(Topic ID: 330573)

Are you a lighting / effects mod developer? I'd like some advice...

By goingincirclez

1 year ago


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  • Latest reply 1 year ago by Aurich
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    #1 1 year ago

    PLEASE if this seems TLDR up front, bear with me! I like to share background, ideas and weakness before blindly seeking advice. Extra info up front usually saves even more time later (as I've learned for better and worse in my IT career, ha)

    I'm developing a topper for a special game with local provenance and history (my resto thread is here: https://pinside.com/pinball/forum/topic/rip-the-parkette-diner-gone-but-not-forgotten-its-diner-still-lives) and one of the things I unquestionably *have* to do is re-create the sign from the place it came from:

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    It was a historic and enduringly popular restaurant that opened in 1951 and was suddenly (controversially) closed and torn down by a ****head landowner/developer in June 2022 (It was also uncannily similar in most all respects to the "Diner" pinball...)

    The sign was a huge landmark and no small (pun!) part of why the restaurant was so famously beloved. So I'd like to recreate it "topper sized" arout 10" tall or so. This would be "no big deal" except for the effects circuits which are tricky to recreate in scale: the cars "drove" (chase lit) along the top; the chevrons chased downward; and the waitress had a two-frame (blink or wig-wag) animation of extending the food tray.

    I know there are various ways all of this could be done, so let's review my current skillset and knowledge:

    - Graphic design
    - Miniature fab and construction techniques (pro model railroading background)...
    - ...application / modification of off-the-shelf lighting & effects pursuant to above

    I know about 3D printing but have never developed models for that. But I have a friend who can help here, maybe.
    I loosely know of DIY circuit effects via things like Arduinos, etc but have never messed with it (never had a need/desire til now!)
    I know about some kinds of controllers, LED strips and bulbs, etc... but probably not all that's out there, let alone ideal for this project. I try to make use of what I find, adapting limitations and compromises, etc.

    OK, so for the project. As I see it the waitress is the biggest challenge because her attachment point (feet) are so thin and fragile at scale, and really her whole body isn't that much larger, it would be difficult to build any effective animated lighting at scale, while hiding circuitry behind her, while maintaining an authentic unlit and standalone appearance. So for now my focus is on the main sign. We can develop and add a refined waitress later.

    I'm aiming to have “something” done in time for a show one month from now... TALL ORDER for sure but I can make something effective for concept, and develop the quality version over however long that takes. So let me reveal what I've come up with so far. I'll copy-paste-edit my last update on the resto thread:

    I initially decided on layered elements for a backlit approach. The main sign would be printed on opaque material such as vinyl, and the lettering and blue stripes would be die-cut out. Apply this to substrate material (plastic) of proper translucency. And behind that, apply layered films in the cutout areas to look white when the lights are off, but colored R-G-B where appropriate when on. Easy enough.

    The X-factor in all that, is the cars and chevrons. Because in scale, their lines cannot cut hollow in a durable fashion, so no clear backlighting voids there. Which means their entire “flat print” area would need to be backlit, which means they can't be printed as opaque as the rest of the sign! Which otherwise needs to be absolutely opaque to avoid light bleed around the letters… but the cars and chevrons need to be translucent to be backlit at all. Which now means more/different materials need to be layered and assembly becomes trickier. Either way, the substrate needs to be cut to shape with a jig or scroll saw, which is no biggie, but caution warranted.

    As for the lighting: one circuit for constant-on behind the letters, and a simulated chase effect behind the cars and chevrons. Using off-the-shelf components cuz I never messed with an Arduino and doubt I have time to learn all I'd need to right now. This could get as messy as the real sign if I let it, ha!

    A guy at local print shop understood my dilemma and has the files, materials, and machines to provide me with options and alt-takes to mock all that out. Unfortunately he’s out sick now, so I’ll be waiting a bit.

    So then I remembered something I forgot about: EL WIRE! Which could look *exactly* like neon. Still wouldn't solve the cars, chevrons, or waitress... but could remove the need to layer opacities and color films for backlighting. Bending and securing curves (like neon) would be a PITA, but maybe a tradeoff to the above? So I got a cheap EL wire assortment from Amazon, and used a quick home print glued to foamcore.

    Mocking it out was every bit the PITA I expected, but came out well enough I wish I'd waited for the nicer, more durable vinyl print:

    20230202_222624 (resized).jpg20230202_222624 (resized).jpg

    So yeah, they look like neon!

    20230202_222632 (resized).jpg20230202_222632 (resized).jpg

    And the battery/inverter pack was the *exact size to the millimeter" as the base of the sign I'd merely arbitrarily scaled weeks ago. What are the odds of that free gift from the universe? A solid base to stand on, hidden perfectly, while looking like a deliberate part of the structure. Amazing.

    Foamcore is incredibly easy to cut to shape, even around curves, after assembly. I was honestly surprised how stress free it was, just freehand following the lines on the laminate paper. So, based on that you’ll note I removed the core from behind the car and chevron areas to make them translucent (paper)...

    20230202_224944 (resized).jpg20230202_224944 (resized).jpg

    ....which I then filled with a cheapo LED string with a flash controller...

    And presto...

    20230202_224820_99_1.gif20230202_224820_99_1.gif

    I'm really kinda shocked at how cool it looks! But if I'm critically honest, I'm not sure I like how the EL wire color-fills the lettering when off. It looks a little strange. So the backlit concept might be the way to go.

    Or maybe I just don't want to tear it all apart to re-wire a more durable version. The green lettering took almost 2 hours to thread and secure. There's thinner wire available that could be easier and look better though.

    BUT there could be other options out there too that I don’t even know about.

    Long term a 3D printed sign would solve a lot of issues with substrates and opacity and durability, and I plan to pursue that… but the lighting effects remain an issue.

    And are there simple / cheap (ish) LED controllers that can be wired up for power (not batteries), with adjustable flash effects, or maybe even bulb addressing?

    Any other bright ideas out there from those of you way smarter than me?

    #2 1 year ago

    No suggestions.

    Just cool as hell.

    (bows)

    Whenever I need battery replacements, I have a small box of these, a lot of sellers sell the same thing:

    https://www.amazon.com/Voltage-Regulator-MELIFE-3-0-40V-Converter/dp/B08BLBYWN1/ref=sr_1_4

    You feed them anything (I usually have 12v) and turn the knob until you get 3v or whatever voltage the battery used to supply.

    #3 1 year ago

    Thank you sir! From the tone of your posts & experience I've read elsewhere here, I'm flattered.

    And HOLY HECK how have I not heard of those voltage converters before? For cryin' out lout, the box of like 100 different adapters I keep around only to never quite have the right rating and/or tip combo, nevermind battery conversions... sheesh! I need some of those stat! Might even be handy on this specific project. See, this is EXACTLY why I started this thread!

    So with that said, Sat afternoon bump... I *know* there are more better (than my own) ideas out there

    #4 1 year ago

    Nicely done. Looks Great to me!

    #5 1 year ago

    Weekday bump. Am I really too wordy, or just not bringing enough dumb drama to get the modern Pinside interest? Or are my projects always just always that tough to crack - which is a flattering thought but one I find very hard to believe?

    I dressed up the foamcore mockup on Saturday and actually got the waitress lit, sorta. Surprisingly, it doesn't look bad! BUT I keep thinking there should be a way to make it better / cleaner /more authentic. Or maybe I'm forgetting when "good enough is good enough"...?

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    #6 1 year ago
    Quoted from goingincirclez:

    Am I really too wordy, or just not bringing enough dumb drama to get the modern Pinside interest? Or are my projects always just always that tough to crack - which is a flattering thought but one I find very hard to believe?

    Can't speak for anyone else, but that's so awesome that I have no suggestions. You're doing great!

