Archive | LED matrix

Tutorial – Arduino and the MAX7219 LED Display Driver IC

Use the Maxim MAX7219 LED display driver with Arduino in Chapter 56 of our Arduino Tutorials. The first chapter is here, the complete series is detailed here.


Sooner or later Arduino enthusiasts and beginners alike will come across the MAX7219 IC. And for good reason, it’s a simple and somewhat inexpensive method of controlling 64 LEDs in either matrix or numeric display form. Furthermore they can be chained together to control two or more units for even more LEDs. Overall – they’re a lot of fun and can also be quite useful, so let’s get started.

Here’s an example of a MAX7219 and another IC which is a functional equivalent, the AS1107 from Austria Microsystems. You might not see the AS1107 around much, but it can be cheaper – so don’t be afraid to use that instead:

MAX7219 AS1107

 At first glance you may think that it takes a lot of real estate, but it saves some as well. As mentioned earlier, the MAX7219 can completely control 64 individual LEDs – including maintaining equal brightness, and allowing you to adjust the brightness of the LEDs either with hardware or software (or both). It can refresh the LEDs at around 800 Hz, so no more flickering, uneven LED displays.

You can even switch the display off for power saving mode, and still send it data while it is off. And another good thing – when powered up, it keeps the LEDs off, so no wacky displays for the first seconds of operation. For more technical information, here is the data sheet: MAX7219.pdf. Now to put it to work for us – we’ll demonstrate using one or more 8 x 8 LED matrix displays, as well as 8 digits of 7-segment LED numbers.

Before continuing, download and install the LedControl Arduino library as it is essential for using the MAX7219.

Controlling LED matrix displays with the MAX7219

First of all, let’s examine the hardware side of things. Here is the pinout diagram for the MAX7219:

MAX7219 pinout

The MAX7219 drives eight LEDs at a time, and by rapidly switching banks of eight your eyes don’t see the changes. Wiring up a matrix is very simple – if you have a common matrix with the following schematic:

LED matrix pinoutsconnect the MAX7219 pins labelled DP, A~F to the row pins respectively, and the MAX7219 pins labelled DIG0~7 to the column pins respectively. A total example circuit with the above matrix  is as follows:

MAX7219 example LED matrix circuit

The circuit is quite straight forward, except we have a resistor between 5V and MAX7219 pin 18. The MAX7219 is a constant-current LED driver, and the value of the resistor is used to set the current flow to the LEDs. Have a look at table eleven on page eleven of the data sheet:

MAX7219 resistor tableYou’ll need to know the voltage and forward current for your LED matrix or numeric display, then match the value on the table. E.g. if you have a 2V 20 mA LED, your resistor value will be 28kΩ (the values are in kΩ). Finally, the MAX7219 serial in, load and clock pins will go to Arduino digital pins which are specified in the sketch. We’ll get to that in the moment, but before that let’s return to the matrix modules.

In the last few months there has been a proliferation of inexpensive kits that contain a MAX7219 or equivalent, and an LED matrix. These are great for experimenting with and can save you a lot of work – some examples of which are shown below:

MAX7219 LED matrix modules

At the top is an example from, and the pair on the bottom are the units from a recent kit review. We’ll use these for our demonstrations as well.

Now for the sketch. You need the following two lines at the beginning of the sketch:

The first pulls in the library, and the second line sets up an instance to control. The four parameters are as follows:

  1. the digital pin connected to pin 1 of the MAX7219 (“data in”)
  2. the digital pin connected to pin 13 of the MAX7219 (“CLK or clock”)
  3. the digital pin connected to pin 12 of the MAX7219 (“LOAD”)
  4. The number of MAX7219s connected.

If you have more than one MAX7219, connect the DOUT (“data out”) pin of the first MAX7219 to pin 1 of the second, and so on. However the CLK and LOAD pins are all connected in parallel and then back to the Arduino.

