I had the opportunity to build an LED jacket for Buzz Aldrin to wear in a segment on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.
Have you been to the moon? Do you know what secrets it holds? I was invited to construct an LED space uniform jacket for Buzz Aldrin to wear in a segment on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. It’s a fairly straightforward NeoPixel and LED sequin project and I thought you might like to learn how to build something similar at home.
Before you begin, you may wish to check out these helpful prerequisites:
Photo with Stephen by Derek Moreno, wardrobe supervisor for The Late Show
To create an illuminated jacket with NeoPixel motif and LED sequin emblem, you will need some sewing supplies and some electronics supplies from Adafruit. I made a parts wishlist and link individually to them here.
Parts & Expendables:
- 4 meters NeoPixel strip (RGB 60/m)
- 8 individual mini NeoPixels
- 11 warm white LED sequins
- Adafruit Feather 32u4 Basic Proto
- 4400mAh lithium ion battery pack
- 2 tactile on/off switches
- heat shrink tubing
- silicone coated stranded wire in 26 and 30 gauge (two colors)
- clear thread
- thread to match jacket
- Pliers, wire strippers, and flush diagonal cutters
- Soldering tools, third hand tool
- Sewing needles
- Sewing pins
- Seam ripper
- Micro USB cable
- Computer with Arduino software
- Body form or patient human model
Design Process & Circuit Diagram
The design for the LED circuit was conceived by Antonia in The Late Show wardrobe department, sketched directly on the jacket with LED strip. To create your own design, put your jacket on a body form or patient model and pin your pixel strip in place (if pinning on a human, be careful not to poke your model). Leave more than you will need in each strip because it’s easier to cut pixels off than it is to add them to a strip later.
Check out the circuit diagram for this project. The chain of NeoPixels starts at center front, heading up over the right shoulder and down over the left, then back up over the left and down the right, then back one more time to the left lapel area, where the power and ground lines run to an emblem made of single color LED sequins.
One switch controls battery power, and one triggers an animation effect to occur across the NeoPixels. The circuit is controlled by the Feather 32u4 microcontroller board, which sits in the front right pocket with the switches and battery.
Construct NeoPixel Circuit
To put together the NeoPixel circuit, use small bits of silicone coated stranded wire, your third hand tool, and soldering iron. Be sure to keep track of the directionality of the NeoPixels while you’re building. All the data lines must point towards the end of the strand, as shown in the circuit diagram.
Where the pixel strip reverses direction, solder three wires to connect power, ground, and signal pads. Be sure to tin each pad and each wire end before soldering them together. A stray strand of wire here could cause a major malfunction later, so be careful to twist all strands together and work with good lighting.
For the freeform pixel chain, use a ruler and marking pen to measure and cut pieces of a consistent length. Strip and solder wires connecting power, ground, and signal pads between pixels. This is a pretty time-consuming part of the project. Take breaks to stretch and use pliers or tweezers to hold your wires when your fingers get tired.
For even color distribution, it’s important to supply supplemental power and ground along a strip of pixels this long. At the right front, power and ground from all three strands join together on their way to the microcontroller, and the joints are protected with heat shrink tubing.
I’ve documented construction of a few similar projects before. The EEG Costume Cap, for example, has more detail about soldering mini pixels into freeform NeoPixel strips. The Bandolier of Light shows simple front/back NeoPixel strip pad soldering.
Code for Feather 32u4 Microcontroller & Battery Power
Attached is the Arduino sketch for this circuit. It takes switch input from the tactile button on pin 10 and uses it to trigger an animation (or two) to 131 NeoPixels connected to pin 6. To program the Feather 32u4, you will need to install the additional Adafruit boards for your Arduino software.
LED Sequin Emblem
At the end of the pixel chain, the data wire terminates inside the lapel (it is continued on the front of the jacket just to look symmetrical). However the power and ground lines continue to work their magic.
The LED sequin emblem reads “LSSC” in condensed Braille pattern dots (another brilliant design idea from wardrobe). All sequins are wired in parallel by soldering two wire ends for daisy chaining all positive terminals together and likewise the negative terminals.
Sewing & Wire Management
Most of the pixel strip and wires are held in place with clear quilting thread and a whip stitch. But it’s flimsy and annoying, so anywhere that doesn’t show is whip stitched in jacket-coordinating cotton/poly thread.
Use a seam ripper to create routing holes for wires as you install different elements. Construction can get a bit awkward when you’re taking the bunched up jacket to the soldering station, so be extra careful not to burn or melt anything unintentionally.
It’s important to secure any exposed wires so they don’t get snagged. In this case it was also important to stop the zipper from extending past a certain point by whipping around the teeth several dozen times.
There you have it! A simple space themed uniform of sorts, perfect for Buzz Aldrin’s Moon Scoops on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. Hopefully it can inspire an LED creation of your own design! I’d love to see photos if you build one.
What would you add to this project to take it to the next level? Bluetooth to add remote animation control? A cell phone module so you can text it commands? A microphone for audio-reactive animation? Let me know what you’re brainstorming in a comment below.