HackerBox 0030: Lightforms




Introduction: HackerBox 0030: Lightforms

This month, HackerBox Hackers are constructing intelligent, three-dimensional, illuminated structures. This Instructable contains information for working with HackerBox #0030, which you can pick up here while supplies last. Also, if you would like to receive a HackerBox like this right in your mailbox each month, please subscribe at HackerBoxes.com and join the revolution!

Topics and Learning Objectives for HackerBox 0030:

  • Configure the ESP8266 NodeMCU for use with the Arduino IDE
  • Assemble structures from full-color RGB LED strips
  • Control RGB LED strips using the ESP8266 NodeMCU
  • Extend NodeMCU operations over Wi-Fi wireless networks
  • Construct an 8x8x8 LED Cube
  • Experiment with reprogramming an 8051-based microcontroller

HackerBoxes is the monthly subscription box service for DIY electronics and computer technology. We are hobbyists, makers, and experimenters. We are the dreamers of dreams. HACK THE PLANET!

Step 1: HackerBox 0030: Box Contents

  • HackerBoxes #0030 Collectable Reference Card
  • NodeMCU V3 Module with ESP8266 and 32M Flash
  • Reel of 60 WS2812B RGB LEDs 2 meters
  • 8x8x8 LED Kit with 8051-Based MCU and 512 LEDs
  • USB Serial Module with CH340G and Jumper Wires
  • Stranded Hookup Wire 3 meters, 22 gauge
  • Exclusive HackerBoxes Decal
  • Exclusive Dark Side LED Decal

Some other things that will be helpful:

  • Soldering iron, solder, and basic soldering tools
  • Computer for running software tools
  • Cardboard or wood for LED assembly jig

Most importantly, you will need a sense of adventure, DIY spirit, and hacker curiosity. Hardcore DIY electronics is not a trivial pursuit, and HackerBoxes are not watered down. The goal is progress, not perfection. When you persist and enjoy the adventure, a great deal of satisfaction can be derived from learning new technology and hopefully getting some projects working. We suggest taking each step slowly, minding the details, and don't be afraid to ask for help.

That there is a wealth of information for current, and prospective, members in the HackerBox FAQ.

Step 2: NodeMCU and Arduino IDE

NodeMCU is an open source IoT platform. It includes firmware which runs on the ESP8266 Wi-Fi SoC from Espressif Systems.

To start, make sure you have the Arduino IDE installed (www.arduino.cc).

Next, you will need drivers for the appropriate Serial-USB chip on the NodeMCU module you are using. Currently many NodeMCU modules include the CH340 Serial-USB chip. The manufacturer of the CH340 chips (WCH.cn) has drivers available for all popular operating systems. Check out the Google translation page for their site. Some of those drivers are also mirrored on the WeMos site.

Finally, follow the instructions here for installing ESP8266 board support into the Arduino IDE.

When configuring the IDE, select "ESP-12E Module" as the board. Select the appropriate port that appears when you attach the NodeMCU to your computer.

As usual, start with the Blink example to test compiling and uploading to the NodeMCU. There is a blue LED on the board on the pin defined as "LED_BUILTIN" so the example sketch should work without modification. Change the number of milliseconds passed (twice) to the delay() function to alter the blink rate of the LED. Verify that the changes are reflected in operation after successful upload.

Step 3: RGB LED Strip

These flexible RGB LED strips are an easy way to add complex lighting effects to any project. Each LED has an integrated driver that allows you to control the color and brightness of each LED independently. The combined LED/driver IC on these strips is the extremely compact WS2812B (datasheet). If you look into a WS2812 "pixel" with a magnifier, you can actually see the integrated driver with bonding wires connecting it to tiny internal green, red, and blue LEDs.

To control the chain of WS2812 LEDs from the NodeMCU, the FastLED library is quite a powerful option.

The Library comes with some nice example sketches that you can try out. Be sure to change these defines:

#define LED_PIN D1
#define CHIPSET WS2812

POWER SUPPLY NOTE Each WS2812 can draw around 60mA, so be sure to provide a stout enough 5V supply for the maximum number of LEDs that you will have illuminated at any given time.

Step 4: Lightforms

LED Strips can be formed into various structures to suite any create whim. Here are several interesting example projects:


The Disco Jar

Infinity Mirror

Cloud Light


Display Backlight



Rainbow Jar

Step 5: Lightform Fireplace

If you have some parchment paper and a thin box (or a picture frame from a thrift shop or dollar store), you can put together this fireplace project in a couple of hours.

The RGB LED strip is cut down to ten six LED strips and wired together in a serpentine structure. A few sheets of parchment paper act as a diffuser. The NodeMCU module can be hot-glued onto the back with the USB port exposed for programming and connecting power.