Next, two more vital functions that you’d normally put in void setup():

The first line above turns the LEDs connected to the MAX7219 on. If you set TRUE, you can send data to the MAX7219 but the LEDs will stay off. The second line adjusts the brightness of the LEDs in sixteen stages. For both of those functions (and all others from the LedControl) the first parameter is the number of the MAX7219 connected. If you have one, the parameter is zero… for two MAX7219s, it’s 1 and so on.

Finally, to turn an individual LED in the matrix on or off, use:

which turns on an LED positioned at col, row connected to MAX7219 #1. Change TRUE to FALSE to turn it off. These functions are demonstrated in the following sketch:

And a quick video of the results:

How about controlling two MAX7219s? Or more? The hardware modifications are easy – connect the serial data out pin from your first MAX7219 to the data in pin on the second (and so on), and the LOAD and CLOCK pins from the first MAX7219 connect to the second (and so on). You will of course still need the 5V, GND, resistor, capacitors etc. for the second and subsequent MAX7219.

You will also need to make a few changes in your sketch. The first is to tell it how many MAX7219s you’re using in the following line:

by replacing X with the quantity. Then whenever you’re using  a MAX7219 function, replace the (previously used) zero with the number of the MAX7219 you wish to address. They are numbered from zero upwards, with the MAX7219 directly connected to the Arduino as unit zero, then one etc. To demonstrate this, we replicate the previous example but with two MAX7219s:

And again, a quick demonstration:

Another fun use of the MAX7219 and LED matrices is to display scrolling text. For the case of simplicity we’ll use the LedControl library and the two LED matrix modules from the previous examples.

First our example sketch – it is quite long however most of this is due to defining the characters for each letter of the alphabet and so on. We’ll explain it at the other end!

The pertinent parts are at the top of the sketch – the following line sets the number of MAX7219s in the hardware:

The following can be adjusted to change the speed of text scrolling:

… then place the text to scroll in the following (for example):

Finally – to scroll the text on demand, use the following:

You can then incorporate the code into your own sketches. And a video of the example sketch in action:

Although we used the LedControl library, there are many others out there for scrolling text. One interesting example is Parola  – which is incredibly customisable.

Controlling LED numeric displays with the MAX7219

Using the MAX7219 and the LedControl library you can also drive numeric LED displays – up to eight digits from the one MAX7219. This gives you the ability to make various numeric displays that are clear to read and easy to control. When shopping around for numeric LED displays, make sure you have the common-cathode type.

Connecting numeric displays is quite simple, consider the following schematic which should appear familiar by now:

MAX7219 7-segment schematic

The schematic shows the connections for modules or groups of up to eight digits. Each digit’s A~F and dp (decimal point) anodes connect together to the MAX7219, and each digit’s cathode connects in order as well. The MAX7219 will display each digit in turn by using one cathode at a time. Of course if you want more than eight digits, connect another MAX7219 just as we did with the LED matrices previously.

The required code in the sketch is identical to the LED matrix code, however to display individual digits we use:

where A is the MAX7219 we’re using, B is the digit to use (from a possible 0 to 7), C is the digit to display (0~9… if you use 10~15 it will display A~F respectively) and D is false/true (digit on or off). You can also send basic characters such as a dash “-” with the following:

Now let’s put together an example of eight digits:

and the sketch in action:


We have only scratched the surface of what is possible with the MAX7219 and compatible parts. They’re loads of fun and quite useful as well. And finally a plug for our own store – – which along with being Australia’s #1 Adafruit distributor, also offers a growing range and Australia’s best value for supported hobbyist electronics from DFRobot, Freetronics, Seeedstudio and much much more.


Posted in arduino, as1107, COM-09622, LED matrix, lesson, max7219, part review, tronixlabs, tronixstuff, tutorial

Kit Review – FriedCircuits LED Matrix Link


Time for another kit review, and in this instalment we’ve received some LED matrix modules and a matching Arduino-compatible controller board from Behind the name is William Garrido – who some of you may know as “mobile will” from following his blog. Over time William has created a range of small and useful products, which are now available on the tindie online store.

