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Picture of Framed Color Changing LED Art
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This backlit framed LED Art piece displays an abstract, shifting pattern of colored light on a translucent screen. The projected image has a fluid-like quality; sort of like a solid-state lava lamp. The color-changing LEDs slowly cycle through combinations of red, green, and blue light, which interact to create endlessly evolving patterns. In low light, it casts a cool, eerie glow on its surroundings.

Here's a video of it in action. They're tricky to capture video of (particularly when using a cheap digital camera), but it gives you a rough idea:



This is an incredibly simple project to put together, thanks largely to the LEDs: I use RGB LEDs with color-changing circuitry built right into the package. You just provide power, and the LEDs cycle through red, green, blue, and various combinations thereof. One aspect of these LEDs is that the timing is slightly different in each one, so while they start out in sync, they quickly fall out of phase. I consider this a feature, not a flaw, as it results in the emergence of interesting, seemingly unpredictable patterns.

No soldering is required, just some crimping and a bit of hot glue.

The parts are easy to obtain online, but I also offer kits through Make Magazine's online store, the MakerShed, for $15:

http://www.makershed.com/ProductDetails.asp?ProductCode=MKKM2
 
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Step 1: Parts and Tools

Picture of Parts and Tools
PARTS

The screen: I used 4 x 3 piece of scrap translucent white plastic. Velum from the paper department of your local art store works perfectly as well.

5 x 4 matboard frame with a 2" x 3" window: You can get a piece of black mat board cut to these dimensions in any framing store for a few bucks, or cut one yourself from suitable material, such as stiff black cardstock.

Battery case for 2 AA batteries w/ wire leads and power switch: These can be purchased online from Jameco, part #216120, and can likely be found at Digikey.com or Mouser.com as well. Similar battery holders can also found at Radio Shack, but you may have to solder a simple power switch into the circuit yourself.

3 RGB color-changing LEDs: I get these here: http://stores.ebay.com/Amigo-Of-China. Look for "5mm RGB LED Slow Colour Change." Make sure you get the clear ones, as the diffused ones don't work as well for this specific project (but you can do other cool things with them!) Everything on this store seems to come with free resistors, which you don't need for this project, but hey, free resistors.

2 butt splices: (tee hee... butt splices). These can be found at Radio Shack; something in the range of 18-20 gauge or thereabouts works well. I use the non-shrink-wrap-coated ones, but the coated ones should work fine. You can also get these from Jameco, part #494469, but the minimum order is 100.

Also shown in the picture: Glue Dots. These come with the kit, and are used as an alternative to hot glue to attach some parts together. These can be found in a craft supply shop (you should get the largest, tackiest (stickiest) ones they have), but a hot glue gun works just as well for these steps, and is nice to have anyway when it comes time to "customize" your LED artwork.

You will also need 2 AA batteries, and some scotch tape.

TOOLS (not shown)

Needle-nosed pliers

Wire clippers and strippers: these may be needed for cutting and trimming the wire leads on the battery case.

Scissors or similar cutting implement if you are going to cut your own screen or mat board.

Hot glue gun: As mentioned above, glue dots can be used instead of hot glue for attaching some parts, but the glue gun is useful for the optional (but highly recommended) step of customizing your artwork.

Step 2: Assemble the Frame

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Flip your mat board frame (or equivalent) over so you're looking at the "back." If you are using a stiff piece of plastic as your screen, position one edge so that it is close to one wide edge of the frame (as in the picture); this will be the "bottom" of the frame, and the battery pack needs something solid to attach to. If you are using velum, position it higher so that as much of the bottom edge of the frame is exposed (when using velum, you will want to attach the battery pack directly to the mat board).

Next, tape the left and right edges of the screen to the back of the frame. Make sure the tape does not overlap with the window, or it will show through when the screen is illuminated from behind.

Step 3: Prepare the LEDs

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Take a close look at one of the LEDs, and note that one of the wire leads is longer than the other. The longer lead is the positive lead. Gently bend the positive lead about 15 degrees. Do the same with the other (negative) lead.

Bend the remaining 2 LEDs in the same way.

Step 4: Crimp the LEDs

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Hold your 3 LEDs side-by-side, so that the 3 positive leads are parallel. Place a butt splice over all 3 positive leads. With your pliers, squeeze the butt splice where it encloses the 3 LED leads, being careful not to crimp the opposite site of the splice. Apply enough pressure so that the 3 leads are held solidly in place.

