Project: Clock Four – Scrolling text clock


Time for another instalment in my highly-irregular series of irregular clock projects.  In this we have “Clock Four” – a scrolling text clock. After examining some Freetronics Dot Matrix Displays in the stock, it occurred to me that it would be neat to display the time as it was spoken (or close to it) – and thus this the clock was born. It is a quick project – we give you enough to get going with the hardware and sketch, and then you can take it further to suit your needs.


You’ll need three major items – An Arduino Uno-compatible board, a real-time clock circuit or module using either a DS1307 or DS3232 IC, and a Freetronics DMD. You might want an external power supply, but we’ll get to that later on.

The first stage is to fit your real-time clock. If you are unfamiliar with the operation of real-time clock circuits, check out the last section of this tutorial. You can build a RTC circuit onto a protoshield or if you have a Freetronics Eleven, it can all fit in the prototyping space as such:

If you have an RTC module, it will also fit in the same space, then you simply run some wires to the 5V, GND, A4 (for SDA) and A5 (for SCL):

By now I hope you’re thinking “how do you set the time?”. There’s two answers to that question. If you’re using the DS3232 just set it in the sketch (see below) as the accuracy is very good, you only need to upload the sketch with the new time twice a year to cover daylight savings (unless you live in Queensland). Otherwise add a simple user-interface – a couple of buttons could do it, just as we did with Clock Two. Finally you just need to put the hardware on the back of the DMD. There’s plenty of scope to meet your own needs, a simple solution might be to align the control board so you can access the USB socket with ease – and then stick it down with some Sugru:

With regards to powering the clock – you can run ONE DMD from the Arduino, and it runs at a good brightness for indoor use. If you want the DMD to run at full, retina-burning brightness you need to use a separate 5 V 4 A power supply. If you’re using two DMDs – that goes to 8 A, and so on. Simply connect the external power to one DMD’s terminals (connect the second or more DMDs to these terminals):

The Arduino Sketch

You can download the sketch from here. Please use IDE v1.0.1 . The sketch has the usual functions to set and retrieve the time from DS1307/3232 real-time clock ICs, and as usual with all our clocks you can enter the time information into the variables in void setup(), then uncomment setDateDs1307(), upload the sketch, re-comment setDateDs1307, then upload the sketch once more. Repeat that process to re-set the time if you didn’t add any hardware-based user interface.

Once the time is retrieved in void loop(), it is passed to the function createTextTime(). This function creates the text string to display by starting with “It’s “, and then determines which words to follow depending on the current time. Finally the function drawText() converts the string holding the text to display into a character variable which can be passed to the DMD.

And here it is in action:


This was a quick project, however I hope you found it either entertaining or useful – and another random type of clock that’s easy to reproduce or modify yourself. We’re already working on another one which is completely different, so stay tuned.

In the meanwhile have fun and keep checking into Why not follow things on twitterGoogle+, subscribe  for email updates or RSS using the links on the right-hand column? And join our friendly Google Group – dedicated to the projects and related items on this website. Sign up – it’s free, helpful to each other –  and we can all learn something.

Posted in arduino, clocks, dmd, ds1307, DS3232, freetronics, learning electronics, LED matrix, microcontrollers, projects, scrolling, time clock, timing, tutorial10 Comments

Project: Clock One

Let‘s make a huge analogue and digital clock using a dot-matrix display. 

Updated 18/03/2013

For some strange reason I have a fascination with various types of electronic clocks (which explains this article). Therefore this project will be the start of an irregular series of clock projects whose goal will be easy to follow and produce interesting results. Our “Clock One” will use a Freetronics Dot Matrix Display board as reviewed previously. Here is an example of an operating Clock One:

As you can see, on the left half of the board we have a representation of an analogue clock. Considering we only have sixteen rows of sixteen LEDs, it isn’t too bad at all. The seconds are illuminated by sixty pixels that circumnavigate the square clock throughout the minute. On the right we display the first two letters of the day of the week, and below this the date. In the example image above, the time is 6:08. We omitted the month – if you don’t know what month it is you have larger problems.


To make this happen you will need:

  • Freetronics Dot Matrix Display board;
  • If you want the run the display at full brightness (ouch!) you will need a 5V 2.8A power supply – however our example is running without the external supply and is pretty strong
  • An Arduino board of some sort, an Uno or Eleven is a good start
  • A Maxim DS1307 real-time clock IC circuit. How to build this is explained here. If you have a Freetronics board, you can add this circuit directly onto the board!


Planning the clock was quite simple. As we can only draw lines, individual pixels, and strings of text or individual characters, some planning was required in order to control the display board. A simple method is to use some graph paper and note down where you want things and the coordinates for each pixel of interest, for example:

Using the plan you can determine where you want things to go, and then the coordinates for pixels, positions of lines and so on. The operation for this clock is as follows:

  • display the day of week
  • display the date
  • draw the hour hand
  • draw the minute hand
  • then turn on each pixel representing the seconds
  • after the 59th second, turn off the pixels on the left-hand side of the display (to wipe the clock face)

There isn’t a need to wipe the right hand side of the display, as the characters have a ‘clear’ background which takes care of this when updated. At this point you can download the Arduino sketch from here. Note that the sketch was written to get the job done and ease of reading and therefore not what some people would call efficient. Some assumed knowledge is required – to catch up on the use of the display, see here; and for DS1307 real-time clock ICs, see here.

The sketch uses the popular method of reading and writing time data to the DS1307 using functions setDateDs1307 and getDateDs1307. You can initally set the time within void setup() – after uploading the sketch, comment out the setDateDs1307 line and upload the sketch again, otherwise every time the board resets or has a power outage the time will revert to the originally-set point.

Each display function is individual and uses many switch…case statements to determine which line or pixel to draw. This was done again to draw the characters on the right due to function limitations with the display library. But again it works, so I’m satisfied with it. You are always free to download and modify the code yourself.  Moving forward, here is a short video clip of the Clock One in action:

For more information about the display used, please visit the Freetronics product pageDisclaimer – The display module used in this article is a promotional consideration made available by Freetronics.

In the meanwhile have fun and keep checking into Why not follow things on twitterGoogle+, subscribe  for email updates or RSS using the links on the right-hand column? And join our friendly Google Group – dedicated to the projects and related items on this website. Sign up – it’s free, helpful to each other –  and we can all learn something.

Posted in arduino, clocks, dmd, ds1307, DS3232, freetronics, LED matrix, timing, tutorial16 Comments

Arduino meets Las Vegas with the Freetronics DMD

Updated 05/11/2014

Time once more to have some fun, and this time by examining the Freetronics DMD “Dot Matrix Display” available from Tronixlabs. We will look at the setup and operation of the display. In a nutshell the DMD comprises of a board measuring approximately 320mm across by 160mm which contains 16 rows of 32 high-intensity red LEDs. For example, in the off state:

Connection of the DMD to your Arduino-compatible board is quite simple. Included with each DMD is a 2×8 IDC cable of around 220mm in length, and a PCB to allow direct connection to the Arduino digital pins D6~13:

Finally the cable connects to the left-hand socket on the rear of the DMD:

You can also daisy-chain more than one display, so a matching output socket is also provided. Finally, an external power supply is recommended in order to drive the LEDs as maximum brightness – 5V at ~4 A per DMD. This is connected to a separate terminal on the rear of the board:

Do not connect these terminals to the 5V/GND of your Arduino board!

A power cable with lugs is also included so you can daisy chain the high-intensity power feeds as well. When using this method, ensure your power supply can deliver 5V at 4A  for each DMD used – so for two DMDs, you will need 8A, etc. For testing (and our demonstration) purposes you can simply connect the DMD to your Arduino via the IDC cable, however the LEDs will not light at their full potential.

Using the display with your Arduino sketches is quite simple. There is an enthusiastic group of people working on the library which you will need, and you can download it from and follow the progress at the DMD Github page and forks. Furthermore, there is always the Freetronics forum for help, advice and conversation. Finally you will also need the TimerOne library – available from here.

However for now let’s run through the use of the DMD and get things moving. Starting with scrolling text – download the demonstration sketch from here. All the code in the sketch outside of void loop() is necessary. Replace the text within the quotes with what you would like to scroll across the display, and enter the number of characters (including spaces) in the next parameter. Finally, if you have more than one display change the 1 to your number of displays in #define DISPLAYS_ACROSS 1.

Here is a quick video of our example sketch:

Now for some more static display functions – starting with clearing the display. You can use

to turn off all the pixels, or

to turn on all the pixels.

Note: turning on more pixels at once increases the current draw. Always keep this in mind and measure with an ammeter if unsure. 

Next some text. First you need to choose the font, at the time of writing there were two to choose from. Use

for a smaller font or

for a larger font. To position a single character on the DMD, use:

which will display the character ‘x’ at location x,y (in pixels – starting from zero). For example, using

results with:

Note if you have the pixels on ‘behind’ the character, the unused pixels in the character are not ‘transparent’. For example:

However if you change the last parameter to GRAPHICS_NOR, the unused pixels will become ‘transparent’. For example:

You can also use the parameter GRAPHICS_OR to overlay a character on the display. This is done with the blinking colon in the example sketch provided with the library.

Next, to draw a string (group of characters). This is simple, just select your font type and then use (for example):

Again, the 5 is a parameter for the length of the string to display. This results in the following:

Next up we look at the graphic commands. To control an individual pixel, use

And changing the 1 to a 0 turns off the pixel. To draw a circle with the centre at x,y and a radius r, use

To draw a line from x1, y2 to x2, y2, use:

To draw a rectangle from x1, y2 to x2, y, use:

And to draw a filled rectangle use:

Now let’s put those functions to work. You can download the demonstration sketch from here, and watch the following results:

Update – the DMD is also available in other colours, such as white:

So there you have it, an inexpensive and easy to use display board with all sorts of applications. Although the demonstrations contained within this article were rather simple, you now have the knowledge to apply your imagination to the DMD and display what you like. For more information, check out the entire DMD range at Tronixlabs. And if you enjoyed this article, or want to introduce someone else to the interesting world of Arduino – check out my book (now in a fourth printing!) “Arduino Workshop”.


Have fun and keep checking into Why not follow things on twitterGoogle+, subscribe  for email updates or RSS using the links on the right-hand column, or join our forum – dedicated to the projects and related items on this website.

Posted in arduino, dmd, freetronics, LED matrix, lesson, microcontrollers, product review, review, tronixlabs, tutorial0 Comments

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