Tuesday, August 31, 2010

iPhone Controlled LED Suit -- Part 1

Since I just created this blog a few days ago, I will have to go back in time a few weeks to talk about starting this other project.  The helmet is in Alex's hands getting prepped for painting.  The circuitry is not done, but in at a good stopping point.  Maybe I can work on them during my lunch breaks throughout the week.  Anyway...

My friends had been trying to convince me to attend Dragon Con for the last 5 years or so.  I myself am not a huge sci-fi fan or anything, but I am a nerd and I do like building cool stuff.  That the same idea some of my friends have too.  I attended my first Dragon*Con last year with nothing in hand and no idea what to expect, but I left with some crazy ideas.  After a while though, those ideas got put on the back burner and other projects took priority.  But with DC 2010 looming on the horizon, I got inspired to make an interesting outfit.  I thought it would be neat to have a full-body suit of LEDs that I could control to any color or pattern I wanted.  

One of my friends and fellow DC attendee, Chris Williamson, decided to build a mobile dance floor this year.  He showed me some LED modules he bought from Bliptronics.  They are individually controllable, over 31,000 color combinations, and they looked pretty rugged.  Check out some pics of Chris's dance floor and his installation of the LED modules below.  The whole thing is motorized and fitted with a sound system.  And notice the stripper pole in the middle - hanging out with our crowd will be interesting this year...


The LEDs looked great though.  I bought 40 of them to try out.  I soon realized that in order to make an entire suit light up evenly, I was going to need both some good diffusion and A LOT of LEDs.  I also finally caved in and bought an Arduino.  Until this point I have used PICs for most of my projects.   But Sparkfun sells the Arduino Mini which is small enough to use on the suit.  Since Ben from Bliptronics had published source code for the LED modules, the easiest way to test them out was to hook them up to an Arduino.  Just a side-note about my gratitude toward Sparkfun:  Not only are they a wildly successful company and a great resource to the maker community, but they are the reason why a young renegade web developer could ever be respected as a real electrical engineer building medical devices.  Thanks guys!

I couldn't come up with a good idea for an outer suit, so I decided to keep the nerd-factor down and just wear some white dress clothes.  Below is a picture of my preliminary test to see how 40 LEDs looked under a white shirt.  

The outcome was pretty cool, but 40 LEDs were quickly used up.  I went back to Bliptronics, this time ordering another 160 LED modules.  At $4 apiece, you can do the math.  When I come up with a project, I tend to go a little overboard.  Ben was nice enough to give me a discount on the modules.  Thanks Ben.  I started sewing LEDs onto an old shirt I had.  With the white button-up shirt over it, this is how it looked.  The video makes it look brighter than reality.  It didn't have the effect I was going for -- it needed more diffusion.  

I also didn't know how I was going to control so many LEDs.  But being a true iPhone user my first thought was "Oh man, it would be sweet to have an app for that...".  If you've been following my links so far, you might have noticed that I have a good reason to be tight with the iPhone.  However, there was one small problem.  I didn't know how to write apps, and I didn't even own a Mac!  The last time I bought a Mac was around the time when the App Store was first launched.  I bought a Mac Mini and I thought I was going to start writing iPhone apps overnight.   I sold it on eBay a few weeks later after a lot of frustration.  Well I found myself back at the Apple Store again, this time making an even bigger purchase.

Being familiar with the iPhone and its limitations, and having done it before, I knew bluetooth would be a bad option to attempt.  A few weeks ago I had finally received a sample part I had requested from Lantronix almost a year prior.  The MatchPort b/g Pro is a wifi-to-serial embedded module.  Out of the box it is pre-configured to create an ad-hoc network.  No access point required -- perfect for the iPhone.  The module has two rows of 2mm spaced male pins, which made breadboarding difficult.  My solution was to try to CNC mill a breakout board from copper-clad FR4 from Digikey.  

Success!  My first PCB produced by a CNC mill.  Now I could get started evaluating the Lantronix module.  Right off the bat, it powers up and creates the ad-hoc network like it said it would.  I hooked the RX and TX lines straight to a Sparkfun FTDI Breakout.  I own about 5 of these little boards.  They are so handy I typically don't have less than 3 of them hooked to my PC at any given time.  Within a few minutes I had a Windows test app written in VB.NET to open a TCP connection to the Lantronix module and I was able to send data from my laptop to a terminal window on my PC wirelessly.