It's very important that you remember which are the positive LED leads; you may want to mark this splice with a small piece of tape. If you get confused, each LED lens has a little flat spot next to the negative lead. Now gather the negative leads, and place the other butt splice over all 3 leads. Again, give it a good squeeze, being careful only to crimp the LED side of the splice.

Step 5: Wire LEDS to the Battery Case

Take the end of the red wire lead from the case and insert it into the open end of the butt splice that is attached to your positive LED leads. With your pliers, squeeze the splice firmly over the red wire. Next, insert the black wire in the other splice, and squeeze.

Now gently bend the leads at each splice, so it looks like the picture. It is very important that the two splices never touch, if they do, it will prevent your LED Art from lighting up, and quickly drain the battery.

Step 6: Test the LEDs

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Open up the battery case. Sometimes these cases have little retaining screws to hold them shut, in which case you'll need a small phillips head screwdriver to remove it. Pop in a couple AA batteries, close the case, and switch it on.

The three LEDs should immediately turn on, and begin to change color. If they don't, here are some troubleshooting tips:

If some but not all of the LEDs turn on, you probably have one or more LEDs in backwards; that is, you didn't line up all of the positive LED leads. You may need to pull off the crimp with a pair of pliers, or cut it off \with a wire cutter. There should be enough extra LED lead to re-crimp, but you'll probably need more butt splices, which can be found at Radio Shack.

If none of the LEDs light up, you may have reversed all of the LEDs (i.e., attached the red wire where the black wire should be, and vice versa). Rather than pull or cut the splices apart, put the batteries into the holder in reverse.

Still no luck? It could just be a bad connection. Try cutting off the crimps, re-stripping the wire, and re-crimping w/ new butt splices.

Step 7: Attach LEDs to the Case

This step explains how to use the glue dots that come with the kit to attach the LEDs to the battery case. Alternately, you may use a small dab of hot glue, which is actually slightly sturdier once it's set.

Gently peel the strip of glue dots open, being careful not to touch the blobs of glue, or get them stuck on anything (they're like way sticky). Cut the backing so you have a single dot, and affix it to the case, near the switch.

Press firmly, and peel off the backing (if needed, use your finger to help the glue dot stick to the case, but try not to touch the glue more than necessary).

Now firmly press one of the crimped splices (it doesn't matter which) against the glue dot.

Step 8: Test the "Display"

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Now it's time to get a sense of how your LED Art will look, and make any adjustments or alterations. Dim the lights, put the switch on the case in the on position, and hold the frame up to the LED/case assembly, so that it projects onto the back of the frame.

Take a look at the front of the piece, and see how the colors and patterns change over time. You can adjust how your piece looks by gently repositioning the LEDs.

Step 9: Optional (Recommended): Distort the LEDs with Hot Glue

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Without any further changes, your LED Art piece will cycle through seemingly endless patterns of light and color. You can further modify the appearance of your piece by dribbling a small amount of hot glue on the LED lenses. Instead of seeing individual red, green, and blue spots on the screen, you can create more interesting and complex patterns.

Plug in your glue gun and give it a few minutes to heat up. If you're a kid, you definitely need to get some adult supervision for this part!

Carefully drizzle small amounts of glue on the LEDs. Let the glue cool, and see how it looks when projected against the screen. Give it a few minutes to let the LEDs cycle through their various colors. Feel free to experiment, as it's easy to peel the cooled glue off the lens and try something different!

Step 10: Attach the Case and Frame

Once you're happy with how it looks, use the remaining glue dot to attach the frame to the battery case (hot glue works too). Apply the dot to the front of the case. Peel off the backing, and attach to the lower edge of the frame, where the plastic screen extends all the way to the edge of the mat. Apply some pressure to make it stick.

You now have a one-of-a-kind piece of LED artwork... enjoy!

I really like working with these LEDs, and they have a lot of creative possibilities. Here are some links to flickr sets of projects I created with them in the past, which this Instructable is based on:

http://www.flickr.com/photos/obeyken/sets/72157594557314863/

http://www.flickr.com/photos/obeyken/sets/72157600005240891/
This was what made my thesis sparkle. :) I am a graphic design student in NYC, and the kit really worked wonders for the companion poster for my book.

I wanted to make it myself but I was pressed for time so I purchased a few from  Maker Shed  but actually ended up using one, and keeping the rest for future use.