Check out the attached example sketch fireplace.ino which makes use of the FastLED library.

Step 6: Wi-Fi Controlled Fireplace

The Wi-Fi capabilities of the ESP8266 can be leveraged to adjust the flame in the fireplace from any browser.

The FastLED Brightness method can be used to adjust the "heat level" of the fire:

FastLED.setBrightness(OTHER VALUES);

Here is an example where the 8266 connects to an existing network and provides a simple web server interface.

Here is an example of connecting to the 8266 in access point mode.

Here is yet another well documented example.

Step 7: Contents of 8x8x8 LED Cube Kit

  • ONE Reusable Plastic Parts Box
  • TWO 4.7 KOhm Resistors (yellow violet red)
  • EIGHT 470 Ohm Resistors (yellow violet brown)
  • ONE 10 KOhm Eight Resistor Array
  • ONE STC12C5A60S2 (with code)
  • ONE 40-Pin DIP Socket
  • EIGHT 74HC573 Octal Latches
  • EIGHT 20-Pin DIP Sockets
  • ONE ULN2803 Transistor Array
  • ONE 18-Pin DIP Socket
  • TWO 10uF 25V Electrolytic Capacitors
  • TWO 22pF Ceramics Capacitors
  • ONE 12MHz Crystal Oscillator
  • ONE Barrel Power Socket
  • ONE 4-Pin Serial Header
  • ONE Power Switch
  • ONE Cable with USB to 5V Barrel
  • Red Hookup Wire
  • 550 LEDs

Step 8: Assemble the 8x8x8 LED Cube Kit

Before assembling the 8x8x8 LED Cube Kit, at least skim over this quick outline. Much more detail is provided in the video linked in this step (same here).

A 15mm x 15mm jig for aligning the LEDs can be easily formed out of cardboard (as shown in the image above), using a wooden board (as shown in the video), or even 3-D printed (Thingverse), whichever approach you prefer.


TEN axial resistors. Note that there are two different values and they must be put into the correct positions. However, they can be placed in either orientation as they are not polarized.

ONE 10K Resistor Network. Note the dot nearest pin 1. Match this to the silkscreen on the PCB.

TWO electrolytic capacitors. Note the negative terminal indicator on the cylindrical housing of the capacitor. Insert this side away from the positive (+) indication on the PCB silkscreen.

ONE Power Switch

ONE 5V DC Power Jack

ONE 4-Pin Serial Header

ONE12MHz Crystal (not polarized)

TWO 22pF Ceramic Capacitors (not polarized)

TEN DIP Sockets. Observe the half-circle indicator on the PCB silkscreen and the matching shape on one end of each socket.


Remove the black plastic prior to inserting each of the 72 single pin sockets.


Observe the half-circle indicator on each chip and the matching shape on one end of each socket as well as the PCB silkscreen beneath.


Into each of the single socket holes labeled C1-C8, insert the short cathode lead of a loose LED while inserting the long anode lead into the single socket hole just next to it. After all eight are in place, power the PCB to make sure these first eight LEDs do their thing.


First, create an "assembly jig" from cardboard or wood. Make an 8x8 grid of holes with spacings of 15mm in both directions (just like on the PCB). The holes should be just over 3mm so that the LEDs can be easily slipped out. Keep the positive anode (longer) LED leads all connecting together and the negative cathode (shorter) LED leads all connecting together. When each 8x8 sheet is completed, test out the whole sheet using a 5V supply and a 300-2000 Ohm resistor. It will be a lot easier to replace a bad LED at this point than it will be later.


Place the positive anode (longer pin) terminals of each LED sheet into each of the eight socket rows, but not into the socket row labeled C1-C8.


Solder one or two of the cathode "layers" of each column together with scrap "wire" removed from the LED leads. These joints will add structural integrity and maintain the proper 15mm spacing to keep the cube looking nice, neat, and cubicle. Use some hookup wire to connect each layer for the LED cube to one of single pin sockets labeled C1-C8.


FWIW, There is another version of assembly instructions HERE.

Step 9: STC12C5A60S2 Microcontroller

The 8x8x8 LED Cube Kit features an STC12C5A60S2 Microcontroller (datasheet).

The STC12C5A60S2 is based on a high performance architecture 80C51 CPU.

Step 10: Hacking the 8x8x8 Cube LED Kit

The included microcontroller comes preprogrammed, so this section is completely optional, but it is certainly still worth a closer look.

To start, read over this Theory of Operation for the 8x8x8 LED Cube Kit.

This repo has the source code and details for reprogramming the 8051-based STC12C5A60S2 MCU.