At some point around this time, the rest of my LEDs arrived from Bliptronics.  I went to town sewing LED modules onto a shirt and pants.  The pants are actually white scrubs, slightly modified to not be so baggy.  The material has to be strong to hold up the extra weight of the LED modules.  This thing is starting to look pretty silly...

There is more progress!  Click here to see Part 2.


  1. I am interested in your iPhone controlled LED suit.
    I have been devoting recent days to iPhone software modem development, which can control external hardware via ear-phone jack.
    My project page is http://www.reinforce-lab.com/projects/iphone-software-modem (in japanese).
    Using the software modem, the suit can be make without a wi-fi module. Soft modem hardware costs only three dollars.

  2. I would like to buy this suit from you

  3. I reaaaaaaally want one of these. I don't even know where to start researching how to make one myself. Can you help me pleeeeeease?!

  4. @trilobyte: Cool project! Is it reliable and what is the maximum data rate? Could it be made wireless with an IR transmitter?

    @stephen: Pay me $10K :)

    @alex: check out bliptronics.com for the modules and Arduino source code

  5. would you be willing to do some consulting work on costume design that operates like this? No problem paying well. Please contact me. check out parker3d.com

  6. @Ed: If you give me your email I will contact you. There is no contact info for you on that site.

  7. I'd like to make one of these,I'm pretty crafty myself, but I don't have an Iphone...(I'm a PC :P)
    Whats the total cost you came up to, and could you like create a manual for it? I'd buy the manual, but not 10K for the entire thing is a bit too much for a high school kid :)Umm yea, thats pretty cool though, I made something like this for middle school dance, but it worked for a while and then i kinda ruined it. It was just LED's on the shirt though so yea. This is really awesome by the way :)

  8. Bonjour,
    le modéle http://www.psfk.com/2010/09/led-suit-controlled-by-iphone.html est il commercialisé ?
    Merci de revenir vers moi pour info sur le produit.
    Nicolas Fredon
    Parc du Futuroscope
    Poitiers France

  9. Hi, I'm Minoru Fujimoto.
    Your project is very cool!!!

    My project is similar to yours!

  10. wow ... a d*mn genius!


    Ash > www.ashandburn.com
    "Miami Beach - a sunny place for shady people"

  11. Marc,

    I'm a club DJ and want to build my own version of your LED suit (and hopefully add a few improvements of my own) to use for my live stage shows. However, I have ran into a few issues and could use some help from someone who has pulled off building their own successfully.

    Please email me at blucas42@gmail.com ...I look forward to hearing from you.


  13. Hi.great suit but what battery did you use. Imagine AA batteries would run out pretty quick.

  14. Which specific LED did you use from Bliptronics?

  15. nice project! I'm also addicted to those led pixels and wrote a software called PixelController (https://github.com/neophob/PixelController), control via puredata patch, osc (ios/android).
    some screenshots on my blog: http://neophob.com/2011/09/pixelcontroller-universal-opensource-light-control-solution/

  16. Hey Mark, love it!

    Is youre iPhone app for controlling this available in anyway? I have different project but similar (basically mood lighting under my bed that I want to be able to control in the same way). But I'm no iPhone programmer.

    Let me know: erickjames@gmail.com



  17. Hi Mark, I'm from Brazil and work for an advertise agency,we have a project for a client that needs 6 suits for a promotion action, please email me to talk about.

    Thanks Andre.


  18. Hey Marc,

    Incredible work! Not sure if you still check these comments, but I'm curious how you went about powering the full suit. I've got a bench setup with a strand of 30 modules connected, but noticed Bliptronics recommends separate 1.2A power supplies for every 20 or so LED modules. Did you end up carrying multiple large battery packs on the suit?



  19. Great knowledge, i have found about LED strips through your blog.Thanks for sharing.
    LED Power Supply Driver with Dimmer

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  21. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hwpkezRqgsg

    Is my version

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