2009 was an absolutely awesome year. Everything expanded exponentially. There was almost no stopping between 2008 and 2009. Before I had even taken down the lights from 2008 I had found the awesome Do It Yourself Community online and I was hooked. Having seen the general mess I created during 2008 with only a month to prepare, I studied everything I could find online and decided to take my time and make 2009 much better. I found that there are many, almost professionally, designed boards already out there in the Do It Yourself community and that people run coops where you can buy the boards for a very good price. But, I still wanted to learn and really Do It Myself. So I decided to study how the boards already released worked and build my own variant.
So I set myself to work. I learned about solid state relays, triacs, pwm and phase control dimming. In addition I had been looking for an excuse to learn more about micro-controllers. I had only played with the Basic Stamp prior, and new I was missing out. So I debated between a PIC and the Parallax SX for a while and chose the SX. In the end maybe i shouldn’t have due to the End of Life announcement for the SX, ohh well. So I set myself to building an SX light controller with full dimming support. In addition I was trying to keep the cost as small as possible due to having just purchased our first house 8 months before. In the end, maybe I saved a little, maybe, but trying to be a cheapo did help me learn why people do things the right way. So I cut out all the components I didn’t need. This led me to cut out the RS-485 communication and just have TTL serial between my controller boxes and did everything on proto-board. In the end I got away with this because I have a small yard and thus, small cable runs, but this was probably a bad idea. So in the end I came up with a 17 channel SX controller that worked out really well overall. I highly enjoyed learning how to write and debug the SX firmware. Spent several months worth of weekends slowly building, testing and debugging 6 – 17 channel controllers for a total of 102 dim-able channels. If you would like my SX source to create your own boards, you can download it here.
2009 Light Control Hardware (Better and More Capable!)
Software this year become much easier thanks to the discovery of Vixen. Vixen is awesome freeware allowing people to control and sequence there light and interfaces with tons of different hardware. I did however discover the massive amount of time it takes to sequence 100+ channels of Christmas lights. Most people will tell ya it takes about 3 hours to sequence 1 minute worth of a song. I did some of my own sequencing but mostly I copied from sequences others had done, which still takes an amazing amount of time. Its not as easy as copy/paste because everyone’s yard is different. I think it took me about 3 hours to transform someone else’s sequence to match my house for a typical 2 and a half minute song. Some don’t like doing this, but honestly I am not in this hobby for the artistic creation part, so I have no problem borrowing from other. To everyone who shares there sequencing, Thanks!
In 2009 I also got into trying to make Vixen plugins. With the help of KC (Creator of Vixen) I was able to get a WII Guitar plugin working. This was alot of fun and worked out well, but in the end I did not include it in the show. This was mainly due to the logistics of actually using it in the show. Who really has time to watch the kids with the guitar. In addition Vixen 2.5 wasn’t really stable, so I had to revert to Vixen 2.1 to run the show reliably. But the plugin is there so who knows, maybe it will show up again. The other plugin I worked on was actually an Add-In to allow for easier sequencing of arches. This worked well, but I ended up running out of time. In the end dgirard finished it up for me after he created his MegaTreeMaker. You can download the Arch Light Sequencer here it only works with Vixen 2.5.
My other tasks this year included making 3 – 20′ Arches, wrapping 6 white Christmas like Holdman did (400 white, 400 green and 400 red = Took Forever!) and getting my FM transmitter up and running. I just bought a dinky 50 dollar transmitter off Ebay. Note that they come from Hong Kong so order it a month before you need it. I found the dinky little antenna didn’t do so great, especially when inside. So i decided get a bigger antenna and mount everything outside making sure to minimize the cable length between transmitter and antenna. I settled on a 7 dollar indoor dipole antenna you can find at Radio Shack. I took that and mounted it on a cross made out of pvc, got 50′ of stereo audio cable, a 300 to 75 ohm matching transformer and a F to BNC adapter. In the end the radio worked out really well. While the audio cable and dipole antenna are meant to be used indoors, i am not really worried about it due to only being outside for 1.5 months. Cable looked fine after the first year. Others have used anything from a really cheap Belkin to a Vastelec with data transmission (So your radio displays the song name, artist and anything else you want. Also new this year was the awesome and really secure donation box my father constructed for me. If you look closely you will see its nothing more than a metal tele-phone utility box with some holes and bolts. Worked out great.
2009 Radio and Display Items
After all that work it was time to take a little time out and put on a small Halloween Show. Nothing amazing, but the kids liked it.
At some point during this whole crazy year (No idea how the wife put up with me. She is great!) I was contacted by Ron Duzsak. He also puts on a crazy Christmas show, bigger than mine. He was organizing the PA Tour of Lights and wanted me to be a part of it. He said he had been particularly touched by an amazing young girl named Catie. This young girl died of cancer but she touched her family and friends in such a profound way that her wish results in millions of dollars being raised for Saint Judes Childrens Research Hospital. You can read lots more about this amazing young girl and help Saint Judes by visiting Caties’ Story. So I decided to help and take donations for Saint Judes Childrens Research Hospital.
So in the end we had an amazing show!!! Over the month and a half several thousand people came to see the show. At the peak we had 10+ cars straight for several hours each night. In addition we were able to raise over $2,100 dollars cash for Saint Judes. Which is awesome and just shy of what I put into the show. So for 2010 I will already have purchased alot of stuff and will be able to raise more for Saint Judes than I spend! Fox news was eve nice enough to stop and do a story. So here are the only videos of the final show I got this year. By this time I was so tired and out of drive I didn’t do great with the video, including having a cold and a crazy work schedule. (Didn’t even make it home for when Fox stopped by.) So enjoy, and I apologize in advance for the bad quality of these videos, next year I will be sure to do much better.