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Blog

The 'lifegame'

Saar Drimer

My friend Mike is getting married on Saturday (tomorrow). Both him and his soon-to-be-wife enjoy video games -- as do I! -- and I thought that a game-themed gift would be nice. Since I'm all into this artsy PCB thing, I combined the two into the 'lifegame' board.






The basic idea was to create a piece that came on a single PCB panel, where parts are snapped off and soldered in place in order to create a frame such that the final piece can be mounted onto a wall. (Is this the first wall-mountable electronics?) No glue and no external mechanical components except for two screws for the wall mount. I wanted it to be big and for it to have a presence!




I started out with a quote I had in my mind for a long time, Life is the game, and searched for an appropriate font. I ended up using a font by Brian Kent called 8-bit Limit. Then I researched gaming icons. At first I intended to draw them myself, but then I found this wonderful library by Lorc, and used a small subset of 42 icons along the side panels of the frame. I've added the menacing boardame-like silkscreen, and I had the rough visuals sorted.




I wanted an interactive piece that has some electronics Mike could play with himself -- he's also a computer scientist. I ended up with 42 WS2812B addressable RGB LEDs and an ATtiny85 to control them. The idea is that these LEDs would light up the wall the piece is mounted on, diffuse, and then shine through the gaps of copper and soldermask. Luckily, Adafruit has a very convenient Arduino library for controlling these LEDs; it worked out of the box, and saved me a lot of time. I went for 42 because it was an obvious number, but also because I wasn't sure that fewer LEDs would be enough to light the thing up properly. In case I decided to go with fewer LEDs, I designed the LED's footprint in such a way that I can simply put a solder blob in the right place and the chain won't be broken. Well, it turns out that 42 is plenty, but I'm keeping it in case Mike wants to use 'lifegame' for one of his disco parties.

The panel -- front
The panel -- back

To add to the gaming theme, there's a large functional arcade button that's hooked up to the ATtiny85, so it could be used for anything. Since the frame is only 18 mm deep, I had to cut the button to fit, which was more work than I anticipated. Originally, I researched how to hide the power input and power switch, since I wanted to keep the design clean. After some thought, though, I decided to completely go over-the-top with a large missile launch switch (that just barely fit) with a flip cover, and an industrial strength screw-in power input. All exposed and celebrated!



There's a wall mounting mechanism where square ribs are soldered onto a strip that is mounted onto a wall with two screws. This creates enough protrusion for the frame to hang on. For suspenders, the ribs have holes through which wires go that are attached to the board on the other end. This way, if the frame ever falls off the mount, it won't reach the floor. Finally, there's a small plaque for mounting under the piece.


It's the largest board I've created with PCBmodE, and the first of my boards to be manufactured by Express Circuits here in the UK. Express did a wonderful job, working with me on a custom soldermask colour, and putting on a thick gold coating for the exposed copper to create this striking contrast. Since this was a wedding present they offered me a discount(!) and made sure the board came back to me well ahead of schedule, so that there was enough time for a re-do if necessary. Good stuff! I've worked on this board for a couple of months, only seeing it in my imagination. When it came back it was just like I imagined/wanted.


As with most of Boldport's board, 'lifegame' is open source, and it's available in the usual place in the repo. (I've corrected a few issues, so the version online is rev B.) If you make one for yourself, please send me pictures! If you want me to make you one, contact me for details; if there's enough interest I'll consider making another batch.




A view of the board from within Inkscape
So, what do you think?

Update: the video of 'lifegame' won a design competition, and was shown at the Victoria and Albert museum (V&A) as part of the Digital Design weekend! How cool is that? Here's the V&A's write-up.