On meaning and connected xmas lights

by Dries De Roeck on January 7, 2015

Over the past couple of months, I have done some talking and thinking on how digitally connected products can be designed with meaning. The problem I framed in previous writings comes down to the fact that a lot of ‘internet of things’ products that are being created and released to the market focus on things that are technologically possible instead of things that focus on the humane aspects of these products.

Instead of crunching on and writing about my musings, it seemed inevitable to start making things in order to explore the topic further.

Aspects of meaning – a little background

When it comes to creating something meaningful, I tend to turn to three aspects of ‘meaning’ defined by Verganti:

  • Transformation from the functional to the emotional – a meaningful product goes beyond functionality, it is about the whole experience that comes with it.
  • Understanding context of use – in order to create the above transition, it is crucial to have a good understanding of the context of use.
  • Temporality – meaning changes over time, something that elicits a strong emotion today might not tomorrow.

Creating with meaning contrasts creating with features or possibilities. There is much stronger connection to the people and environments involved. Meaningful products are therefore not ‘new products’ or offer ‘new functionalities’. They are more about how possibilities are offered to people that benefit from them.

All theory left aside, let’s talk about how I attempted to explore this further.

The Context

The initial idea came about somewhere during the last months of the year. This is a typical time of year during which people are preparing for Christmas, decorating their houses with whatever kind of ‘festive’ decoration. I started to wonder why people actually make the effort of decorating their houses for a couple of weeks. In the end, when someone decorates their house they only see their own decoration when they are outside. Since people spend most time inside, the people seeing the decorating are those outisde : neighbours, visitors, passers-by.

When I was thinking this through, I realised that this was one of the reasons that I have never put any decoration outside of my house. It seemed to make little sense to put a bunch of lights outside of your house, knowing that you don’t see them yourself. However, from a more emotional point of view, if no-one would put any festive decoration outside, the ‘cozy christmas feeling’ in the streets would not be present either.

So, in the end it came down to that I thought it would make sense to re-think the christmas lights put outside houses in order to make them more meaningful. And because of before mentioned reasons, I wanted to explore what could be done to let those lights not only have a meaningful relation with the owner but also with the neighbourhood they are placed in.

Related projects

During the exploration and creation of this case, I came across several related products and projects. Since nothing in the world is new, it makes sense to list the ones that stuck with me most.

  • Moorescloud Holiday – An internet connected festive light strand, specifically focussed on creating your own ‘custom’ christmas moods. You could regard this one as the Philips HUE version of the christmas lights.
  • Streettalk – A research project by Niels Wouters, in which one of the elements was an RGB light strip that visualised the noise level of the street.
  • GoodNightLamp – A network connected lamp-duo, consisting of a large and small lamp. When the large lamp is turned on, the small one turns on as well. The lamps can be in two different locations, anywhere in the world, allowing people to sense each other’s presence through light.
  • Noisenap – A small device used to track sleep patterns of people. The interesting thing here is that the device combines a continuous measurement with a user invoked ‘reporting’ function.
  • Anthony’s Flying Spagetti Monster LED display – An RGB led installation made for christmas, containing plenty of LEDs and loads of fun.

The making

Based on inspiration from related projects and tools I had lying around my attic, I decided to built an RGB led strand of 100 RGB LEDs (about 7 meters long). The plan was to attach this strand to my front garden’s wooden fence. The eventual goal was to use these ‘meaningful christmas lights’ as a communication medium servicing the neighbourhood. Because I wasn’t too sure how that would happen and what would be needed, I decided to not only attach the LEDs but also add a sound sensor and an illuminated arcade-style pushbutton. This would at least provide me with some flexibility to try things out, and explore the aspect of temporality mentioned before.

So in the end, I ended up with following components:

  • Spark Core – wifi enabled microcontroller to control the RGB LEDs and read the inputs from the sound sensor and pushbutton
  • 100 RGB LEDs – WS2811 type LEDs, usable with the rather amazing Adafruit ‘neopixel’ library
  • 1 Pushbutton with LED inside – I replaced the default white LED with a flickering multicolour one
  • 1 Electret sensor – Allowing me to monitor and react upon sound levels
  • Small 5V, 2A, 10W power supply
  • Breadboard, some wires, plastic casing, wire shrink wrap and hot glue to make everything as weatherproof as possible.
  • The whole setup was installed at the bottom of my letterbox, which was conveniently located right beside the wooden fence to which the LEDs were attached.
All wires hooked up

All wires hooked up

Positioning in the letterbox

Positioning in the letterbox

Mounted LED string running the 'strandtest' default example.

Mounted LED string running the ‘strandtest’ default example.

