Our entire light show runs off a tiny computer called a Raspberry Pi. We have an older “B+” model, but the newer version 3 models are even cooler (they have built in Bluetooth and Wi-Fi!). Most people claim you can get a Raspberry Pi for $35 dollars but realistically it is closer to $60 once you factor in the wall wart power supply, an SD Card for the pi operating system, a Flash drive to hold the media, and a plastic case to hold the circuit board. Even still, these things are amazing and can be used for way more than just Christmas lights! Lots of people sell them on Amazon and we got ours from a company called CanaKit.
Some awesome person wrote software that runs on the Pi called Falcon Player (formerly Falcon Pi Player or FPP). This is dedicated Christmas Light software and works really well. You also cannot beat the price, which is FREE. It allows you to manage the show over Wi-Fi with a slick web interface, build a playlist of audio and lighting sequences, run the playlist at certain times of day, etc. It also has some testing capabilities that come in handy when troubleshooting system issues.
Everything you need to know to set up Falcon Player can be found on their website: http://falconchristmas.com/wiki/Falcon_FPP. Lots of people use this software so help should be easily available on the website’s forum too.
The biggest challenge we found with Falcon Player is getting the output mappings correct so that it correctly controls each of your pixels or other light elements. This isn’t hard as much as tedious, but a lot of our issues early on were due to mapping mismatches between the outputs from our sequencing software and Falcon Player. Some screenshots for our correct mapping are shown below as an example, but everyone’s system will be different based on universe decisions and number/type of elements in your show. Getting the universe mappings correctly aligned between Vixen, Falcon Player, and the pixel controllers is critical and can be a challenge when setting up a large display.
The only other issue we encountered was some odd behavior with time keeping where our Falcon Player was set to UTC time rather than local time. This led to some additional problems in that a scheduled show would not cross the midnight UTC boundary, which here in Colorado was right in the middle of the evening. We worked around it originally by just having two scheduled shows (one on each side of the midnight boundary). I believe that more recently the issue is fixed and we were able to set the Pi to local time.
We actually considering adding a second Pi to the setup in 2017 for the purposes of playing our music over some speakers in the yard. See why we abandoned that option and what we did instead here.
Instead, we are taking advantage of some functionality in Falcon Player that allows you to synchronize multiple instances to run simultaneously. The Pi in the attic is the master running the show and a second Pi inside our “bomb box” in the front yard is only used for sending the audio out to the speaker amplifier to power the yard speakers. This gives a much cleaner audio signal that won’t be hampered by any static or interference.
#TODO more information about syncing Pis