Put a Cylon in It!




Last year the comedy sketch show 'Portlandia' made fun of an arts and craft trend, where craft artists would take ordinary items and 'put a bird on it'. I fell victim to a similar trend in the geek crowd: Take an ordinary silver item and add LEDs to 'put a cylon in it'. :)

When I saw the Total Control Lighting strands, the first thing that came to mind was sticking these on the front of my Jeep to create a 'Cylon Eye'. Installing them in the Jeep was a breeze, which then freed me up to tinker with the software. I now have a multi-mode Cylon Eye with a pretty purple control module in my Jeep.

In this Instructable, we'll be working with Total Control Lightings strands, Arduino programming, and the all new "Total Control Lighting Developers Shield Project Housing" that Cool Neon will be releasing at the upcoming 2013 Maker Fair in San Mateo California. (You saw it here first, folks!)

Parts List:
- Total Control "Awesome Dev Shield Box" Kit ( Seeeduino & TCL Developer's Shield wrapped in a
lovely Purple Anodized housing)
- 25 pixel Total Control Lighting strand (bullet shaped pixels)
- 1 TCL 4-pin male connector
- 1 TCL 4-pin female connector
- 12ft 4-Conductor 22-guage Lead Wire
- 12v -> 5v power supply (For this Instructable I'm using a cigarette->USB 5v adaptor)
- USB mini cable, for programming and power
- zip ties!
- velcro or mounting screws, depending on your level of permanence desired. :)

Tools needed:
- Drill
- 7/16" drill bit
- 1/16" drill bit

Also required is an awesome wife who is willing to let me drill holes in our jeep. Thank you Melanie! I love you!

UPDATE 2016-06-17: Final tweaks and notes

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Step 1: Program the Controller and Test

I know this sounds crazy, but before we get to the fun part of drilling holes in the front of the Jeep, let's program the controller and test it all out.  This will give you a chance to play with the controls and more easily see the resulting changes than when the LEDs are mounted and the controller is in the vehicle.

For the programming/testing stage, you only need four things:
  - The TCL Controller
  - a 25 pixel strand of TCL lights
  - USB mini cable
  - a computer with the Arduino IDE installed.*

I have a few code packages available for this project.  One is CylonEye, HippieCatcher, and HippieCatcher "Road Safe".
These are rough drafts, to be kind.  I'll be posting cleaned up code with better comments in a few days.

CylonEye does exactly what you would expect, and a little more. It utilizes the switches and pots on the developer shield to give the user many behavioral modification options without having to rewrite the source.

HippieCatcher functions like a digital 'cow catcher'.  For those too young, a 'cow catcher' was a plow-like contraption on the front of locomotive engines that deflect cows off of railroad tracks so as to prevent train derailments.  Similarly, the HippieCatcher code cycles through and endless series of morphing colors that start in the center pixel and flow outwards towards the edges.  HippieCatcher also makes used of the developer shield inputs to adjust the visual display.

HippieCatcher "Road Safe" is the same as above, but it limits the levels of blue light to keep you street legal.

CylonEye - Cylon_v0_10.ino.zip
HippieCatcher - HippyCatcher_v0_10.ino.zip
HippieCatcher "Road Safe" - HippyCatcher_roadsafe_v0_10.ino.zip

More on the tunable options later.

For now, connect the TCL strand to the four-pin output cable on the TCL controller.  Then connect the TCL controller to the computer using your USB cable.  I use a dual-head portable hard drive USB cable, which increases the amount of power available to the TCL system.  Upload the code of your choice to the controller, and make sure the lights start morphing.

With the controller, TCL strand, and programming verified; we are ready to install the pixels in the vehicle.

*If you are trying to program a Seeeduino (or TCL Developer Controller) on OS X Lion or Mountain Lion, you will need to install FDTI USB drivers.  I have a blurb about this on my blog thing.  Once you have the drivers, the correct Board is "Arduino Duemilanove / ATMega 328" and the Programmer is "Arduiono as ISP".

Step 2: Installing the Smart Pixels

These instructions are for my Jeep Wrangler, and they may not be even close to what you need to do for your vehicle.  Your mileage may vary.  Measure twice, cut once.  Etc.

First step was to take the front panel off my Jeep.  There are six pop-pins along the top of the panel.  Once these are removed, the front panel swings right out.

To get a nice straight line, I took a piece of 3/4" thick wood trim and rested it on the back side of the tops of the air inlets, and then I drew a line.  I made a mark on this line in the exact center of the panel.  Using a compass, and working outward from the center mark, I made additional marks every inch. 

Using a 1/16" drill bit, I drilled starter holes at each of these marks.  I wasn't paying enough attention, and I made two more holes that I needed.  Don't do that.  You can learn from my mistakes!

Using the 7/16" drill bit, I drilled through the starter holes. 

I pushed through the pixels, and zip tied down all the slack in the wires.

I re-installed the front panel on the Jeep, and re-inserted all the pop-pins, making sure the connector for the strand was accessible.

Using the 12' of 4-conductor lead wire, and the pair of male and female connectors, I made a TCL extension cord.  I then fed this through one of the Jeep's convenient ports in the engine compartment firewall and into the passenger compartment.  Then I secured down the lead wire with zip ties.

I attached the control box to the dash with a little Velcro.  (Picture coming)

Step 3: Total Control Developer System

This addendum is all about the Total Control "Awesome Dev Shield Box" Kit.  It's an all-in-one Seeeduino with TCL developer shield, wrapped in a pretty purple housing.  Made exclusively by Cool Neon, and being released this weekend at the 20-13 Maker Fair.

It contains a Seeeduino controller that can be powered via USB or the 5V power port.  The Seeeeduino is based on the Arduino Duemilanove but with a couple of tweaks.  The reset button is on the side, so that it is not obscured by shields.  Surface mount components are used to free up additional space for I2C and Serial Grove connectors.  3.3v / 5v selectable.  M_RST_AUTO switch to disable the controller resetting if the USB host power cycles.

The TCL Developers Shield adds two on/off switches, two momentary contact switches, and four pots.  And then there is the awesome housing.

Step 4: Final Tweaks

It's been a year, and I had a couple last tweaks I've added to this project that I wanted to share.

Several of the iterations of controller code have made use of the potentiometers to make on-the-fly adjustments. That was fine when I had the pixels and controller hanging off my desk. Not so fine after I installed it in the Jeep. Every time I tweaked the color or speed I'd have to get out of the Jeep and check the effect. Using a strip of nine high-density WS2812 LEDs, and a couple of code tweaks, I added a preview display to the controller. No more running to the front of the Jeep to see if I have just the right shade of purple.

Unless someone finds an outright bug, I'm done tweaking the source code as well. It has six documented modes, and one anti-documented mode. Play with it, I think you'll find it does all it can for what it is.


OK, OK, OK... One last tweak... As implemented, the preview display was just too bright after dark. So, I wired a CdS photocell to A5, with a 1k pulldown to ground, and tweaked the code one last time. Now the preview display auto-dims as the lights go down. How cool is that? The new code has been pushed to github, and it will likely be very erratic if you run it without the CdS cell.

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    30 Discussions


    6 years ago on Introduction

    Very cool! Just don't run these while driving on a public highway. I had a buddy in high school do this to his Pontiac Firebird so it would look like Knight Rider (a TV show from the time). He ran them while we were driving around on Halloween and was pulled over, ticketed for improper/ illegal light display ($500 fine in 1983) and his vehicle impounded since he had no tools to remove the lights. The whole thing ended up costing him close to $800 in legal costs and towing / storage. The officer told us that it is perfectly legal to run them on private property (parking lot) but not on public streets.
    Not meaning to be a buzz kill, just letting you know what happened to him so it won't happen to anyone else (not sure if the laws have changed or not, but if not I'm sure the fines have gone up).

    1 reply

    Reply 6 years ago on Introduction

    Thank god the police had done such a good job of keeping all the other types of crime down in your area that they could focus on scofflaws like your buddy and his dangerous light display.

    What a pain in the neck.


    6 years ago on Introduction

    Awesome, but depressing that Minnesota does not allow ANY after market lights in/on civilian vehicles...except blue lights for collector cars.


    6 years ago on Introduction

    I just had a nerdgasm. But FYI in Canada that would be illegal with red leds. With the exception of 4 ways and the brake light all red lights on the exterior of the vehicle must be always on or they are considered to be emergency vehicle lights.

    2 replies

    Reply 6 years ago on Introduction

    it differs from province to province but here's the skinny on ontario, from http://www.ontarioticket.com/motor-vehicle-lighting.php

    " Lights are prohibited or restricted based on their combination and/or the direction they are visible from. Flashing red lights, visible from any direction on a vehicle, are restricted to law enforcement vehicles only. This restriction does not include four way flashers or tapping the brake pedal to produce an on and off effect with the brake lights. In addition to this, red lights and red and blue combinations of lights to the front are also restricted to law enforcement vehicles. Flashing blue lights are restricted to police vehicles and snow removal vehicles, but only while they are actually engaged in the removal of snow (or de-icing, etc). Flashing green lights are restricted to volunteer fire fighters.

    The Highway Traffic Act says nothing specific about under carriage neon lighting, nor about any other specific colours than those mentioned above, so, as long as they conform to the above specifications, they should, in theory, be permitted. One thing to be aware of with respect to under carriage lighting is that a red light may cast a glow around the vehicle that is visible from the front of the vehicle, even though the light is not specifically positioned on the front of the vehicle."


    Reply 6 years ago on Introduction

    i'm pretty sure yellow is also a restricted colour - tow trucks, and the like.


    6 years ago on Introduction

    Nice piece of kit. Mine has less LEDs and all, BUT cost is way, way less than yours.
    All you need is a Larson Scanner Kit from Evil Mad Scientist @ http://shop.evilmadscientist.com/productsmenu/tinykitlist/152-scanner , and maybe a 12 V to 5 V adapter

    1 reply

    6 years ago

    I have been holding off documenting the available controls and posting new video until I can finish up the unified code base, and wash the jeep. Expect new videos and updated code this week!


    6 years ago on Step 3

    Can you post some pictures of the lights on?


    6 years ago on Introduction

    I did the same thing back in 1984 in the grill of my 58 Pontiac Strato Chief.
    I still have the circuit I made in a box deep in the closet. I think it was 16 LED's 2 chips and a resistor to power it off 12V. ( Old School )
    Nice to see the updated version.

    I'd like to see a video of the HippieCatcher.

    Also, I love that shield and box combo!


    6 years ago on Step 2

    I would hate to drill into my jeep but this looks awesome and worth all the drilling, I hope I dont screw up!


    6 years ago on Introduction

    Looks like you put a couple of extra holes in the front by mistake!


    6 years ago on Introduction

    I've always wanted one...scared of being fined! red light on the front is illegal here. Anyone know the original circuit that was used?


    6 years ago on Introduction

    Cool! But it could be better if the LEDs are not seen, just the red running glow like a real Cylon.

    Probably you can achieve this if the LEDs are located below the edge of the hood, and out of sight, but you can still see the reflected light from the LEDs.