Interaction and state of tools

During the gathering and assembly of all hardware, my main focus was trying to define what could be a ‘meaningful’ interaction to provide to the neighbourhood. Initially, I discussed this with my wife quite a bit whilst doing the dishes. Before any coding was done, these were some of the initial plans:

  • When someone walks along the fence, the lights follow him/her
  • Depending on the weather forecast, the lights would change colour
  • Depending on the time left before christmas and/or new year, the amount and colours of the lights would change (aka the digital advent calendar)
  • When a car passes by the lights, they react and give a festive greeting
  • When the postman opens the letterbox he is greeted with a random animation
  • A big button is placed on the fence, which passers by are invited to push for a random, colourful, festive greeting
  • On new year’s eve, the LEDs would be a visual countdown. When the new year strikes, it would show RGB LED ‘fireworks’

All of these ideas seemed pretty doable, until I started to attempt creating them. At that point, I was again reminded that I am not a coder and not an electronics engineer. For example, the sound sensor turned out (and still is) a very obscure thing to me. The outputted values are very odd, and I was not able to get anything reliable out of it. On another level, the same goes for the weather forecast integration, although that I truly enjoy working with the Spark core, having it making calls to other web services looked nice on paper but I did not succeed in getting it to work just yet.

Luckily, I did get some of the more lightweight things to work. I should give a major shoutout to the people of the Open Garage maker/hackerspace (Christophe in particular) for giving me a kickstart with some of the code. In the end, the button worked, the countdown to christmas and new year worked and the fireworks did their job too.

Regarding building and learning how to create a system and code that does what you want, this project was excellent. I learned a lot and had of lot of fun. On the other hand, as I have been studying a variety of digital prototyping toolkits, I came to the conclusion that over the years the ‘coding part’ remains a high barrier to overcome when you do not have a solid technical background. This observation reminded me of an article I wrote together with Robert Paauwe, on the good and the bad of digital prototyping toolkits. Funny enough, Dan Saffer published a write up of a connected teapot he made with Arduino and pretty much came to the same conclusion.

But what does it do?

Since I wanted to have the LEDs be of value for my neighbourhood in some way, the main thing the lights showed was an indication of how close to new years day we were. I put the LED string up around December 10, with just a couple of lights turned on. The closes we got to December 31, the more lights that would illuminate.

The 'default' program

The ‘default’ program, rather close to new year here

I included three other ‘features’ to explore the aspect of meaning. Firstly, the button. I placed the button below the letterbox – mainly aimed at providing something ‘fun’ for my children, which they could reach easily. Also, by placing the button below the letterbox – I didn’t need to worry too much about it being waterproof. When the button was pressed, a random animation would happen – which came down to lots of flashing and lots of colours.

Button placement below the letterbox

Button placement below the letterbox

Secondly, there were 2 ‘special events’ planned. The first was on christmas eve and christmas day. During these days, the LEDs would colour red and green. A second planned event was an animation mocking up some ‘LED fireworks’ on new years eve (at 24h00). For this the spark core turned out to be ideal, since it can directly get the current time from the spark cloud. So no need for timers or other ‘difficult’ stuff. I was pretty happy that both triggers actually worked at the right times.

The LED string on christmas day, showing only red and green colours.

The LED string on christmas day, showing only red and green colours.

What did I learn?

Regarding meaningful products

As I did expect, the whole system was probably too obscure for anyone to actually grasp. I intentionally didn’t explain too much to my neighbours when putting it up, leaving the ‘discovery’ up to them. As it turned out, the ‘advent calendar’ function was too subtle to notice. Well, if you paid attention it was noticeable – but for someone who didn’t know there was something going on, it was not distinct enough.

What did work were the timed moments. I was pleasantly surprised to hear my neighbours telling me after christmas day “Hey, where are the red and green lights? They really made it very Christmassy here!” Also, on new years eve, we came outside and gathered round the ‘LED fireworks’ with some neighbours and friends. At that point, my neighbours knew there was something going to happen, they even started texting me 20 minutes before that they were going to take visitors they had over to come and watch ‘the show’. So from that point of view, my little LED project did contribute to the social environment of our neighbourhood (well, at least with one neighbour).

The button also did its job pretty well. My children put it through a serious stress test, in the meantime it has actually fallen off.

So if I were to repeat the project, I would most likely focus on more clear and obvious interactivity. I already got the suggestion to move the button up and put a big ‘push here’ arrow on it – things like that would perhaps engage people more (thx Bo). In the meantime, my nextdoor neighbour said that he wanted to extend the LED string to his front garden too. So, let’s see what the year brings and what we can come up with.

Regarding making network connected product prototypes

For me, this project was one of the first digital projects that I actually managed to ‘make’ in a way that it was intended. What I really enjoyed was that I thought up the concept first and then actually made it work (instead of getting inspiration from a pre-created tutorial).

By programming the LED string, I managed to understand some very basic programming concepts a lot better. I intentionally did not copy-paste too much code I didn’t understand this time – which allowed me focus on getting things to work that my puny brain could handle by itself.

To finish, some practical things that come to mind

  • Remember that once the LEDs are outside, people in the neighbourhood probably do not like flashing colourful LEDs at 1AM when troubleshooting some coding issue
  • Interrupt functions are odd, I need to learn to understand this better
  • Metal letterboxes (like mine) are not the most ideal place to put a WiFi dependent microcontroller
  • Make wires long enough for troubleshooting and moving things around if needed


Over the coming months I plan to make some more experiments to explore how the whole meaning thing and connected products can be approached. I currently have two things lined up, one with buttons and lights and another involving audio.


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