The system comprises of two modules. The first is a small Arduino-compatible board with an ATmega328P microcontroller – the LED matrix master. It’s quite small and is designed to be the start of a chain of matching LED matrix link boards. Each of these holds an 8×8 LED matrix and is controlled by the AS1107 LED driver IC. This is a direct replacement IC for the popular MAX7219, works exactly the same and is a great find instead of using knock-off MAX7219s. You can chain up to 8 matrix modules from the one controller. We received a matrix master and two matrix link boards to examine, which arrived in solid packaging a fun Tindie sticker:



All the surface-mount soldering is done in advance, leaving you with some simple through-hole soldering for the LED matrix and the connectors between each module. The PCBs are clearly labelled with the silk screen and have mounting holes for permanent installations:

friedcircuits master module

friedcircuits matrix module rear

So after a few minutes of soldering it’s time to get the blinking on:

friedcircuits matrix modules rear

You may have noticed by now that the master board doesn’t have  a USB socket, so you’ll need a 5V FTDI cable or a USBasp programmer to upload your Arduino sketches or AVR .hex file to get things moving.

Controlling a matrix or more

As the system is basically an Arduino-compatible with one or more MAX7219-compatible modules you can find all sorts of example sketches to experiment with. If you haven’t used a MAX7219/AS1107 before there are a couple of starting points including the Arduino library and another random tutorial. Using an example sketch on the Arduino forum by member “danigom“, and after checking the data, clock and load pins it was ready to go. Here’s the sketch for your consideration:

In the following video you can see the sketch in action with two and one matrix modules:

Where to from here? 

The matrix modules can find a wide range of uses, from simple fun and scrolling text to various LED matrix games, status displays and more. They also work well with the XOBXOB IoT USB-connected example. The design files are available for perusal on the friedcircuits github page. And don’t forget the matrix master board in itself is a tiny Arduino-compatible – with the full eight ADCs and digital I/O pins available. Thus you can embed this in another project if so desired.


The LED matrix modules are simple to use and work well together. Plus the matrix master board makes for a neat little Arduino-compatible as well. For more information and to order, visit the website. Full-sized images are on flickr. And if you made it this far – check out my new book “Arduino Workshop” from No Starch Press.

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.

[Note – kits reviewed were a promotional consideration from friedcircuits]

Posted in arduino, as1107, kit review, LED matrix, max7219, tronixstuff, tutorial0 Comments

Review – adafruit industries Mini 8×8 LED Matrix with I2C backpack


In this review we have a look at the mini 8×8 LED matrix with I2C backpack from adafruit industries. It looked like a small yet versatile display unit for a couple of project ideas, so as part of the evaluation we’ll run through it with you here. As you can see below, it’s quite small with a 20mm square matrix:


The matrix and the controller are seperate which gives you the option of ordering different colours of matrix. Using LED matrices can be a pain, however these units use the Holtek 16K33 controller IC (data sheet) which has an I2C interface – much easier than the usual mess of shift registers and I/O pins:


 Furthermore you can change the I2C address using the solder pads on the PCB, giving you four possible options. And as it’s I2C, you can use it with other microcontrollers with a little detective work. Moving forward, we’ll assemble the display then explain how to use it with an Arduino, and show a few demonstrations.


There really isn’t anything major to do, just solder the matrix to the backpack and some header pins if you need them. adafruit include some however I’m using the 90-degree ones for my own use:


The soldering should take about one minute tops, and then you’re done:


Using the matrix

From a hardware perspective you only have four wires – 5V, GND, SDA and SCL. Yes – it’s a 5V part, so all you Raspberry Pi fans will need a level shifter, which you can get from adafruit as well. Anyhow once you’ve got it connected to your Arduino, a couple of libraries are required – the matrix and GFX libraries. Be sure to install them in your sketchbook/libraries folder and not the usual location. When saving the library files, call the first folder Adafruit_LEDBackpack and the second Adafruit_GFX as they don’t arrive in that format.

