Way back in 2003, when we created this website, we made a simple sign out of corrugated plastic and clear incandescent lights with the name of the site. For 20 seasons it sat positioned right behind the arch fence at the front of the display.
Being two decades old, and with many hours of run time, the sign was getting hard to maintain. Toward the end of the 2022 season it had needed repairs several times, and the large amount of snow we got that season made that difficult. It was time to retire this sign.
But what to replace it with? In 2022, Tim got a pair of what are called P5 Panels. These are LED matrix panels which are designed to be grouped together to make larger displays. If you’ve ever seen a giant pixelated wall at a mall or fair or other public display, it was probably made out of two of these panels. Tim got a couple to play with, not quite knowing what to do with them, and indeed they sat in a box through the end of 2022.
But early in 2023 Tim decided to make these the basis for our new PlymouthLights sign. The design parameters came together: it would be a standalone sign, not directly sequenced as part of the main light show. After some research and experimentation with a different setup, we settled on an Arduino-based board called the Matrix Portal from Adafruit. This board was designed specifically to control these signs.
Custom code was required to get the panels to display the text and graphics that we needed it to, and Tim, having done a few Arduino projects in the past (and being a software developer by trade) took care of that.
Once the basic sign electronics and code were coming together, Tim had the idea to have the sign show the song name of the song currently being played. The Matrix Portal board had WiFi and basic “internet of things” capability, so Tim wrote some more code to allow the sign controller to accept some basic http commands to change the song title. Our show computer sends such a command at the start of every song sequence, and the sign receives it, and that tells it to put the “Now Playing” as part of its rotation. It also knows how long the current song is, and will stop displaying it once that time expires. By that time, another song title should have come in from the show computer.
Now that the guts of the electronics were complete, it was time to turn it into a sign. Originally, we were going to just make our Plymouth Lights logo to the left of the LED panels, but then decided to make a larger static sign with our PlymouthLights.com logo above the two LED panels. This static portion is backlit with LED lights. A frame of weatherproof plastic composite wood was made, and plexiglass and coroplast panels used for the front and back of the sign. We placed it near our Singing Tree at the front of our display.