carlfoxmarten: (default)
Ah, technology. Why do you suck sometimes... =>.<=

So, the last magic wand the theatre company used emitted a brilliant flash, and would glow white when it was ready to go. It did this by using the xenon flash unit from an old film camera, with a white LED replacing the tiny, green one that originally signaled that it was ready. The next wand will be able to the colour of the glow change to match the fairy's outfit, and will have an extra option (triggered, well... somehow...) to make the glow LED “throb” or brighten and dim on a cycle.

For this new wand, I've decided to again use the flash unit from a film camera to produce the bright flash, but use a microcontroller to control the LED and the flash module. Unfortunately, this brings some major challenges, as the flash unit takes a major amount of current when it's charging the flash capacitor back up, especially at the beginning, when the capacitor is empty. The large inrush of current is exactly why they make charge-controller chips for cell phones, and at some point I will be looking into the idea, but right now they just confuse me, more than anything else, so I'll hold off on that for the moment.

Anyway, this great big gulp of power actually causes the microcontroller to reboot, something you want to completely avoid, if at all possible, even engineering around it when it becomes an issue.

One of the many options suggested as I've been working on this problem, along with sticking a current-limiting resistor in line with the flash unit, is to employ a decoupling capacitor to provide the microcontroller with its own backup power reserve for those two or three seconds when the flash is sucking so much power that, without it, the microcontroller would get rebooted. To ensure that the flash unit doesn't suck power from the capacitor, I've employed a diode to ensure the power only goes one way.

The only problem with this is the fact that I'd actually been using the wrong version of the microcontroller. My original intent was to power the wand off one of those 5V, tube-shaped, USB-charging batteries you can find for ten- to fifteen-dollars. That way, it would be very easy to tell when the battery's low (the wand doesn't work), and very easy to charge them back up again. Because of this, I'd chosen to use the 5V variant of the microcontroller (an Adafruit Pro Trinket, for those interested). Well, it turns out that, with the flash unit plugged straight into the USB battery, the battery gets drained completely in less than a second when the flash unit tries to charge itself. So, I decided to switch back to using three AA batteries instead, at least they can take that sort of current drain. So, a 5V microcontroller can run off 4.5V. But not through a capacitor and a diode, it seems. So I have to switch to the 3.3V version, which meant yet another trip to my friendly, not-so-in-the-neighbourhood electronics shop.

Despite having the right version in my stash now (since yesterday), I haven't actually tried using it yet. For one thing, I haven't been able to find the code I'd used previously, and since I have to program the new one before I can use it, that's a pretty big stumbling block. For another, I'm currently trying to write the code that will run either this incarnation of the prototype or a good step towards the final code that will run the wand, and those two are hard to tell apart sometimes.

The physical part of the wand will probably give me the worst problems, as I already know how to combine electronics together to get what I want, and how to write code to run it, but assembling raw materials into something isn't anything I've done before, so I definitely have a learning curve ahead of me. Thus far, I have two sizes of PVC pipe to use for the wand's handle, as well as both a battery tray and container for the electronic guts. In addition, I have a piece of aluminum curtain rail that will work very nicely for the shaft of the wand, as well as a bunch of plumbing connectors to make things disconnect relatively easily.

I'm pretty sure, given time, I'll get it done. I just don't know if it'll be done right, or well, but it'll be done...
carlfoxmarten: (default)
Warning: Gets very technical, so beware!

So, the very first magic wand the theatre company I'm involved with had caused some electrical burns to its original operator due to malpractices by the original creator.
I think it might be fortunate that he's dead now, though I think it was more due to age than an accident with his contraptions.

The second version (that I'm aware of) was the one that our current fairy queen broke this year taking last year's decorations off it, so the third version was the one I fixed up and improved.

The fourth version, which this post is about, is one I've been asked to build to replace our old one.
The fifth version, and there will be one, will have even more features than V4, so we'll either be able to choose which features to enable, or which wand to use for each year after, depending on what features we want to use that year.

Very technical details are here... )
carlfoxmarten: (default)
So, apparently I've done so well with repairing our current magic wand that I've been asked to make our next one! =^.^=

Further talks and research into what people would like and would find useful and/or helpful has yielded a pretty good amount of information.
For example, since our director of 25 years has somewhat retired and her son (who has also been with us for a very long time) has taken over as director, he has quite a lot of ideas that could make things even better, including our future magic wand.

Our previous wand was only capable of flashing when charged and turned on, so there is a lot that can be done to improve on that.
In fact, our current wand is now capable of glowing when charged and on, which is already a great improvement.

He'd mentioned that what he'd like a very capable wand that can do a lot, but the various features can be turned on or off as desired each year.
He did also say that it would probably require a user's manual because of all the features, but we do make sure our fairies are able to use the wand well before the show starts.

Here's a list of some example effects that we'd like a new wand to do:
  • Pulsate or cycle through a rainbow when the fairy is invoking a spell.
    (this is a very straightforward effect that can be easily done with about fifteen dollars-worth of parts, and is programmable to boot)
  • A ‘disco ball’-like effect of dots of light rotating slowly around inside the bulb.
    (this is going to be tricky, as we can't have any shadows on the front of the bulb)
  • A sort of ‘chaser’ effect, with columns of light spinning around the bulb.
    (this should be relatively straightforward. Just a few LEDs with fins between each pair so their light doesn't interfere with each other)
Quite an interesting list, though I'm quite sure it's not complete yet.
Though I'm not sure that would be possible to have all those effects on the same wand, not without having multiple wand tips anyway.

I also don't think I'm ready to try putting all that together my first time making a new wand, so I'll likely be making at least two wands, with the first one being rather less capable than the later one(s).
Hopefully I can get the first one done before February 27th, as that's when my theatre company is having its cast party...

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Carl Foxmarten

August 2017

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