Holiday Decoration Contest: A Spark

Years after my first experience using microcontrollers to bring interactivity to projects I found myself looking to them for a fun competition at one of my client offices. Each year in December there are always a lot of holiday celebrations but in 2009 I was working on a contract where the whole organization participated in a door decorating contest and a donation-box top decorating contest with separate judging and prizes.

The door was just a festive competition meant to bring color and whimsy to an otherwise very beige and eggshell building focused on important duties. The donation box was actually a collection for the soldiers at Walter Reed Medical Center. The decoration on the box was meant to bring some cheer to those who have served our country and find themselves spending the holidays away from family.

Just weeks before the competition was announced I had been making little Altoid tin USB chargers for people and showing them off so naturally when the time came to find people to help design and build our submissions for the decorating contests, I was immediately paired with the graphics designer who was amazing at coming up with and executing designs.

My role was to suggest fun ways to “engineer up” the designs. We were short on time and I was limited to what I could scavenge around my house and could buy from the only hobby shop in the area that carried servos while the designer was left plucking packing foam from old shipping boxes and using a color inkjet to print sections of pattern that she just couldn’t get to print on the giant plotter printer.

In the end we won and lost. The door design, primarily executed by my partner in design with some structural help from me, won first prize. The box, again decorated by my partner but given sound effects, blinking lights to simulate a short and a pair of kicking Santa legs sticking out from a chimney, shared an honorable mention after 3 other box design winners.

The box used an old BASIC Stamp 2 I had lying around from earlier attempts at rekindling my hardware hobby side, a couple reed relays I picked up from Radio Shack, 2 DC servos and a couple strands of battery powered LED lights. The servos were sticky-foamed into a packing foam structure that composed the top of the chimney which the entire box was made to resemble. Some metal rods were scavenged from an old door hanging decoration were attached to the servos to provide the rigid support for Santa’s legs. Some air-pocket packing plastic was used to fill the Santa suit pants around the metal rods.

I didn’t have programming cable that would work with USB ports so I ran to Best Buy and picked up an open-box USB-to-Serial cable for much too much money. I clipped off the end, stripped the wires and made my own programming cable to work with the stamp. I grabbed an old project breadboard to mount the relays hooked everything up, decided to add a switch just in case, and connected 12 AA batteries using sockets I had for my Altoid USB chargers I was making.

The batteries held out a lot longer than I expected with some powering the DC servos and the rest powering the microcontroller and LED light strings. On a pseudo random timer the Radio Shack voice recorder with trip and play a recording of Santa saying “Ho Ho Ho.oo..oooOO…OOOOH!” as if he’d tripped on the lights and fallen headfirst into the chimney. The lights that were wrapped around his flailing legs would turn on and off in a jittery manner to add to the effect.

Did I mention it tied for honorable mention?

The door was a chimney from the inside of the house, complete with mantle and what looked like a Santa tracker on an LCD TV above the fireplace. Santa hung head-down into the chimney. A spare string of LED lights was strung around the mantle. First place.

Whether it was because we didn’t win, or in spite of it, my hardware hobby side was provoked and started coming back with a passion. I discovered some really cool sites carrying items I had never thought existed. Below is a short list of my favorites, in alphabetical order so as not to show favorites.

Honorable mention.

  1. Etsy
    1. My designer friend turned me on to this. Some neat crafts.
  2. Lady Ada
    1. Got me back into kits with the Altoid tin-housed USB charger.
  3. Maker Shed
    1. Mobile platforms, Arduinos, Netduinos, lock picks, lots of things!
  4. Robot Shop
    1. My search for polymorph plastic brought me here. I check in from time to time to maintain a wish list for future projects.
  5. SparkFun
    1. Kits, projects, anything people have built and want to share and sell their designs. I get a lot of inspiration from the comments.

2 responses to “Holiday Decoration Contest: A Spark

  1. I realize you probably weren’t allowed to take pictures of the door and box in their display state but I REALLY would like to have seen that.

    It sounds really cool and I’m damned curious about the boxes that beat you out.

    PS: Did you cameo as the voice of Santa??

    • We were beat by a box that had ‘Nilla Wafers glued around the side with Triskets around the top to resemble shingles. It had crumbled cookies on the flat top of the box with a store-bought model log cabin with a light inside and a wind-up, magnetic fishing game from the 80’s. The other box I remember that placed was a box with plastic army men and a replica of a jeep made from cardboard.

      And yes, I did the voice of Santa. I suggested the sound but everybody wanted me to perform it. People kept asking me to make it play the sound again and again. By the time judging rolled around I was already sick of it! It was a lot of fun to build though.

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