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I've been having a lot of fun with these RGB LED matrix panels. I'm using them to display real-time stats, notifications, pixel art, and video games. They have a unique low-resolution style that you can't achieve with a standard display.

This project might seem a little daunting to those who haven't dived into the hardware world. I wanted to make it more accessible to web devs by creating the node-pixel-pusherWebsite icon for https://www.npmjs.com/package/node-pixel-pusher module.

If you can draw on a <canvas>, you can display it on LEDs!

We'll be using rpi-rgb-led-matrixWebsite icon for https://github.com/hzeller/rpi-rgb-led-matrix under the hood. It has very detailed documentation, so please refer to that for extra details.

  • Raspberry Pi 4 Model BWebsite icon for https://www.raspberrypi.org/products/raspberry-pi-4-model-b/
    • Raspberry Pi USB-C Power Supply
    • 16GB microSD Card
  • Electrodragon Active-3 Breakout Board
  • RGB LED Matrix Panel (64x64 - 2.5mm Pitch - 1/32 Scan)
    • IDC Ribbon Cable (Hub75 / 2x8 IDC Cable)
    • Power Cable (4-pin 3.96mm pitch)
  • 5V Power Supply

That's my exact setup, but you can:

📦 Panel Buying Guide

You can find these panels on:

The ribbon and power cables are usually included with the panel.

Pitch is the distance between the center of one LED and the next, usually in millimeters. A 2mm pitch is very close and is great when viewed at close range. Whereas, something like 6mm is often used with larger LEDs, better when viewed at longer range.

The scan rate is a ratio for how much of the panel is lit at a time. Generally, a higher scan rate means a faster refresh rate (1/8 is faster than 1/32).

If you're buying multiple panels for a project you should always buy extras. Also, specify in the order notes that all panels must be from the same batch. This is because:

  • 📦Panels could be damaged on arrival.
  • 💔The LEDs can be very fragile and easily damaged.
  • 🎨A future order will come from a different batch with noticeably different colors.

⚡ Power Supply

Most of these panels need a 5V power supply. On average, a single 32x32 panel can draw 4A, and the 64x64 panels I use can draw 6A.

Make sure the power supply can handle the number of panels you want. I use a couple of 5V 60A switching power supplies. You can likely find these at the same stores listed above for the panels.

I recommend testing the DC voltage output with a multimeter before wiring up any panels!

Learn more about power supplies on:

First, let's flash DietPiWebsite icon for https://dietpi.com/ to the microSD card. DietPi is a lightweight, non-GUI, distribution for the Raspberry Pi. This is ideal to cut CPU usage and interference with the LEDs.

  1. Extract the DietPi .7z archive to get the .img file
  2. Run Etcher
  3. Select the DietPi .img file
  4. Select the drive of your SD card
  5. Click Flash!

For WiFi configuration and troubleshooting please refer to the DietPi Getting Started guide.

  1. Make sure the power is off while you're assembling everything
  2. Raspberry Pi:
    1. Insert the microSD card
    2. Add the breakout board
    3. Connect the ethernet cable
    4. Connect the USB-C power cable
  3. Connect the breakout board to the panel's input socket with a ribbon cable
  4. Connect the power cable to the panel

🔗 64x64 panels with 1:32 multiplexing

If you have a 64x64 matrix with 1:32 multiplexing, you need to supply an E-address line to it. The Electrodragon board has rearranged these points, so please pay attention to the labels on the PCB!

You can see the sockets are labeled HUB-75E on my panel's PCB. The E indicates this address line is required.

➡️ Panel Sockets

Panels will have 2 data sockets, one input, and one output. Allowing you to daisy chain panels together. Make sure you connect the breakout board to the input socket.

Most panels will have the sockets labeled input and output.

But, some panels will have arrows that point in the direction of the output. Like the image shown below.

You can add more panels by daisy chaining them with the ribbon cables. Connect the output socket of one panel to the input socket of the next.

Adding more panels will slow down the refresh rate. Try to use 2 or 3 parallel chains from the breakout board to achieve a faster refresh rate. Each parallel chain must contain the same number of panels.

Do not chain the power cables!

The power cables that come with the panels often support a maximum of 2 panels. Always connect them directly to the power supply without chaining more than 2 panels together.

Chaining them would cause the current for all panels to run through the power cables, instead of the current for 2 panels. This is not safe because the cables can't handle that amount of current.

ssh root@192.168.0.100

First, let's open up a terminal on our dev machine and ssh into the Pi.

If you're unsure of how to find the local IP address for your Pi, check the IP AddressWebsite icon for https://www.raspberrypi.org/documentation/remote-access/ip-address.md documentation on the Raspberry Pi website.