Now for a quick demonstration, it’s simply one from the included library. The display is very bright, so I had to reduce the exposure on the camera which makes the background a little dark – but you get the idea:

A pair of those fitted to a dummy or doll would be quite interesting, or make good eyes for a 21st century “Metal Mickey”. Well that’s quite interesting, so how do you in fact display things on the matrix? I’ve deconstructed a few examples to show you how it’s done.

No matter what, you need to include the libraries, define the matrix object in the sketch and then start it with the matching I2C address – for example:

To scroll text across the display, modify the following chunk of code:

First, the setRotation() value is 0~3 and determines which way the text scrolls across the screen. This is useful if you mount the matrix in different positions, as you can still keep the text scrolling in a readable manner. Next, matrix.setTextWrap() – leave this as false,  as true displays each character and then just scrolls it in turn – looking rather odd. Now multiply the number of characters you want to display by 8, and replace the number -96 with negative your value and of course “Hello, world”. Finally follow with rest of the code. There’s a quick demonstration of this code in the sketch and video below:


Now for some graphics. You can define your own images (!) and store them in an array. Each arrays consists of eight bytes, each representing a row of the matrix. You can use binary to help visualise the results, for example:

and then to display that on the matrix, use the following:

… which resulted with:


To control individual pixels, send one or more of the following:

where x and y are the pixel’s coordinates (that fall between zero and seven), followed by:

Here’s a neat example sketch and video of a single pixel “running around the border”:

By this point you should be getting the hang of things now, so we’ll finish up with the last three graphic functions at once. To draw a line between x1, y1 and x2, y2 – use:

To draw a rectangle with corners at x1, y2, x2, y2 – use:

To draw a filled rectangle with corners at x1, y2, x2, y2 – use:

And to draw a circle with axis at x,y and a radius of r pixels – use:

Now we’ll put those functions into the following sketch and video:


If you want to get someone’s attention, you can blink whatever’s on the matrix at various frequencies – and of course turn it off. In the following function, use 0 for off, and 1~3 for different rates:

Finally, you can also adjust the brightness to one of sixteen levels (0~15) using:

That’s enough blinkiness for now. Remember the library is just shielding you from the raw I2C commands, so if you want to create your own functions or use a non-Arduino board – examine the library and the data sheet.


The backpack makes using the matrix an absolute breeze, and the library saves a lot of time and effort – leaving you to get on with creating your ideas into projects. You can get the matrix from adafruit and their distributors.

Full-sized images available on flickr.  And if you made it this far – check out my new book “Arduino Workshop” from No Starch Press.

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.

[Note – item purchased without notifying the supplier]

Posted in 16K33, adafruit, arduino, holtek, I2C, LED matrix, review, tutorial0 Comments

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

Getting Started with Arduino! – Chapter Nine

This is part of a series titled “Getting Started with Arduino!” by John Boxall – A tutorial on the Arduino microcontrollers. The first chapter is here, the index is here.

Welcome back fellow arduidans!

In this chapter we will start looking at LED matrix displays, designing user interfaces, implementing a user interface for  a clock, and finish up making an alarm clock.

