Bunnie Huang prototypes two kinetic glowsticks.
G lowsticking emerged out of the tech-no club scene, which features bone-rattling riffs and vicious grooves.
Dancers whirled a pair of glowsticks
to trace out beautiful, curvaceous
patterns and Lissajous figures in the
dark of the dance floors.
When high-efficiency LEDs became available,
so-called “photon lights” (high-intensity keychain
fob LEDs) were used in place of the glowsticks.
Eventually, these photon lights became available
at carnivals, fairs, clubs, and raves. Moving forever
forward, the photon lights evolved to include multicolor LEDs that would sequence through a series
of colors, thus tracing a multi-colored path through
the dark as the light was swung around.
I’ve always been a big fan of electronic music
of all kinds, starting with Information Society and
Kraftwerk back in the ’80s. While I was at a party
watching glowsticking dancers, I got to thinking.
What if, instead of creating a single arc of light, the dancers could create whole, two-dimensional pat- The Back-of-the-Hand
terns of light as they danced? So inspired, I began to Prototype
hack my own “kinetic glowstick.”
Since I wanted a ribbon of light with a visible pattern in it, I could not use just a single LED like the
photon lights. The device had to contain a row of
LEDs that would flash with a preprogrammed and
pre-timed pattern. This pattern would then smear
out in the viewer’s eyes and create the illusion of a
solid, 2D pattern in the air.
The requirements for a Kinetic Glowstick:
* A row of LEDs * A sequencer to control the rate and pattern of flashing of the LEDs
A memory store to contain all the LED patterns
A power source
The sequencer will pull “sprites” from the memory
store and relay them to the LEDs. A sprite is jargon
from computer graphics for a 2D array of pixels
that define an image for use in animations. Many of
our old favorite video games, such as Galaga and
Pac-Man, use sprites for animation. The number
and resolution of the sprites stored in memory will
define the richness and variety of images seen by
When I start a project, I usually look around for
a few spare parts. This prototype began with a
circuit board I had built a long time ago for a class
that I taught at MIT. The board had a single Xilinx
“Spartan” FPGA connected to a row of 16 LEDs — a
perfect starting point. The board also had an onboard serial ROM socket for configuring the FPGA
34 Make: Volume 01