The default DietPi login details are:

  • Username: root
  • Password: dietpi

Go through the basic DietPi setup. When you reach the menu with multiple options, select Install at the bottom without additional software.

When you're in, let's get everything installed:

apt install git make build-essential

git clone --recursive https://github.com/jmswrnr/rpi-matrix-pixelpusher.git
cd rpi-matrix-pixelpusher

make

We start by installing git, make, and build-essential.

Then we clone and make the rpi-matrix-pixelpusherWebsite icon for https://github.com/hzeller/rpi-matrix-pixelpusher repo.

Right now, the matrix submodule is using an older version, while my PR is pending we will use my fork.

Now we have everything installed on the Pi, we are able to run the PixelPusher server!

./pixel-push \
  --led-show-refresh \
  --led-rows=64 \
  --led-cols=64 \
  --led-parallel=2 \
  --led-chain=2 \
  --led-slowdown-gpio=2 \
  -u 65507

These launch options are a good starting point:

  • --led-show-refresh - Show refresh rate
  • --led-rows - Number of horizontal LEDs per panel (width)
  • --led-cols - Number of vertical LEDs per panel (height)
  • --led-parallel - Number of chains you're running from the breakout board
  • --led-chain - Number of daisy-chained panels
  • --led-slowdown-gpio=<0..4> - Needed for faster Pis/slower panels. You want this value as low as possible without it looking broken.
  • -u - Max UDP packet size. Max is 65507, use the maximum that works with your network.

If you want a higher refresh rate with less color accuracy, you can lower the PWM bits: --led-pwm-bits=<1..11> default is 11.

There are plenty of options to play around with. You can tweak them to achieve a different balance of color accuracy, brightness, and refresh rate. For more info check the rpi-matrix-pixelpusher documentationWebsite icon for https://github.com/hzeller/rpi-matrix-pixelpusher#running and the rpi-rgb-led-matrix documentationWebsite icon for https://github.com/hzeller/rpi-rgb-led-matrix.

Now the Pi is now running the PixelPusher server, we can draw to it using Node.jsWebsite icon for https://nodejs.org/en/ on our dev machine. You can find examples used in this guide on GitHubWebsite icon for https://github.com/jmswrnr/canvas-led-examples.

# Run this on your dev machine, not the Pi
git clone https://github.com/jmswrnr/canvas-led-examples
cd canvas-led-examples

This example uses Node.jsWebsite icon for https://nodejs.org/en/ and node-canvasWebsite icon for https://github.com/Automattic/node-canvas. This is a great way to render if you only need 2D rendering without a GUI or preview.

This canvas implementation doesn't support WebGL. See the Compatibility StatusWebsite icon for https://github.com/Automattic/node-canvas/wiki/Compatibility-Status page for more details.

cd node
npm install
npm run start

After running this example, you should see all your LEDs light up green!

Let's take a look into how this works:

const PixelPusher = require('node-pixel-pusher')

const service = new PixelPusher.Service()

service.on('discover', (device) => {
  createRenderer(device)
})

Using the node-pixel-pusherWebsite icon for https://www.npmjs.com/package/node-pixel-pusher module, we create a Service.

This service will detect PixelPusher servers on your network, and we can handle this with the discover event.

When we discover a device, we want to create a renderer for it.

const nodeCanvas = require('canvas')

const MAX_FPS = 30

function createRenderer(device) {
  const width = device.deviceData.pixelsPerStrip
  const height = device.deviceData.numberStrips
  const canvas = nodeCanvas.createCanvas(width, height)
  const ctx = canvas.getContext('2d')

  console.log(`Creating renderer ${width}x${height} ${MAX_FPS}fps`)

  device.startRendering(() => {
    // Render
    ctx.fillStyle = 'green'
    ctx.fillRect(0, 0, width, height)

    // Get data
    const ImageData = ctx.getImageData(0, 0, width, height)

    // Send data to LEDs
    device.setRGBABuffer(ImageData.data)
  }, MAX_FPS)
}

When creating a new renderer, we first want to create a new canvas. We can get the width and height values from the device's DeviceDataWebsite icon for https://github.com/jmswrnr/node-pixel-pusher/blob/master/src/lib/DeviceData.ts object.

We then use the device's startRendering method to create a render function. Limiting the FPS (frames per second) to 30.

This render function:

  1. Fills the canvas with green
  2. Gets image data from the canvas
  3. Updates the LED device with the image data

You can return false from the render function if you didn't make any changes. This will prevent the LEDs from being updated that frame.

The render function is also throttled based on network speed and LED refresh rate, so you don't need to worry about that.