Firstly, let’s have plenty of fun with 64 LEDs! Using an 8×8 LED display module:


Previously we have used 74HC595 shift registers to drive strips of LEDs, single and four-digit LED displays. An LED matrix seems complex at first, but after further investigation quite simple. With sixteen pins you can control 64 LEDs. It works by having 8 row pins, each pin connected to all the anodes on one row; and 8 pins each connected to the cathodes on one column:


It does look like a mess, but we can work it out. As we did with the 4-digit 7-segment display module, we just need one shift register for the anodes, and one for the cathodes. Moving along from exercise 6.2, it will be easy to drive the an LED matrix display – one shift register (the left hand side) will apply current to the rows (anodes) and the other shift register will apply current to NPN transistors to allow current to flow from the cathodes (columns) to ground. So we can make an example quite easily. You will need:

  • Your standard Arduino setup (computer, cable, Uno or compatible)
  • One 8×8 LED matrix. Try to find one that has LEDs with a forward voltage of 2 volts and a current of less than 20mA. If it is bicolour, that’s ok – just use one colour for now
  • Eight 560 ohm 1/4 watt resistors
  • Eight 1 kilo ohm 1/4 resistors
  • Eight BC548 NPN transistors
  • Two 74HC595 shift registers
  • Solderless breadboard and connecting wires

Here is a circuit diagram for our example (click on it to enlarge):


Please note that there are eight transistor/resistor combinations from the second shift register – I just have not drawn them in to save my sanity. They’re on the bottom right of my board:


Now how are we going to light up those LEDs? We need to send two bytes of data to the shift registers, one byte for the row, and one for the column. For this example we will work with individual pixels. For example, say you want to turn on the pixel at 8 across, 8 down – the bottom right. You need to send the following bytes of data to the shift registers: b00000001 and b00000001. In decimal those two numbers are 128 and 128. Or the top-left LED, at 1 across, 1 down – it would be b10000000, b10000000 or decimal 1,1. Once again we can use the functions:

… to send the data to the shift registers. This example sketch for the above circuit should be pretty well self-explanatory if you have been following my tutorials.

Here is is in action:

Once again, quite mesmerising. Did you notice that the horizontal solid rows were dimmer than the solid vertical columns? This is because when you light up one row, all eight LEDs are drawing current from one pin of the shift register – so there is less current for each LED; whereas in the column, each LED has its own source of current, so can therefore operate at full brightness. So a hint – when you are creating images or characters for your display, use scrolling columns to display the image.

Experiment with the example 9.1 sketch, if you display only vertical columns, and make the delay zero – you can give the illusion that the entire display is on, but it is not. Which leads us into the first exercise for this chapter.

Exercise 9.1

We can display entire columns with our matrix display. We can position these columns on demand. And without a delay, fill up the entire matrix. Now you can create images, or characters and display them on the matrix, one column at a time. For example, the little yellow dude from that popular arcade game many years ago might look like this:

Using the circuit described for example 9.1, create a character, shape, or whatever tickles your fancy, and animate it to move across the screen.

Hint – To animate an image, you will need to map the matrix every time the image changes – just like a normal animation or cartoon. However, store all the values for the entire animation in one array, otherwise you will go bonkers. When you need to read the array, each matrix image can be read as they are multiples of eight (then add the reference to the value you want).

For inspiration, here is what I came up with:

and the corresponding sketch.

How did you go? If you have an interesting animation, and you can do so – please email a link to Youtube, Vimeo, etc showing your creation – you could win a prize.

Time to get a little more serious now. 🙁

Over time you have been making things, some useful, some more experimental than anything. Hopefully you will reach the stage of designing something that has a real-world use and could be used by people other than yourself or your immediate circle of friends. In the next few weeks we will look at methods of transitioning projects from prototypes to standalone products you can develop!

A major part of your design should be the user interface, or how your project responds to user input and displays data, results and so on. If something is difficult to use, or understand, it will not be a good product. So what can we do about this? This week we will examine the clock made in example 7.4 and change it to be independent of a computer, and easy for the user to operate. But now for some design inspiration…

The humble alarm clock (it has been staring at me every morning). Here is my late grandfather’s clock from the 1960s:



Simple, yet functional. It does what it is supposed to do with the minimum of fuss. (It’s German). And that is how our project user interfaces should be. As technical people it is very easy to get carried away and put buttons, lights, and all sorts of things together, but at the end of the day, less is more. How can we emulate this with Arduino – but in a simple method?

