Using LEDs to Create a Controllable Grid Wall

Using LEDs to Create a Controllable Grid Wall
CL Gridwall; Photo: Casey Cosely

Recently we’ve started seeing lighting effects in buildings, on art, in clothing, and even in hair. Have you been wondering how to make these incredible lighting effects without eating up electricity or breaking the bank? Here’s one way to light up something that’s large and stationary.

First, let’s start with the basics: RGB stands for RedGreenBlue and LED stands for Light-Emitting Diodes. When these three colors are combined together they can produce over 16.7 million different colors! LED strips can be cut, soldered, and sewn into material – this technology is versatile and I wanted to learn more. So I sat down with Nikko, a CreativeLive staffer who has a hobby of finding creative ways to use RGB LEDs.

Nikko previously designed a dress and custom added 300 LEDs (individually controllable) into a skydiving wingsuit. His finished project can be seen in this short YouTube video. He also helped create a Grid Wall which was about 5 times larger of a project to take on! For the lighting, Nikko explains, the Grid Wall is, “a bunch of LEDs controlled by a Raspberry Pi (which is a little credit card sized computer). There are 1,536 RGB LEDs in the 32 cubes, and each cube has 48 LEDs. It takes a little under 90 amps of power to run the Grid Wall.” And that’s not even running the LEDs at 100% brightness, as Nikko explained to me, “the LEDs are running at approximately 90% brightness so they don’t draw more current than what the 90 amp power supply can provide” for the 16 by 8 foot wall, which gives a “5% brightness loss.” Which he assured me, isn’t noticeable.

The wall was no small feat, it took Nikko countless hours (with lots of help from others) and about a month to complete. The vision behind the Grid Wall was that the LEDs would be invisible and seamless, creating a back-lit ambiance. Digital LEDs were chosen because “to make analog LEDs work I would have had to make my own controller to make all the LEDs work. Similar what we have now but the Fadecandy just made the digital LEDs work.”

Using LEDs to Create a Controllable Grid Wall
Nikko working on the wiring; Photo: Casey Cosely

To help him figure out how to wire and make all 1,536 LEDs work correctly and seamlessly, Nikko turned to, specifically this blog post that highlights how to create a 1,500 LED curtain. The LEDs came directly from adafruit, choosing the most dense option available of 144 individually controlled LEDs per meter on a flexible PCB. From here, the LED strips were cut into 1 foot sections, each holding 48 LEDs. These were then placed inside each of the 32 cubes in the wall and hooked up to the central 90 amp power source.

BUT it’s not as easy as plugging it in and flipping the switch. Nikko tested different LEDs and the number of LEDs per cube, and 48 in a 1 foot segment was chosen as it was “far denser and brighter” than 40 LEDs in a 2 foot segment per cube. After writing some software, he found that “the best way to control it would be through a computer (in this case the Raspberry Pi) sending commands to a board called Fadecandy, which eliminates a lot of the programming headache so you don’t have to worry about the timing and control of the LEDs, you can just step back.” If you’re looking for a hassle free way to program your LEDs, this is one way to do it.

So what were the lessons learned from building the Grid Wall? As Nikko explains, “I would have made my own circuit boards. The reason being, is that the setup uses a Raspberry Pi which is hooked up to 4 Fadecandy’s. Each Fadecandy can control 8 LED strips, and since there are 32 cubes there are 32 LED stips. I had to make a breakout board for each Fadecandy and the boards are plugged into the power source. If I had made a circuit board I wouldn’t have had to worry about measuring, cutting, and soldering over 100 small wires.”

Using LEDs to Create a Controllable Grid Wall
Photo: Nikko Mamallo

When I asked what future steps for the Grid Wall might be, Nikko explained that “through the internal web page we can control all of the LEDs, so you can come up with a scene, and save it to recall it later. And through the web interface we can also do animations, for a future build of it I want to have it react to audio so that if we have an event we can start animating the LEDs to music.”

The possibilities and options are endless when creating with LEDs. At CreativeLive there is the Grid Wall, but what’s your dream design that you can make come to life with LEDs? For inspiration, take a look outside and build your masterpiece: make your dreams become a reality.

Sarah Luck

When Sarah's not brainstorming & creating, you can find her laughing, at the beach, or in the forest. She's an out-going & fearless personality who spends her time at CreativeLive as the Lead Content Producer for Photo & Video.