Simple scrolling LED Sign for NeoPixel (WS2811) or LPN8806

  • 2014/03/16 Update: The source code to this is now on GitHub. Check the Arduino link at the top of each page of this site.

Yesterday evening, I coded up a simple scrolling message sign that uses addressable LED strips like the Adafruit NeoPixels (WS2811) or LPN8806. The code I created is built for NeoPixels, since those were the ones I had access to, but it would be trivial to make it work with the Adafruit LPN8806 library. Future versions will make this simpler.

First, let’s talk about LED signs.

The BetaBrite is a commercially available scrolling message sign that’s been around for ages. I bought one at SAM’S CLUB back in the late 1990s. The BetaBrite that I have uses an 80×7 array of LEDs. This is what I will be trying to replicate.

If you shop around (ahem, e-Bay), you can find 1 meter long WS2811 LED strips with 60 RGB LEDs for around $8-$9. If you had seven of those, you could make a 60×7 LED sign. It wouldn’t be able to show as many characters at the same time as a BetaBrite does, but it would be good enough to experiment with. (There are strips with 144 pixels per meter, but they are very expensive. And, when you get past 500 or so LEDs, you start running out of memory on the Arduino. I plan to fix this with some updates to the LED library, eventually.)

Consider this wonderful drawing as I discuss a few possible ways to present a sign made out of LED strips:

LED Sign ideas

A. At the top is an example of one of these LED strips with LED number 0 to “n”. One end hooks to the Arduino and power, and the other end can be used to daisy chain multiple strips together. The first LED will be 0, and they count up to the end of the last strip. If you have three 60 LED strips, you have LEDs 0 to 179. The green arrow shows the direction of the data (the LEDs count up in that direction).

B. Next is an example of how you might arrange multiple strips so they could make up an LED sign. Each strip is shown running left-to-right, so at the end of the first strip the cables go all the way back to the left to connect to the start of the next strip. Wiring them like this makes it real easy to do things with. Notice that the green arrow runs left-to-right on each row.

C. However, it would be much much easier to just connect them like this, without all the extra wires running around. But, this causes every other row to run in the opposite direction (again, see the green arrows). This means the software has to be smart enough to know how to reverse drawing the pixels for every other row.

ALSO, based on where you decide to make LED 0, that changes everything. In these drawings, we are hooking the Arduino up at the top left. But, if it was easier to hook up at the bottom right, the entire numbering system would be backwards.

I decided to write a simple LED message program that could handle all of this. It’s not pretty, but it (maybe) works. I configure it with the number of LEDs in use, and how many are in each row, then I set where the start pixel is (TOPLEFT, TOPRIGHT, BOTTOMLEFT or BOTTOMRIGHT). I support running the rows STRAIGHT (A) or ZIGZAG (B). It can even do something fun…

D. This is the only thing I have actually done. I had two 1 meter strips, so I decided to spiral them with 20 LEDs in each spiral before the next row starts. These 120 LEDs can be split up in my program as six rows of 20 LEDs each, and then (with a small enough font), a message can rotate around it.

If you’d like to try out my code, I have posted it to GitHub:

I have only tested it in the D configuration, but I have done some debug prints that make me think it should be handling all the other variations. Until I have access to more LED strips, I won’t know for sure.

Anyone want to try it out and let me know how it works for you?

Poor documentation, and the code could be cleaned up and optimized quite a bit. Perhaps I will have that done when I reach version 1.0.

Here’s a video of my first working version:

4 thoughts on “Simple scrolling LED Sign for NeoPixel (WS2811) or LPN8806

        1. Allen Huffman Post author

          Sorry I missed this reply… Yes, my code should work with anything where you can say “set LED X to color Y”. That’s all it needs. The Adafruit libraries I use are the same calls for several types of LEDs they make the library for, so the changes are very minor to support them. If these LEDs use a different library, it will just require changing a few lines to call the library functions instead of the Adafruit functions. I’d be glad to help.


Leave a Reply