    #7 1 year ago

    Thank you! They few people who've seen it in person and/or vids I've shared have been similarly impressed... so I'll admit to being pretty pleased with what I can render within limitations

    But I'm also trying to level up because I *know* it could be better. Like I also admitted, this is the first application that gives me a "reason" to pursue an Arduino and/or "whatever else might exist that I have no idea about". So better to strike while the motivation iron is hot, before I settle for "good enough".

    Hoping to get the die-cut films for the backlight approach this week. And my friend with a 3DP was apparently able to tweak my art and develop a model, says he has it printed. He's also somewhat familar with Arduino kit effects so that would be cool. We'll see what shakes out.

    #8 1 year ago

    Very cool!

    #9 1 year ago

    Wow! I think it came out awesome! Especially for your 1st ever lighted mod. Are you kidding me!? You totally nailed it! Exceptionally done!

    As far as trying to improve upon it... Looking at the original sign, the waitress server looks awesome lit up. She pops and stands out. Gives the sign depth and dimension. Kinda 3D like. I think that's the only area on your mod that you could try and replicate and improve upon from the original.

    I know that would be a crazy amount of time, work and effort to try and make with the EL Wire, but my word, if you could nail that, it would make your sign phenomenal. So much so, I bet you could sell them for a pretty penny. If I had a diner (super fun game), I'd buy one off you.

    GL whatever else you decide to do on it and I look forward to checking back in on your thread.

    Again....AWESOME JOB!!!

    #10 1 year ago

    The waitress is definitely a highlight of the real sign for sure, with intricate detail and lots of lit color, some of which ( such as white and yellow) was only used on her.

    Trouble is trying to pack all that discreetly distinctive functional color into a significantly smaller size! At roughly 10" tall, I estimate my reproduction is about 1:42 scale. Which (wow!) makes it only half as big as it should be next to the 1:24 truck I used (or that truck is twice as big but you'd barely see a 1:48 truck up there, nevermind the pin in the bed...). The smallest EL wire available is about 1mm and expensive compared to the 2.3mm I used. Using at least 5 if not 6 colors, threaded and hidden on a figure as small as her at 1:42, presents a physical challenge of packaging and dexterity no matter what.

    But there are some ideas. Could use a fiberoptic array piped to a controller on the base. Or edge-lit plastics layered for effect. Maybe even backlit layers? It will simply take time to develop... and I'd likely iterate those ideas through a 3DP version.

    Either way, considering the challenge and iterating the process, I imagine a resale version of this topper wouldn't be cheap! It's over $100 in raw materials and models already, oops, nevermind R&D and assembly labor. But I appreciate the vote of confidence! Would be fun to sell a couple and spread the Parkette legacy

    #11 1 year ago

    I think you may want to check this site out! https://evandesigns.com Looks amazing!! You could possibly go lithophane for parts!!

    #12 1 year ago

    I know it would be a ton of work. I was just saying, if you could figure it out and implement it, that would take your sign over the top!

    I gotta say, looking at that site that AceDanger linked in above this post, that 50s Chevy car with the lighted headlights looks like an awesome add to your sign. If you could find the proper scale 57 Chevy Bell Air to add in place of the truck, that'd look awesome. Those 50s cars and diners go hand in hand.

    Screenshot_20230208_114452_Chrome (resized).jpgScreenshot_20230208_114452_Chrome (resized).jpg
    #13 1 year ago

    Very ambitious project; I personally know very little in regards to configuring led pulses/colors. I probably would tackle the majority of this in Illustrator & create SVG 3D printed files to print separate modules then composite together the server/woman I would offset her a couple of times so inside is solid & outer has thin walls not as opaque. Not an easy task. Goodluck. Looks pretty awesome!!

