Ambient orb project?

Long ago, in another role, I played around with the original “ambient orb”, which was a globe that was connected to a wireless data network and depending on the status of whatever subscription you had configured it for, glowed different colours. By default it glowed red when the DOW Jones stock market was falling, and green when it was rising. All very Wall Street. Unfortunately they also had a Wall Street price to match.

Probably because of the price, they never really took off. But the idea of consolidating and simplifying complex information down to a simple (and aesthetically pleasing) format was a good one, and I’ve always fancied taking a crack at building one. Unfortunately the format is intrinsically rather expensive – wireless communications and infinitely variable coloured lighting have never been cheap.

But if one is prepared to sacrifice the wireless part, it looks like you could now build ambient orbs pretty cheaply, thanks to the advent of the BlinkM programmable colour LED, and the LinkM i2c controller. Essentially you just need to put a BlinkM in an appropriate enclosure, connect it to a LinkM, which is plugged into a (potentially very simple) computer running a program to convert whatever interests you into a simple glowing colour. Better yet, the LinkM can control[1] up to eight independent BlinkMs … so multiple “orbs” are possible at relatively low incremental cost.

People have done this before, often using Arduino systems as a relatively low-cost computer with an integrated I2C controller. Some don’t even bother with the BlinkMs! However, to my eyes the problem has been finding the right enclosure for the BlinkM … bathroom light shades have been popular, but I’m just not convinced you’d get them to glow brightly enough to get the full-on original ambient orb effect.

And then yesterday, while I was in B&Q to pick up a nightlight bulb, I noticed that they were selling “Cubo” colour-changing LED lights for £1.49. They’re unintelligent mood lighting, and basically junk – they use expensive lithium watch batteries to cycle a colour LED through a fixed pattern for about 6 hours. But the cube-like enclosure is perfect for turning into an ambient orb; it’s 3″ on a side, and even with only a tiny LED, they glow deep satisfying colours even in normal daylight.

So in a fit of madness I picked up three. Now I just need to find some time to do the conversion.

[1] Actually the LinkM can control many more i2c devices than this, but it can only provide the current to drive eight BlinkM LEDs, which are quite power-hungry.

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3 thoughts on “Ambient orb project?

  1. I have been meaning to build and orb or two, but have never got round to sorting out the computer interface. I was initially determined to do it cheaper than an Arduino, and had purchased a PIC programmer a while ago.
    Unfortunately, while I wrote code to pulse LEDs ad different brightnesses, I never got round to actually writing a serial interface (or figuring out which chips can do USB and how to code them)…

  2. @Anton, it was a similar ‘cheaper than BlinkM’ motivation that sent me down the Arduino route. It’s _almost_ finished but I wonder if it might have been simpler to follow the crowd. Wouldn’t have been as interesting though!!

    @Richard, sounds like the Cubos have got cheaper- did they still have a selection of shapes? Homebase had something similar a while ago, including ducks!! http://jtlog.wordpress.com/2010/08/23/ambient-ducks/

    • No, just the cubes … but at £1.49 it’s hard to complain. I suspect that they can be made into something reasonably restrained and professional looking – more so than ducks, anyway! I’m currently thinking of mounting them on a slab of polished wood; that would provide some weight and rigidity, and allow me to hide the wiring and LED mountings fairly easily.

      The BlinkM/LinkM route, attached to my existing server, should give me my first working “orb” for £30 or so. Additional orbs would be another £12 or so incremental cost; not cheap, but not exactly expensive either. And very little hardware hacking involved, which (as I’m short on time these days) is currently a plus.

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