NeoPixel Acrylic Lamp: A Few Lessons Learnt

Last month I wrote some notes about Chinese acrylic lamps, the same kind as I used successfully for my insulin reminder. As I said, I wanted to share the designs as I went along, and I do now have a public repository for what I have, although it has to be said that you shouldn’t trust it just yet: I have not managed to get this to properly turn it on. So instead, in the spirit of learning from others’ mistakes, let me show you my blooper reel.

Lesson #1: Don’t Trust The Library

A pictures of two SMT-manufactured Acrylic lamp boards side-by-side.

These were unusable.

You may remember that in the previous post i showed the “sizing test”, which was a print of the board with no components on it, which I used to make sure that the LEDs and the screw holes would align correctly in the base. Since I had to take the measurement myself I was fairly worried I would get some of the measures wrong.

The size test was sent to print before I came to the conclusion that I actually wanted to use NeoPixel LEDs, instead of simple RGB LEDs, so it was printed to host “standard” 3535 common-anode LEDs. I then changed the design for a more sparse design that used the W2812B-Mini, which is a 3535 package (meaning it’s 3.5mm by 3.5mm in size), and is compatible with the NeoPixel libraries. This meant more capacitors (although modern versions of the W2812B don’t seem to require this) but less logic around connecting these up.

As you can see from the image above, I also added space on the side to solder headers to connect past the USB-to-UART and directly to the NeoPixel row. Which was probably my best choice ever. When the boards arrived, the first thing I did was connecting the NeoPixel control pins to try to turning them on and… I discovered that nothing worked.

The answer turned out to be that I trusted the Adafruit Eagle library too much: the pinout for the 3535 variants of the W2812B (the “mini”) has been added wrong since the beginning, and an issue existed since 2018. I sent a pull request to correct the pinout, but it looks like Adafruit is not really maintaining this repository anymore.

Because of the pinout mistake, there’s no way to access the NeoPixels on any of the ten boards I had printed in this batch, and I also missed one connection on the CP2104, which meant I couldn’t even use these as bulky USB-to-UART adapters as they are. But I can put this down as experience, and not worry too much about it, since it’s still a fairly cheap build by comparison with some of the components I’ve been playing with.

Lesson #2: Datasheets Can Still Lie To You

So I ordered another set of boards with a new revision: I replaced the 3535 version with the 5050 after triple checking that the pinout would be correct — while I did have a fixed part, I thought it would be better not to even suggest using a part that has a widespread broken pinout, and I did confirm I could fit the 5050 through the aperture by then. I also decided to move some components around to make the board a bit tighter and with a more recognizable shape.

The boards arrived, without the ESP32-WROOM module on them — that’s because it’s not in the list of parts that JLCPCB can provide, despite it being sold by their “sister company” LCSC. That’s alright because I procured myself the modules separately on AliExpress (before I figured out that ordering from LCSC is actually cheaper). And I started the testing in increasing order of satisfaction: can the NeoPixel be addressed? Yes! Can the CP2104 enumerate? Yes! Does it transmit/receive over serial? Yes! Does esptool recognize the newly soldered ESP32? Yes! Does it fit properly in the base with the module on, and have space to connect the USB plug? Yes! Can I flash MicroPython on it? Well…

This is where things got annoying and took me a while to straighten out. I could flash MicroPython on the ESP32 module. The programming worked fine, and I could verify the content of the flash, but I never got the REPL prompt back over serial. What gives?

Turns out I only read part of the datasheet for the module, and not the Wiki: there’s something that is not quite obvious otherwise, and that is that GPIO0 and GPIO2 are special, and shouldn’t be used for I/O. Instead, the two of them are used to select boot mode, and enter flashing. Which is why GPIO0 is usually tied to a “BOOT” switch on the ESP32 breakout boards.

How does esptool handle these usually? By convention it expects the RTS and DTR line of the serial adapter to be connected respectively to EN (reset) and GPIO0 (boot), together with “additional circuitry” to avoid keeping the board in reset mode if hardware flow control is enabled. Of course I didn’t know this when I sent these to manufacture, and I still am not sure what that additional circuitry looks like (there’s some circuitry on SparkFun Thing Plus, but it’s not quite clear if it’s the same as Espressif is talking about).

I have seen a few schematics for breadboard-compatible modules for ESP32, but I have not really found a good “best practices to include an ESP32 module into your design”, despite looking around for a while. I really hope at least documenting what can go wrong will help someone else in the future.

Next Steps

I have a third revision design that should address the mistakes I made, although at the time of writing this blog post I still need to find the “additional circuitry”, which I might just forego and remind myself that hardware flow control with ESP32 is probably a bad idea anyway — since the lines are used for other purposes.

I also made sure this time to add reset and boot buttons, although that turned out to be a bit more of a headache just to make sure they would fit with the base. The main issue of using “classic” top-actuated buttons is that putting them on the top of the board makes it hard to find them once mounted, and putting them on the bottom risk to get pressed once I fit back the bottom of the base in. I opted for side-actuated buttons, so that they are reachable when the board is mounted in the base, and marked on the bottom of the board, the same way as the connectors are.

I’m also wondering if I should at least provide the ability to solder in the “touch button” that is already present on the base, and maybe add a socket for connecting the IR decode to reuse the remote controls that I have plenty of, now. But that might all be going for over-engineering, who knows!

Unfortunately, I don’t think I’ll be making an order of a new set of boards in the immediate future. I’ve already said this on Twitter, and it’ll deserve an eventual longer-form post, but it seems like we might be moving sooner, rather than later. And while JLCPCB and LCSC are very fast at shipping orders, I will be mostly trying not to make new orders of anything until we have a certainty of where we’ll be in a a few months. This is again a good time to put everything into a project box, and take it out when the situation feels a bit more stable.

Investigating Chinese Acrylic Lamps

A couple of months ago I built an insulin reminder light, roughly hacking around what I would call an acrylic lamp. The name being a reference to the transparent acrylic (or is it polycarbonate?) shape that you fit on top, and that lights up with the LEDs it’s resting on top. They are totally not a new thing, and even Techmoan looked at them three years ago. The relatively simple board inside looked fairly easy to hack around, and I thought it would make a good hack project to look more into them.

They are also not particularly expensive. You can go on AliExpress and get them for a few bucks each with so many different shape designs. There’s different “bases” to choose from, too — the one I hacked the Pikachu on was a fairly simple design with a translucent base, and no remote control, although the board clearly showed space for a TSOP-style infrared decoder. So I ended up ordering four different variants — although all of them without remotes because that part I didn’t particularly care for: one translucent base, one black base with no special features, one with two-colour shapes and LEDs, one one self-changing LEDs with mains power only.

While waiting for those to turn up, I also found a decent deal on Amazon on four bases without the acrylic shapes on them for about £6 each. I took a punt and ordered them, which turned out to be a better deal than expected.

These bases appear to use the same board design, and the same remote control (although they shipped four remotes, too!), and you can see an image of it on the right. This is pretty much the same logic on the board as the one I hacked for my insulin reminder, although it has slightly different LEDs, which are not common anode in the package, but are still wired in a common-anode configuration.

For both the boards, the schema above is as good a reversing as I managed on my own. I did it on the white board, so there might be some differences in the older green one, particularly in the number of capacitors, but all of that is not important for what I’m getting to right now. I shortened the array to just four LEDs to show, but this goes on for all of the others too. The chip is definitely not a Microchip one, but it fits the pinout, so I kept that one, similarly to what I did for the fake candle. Although in this case there’s no crystal on the board, which suggests this is a different chip.

I kind of expected that all the remaining boards would be variation on the same idea, except for the multi-color one, but I was surprised to figure out that only two of them shared the same board design (but took different approaches as to how to connect the IR decoder — oh yeah, I didn’t select any of the remote-controlled lamps, but two of them came with IR decoderes anyway!)

The first difference is due to the base itself: there’s at least two types of board that relate to where the opening for the microUSB port is in relation to the LEDs: either D-shaped (connector inline with the LEDs) or T shaped (connector perpendicular to the LEDs). Another difference is in the placement of the IR decoder: on most of the bases, it’s at 90° from the plug, but in at least one of them it’s direct opposite.

Speaking of bases, the one that was the most different was the two-colours base: it’s quite smaller in size, and round with a smooth finish, and the board was proper D shaped and… different. While the LEDs were still common-anode and appeared wired together, each appears to have its own paired resistor (or two!), and the board itself is double-sided! That was a surprise! It also is changing the basic design quite a bit more than I expected, including only having one Zener, and powering up the microcontroller directly over 4.5V instead of using a 3V regulator.

It also lacks the transistor configuration that you’d find on the other models, which shouldn’t surprise, given how it needs to drive more than the usual three channels. Which actually had me wonder: how does it drive two sets of RGB LEDs with an 8-pin microcontroller? Theoretically, if you don’t have any inputs at all, you could do it: VDD and VSS take two pins, each set of LEDs take three pins for the three colour channels. But this board is designed to take an IR decoder for a remote control, which is an input, and it comes with a “button” (or rather, a piece of metal you can ground with your finger), which is another input. That means you only have four lines you can toggle!

At first I thought that the answer was to be found on the other six-pin chip on the lift, but turns out that’s not the case. That one is marked 8223LC and that appears to correspond to a “touch controller” Shouding SD8223L and is related to the metal circlet that all of these bases use as input.

Instead, the answer became apparent when using the multimeter in continuity mode: since it provides a tiny bit of current, you can turn on LEDs by pointing them between anode and cathode of the diode. Since the RGB cathode on the single LED package are already marked on the board, that’s also not difficult to do, and while doing that I found their trick: the Blue cathods are common to all 10 LEDs, they are not separate for outer and inner groups, and more interestingly the Green cathodes are shorted to the anodes for the inner four LEDs — that means that only the outer LEDs have the full spectrum of colours available, and the only colour combination that make the two groups independent is Green/Red.

So why am I this interested in these particular lamps? Well, they seem to be a pretty decent candidate to do some “labor of love” hack – as bigclive would call it – with making them “Internet of Things” enabled: there’s enough space to fit an ESP32 inside, and with the right stuff you should be able to create a lamp that is ESPHome compatible — or run MicroPython on it, either to reimplement the insulin reminder logic, or something else entirely!

A size test print of my custom designed PCB.

Indeed, after taking a few measurement, I decided to try my hand at designing a replacement board that fits the most bases I have: a D-shaped board, with the inline microUSB, has just enough space to put an ESP32 module on it, while keeping the components on the same side of the board like in the original models. And while the ESP32 would have enough output lines to control at least the two group of LEDs without cheating, it wouldn’t have enough to address normal RGB LEDs individually… but that doesn’t need to stop a labor of love hack (or an art project): Adafruit NeoPixel are pretty much the same shape and size, and while they are a bit more expensive than the regular RGB LEDs they can be individually addressed easily.

Once I have working designs and code, I’ll be sharing, particularly in the hopes that others can improve on them. I have zero designing skills when it comes to graphics or 3D designing, but if I could, I would probably get to design my own base as well as the board: with the exception of the translucent ones, the bases are otherwise some very bland black cylinders, and they waste most of the space to allow 3×AAA batteries (which I don’t think would last for any amount of time). Instead, a 3D printed base, with hooks to hold it onto a wall (or a door) and a microUSB-charged rechargeable battery, would be a lovely replacement for the original ones. And if we have open design for the board, there’s pretty much no need to order and hope for a compatible base to arrive.

Insulin, routine, lockdown, and electronics

As you may know if you read this blog, I have insulin-dependent diabetes. In particular, I use both fast and long acting insulin, which basically means I need to take a shot of insulin every morning (at around the same time, but there’s at least a bit of leeway around it).

This is not usually a problem: the routine of waking up, getting ready to leave, making a coffee and either drinking it or taking it with me makes it very hard to miss the step “taking the insulin”. Unfortunately, like for many others, this routine is gone out of the window due to the current lockdown. Maybe a bit worse for me since I’m currently still between jobs, which means I don’t even have the routine of logging in to work form home, and of meetings.

What this meant, is that days blurred together, and I started wondering if I remembered to take my insulin in the morning. A few too many times that answer was “I don’t know”, and I think at least twice in the past couple of weeks I did indeed forget. I needed something to make it easier to remember and not to forget.

Because insulin injections tend to be one of those things that I do “in autopilot”, I needed something hard to forget to do. Theoretically, the Libre App allows annotating that you took long-acting insulin (and how much) but that requires me to remember to scan my sensor right after and write down that I did. It’s too easy to forget. I also wanted something that would be a lot more explicit about telling me (and my wife) that I forgot to tell my insulin. And hopefully something that I wouldn’t risk telling I took my insulin too soon in the interaction, and then not actually doing the right thing (as sometimes I reach out for my insulin pen, realise there’s not enough insulin there, and need to pick up a new one from the fridge).

The Trigger: Yes, I Took My Insulin

The first thing I decided to do was to use the spare Flic Button. I bought Flics last year upon suggestion of Luke, and they actually helped immensely — we have one in the study and one in the bedroom, to be able to turn on the smart lights quietly (in the night) and without bothering with the phone apps. We kept a third one “spare”, not quite sure what to use it for until now. The button fits on the back of the cabinet where I keep my “in use” insulin pen. And indeed, it’s extremely easy and obvious to reach while putting the pen down — as an aside, most European insulin pens fit perfectly on a Muji 3-tier slanted display, which is what I’ve been using to keep mine in.

This is not exactly the perfect trigger. The perfect trigger wouldn’t require an action outside of the measured action — so in a perfect world, I would be building something that triggers when I throw an used needle into the needle container. But since that’s a complex project for which I have no obvious solution, I’ll ignore that. I have a trigger, it doesn’t risk getting too much in my way. It should be fine.

But what should the trigger do? The first idea I had was to use IFTTT to create a Google Calendar event when I pressed the button. It wouldn’t be great for notifying if I forgot the insulin, but it would at least allow me to keep track of it. But then I had another idea. I had a spare Adafruit Feather M4 Express, including an AirLift FeatherWing coprocessor for WiFi. I originally bought it to fix an issue with my TV (which I still have not fixed), and considered using it on my art project, but it also has a big bright RGB LED on it (an AdaFruit NeoPixel), which I thought I would use for notifications.

A quick Flask app later, and I had something working — the Flic button would hit one endpoint on the web app, which would record me having taking my insulin, while the Feather would be requesting another endpoint to know how to reconfigure the LED. The webapp would have the logic to turn the LED either red or quiescent depending on whether I got my insulin for the day. There’s a bit of logic in there to define “the day”, as I don’t need the notification at 1am if I have not gone to bed yet (I did say that my routine is messed up didn’t I?) but that’s all minor stuff.

The code for the webapp (Python, Flask) and the Feather (CircuitPython) I pushed to GitHub immediately (because I can), but there’s no documentation for it yet. It also doesn’t use the NeoPixel anymore, which I’ll explain in a moment, so you may not really be able to use it out of the box as it is.

For placement, I involved my wife — I want her to be able to tell whether I didn’t take my insulin, so if I’m having a “spaced out day”, she can remind me. We settled for putting it in the kitchen, close to the kettle, so that it’s clearly visible when making coffee — something we do regularly early in the morning. It worked out well, since we already had an USB power supply in the kitchen, for the electric cheese grater I converted.

Limitations of the Feather Platform.

The Feather platform by itself turned out to be a crummy notification platform. Don’t get me wrong, the ease of using it is extremely nice. I wrote the CircuitPython logic in less than an hour, and that made it very nice. But if you need a clear LED to tell you whether something was done or not, you can’t just rely on the Feather. Or at least not on the Feather M4 Express. Yes it comes with a NeoPixel, but it also comes with two bright, surface-mount LEDs by the sides of the USB connector.

One of the two LEDs is yellow, and connected to the optional LiPo battery charging circuitry, and according to the documentation it’s expected to “flicker at times” — as it turns out, it seems to be continuously flickering for me, to the point at first I thought it was actually the RX/TX notification on the serial port. There’s also a red LED which I thought was just the “power” LED — but that is actually controlled by a GPIO on the board, except it’s pulled high (so turned on) when using the AirLift Wing.

The battery charging LED does appear to behave as documented (only at times flickering) on the M0 Express I ended up getting in addition to the M4. But since that is not compatible with the AirLift (at least using CircuitPython), it might just be that this is also a side-effect of using the AirLift.

Why am I bringing up these LEDs? Well, if you want a notification light that’s either red-or-off, having a bright always-on red LED is a bad idea. Indeed, a day after setting it up this way, my wife asked me if I took my insulin, because she saw the red light in the corner. Yeah it’s too bright — and easy to confuse for the one that you want to check out for.

My first reaction was to desolder the two LEDs — but I have hardly ever desoldered SMD components, and I seem to have fallen for the rookie mistake of trying to desolder them with a solder iron rather than a hot air gun, and actually destroyed the microUSB connector. Oops. A quick order from Mouser meant I had to wait a few days to go back playing with the Feather.

A Better, Funnier Light

This turned out to be a blessing in disguise as it forced me to take a few steps back and figure out how to make it less likely to confuse the LEDs, beside trying to glue them down with some opaque glue. So instead, I figured out that there’s plenty of RGB LED lamps out there — so why not using those? I ordered a cheap Pikachu from Amazon, which delivered about at the same time as Mouser. I knew it was probably coming from AliExpress (and, spoilers, it pretty much did — only the cardboard looked like printed for the UK market by a domestic company), but ordering it at the source would have taken too long.

The board inside turned out to be fairly well organised, and it was actually much easier to tap into it than expected — except for me forgetting how transistors work, and bridging to the wrong side of the resistor to try turning on the LEDs manually, thus shorting and burning them. I ended up having to pretty much reimplement the same transistor setup outside of the board, but if you do it carefully, you only need three GPIO lines to control the lamp.

The PCB from the RGB LED light I bought. Very well organised. If you want to pair it to a MCU to control it, remove the crossed out IC, then tap into the blue-marked connections. Pay attention to the side of the resistor you connect this on!

The LED colour can be varied by PWM, which is fairly easy to do with CircuitPython. You only need to be careful with which GPIO lines you use for it. I used “random” lines when testing on the breadboard, but then wanted to tidy it up using lines 10, 11, and 12 on the finalized board — turns out that line 10 does not appear to have timer capabilities, so you can’t actually use it for PWM. And also, lines 11 and 12 are needed for the AirLift — which means the only lines I could use for this were 5, 6 and 9.

At this point, I had to change the webapp so that instead of turning the LED off to signify I took my insulin, it would instead turn the LEDs yellow, to have a bright and happy Pikachu on the kitchen counter. And an angry red one in the morning until I take my insulin.

Of course to be able to put the lamp in the kitchen next to the kettle, I had to make sure it wouldn’t be just a bunch of boards with cables going back and forth. So first of all, I ended up wiring together a Feather Doubler — which allows a feather (and a wing) to sit side-by-side. The doubler has prototype areas in-between the connectors, which were enough to solder in the three transistors and three resistors — you won’t need those if you don’t burn out the original transistors either!

Unfortunately, because I had stacking headers on my AirLift, even with the cover off, the lamp wouldn’t sit straight. But my wife got the idea of turning the cover inside out, using the space provided by the battery compartment, which worked actually fairly good (it requires some fiddling to make it stable, and I was out of Sugru glue to build a base for it, but for now it’ll work).

Following Up: Alternative Designs and Trimmings

So now I have a working notification light. It works, it turns red in the morning, and turns back yellow after I click the button to signal I took my insulin. It needs a webapp running – and I have been running this on my desktop for now – but that’s good enough for me.

Any improvement from here is pretty much trimming, and trying something new. I might end up getting myself another AirLift and solder the simpler headers on it, to make the profile of the sandwiched board smaller. Or if I am to remake this from an original lamp with working transistors, I could just avoid the problem of the doubler — I would only need GPIO wirings, and could use the prototyping space next to the M4 Express to provide the connection.

I did order a few more lamps in different styles from AliExpress — they will take their due time to show up, and that’s okay. I’ll probably play with them a bit more. I ordered one that (probably) does not have RGB LEDs — it might be interesting to design a “gut replacement” board, that just brings in new LEDs altogether. I ordered one that has “two-colour” images, which likely just means it has two sets of LEDs. I’ll be curious to see how those look like.

I also ordered some ESP32-based “devkits” from AliExpress — this is the same CPU used in the AirLift wing as a WiFi co-processor only, but it’s generally powerful enough that it would be able to run the whole thing off a single processor. This might not be as easy as it sounds to prototype, particularly given that I’m not sure I can just provide the 5V coming from the lamp’s connector to the ESP board (ESP32 uses 3.3V), and I burnt the 3.3V regulator on the lamp’s original board. Also since I need the transistor assembly, I would have to at least get a prototype board to solder everything on and — well, it might just not work out. Still nice to have them in a drawer though.

While I don’t have a 3D printer, and I’m not personally interested in having one at home, and I’m also not going into an office, which may or may not have one (old dayjob did, new dayjob I’m not sure), I might also give a try to software to design a “replacement base” that can fit the Feather, and screw into the rest of the lamp that is already there. It might also be a starting point for designing a version that works with the ESP32 — for that one, you would need the microUSB port from the USB module rather than the one present in the lamp, to go through the on-board regulator. This one is just for the craic, as my Irish friends would say, as I don’t expect that to be needed any time soon.

All in all, I’m happy with what I ended up with. The lamp is cute, and doesn’t feel out of place. It does not need to broadcast to anyone but me and my wife what the situation is. And it turns out to be almost entirely based on Python code that I just released under MIT.

My new friend who reminds me to look after myself!