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Local holiday lights shine around the world

Tom Hammond, left, and Rod Steinbach have been traveling around the area to Maker Faires, sharing his process and teaching workshops

Submitted

“What’s important is that this isn’t about me. It’s because of the generosity of someone thousands of miles away. There’s no way I could’ve done this on my own. This is what happens when people connect with each other,” Tom Hammond said, explaining how he chanced to become one of the few people in the world with a home holiday light display that can be controlled by anyone, anywhere. “All they need is access to the internet, so they could even control it from the space station.”

Hammond, a computer technician at Wayne College, has always been fascinated with neighborhoods that have lots of outdoor holiday lights coordinated with music. “I’ve always thought it would be kind of fun to do,” he said. “But since the cost put it out of my reach, I started looking around on the internet for different ways to do it.”

What Hammond ended up with was a computerized home light display that is connected to a website. Anyone accessing the site can chose which light effect they’d like to see, click on it and that’s what will run. At the same time anyone driving by Hammond’s house will see a large sign proclaiming where in the world the lights are being controlled.

“There is a 16-foot scrolling display that will say someone from Denver or China or Australia or Wooster is controlling the lights,” Hammond said.

The response when Hammond went live online was tremendous. “The first evening I had 800 changes to my lights from all over the world. It was amazing!”

The only advertising for the site was a Facebook message.

“One person was controlling the lights at my house during his lunch hour at work in Australia. It’s so neat to bring enjoyment to more folks rather than those who just happen to be driving by.”

Part of Hammond’s initial motivation came from the fact he lives in the country and realized he was never going to be able to participate in the sort of urban holiday light extravaganza that happens in city neighborhoods when a street works together to create an elaborate display.

The computer-accessed light show began three years ago when Hammond located a fellow holiday light enthusiast in Australia. “I found this page from a fellow who was hacking off-the-shelf Christmas lights: Keith Westley.”

Westley’s “hack” is now at the heart of Hammond’s system. It allows several strings of lights to “talk” to each other via ethernet cables and be controlled together.

Hammond contacted Westley, and they started to correspond. “It became a pen pal friendship,” Hammond said. “Keith even came to visit me last year. His family was going to Disney World, and he took three days and flew to Ohio. We drove around to light displays throughout the area.”

What Hammond likes to stress is that Westley freely shared his research, ideas and help at no cost. “Keith buys various types of holiday lights,” Hammond said. “They come with a little control box, and normally you push a button and it makes that string work. What Keith did was to buy, say, 10 strings of lights and cut off the control box. He then wired them into what is called an Arduino, which is an inexpensive, tiny little computer that does one thing only and does it really well. Microcomputers are what run machines from microwaves to thermostats.”

Using this small computer, Westley was able to animate a light display using a custom programming language.

Hammond used this technology over the past several years and had an elaborate and very affordable home display. Then Westley went a step further.

“After last Christmas,” Hammond said, “Keith said to me, ‘Take everything we’ve done and throw it out the window.’ He wanted to make something that was more industry standard and enabled even more elaborate displays. Keith began using a graphical light animation software that was readily available and free (xLights). He found a group working on just such a project online and joined them as a software developer.”

Hammond explained his system in lay terms. “Light animations are designed on a home computer using xLights. These are saved to an animation player program, which runs on another small computer: a Raspberry Pi. The Pi then talks to the Arduino, which controls the lights themselves. The old system involved programming code to animate the lights. It was difficult. With this new process the whole house could be coordinated in a much easier, inexpensive and more streamlined way. Keith went from a very custom system that he created himself to an open platform that a lot of people are working with. You can add in any kind of lights from modern LEDs to old-style incandescent bulbs ... then are all connected and can work together.”

It was this newly available and connected system that led Hammond to his brainchild: a system of holiday lights connected to a website. “I designed a bunch of animation files, and so what happens online is that folks pick which file they want, click on it and it plays back at my house.”

The options include things like “wave,” “twinkle” and “butterfly.” There are currently nine options on the site including lights off.”

Hammond and his friend Rod Steinbach have been traveling around the area to Maker Faires, sharing his process and teaching workshops. Hammond also manages the Wayne College MakerSpace, where ideas like his often find their beginnings. It is an open-to-the-public lab with free access to 3D printing, laser engraving, poster and vinyl printing, and more.

For more information about Wayne College MakerSpace go to blogs.uakron.edu/waynec3/.

Visit Hammond’s website and play with the holiday lights at www.itwinkle.org. The show runs from 5:30 p.m. until midnight every night until Jan. 7.

Everyone is invited to drive by Hammond’s home at 15439 Valley View Road, Doylestown, and see the display as it is controlled from across the globe.

“It looks a lot better in person than online,” he said.

Published: December 5, 2016
New Article ID: 2016712059988