Here is a link to what I made with it, forgive the shakiness, it's only 18 secs long. :))

The rest of the project is here.
Several months ago I saw this project in either Popular Mechanics or Popular Science as a DIY for RadioShack and I'm pretty sure you are the same guy that wrote the how-to for the magazine. I'm glad I found the project here because I looked all over their site and couldn't find any mention of it and I wanted to see it in action before I make one. One question I have is that if I remember correctly, in the magazine article you used 4 prong common cathode LEDs and several capacitors so control the color change. Is there any benefit to that method over the one used here?
aessam14 years ago
i really liked this project
maybe i will do it
alpe_974 years ago
Wow. I wonder how to get all the leds to change at same time. Try sometime to hook them in parallel. i don't know. Well even before seeing this, i was going to make a huge one like a color mural. like 4 by 6 feet.... is there any instructables on that?
acerclup4 years ago
thank you
bdolge5 years ago
A small three sided box or lean-to made from copy paper can be taped to the back of the frame to reduce the stray light from the rear and enhance the show.
bdolge5 years ago
I used a slightly different procedure for the next few steps. 1:Bend Positive legs. 2:crimp positive legs. 3:crimp red wire. 4-6: repeat with negative legs/black wire This eliminates the chance of crossed wires. Also if you are worried about shorts between the butt connectors just wrap them in black electrical tape.
BenStep425 years ago
 I love this idea, and I already ordered 50 slow changing led's for a larger scale project.  I bought some color changing led's from radioshack before and it flashes through the colors twice then cuts off.... I guess my question is do these led's that I ordered from amigoofchina continuously change until the power supply is cut off or does it cycle for 30 seconds and cut off?  Great tutorial
Normally, color changing LEDs will cycle on thier preset pattern until they are cut off from a power source. I've never seen one that turns off from a timer...
Lubrijerm5 years ago
What about making it mildly sound-reactive?  Ahhh...   I like..
jam BD6 years ago
nice if the LEDs moves still nice idea
iMerry6 years ago
Cool, cool. Maybe going to try this myself, after the Moon Jar project. x)
mdgnys6 years ago
If you have a spare diffuser from a lcd screen they work great!
General FOL6 years ago
Love this project, am making one myself, but built in to a box rather than with a frame.
i made one for a friend of mines b-day,and she loved it thanks!!!
damoos6 years ago
I just finished making this project. I diffused the leds with 400 grit sandpaper instead of glue. It's a very cool effect. Thanks for this.
obeyken (author)  damoos6 years ago
Cool... yes there are all sorts of possibilities as far as how to distort or diffuse the LEDs. Glad it turned out good!
gibandy6 years ago
This is nifty. I just went to Radio Shack and bought the parts to make this. Unfortunately, my LED's wont blink, so my framed LED art wont be changing color for now- phooey. They only had 2 multi color leds in stock; perhaps both are defective? Anyhoot, this is my first attempt at playing with this kind of thing and I thank you for making the directions so well. I actually learned a lot with this instructable. Hats off! PS. I'll post a pic of my finished product once it's publishable.
obeyken (author)  gibandy6 years ago
Wel, the LEDs I used are somewhat unusual in that they have the color-changing circuitry built right into them... all you need to do is supply 3V. I don't believe Radio Shack carries such LEDs, so you probably ended up with multi-color LEDs that provide leads for each color but you have to supply the color-changing circuitry yourself. Sorry if this wasn't clear! Search around ebay for "amigoofchina" and look for "slow color change leds" (I detail this out in the instructions). Best of luck!
0_Nvd_06 years ago
It seems that you are using LEDs that slowly change their color.
pyrocop16 years ago
I thinking a broke flat screen monitor, that would be cool on a larger scale. I might need to radio down to Mr. Scott for more power thou
ondadiluce6 years ago
Simple but very cool, thanks!
I am feeling very creative now! thanks!
geoper26 years ago
wow nice really simple project cool and with detailed instructions thx !!!
obeyken (author)  geoper26 years ago
thanks :)
omnibot6 years ago
That frame looks really good.
obeyken (author)  omnibot6 years ago
Thanks!
monterto6 years ago
I like this idea but there is so much potential for awesome here.... I'm going to try this with a motorized prism to see if i can get some cool effects
obeyken (author)  monterto6 years ago
Sounds cool... post some pics! I think there are a lot of possibilities, as far as different ways to distort and interfere w/ the light emitted from the LEDs.
cyrozap6 years ago
I bet you could do this (a lot more complexly) with a microcontroller. It would allow for so much more control. I think your simple idea would be better, though, because everyone can do this.
obeyken (author)  cyrozap6 years ago
You definitely could! with a micro you could precisely control the patterns however you like. With this project, you're stuck with the pre-set pattern in the LEDs. But yes simple can be good, and I like to use my laziness to my advantage... it fun to try to get a coolest possible effect with the least complexity.
cyrozap6 years ago
cool!