The Evolution of DIY LED
DIY LED isn’t a new concept. By this point in time, we’re probably all at least vaguely familiar with what LED strip tape is. As it’s been around a few years now, it’s finally crossed the threshold of affordability and general availability. It’s hard to believe what this stuff was costing just three or four years ago, now not only can you by a roll of white LED for $10, but you can buy it on Amazon Prime while you’re at it.
I covered last year on TWM a brief overview of the basics of LED strip tape. It takes some LED strip tape, a controller unit, and a power supply. I recommend taking a look at that if you’re new to the world of LED tape and also doing some searching around the web for more info about it.
This year, I wanted to take a quick look at where all of this LED stuff is going. There’s been some new innovations in over the past few years that’s shaped the evolution of DIY LED. So let’s jump in and look at what’s evolved.
When LED tape first came on the scene, the main type was what we referred to as “analog” tape. The whole strip could be dimmed on, off, and color mixed using an RGB model, but you didn’t have the ability to control each pixel individually. Since then “digital” pixel table has become more the standard, providing the ability to easily control every pixel separately much like a video screen.
The main iteration of change has been in the types of LED chips used in strip tape. Those little square pixels that make up the LED strips contain two things, the LED and also a small chipset that gives the pixel some intelligence. Recently, two new models of chipsets have released (the WS2821 and the APA102) that offer some better options over the main options we’ve had so far (the WS2811, WS2812, and WS2801.)
The WS2821 allows LED pixel tape to take in DMX directly without the need for any type of control board. All you need to do is power the LED tape, and hook the input side up to a DMX adapter and you’re good to go. The APA102 implements parallel wiring, among other things, meaning that if one pixel dies, the strips still route around it and continue to work.
Digital pixels have brought on more complications because they require a lot more data to control them – because every pixel needs to be controlled individually. Manufacturers have begun putting out a lot of new series of controllers that allow thousands of pixels to be controlled easily while using the ArtNet protocol. ArtNet, for those unfamiliar, is the modern lighting standard of DMX. ArtNet allows multiples of DMX universes to be to sent, allowing for more easy control of numbers of pixels to be controlled.
And now with video software improvements, pixels can benefit from pixel mapping – the ability to translate video content into DMX and ArtNet. Because pixels occupy high numbers of DMX channels, much more than we’re used to with lighting typically, pixel mapping transforms them from being lights to being more of a video screen that we can control with content. The video application Resolume Arena allows you to easily map these pixels in seconds.
You can find these controllers throughout places like eBay, but one worth noting is over at the Christmas light super store, Holiday Coro. Their new AlphaPix controllers are pretty affordable, at around $100, and have some great features.
For me the most exciting innovation is new types of pixels. These same types of LED pixels have found their home in varying new form factors. I’ve this year become a fan of a type of pixel that are mounted in one meter long aluminum strips. It really lends well to reuse, being far less fragile. The cost is slightly higher than LED strip tape, but the longevity justifies their price.
You can also find things referred to as 3D LED pixel tubes. They are LED strips, double sided, inside of clear plastic tubes. These are great for doing things that require the LED to be suspended from the ceiling. “Pixel Balls” or “pixel curtains” are now putting pixels into strands with tennis ball sized, round, pixels. These are a much lower resolution but serve many uses like being suspended or draped. Both of these products also work really well with in-the-round scenarios due to their double sided nature.
With all of these new advances in LED, it’s really opening up the design potential of what we can do with stage design. If you haven’t checked out doing something with LED, it’s a great time to jump in!