Help me get started with basic electrical engineering!
March 1, 2009 7:48 AM   Subscribe

Help me get started with basic electrical engineering!

For at least a year now, I've wanted to build a computer-controllable LED lattice of sorts. There are a handful of people out on the Internet that have done it, and there are relatively cheap parts available. The problem is that I haven't done any sort of electrical engineering before, so I really don't have any idea how resistors and transistors work, how to read electrical diagrams, how to mount and connect parts on a board, or things like that. No idea how the processors mount to the boards and what pins connect with what, and so on.

I'm a programmer by trade, and I think that I can pick this stuff up relatively quickly. So basically, I'm looking for a way to get started. Can anyone recommend some books, some websites, maybe a bunch of YouTube videos or something? Anything would be helpful, I think.
posted by gchucky to Technology (12 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
The Art of Electronics by Horowitz & Hill is the textbook that I used for undergraduate electronics. Skills like soldering are things that you can learn from online instructions I imagine.
posted by atrazine at 8:23 AM on March 1, 2009

Art of Electronics for EE background, Arduino for your project.
posted by Krrrlson at 9:03 AM on March 1, 2009

Radioshack has some good beginner books, last time I checked. Which was years ago.
posted by jeffamaphone at 9:46 AM on March 1, 2009

I'm not sure what exactly you mean by "LED lattice" -- I'll assume for a moment that you're talking about a dot matrix display using LEDs.

The problem here is these scale areally (as n^2), and become difficult to implement when you've got more than a couple hundred LEDs. Even if you can afford the parts, the assembly time becomes formidable.

That being said, the good news is that controlling LEDs doesn't really involve much knowledge of electronics at all. You need to know how to drop one, with the correct orientation and a current-limiting resistor, between a signal line and ground. There's no math or engineering to it, really. So while the Art of Electronics is a great book, it might be overkill for you. Grab an arduino or a workalike (I recommend the Modern Devices RBBB over the branded Arduino line -- it has a standard pin pitch and is significantly cheaper, for reasons including that it offloads the $7 communications chip into a cable, don't forget to buy that too), a protoboard, a big bag-o-LEDs, some hookup wire and 1K resistors and just play with it. There are good examples all over, and you're writing in C++, which I imagine is easy for you. If you're looking at running more LEDs than there are output pins on the ATMega, you're going to need shift registers, a tutorial for which is here.

So again, if I understand your application correctly, you're not going to benefit much from a knowledge of analog circuit theory such as comprises 80% of the Art of Electronics. Again, it's a great book, but it might not be the best for you. I'm sorry too if my understanding of your application is way off. MeFiMail me if you have any more specific questions, I'd love to help out.
posted by 7segment at 10:33 AM on March 1, 2009

There have been many questions about this over the years. I collected a handful of links on the old MetaFilter wiki (or at least edited the collection, who can remember).

A couple of questions which didn't appear in that collection:
Learning About Electronics
July 19, 2004 1:03 AM

Learning about electricity, the bright and colorful but not completely dumbed-down way?
February 11, 2006 8:55 PM

Good learning electronics kits
October 26, 2006 4:14 PM

Best way for a non-student to learn basics of electrical and mechanical engineering?
May 11, 2007 12:20 PM

I'd like to learn about electronics!
March 23, 2008 7:33 PM
And a slightly more advanced question:
How to learn more electronics
November 26, 2006 12:27 PM
posted by Chuckles at 10:54 AM on March 1, 2009

On LED Matrixs, we have:
LED Array and Sign Howto?
March 26, 2006
And the awesome
How can I drive a LED as a light-emitter and a photo-diode simultaneously?
February 15, 2006 3:53 PM
posted by Chuckles at 10:57 AM on March 1, 2009

The best reference on this I know is me, oddly.

I've got a display on my desk here right now that I am altering to work wirelessly for a little local company, and I designed it 20+ years ago and never took it to market. 63 columns x 5 rows. Damned hard assembly language software that fits in about 1.5K on an 8-bit 8051 derivatave.

Blinking the lights is pretty easy, but there are some really interesting human factors issues related to contrast enhancement, flicker suppression, timing and overall message movement. It's really pretty cool stuff.

Feel free to pose specific questions as they arise. There are just too many gotchas to type in at the moment.

As far as LEDs and how to light them, a lot of the engineering depends on the topology of your circuit and your design goals... e.g. Do you want to minimize power dissipation or component count? How long do you want it to last? Is it a daylight readable display or interior unit? What restrictions on viewing angle will you tolerate to increase readability?

There are a lot of factors to consider. Again, feel free to ask specific questions and I'll do my best to help answer them.
posted by FauxScot at 11:03 AM on March 1, 2009

Just chiming in to point you to some of the tutorials and other information at Spark Fun.
posted by fatllama at 12:28 PM on March 1, 2009

When I did EE, it was all at the component level. Now you can do a lot of projects at the software level. I'd recommend checking out field-programmable gate arrays (FPGAs). What you want to do above, you can probably do this way, or with an Atmel AVR.

To learn about components, I'd recommend getting a good EE 101 book - The Art of Electronics is the most popular - or something as simple as a Radioshack n-in-1 project kit and working your way through the projects (and understanding the circuits).
posted by zippy at 12:42 PM on March 1, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks for all the responses. When I said LED lattice, I meant basically a grid of LEDs that I could control. Basic inspiration came from the videos of people who put lights to music (like on their lawns), but I really starting thinking about it after seeing Nine Inch Nails live this past summer and seeing the incredible graphical things they did on their LED matrices. Examples of it are here and the video at the bottom of this article. Obviously I don't have access to 200,000+ LEDs to do something like that.

I was looking at the parts at Brilldea to do basically something like this. That was what I was going for, more or less. *shrug*

Really, though, I was just looking for a way to get started. I don't want to just buy the parts and have them sitting around; I'd rather get at least some theoretical knowledge on what goes into building something, and then buy the parts and start construction.

Also, I was hoping to build this thing so it could work with USB. I've programmed some other devices that used a USB-serial connection, for what it's worth.
posted by gchucky at 1:38 PM on March 1, 2009

I asked a question a couple of weeks ago that might be of interest to you.
posted by Simon Barclay at 2:59 PM on March 1, 2009

O. That's different.

If you are going to do a 'one off' item and not something for production, you have a simpler project. You're also doing illumination, not info display.

That reduces your problem to learning how to power relatively powerful LEDs, and that doesn't take an EE or a lot of software. It's about a 3 on the 1..10 scale of complexity.

There have been a few posts here on how to drive LEDs, and if you'll google "led drivers application notes", you'll find too many to list.
posted by FauxScot at 2:59 PM on March 1, 2009

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