Handling LEDs in a costume
September 7, 2022 10:41 AM   Subscribe

As part of a Halloween costume, I'm looking to make gloves with LEDs that "move" along the fingers and then down the hand, for a sort of cyberpunk look. How do I tackle this?

I'm aware of programmable LED strips, and figure that's the place to start. But since a glove has, well, five fingers, is there a way to program them all at once or do I need five Arduinos per hand? Is there a specific type of strip to use for this?

I'm not really sure if I know every question to ask, but this seems like it should be "simple" (e.g. straightforward once I have a list of components) and I feel a bit intimidated by not knowing what's actually easy and what's hard.
posted by LSK to Grab Bag (7 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
The Arduino LilyPad system is designed for wearable/sewable LED projects, I'd recommend starting there. You can get a single main board and connect all your LEDs or LED strips up to it (I'd recommend using the LilyPad LED modules to keep everything easy, although you don't have to). You should be able to find a lot of examples online, and the SparkFun page I linked to has links to a bunch of different resources.
posted by wesleyac at 10:49 AM on September 7

The LilyPad is one option. There are many these days.

Addressable LED strips can be cut into sections as desired, and then connected together with wiring sewn into the glove. The LEDs are set via a single control wire (in the cheaper RGB Ws2812b strips, anyway), so there's no need for multiple controllers.

I've just been working on a similar project, and chose to use a single Raspberry Pi Pico. You can use a Neopixel library on the Pico to give you relatively easy control of LED strips. The Pico is super-cheap and low-power, and can be programmed in Python.

One thing you'll need to be aware of is that lots of LEDs means a fair bit of power - RGB LEDs have three LEDs per pixel, and the denser ones (e.g. 60 per metre) are quite power-hungry. Most strips are sold with values for watts per metre, allowing you to calculate the requirements. Many people use lithium polymer batteries, although you can also power them from a USB power bank.

Parts-wise, you usually only need the LED strip, the microcontroller, power and some wires. You might also want tactile switches to change lighting modes or something.
posted by pipeski at 10:58 AM on September 7 [2 favorites]

Actually, thinking about it more, using the LilyPad LED modules might not be the best — the LilyPad Pixel modules would probably be the most suitable, but they're expensive and somewhat large (20mm diameter). The tricky thing about off-the-shelf LED strips for wearable applications is that the connections can be flaky if you're flexing them a lot, so you should think a lot about strain relief on the soldered connections to the LED strips if you go that way.
posted by wesleyac at 11:01 AM on September 7

Another option, would be "chasing" EL (electroluminescent) wire. Spark fun used to have more colors, but it looks like only red currently, https://www.sparkfun.com/products/12931 so you might have to check elsewhere for other colors.

You just need a small battery powered el driver for the voltage it needs and can sew the wire into clothes/gloves.
posted by TheAdamist at 11:04 AM on September 7 [2 favorites]

Another platform is Adafruit's Flora. They've got individual wee LED things you can chain with conductive thread sewing them into the glove which might help with the whole strain thing above people were talking about.

They have a guide about doing suspenders that's probably not hugely far off from what you'd need to do this.
posted by foxfirefey at 11:22 AM on September 7

You can use a single ESP32 or 8266 with the great, free WLED software.

You would wire the five "finger" strips in parallel, then select the chose effect & colors, and off you go! Probably need to use a battery pack, which could make for some long wires up your sleeves. Hmm....

(Then again, I also have a pair of knit gloves with LEDs sewn into them that were dirt-cheap on Amazon two years ago. I wear them every Halloween while we're out walking with the kids. Maybe an option, if you give up!)
posted by wenestvedt at 1:33 PM on September 7

To present multiple LED strips to your software as one single long LED strip, in addition to making sure they have power, you also have to make sure the "out" from one is hooked up to the "in" on the next. For a "star" topology (or "hand" topology) this means running extra wires from the end of the led strip back to the center.

At least with the FastLED library, which works with traditional Arudinos, ESP32 Arduinos, and most (all?) of the boards Adafruit offer, you can easily set it to have multiple LED strips on different IO pins, which eliminates the need for that extra wire down each of your fingers. OTOH it means you're limited to a microcontroller that has enough IO pins, but that's just 5 or 6 which isn't so bad. Though if you want one for a pushbutton to control it, then something like the FLORA is looking pretty thin - it's got 6 lines you could use, plus TX if you don't want to be able to do serial debugging, which you should want to be able to do.
posted by aubilenon at 10:14 PM on September 7

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