the inflatable Santa and I think the overall aesthetic was vastly improved. There certainly are more lights.

I again changed the wrap on the lamp post but that is because it is now a waterproof RGB light strip to which I can change the color. It will soon get an enhancement with a NodeMCU but that is another discussion. The lights along the roof and the fence are Pixel Lights. The fence lights will come down but the roof lights will stay.

It truly feels bright and happy around my house. The lights turn on when it starts to get dark. Shut down when I am sleeping and are back on before I awaken. I was going to leave it here, but my oldest called me out on my not sequencing the lights to music. I was content and quite happy with what I had but my boy reminded me of my commitment to time the lights to music. I had a few songs in mind but ended up going with the song that inspired me long ago: Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s “Wizards in Winter”. There is a video of that on YouTube. Those were all incandescent lights and probably done with a micro-controller and without the benefit of any sequencing software.

My next step was to break out all the AC powered items into logical groups that I could easily control with xLights. This process added several more extension cords to my already somewhat untidy setup but once it was completed. It turned out much better and introduced a whole new set of fun activities I can have with these Christmas lights.

The xLights application is a little bit daunting to look at when you first start into it. Once you understand the basics, it is pretty easy to navigate your way through and start experimenting with things. This first sequence is basically one big experiment but I like how it turned out.

Most of the time, my lights are on and they don’t do much beyond twinkle and drive back any oppressive darkness from my home. It lights things up around me quite nicely and makes for spending any time outside of the house much more delightful. The light that comes through the windows feels as though it is full of life. They remind me of the hope, joy and optimism of Christmastime. It is an electronic symbol of the light that was brought to this earth so many years ago that carries over into modern western tradition today.

The lights are red, green, blue and Amber. They twinkle and shift position periodically.

Once every twenty minutes, this sequence will start and I am quite pleased with how it turned out. I am happy with it now but after watching it a few times, there are certainly areas for improvement with my yard objects. Specifically, more are needed but I have a plan.

Trans-Siberian Orchestra – Wizards of Winter (2019)

I have a joyful, childlike smile on my face every time my eyes glance outside the window and see the twinkle and I am nearly jumping up and down when I hear the faint sound of that Christmas rock and I can see the lights flash through the curtains. I often run to the front door just to see my very first light sequence and I do not tire of it. Not sure about my neighbors but so far, the feedback has been positive.

Final Thoughts

This wasn’t the cheapest technology adventure I have ever pursued. It’s certainly not the most practical either but I can say with much confidence that this has been good for my soul and I don’t have any bit of remorse on the time and money this cost me. In fact, I am noodling around my ideas for next year already to make it better.

I will put together some sort of short, quick start, guide for putting together a light display for those inclined to do something similar. This is all built on free and open source software which makes the whole project that much sweeter. I have a Linux computer that continually thrust joy upon me and reminds me that no matter what awful things may happen to me, not to roll over and give up but to stand up and slug my way through. It reminds me that there is joy to be had even when the cold, bitter, darkness of life has fallen around you.

For this, I say thank you to anyone that has had even the slightest hand in Linux or any of the tools that has made my life a little better. It truly means a lot to me. You may never know how far reaching your positive contributions have been to people, personally and professionally. So again, thank you.

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