Looking at the face of the clock, it displays the time (hours, minutes, seconds) and the alarm time. We can use an LCD for that. On the top is the alarm off button. We can use a button for that. On the rear there are winders for the time and alarm spring – we have electricity for that. There are two knobs, one to adjust the time, and one to adjust the alarm – here we have several options. We could use up/down buttons… perhaps we could use a knob as well? And finally there is the gain control – we don’t need this as our DS1307 is infinitely more accurate.

A rough map of how you want things to work is always a good start, for example my mess below:


How can this be implemented? Let’s see. The clock will normally display the date, time, etc. If a button is pressed, it will switch to menu mode (on the right). A knob will be used to select one of the options listed on the right, when the required option is displayed, the user presses the button to select the option. Then the user can use the knob to adjust the variable for that option, and press the button to return to the menu. The last menu option is to return to the clock display. So we can control the whole lot with only one button and one knob.

The button is easy with Arduino, and to save money we can use a potentiometer as a knob. Remember we did this in in exercise 6.2. Normally it can return a value between 0 and 1023, but with our clock we need it to return a value that falls within a variety of ranges – from 0 to 6 for day of the week, to 0 to 59 for the minute adjustment.

Exercise 9.2

Create a function to use a potentiometer to return an integer between zero and a maximum range value. The function will accept the maximum range value, and return an integer which represents the position of the knob. For example:

Here is a short video of my interpretation in action.

And the resulting sketch. The value rangemax that is fed into the function is the number of positions in the range you want to work with. For example, if I want the knob to return a value between zero and fifty-nine (sixty values in the range) I would set rangemax to 60. The value dialpin is the number of the analogue pin the potentiometer is connected to. You should use a linear potentiometer to ensure a nice smooth adjustment.

Great – now we have a way of reading our knob and customising the result for our range requirements. Our clock example’s menu will require eight options, each with their own function (e.g. set hours, set minutes, set year, return to clock, etc). We have one button, so you could use that to trigger an interrupt to start the menu display (interrupts were covered in chapter three). However if you have made an LCD shield use the interrupt pins, you will need to check the button status while displaying the time. We will make the display of the menu a separate function as well.

For now we will make our clock respond to the ‘menu’ button, and display the eight options when the knob is rotated. We will build on the sketch from example 7.4. Here is the result of doing this:

Now it is time (ha!) to make those menu options actually do something. First we need our displaymenu() function to call the selected option. This can be done with a switch…case function. For example, I will put this code after the while loop:

There is no need for a seventh option (return to clock display) as this will default if the knob is in the ‘7’ range. Notice I have already declared the name of the functions to call. All we have to do is create the individual functions. However there is one catch to work around, when it comes to setting time and date data, this is all done with the one function:

So inside the function that (for example) sets the hour, immediately before setting the hour, read the rest of the values from the clock, and reset them back in with the setDateDS1307() function.

Once again the basic work has been done for you, please see this video:

… and the sketch. Although the contents of the LCD during the menus may be brief, the framework of the user interface has been created and can now be easily modified. For example, if you had a 20 x 4 character LCD, you could offer more help to the user. But returning to the original task – emulating Grandfather’s alarm clock. We need an alarm!

Exercise 9.3

You guessed it – modify the clock in example 9.3 to have an alarm as well. User can set the alarm, and turn it on or off with the menu system. When the alarm sounds, the user should be able to turn off the alarm, Have fun!

How did you go? Here is a video demonstration of my work:

… and the sketch. That was really fun – I have a lot more clock ideas now.

I hope you enjoyed the change of pace this article and have a greater understanding on why we should create simpler human-machine interfaces wherever possible. Now to move on to Chapter Ten.


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Posted in arduino, education, LED matrix, lesson, microcontrollers, tutorial41 Comments

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