    #14 1 year ago
    Quoted from Pinfidel:

    I gotta say, looking at that site that AceDanger linked in above this post, that 50s Chevy car with the lighted headlights looks like an awesome add to your sign. If you could find the proper scale 57 Chevy Bell Air to add in place of the truck, that'd look awesome. Those 50s cars and diners go hand in hand.[quoted image]

    LOL you're not wrong, but over in the game resto thread I actually addressed my vehicle choice as specifically trying to *avoid* the same-ol-same-ol seen-em-a-million-times-everywhere classics. Parkette DID exist for 71 years after all, so it hosted lots of "modern classics" in that time. Then I thought a truck could be different-but-cool, while affording the opportunity to make a scale pinball machine for the bed because why not... and then discovered a close (enough) model of a "now-classic" truck my wife fondly remembers from her childhood exists, so the choice became a no-brainer.

    Well it became a more-brainer cuz oddly enough, it turns out TWO companies make different models of the same damn truck (why?!) but only one of them can be modified for illumination. Not realizing this, guess which one I picked first! Once I got the more suitable one I dismantled it, backpainted the grille assembly with black enamel for opacity, highlighted some interior detailing (can't help myself), then wired a string of 3V leds that were spaced just perfectly: two for the headlights; one low in the cab; and two hidden in the bed. Doing the tail lights would've required intricate drilling through the metal and since they're not visible as posed, I left them out.

    The fender indicators would be amazing lit up but would again require routing through metal and then re-filling with custom parts. Not impossible, but certainly requires special tools (and heavier destruction of the base casting to create a stable workpiece), plus lots of time and risk, so the effort-to-payoff ratio isn't favorable ATM.

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    20230208_230449 (resized).jpg20230208_230449 (resized).jpg

    20230208_230517 (resized).jpg20230208_230517 (resized).jpg

    Pretty pleased with how this feature turned out. But conceptually it would be relatively simple to swap the truck for another vehicle, provided it can be illuminated realistically and easily - not every model is designed such that it's conducive to this.

    Quoted from acedanger:

    Very ambitious project; I personally know very little in regards to configuring led pulses/colors. I probably would tackle the majority of this in Illustrator & create SVG 3D printed files to print separate modules then composite together the server/woman I would offset her a couple of times so inside is solid & outer has thin walls not as opaque. Not an easy task. Goodluck. Looks pretty awesome!!

    Yeah I'm mentally leaning in that direction: it will have to be a multipart assembly. But even that would be dictated by what sort of lighting equipment is suitable. So more R&D required for sure, hand-in-hand.

    #15 1 year ago

    Incredible Tony!! I love the Parkette

    #16 1 year ago

    Thanks Erik! Place was special for sure. See you at LAX!

    #17 1 year ago
    Quoted from goingincirclez:

    Thanks Erik! Place was special for sure. See you at LAX!

    I have to miss this year, I made nationals after winning KY states. But I’ll see ya at some point!

    #18 1 year ago

    Dude if you have to miss that's a great reason. Congrats and good luck!

    #19 1 year ago

    I think what you have looks great! But I understand the desire to make it better, and I do think it can be improved on. The tricky part is mostly about scale, making neon effects that small is harder than doing it larger.

    So I have two thoughts.

    One, have you seen my Tron topper? https://pinside.com/pinball/forum/topic/tron-interactive-topper-pre-orders-aurich-mod

    You could do a lot of what you're trying with a similar technique of multiple layers of etched acrylic. The upside would be that you could do finer detail, and get the lettering really accurate for the scale and less 'lumpy'. The downside is there are some engineering challenges with your physical layout with dealing with light bleed. And while the etched acrylic glow could look great it's not quite as good as far as really looking like neon.

    My second thought is to skip the EL wire and explore flexible LED filament:

    https://www.adafruit.com/product/5509

    Less funky electrical needs, might be easier to work with. And what I would try is 3D printing channels to lay it in for your lettering, that would let the LEDs cleanly fit the shapes you want, and get more accuracy while also making things a bit easier. No need to go "in and out", wire it all in one continuous surface stretch, use shrink tube to black out the parts you don't want lit (which is how real neon works) and then tuck the excess behind.

    I've done something similar with 3D printed channels for letters to make faux neon, just at a larger, full-size scale using silicone tubing and LED strips. Won't scale down for what you need electronic-wise, but the 3D channels should be just as helpful.

    #20 1 year ago

    Holy hell Aurich that thing is SICK! No, I hadn't seen it since Tron is a game that's not always on my radar (I love it of course but that was arguably the first modern game that went stupid unobtanium so... yeah, I try not to tease myself ya know?). But you clearly know what you're doing with the controlled effects and Arduino controls, which is where I think my concept needs to end up.

    You're right that this is mainly a challenge of scale. The main sign I think is solved functionally, and is just a matter of execution and refinement. Whether through edge, back, or filament lighting, it can be done acceptably. I can even see ways to render the full "outline" style of the red script "Parkette" neon, versus the single-line Green and Blue portions. Incredibly, my print/sign guy was actually able to die-cut the cars in vinyl for backlighting (still to be proven out there) but tapped out on the Chevrons for now, ha ha.

    The waitress imposes interesting dilemmas upon the physical tech. I saw the Adafruit Noods while researching EL wire and their tradeoff of fixed length (min 4ft) and 1.9m thickness (not that much smaller than the 2.3 EL is uesd) is actually kind of a con compared to EL wire (which can be cut, and had even half as thin as that). Taping and tucking >3.7ft of excess times 5 or 6 (colors) behind the tiny waitress would be... a challenge. But the effects are obviously more controllable AND you don't have the inverter squeal so, PRO for sure.

    And the way you integrated it on your Tron topper is fantastic; I suppose if I went through the "trouble" to use that instead of EL wire, even if only on the main sign, I could add other cool fun effects beyond what the real one had at no cost... hmmm! More I think about it the more I want to iterate an LED rope version just for kicks. If nothign else, it would be a great base to play with learning the Arduino.

    Regarding 3D channels and such to route source illumination, I do think that will come into play. Thru model railroading I'm familiar with old-school light pipes and baffles (as used in locomotives and effects scenery), and those are similar concepts. PLUS have you seen the Godzilla sign mod here on Pinside? An approach like that could be VERY effective for my project, I just don't have that skillset right now.

    But I think I'm concluding there's no "easy" overlooked way to do what I want here so... it's time to try leveling up. ha ha.

    Certainly given me some ideas to think about sir, so thanks for sharing your expertise!

    #21 1 year ago
    Quoted from goingincirclez:

    But I think I'm concluding there's no "easy" overlooked way to do what I want here so... it's time to try leveling up. ha ha.

    This is basically my happy place, where I know there's something I want, I can see roughly how it should be, and I know I'm on the right path but not entirely sure how to get there yet. Solving those problems and learning new things is where I like to be.

    Quoted from goingincirclez:

    PLUS have you seen the Godzilla sign mod here on Pinside?

    That is also an excellent approach, forgot about that. IIRC he's 3D printing those letters with a clear filament and backlighting them with his RGB control boards, but I'd have to go back and look. Regardless you should be able to do it that way for sure.

    I cannot recommend having a 3D printer enough if you don't. You are clearly someone who would discover what an awesome tool it is for problem solving.

    On the scale of difficulty for new tools I would say learning to use a 3D printer is easy, learning to model things is easy-to-moderate. Learning to program Arduinos is easy-to-moderate depending on your comfort level with programming. Moderate if you don't have any experience, pretty easy if you have any kind of basic foundations in just about any language.

    But with Arduinos the cool thing is someone has already written code that does something close to what you want for almost any lighting problem, and you only need to know enough to borrow what they did. Eventually you'll steal enough pieces to start combining them, and from there you'll have a foundation to write your own without needing to use their crutches.

    #22 1 year ago
    Quoted from Aurich:

    This is basically my happy place, where I know there's something I want, I can see roughly how it should be, and I know I'm on the right path but not entirely sure how to get there yet. Solving those problems and learning new things is where I like to be.

    Preach! Especially when they're optional, or at least not quite life-breaking. For some reason my eyes glaze over in a pre-emptive academic environment but when faced with an issue in the field, or a theoretical idea that needs proving, I tend to jump into the deep end. Yet somehow I've been fortunate that my gut takes and approaches are pretty much correct (or at least functionally suitable) way more often than not.

    Quoted from Aurich:

    I cannot recommend having a 3D printer enough if you don't. You are clearly someone who would discover what an awesome tool it is for problem solving. On the scale of difficulty for new tools I would say learning to use a 3D printer is easy, learning to model things is easy-to-moderate. Learning to program Arduinos is easy-to-moderate depending on your comfort level with programming. Moderate if you don't have any experience, pretty easy if you have any kind of basic foundations in just about any language.
    But with Arduinos the cool thing is someone has already written code that does something close to what you want for almost any lighting problem, and you only need to know enough to borrow what they did. Eventually you'll steal enough pieces to start combining them, and from there you'll have a foundation to write your own without needing to use their crutches.

    Again you're not wrong. So, my reticence isn't from fear or inability to learn, but more tempering expectations and the aggravation threshold. Because between a constant-demand IT job, parenting, writing side-gig, and weirdly steady-time they-find-me pinball repair gigs... I honestly don't have the time to set something up and learn with the absolute focus I'd like to devote. I actually have a NIB resin printer a friend traded me almost a year ago but I haven't even plugged it in! To do that, I'd have to move the decal printer and/or vinyl cutter and/or clear other space and/or equipment... Too many irons, not enough fire.

    But maybe after I get one pin sold at a show, and another returned to a friend, I can re-optimize space. And despite the non-inconsiderable bonus hobby income, I kinda want to quit the writing gig to free up time (but then how will I pay for materials and projects arrgh).

    Really, what it comes down to is needing a singular project of sufficient motivation to reshuffle priorities... oddly enough, maybe this one is it. It blends the 3D printing and programming needs into one clear objective

    Life, man: Too much to do, not enough competence or time!

    2 weeks later
    #23 1 year ago

    Quick update: I haven't reinvented the wheel just yet, but have refined the one I have. To that end I got some EPS (extruded polystyrene) board from the sign shop, and ordered some 1mm EL wire for the green section.

    EPS turns out to be PERFECT for this application. It's workable much like foam core, but far sturdier, resilient, and waterproof. A little more difficult to make the pilot holes for the filament and retainer wires, but this is a necessary tradeoff. It's also slightly translucent, which is a very big bonus. It became more translucent when I shaved the car and chevron portions to 1/16" thickness from the original 1/8".

    Anyway, the before and after largely speaks for itself:

    20230227_172217 (resized).jpg20230227_172217 (resized).jpg

    The softer, more pliable nature of foamcore was gradually yielding to the pressure of the bends in the thick EL wire. Look how soft the letters are, compared to the revised version on the right! The thinner EL wire allows sharper, more authentic bends that better fit the smaller white background lettering. And the EPS won't yield to the natural pressure exerted by the retention wires.

    The only drawback isn't evident until both are lit and posed side by side, is that the thinner wire is not as green as the thicker one:

    20230227_172158 (resized).jpg20230227_172158 (resized).jpg

    Thankfully, it looks "green enough" when by itself. And even better, the "die cut" car outlines (and chevrons which I hand-cut) within the opaque vinyl, on the semi-translucent EPS, really make for more distinct elements when lit:

    20230227_193043 (resized).jpg20230227_193043 (resized).jpg

    I'm really happy with how this turned out! Still planning to revise a more robust and authentically lit design as an R&D exercise, but for the pending show in a week I think this is good enough to get the point across.

    #24 1 year ago

    Big improvement, it looks really good!

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