The link on both of those pages for the ISP (in-system programming) software is out-dated. The STC site has their programmer, or you can check out the open source stcgal.


If you have enjoyed this Instrucable and would like to have a box of electronics and computer tech projects like this delivered right to your mailbox each month, please join the HackerBox revolution by SUBSCRIBING HERE.

Reach out and share your success in the comments below or on the HackerBoxes Facebook Page. Certainly let us know if you have any questions or need some help with anything. Thank you for being part of HackerBoxes. Please keep your suggestions and feedback coming. HackerBoxes are YOUR boxes. Let's make something great!

1 Person Made This Project!


  • Stick It Challenge

    Stick It Challenge
  • Origami Speed Challenge

    Origami Speed Challenge
  • Science Fair Challenge

    Science Fair Challenge



1 year ago

Anyone actually able to reprogram this? Seems the firmware is corrupted on mine, only shows a red led on the board. Tried to use stcgal for python and the downloadable programmer without any luck. It doesn't seem the board. Connected to a USB to serial and still no luck.


3 years ago

Ok i am having an issue with the LED cube; I have soldered all the components onto the board (correctly i believe) when i place LEDs into the first two posts to test to make sure its all working correctly, none of them light up but the red LED for power. any ideas?


Tip 3 years ago

WeMos didn't work for me either. I switched it out for one of the robotdyn UNO's from an earlier kit. It works perfectly.

ALSO, Don't feel you need to only do 6x10 for the grid, You can set the rows and columns in the fireplace.ino to whatever you feel like. I did 5x12 because that fit a display case I had lying around, and it works splendidly.


Question 3 years ago

Has anyone had trouble getting the WeMos NodeMCU working with the LED strip? I'm using MacOSX 10.13.5 with Arduino IDE version 1.8.3. In order to get the NodeMCU to work with the FastLED examples I've found that only an older version of the ESP8266 Arduino core works. Only version 2.0.0 works and it runs at a very fast rate. The current board core version 2.3.0 is no good at all. I've also tested the code on a standard Arduino Uno board and everything works perfectly.


Answer 3 years ago

I was having problems with this too, thanks for posting that tip to use 2.0.0, I did the same and it works now...was banging my head checking to see if my breadboard or wires or something was bad. They should add in what OS+IDE+board rev they used to get examples working.


3 years ago

any ideas what to do if the first 8 test leds blink really slowly in the cube project?


Tip 4 years ago on Step 2

For me, in step 2 where you are testing the ESP-12E Module, the LED pin is 16. My blink application was set to 13.


Tip 4 years ago on Step 8

To hold the pin headers in place for soldering, use a breadboard jumper wire. I found the green colored jumpers from a recently previous box worked nicely for the 1.5cm spacing. You'll have to use a piece of masking tape or something else to hold the first pin in place. Once that is done use the jumper to hold the others. Start the jumper slightly into both the loose and the soldered pin, then push it further in on the soldered pin. This will give a slight bend in the jumper leaving a slight force on the loose pin holding it close to the board. The first row you'll have to eyeball it but as you progress you can sight down the lines of pins to align the loose one (though they seemed to line up fairly straight just from the jumper) For the 9th row I found a slightly longer yellow colored jumper fit nicely.

pin header 2.jpgpin header.jpg

Tip 4 years ago on Step 8

Before you solder anything into the board, you can use the holes for the pin headers to mark a template. Simply hold the board firmly down on a piece of paper and using a fine lead (0.5mm) mechanical pencil mark the holes through the board onto the paper. Glue this to a piece of cardboard and poke holes where the pencil marks are.


4 years ago

I already have this cube, and built it a while ago, so I went right to the part about programming it.

I tried following the link to the software required to program it, and two things happened. First, I was warned that it was a harmful website containing malicious software. Then, when I decided to give it a go anyway, the file wasn't found. So I can't download it anyway. I tried the links in the theory and the links in the github (I think they are the same, but it's easy to click to be sure), and can't find the file.

How am I supposed to program the cube if the software isn't available?


4 years ago

Haven’t received mine yet, but this box seems very similar to box 5


Question 4 years ago

The 15mm spacing mentioned for the jig, is that from the center of the led or the edge?


Answer 4 years ago

Judging by the spacing on the board, center.


4 years ago

lol now i have two of these identical led cube kits to build. i ordered one a few months back and haven't had the time to put it together yet. also found that same hack at the same time i ordered it albiet though more blog posts searches.


4 years ago on Step 11

Where are the other 7 Octal Latches?


Reply 4 years ago

The octal latches are the 20-pin chips inside the plastic box.


Reply 4 years ago

I am so blind :( Thank You.

Now off to 3D print a jig/case for project.