This example also renders everything green, but using ElectronWebsite icon for https://www.electronjs.org/ instead of only Node.jsWebsite icon for https://nodejs.org/en/. This gives us ChromiumWebsite icon for https://www.chromium.org/Home performance, a GUI, and WebGL support!

cd electron
npm install
npm run start

We can now preview the render on a <canvas> in the ElectronWebsite icon for https://www.electronjs.org/ window:

const mainWindow = new BrowserWindow({
  webPreferences: {
    nodeIntegration: true,
    backgroundThrottling: false
  }
})

mainWindow.loadFile('index.html')

In the main ElectronWebsite icon for https://www.electronjs.org/ process, we create a BrowserWindowWebsite icon for https://www.electronjs.org/docs/api/browser-window with nodeIntegration enabled. This allows us to use the node-pixel-pusherWebsite icon for https://www.npmjs.com/package/node-pixel-pusher module inside the window.

We also disable backgroundThrottling so the rendering isn't throttled while the window is minimized or in the background.

function createRenderer(device) {
  const width = device.deviceData.pixelsPerStrip
  const height = device.deviceData.numberStrips
  const canvas = document.createElement('canvas')
  canvas.width = width
  canvas.height = height
  document.body.appendChild(canvas)
  const ctx = canvas.getContext('2d')

  console.log(`Creating renderer ${width}x${height} ${MAX_FPS}fps`)

  device.startRendering(() => {
    // Render
    ctx.fillStyle = 'green'
    ctx.fillRect(0, 0, width, height)

    // Get data
    const ImageData = ctx.getImageData(0, 0, width, height)

    // Send data to LEDs
    device.setRGBABuffer(ImageData.data)
  }, MAX_FPS)
}

The only difference between this and the first example is how we create the canvas.

Now our code is running inside the window's renderer process, we can create a <canvas> using document.createElement and append it to the body! Instead of using the node-canvasWebsite icon for https://github.com/Automattic/node-canvas implementation.

Now we're using ElectronWebsite icon for https://www.electronjs.org/ and have WebGL support, we can also render using Three.jsWebsite icon for https://threejs.org/!

cd electron-threejs
npm install
npm run start

For this example, I'm using 4 panels connected with 2 parallel chains:

Let's see how we can integrate the Three.jsWebsite icon for https://threejs.org/ renderer:

const renderer = new THREE.WebGLRenderer()
document.body.appendChild(renderer.domElement)
renderer.setSize(width, height)
const offscreen = new OffscreenCanvas(width, height)
const offscreenCtx = offscreen.getContext('2d')

device.startRendering(() => {
  // Render
  renderer.render(mainScene, camera)

  // Get data
  offscreenCtx.drawImage(renderer.domElement, 0, 0)
  const ImageData = offscreenCtx.getImageData(0, 0, width, height)

  // Send data to LEDs
  device.setRGBABuffer(ImageData.data)
}, MAX_FPS)

In this example, we copy the renderer's <canvas> to an OffscreenCanvas and use a 2D context to get the image data.

This is a simple approach to render to the screen with WebGL and get the image data for the LEDs.

Here's an alternative render method if you want to dive a bit deeper:

const renderer = new THREE.WebGLRenderer()
renderer.setSize(width, height)
const target = new THREE.WebGLRenderTarget(width, height)
renderer.setRenderTarget(target)
const buffer = new Uint8Array(width * height * 4)

device.startRendering(() => {
  // Render
  renderer.render(mainScene, camera)

  // Get data
  renderer.readRenderTargetPixels(target, 0, 0, width, height, buffer)

  // Send data to LEDs
  device.setRGBABuffer(buffer)
}, MAX_FPS)

Instead of copying to an OffscreenCanvas. We can render to a WebGLRenderTargetWebsite icon for https://threejs.org/docs/#api/en/renderers/WebGLRenderTarget and use readRenderTargetPixels to get the image data.

But, this doesn't render to the screen. To see a preview, you would need to render a fullscreen quad with the render target's texture.

This increases complexity but you might see better performance.

This can be the start of an awesome project and I hope this guide inspires you to build something with it!

To get you started, here are some of my random project ideas:

  • 📈 Real-time metrics display for the office
  • 🖼️ Poster/picture frame for the house
  • Low-resolution magic mirror
  • 🧱 Cover a wall or desktop
  • 🕰️ Desktop widgets

I'd love to see anything you make with this, so please share it with me if you do! If you have any questions please let me know on TwitterWebsite icon for https://twitter.com/jmswrnr or stop by my TwitchWebsite icon for https://www.twitch.tv/jmswrnr live stream where I'm often coding and answering questions!

My personal projects with these panels include a Deskmat and an Interactive Twitch Display. I plan on writing separate case studies for these projects, so I won't go into detail here.

But here's Conway's Game of Life on my Deskmat: