Customizable, programming lighting strips are nothing new and these days, hardly worth getting excited about. Inexpensive, individually-addressable LED strips and equally inexpensive systems like Raspberry Pi are both widely available, making custom systems cheap. But what they tend not to be is easy to set up: they often require knowledge of both hardware and programming.
That last bit is what makes Light by RocketLife so unique. They not only provide the hardware, in a small, lightweight box that can be easily attached to almost anything. Much more important, they provide the software, and it’s gorgeous.
The system is currently nearing funding on Kickstarter. A pledge of $99 will get you the control box, a 2-meter strip of 60 LEDs, and the software in both mobile and desktop form.
By chance, RocketLife is based in a suburb not at all far from my house, so I took the opportunity to go to their office and talk to the team.
The core piece of hardware behind Light is a small motherboard, about half the size of a deck of cards. It will be encased in a plastic box with ports to plug in power, the light strips, or extension modules.
And here is the first really cool, really well thought-out piece of RocketLife’s plan. Rather than taking a proprietary, walled garden approach, they are only making two components of the system themselves: the board and the software. Everything else is built off of third-party components. So, while they will sell the light strips and modules, they are merely reselling them, and are perfectly happy to have their customers buy LED strips off Amazon or modules from their local computer supply store.
The LightBox will include both a connector for external power and a built-in rechargable lithium battery, which dramatically expands on the system’s potential uses. If you want to use it to decorate your home Grizwald-style, then you can plug it in and leave the lights on day and night. But, if you want to use the lights on your bike or tent while camping or as part of your SDCC costume, simply charge up the battery and you’re good to go. As a bonus: you can charge or run the system off of USB, so plugging it into the USB port in your car is certainly on the table.
While I understand the basics of how computer hardware works, I’m very much a software person. But, while I am also an experienced programmer, I’m not a fan of programming for its own sake. It’s why my Raspberry Pi is sitting in a drawer somewhere at home, totally unused.
And this is, again, the thing that really sets RocketLife apart. Their custom software is the thing that I believe will make their lights stand out in the crowd.
During my visit to their office, I had the chance to sit down and see how the software works, how it can be used to program the lights, and some of the customization options. To say I was impressed would be an understatement.
The program allows you to quickly and wirelessly connect to a light string (well, technically, to a LightBox that is in turn connected to a string of lights). You can then easily configure the lights by telling the software how many bulbs are on the string and how long the string is.
RocketLife will ship their software with an array of lighting presets, so it’s possible to have cool patterns going within a few minutes. But the real fun is in customization. The program has a timeline that reminded me somewhat of what I’m familiar with in animation and video tools such as Adobe Animate or After Effects, but that makes sense, as what you’re doing here is basically animation. On the timeline, you can drag one or more of their presets, and easily change the timing, so you can have colored flashing lights for 3 seconds, then chasing lights for 3 seconds after that.
But it goes beyond that. RocketLife is the first company to put out software to control LEDs that includes effects like crossfades, which, like everything else, can be applied with a simple drag-and-drop. And you can ignore the presets and set up your own effects with only a slight additional amount of work.
You can quickly and easily set up “zones” on the lights by going into an interface that shows you your light strip, then dragging to select however many individual lights you want to zone off. This adds additional tracks to the timeline, so now you can apply different effects to subsets of the lights. In the demo I was given, they had a 60 light string, about a third of which were inside a star tree topper. It took only a few moments to set the software up to have the lights inside the star flashing a different pattern, and with different colors, then the rest of the strip.
Where things got even cooler, though, was the ability of the software to import photos. In the demo, they had taken a picure of the front of a house. It was then a few simple steps to match the light string to the arch in front of the house, zone off the two sides and the top of the arch, and have a beautiful simulation of the final effect of what the lights would look like once hung on the actual house.
All of this can also be controlled with sensors, which, as noted above, can be purchased from third-parties. Once connected to the LightBox, the sensors appear in the software as triggers, which can be added to the timeline and used to set the effects.
Music or sound effects, which can be loaded directly into the LightBox via an SD card, also show up in the software and can be added to the timeline, allowing you to precisely time lighting effects to sounds.
Of course I’ve seen houses during the holidays with complex lighting systems, and I’ve considered before trying to invest in them, but the setup seemed more complex than it was worth. RocketLife’s system makes me completely rethink that. While going full Griswold would still be quite expensive, at least it wouldn’t be nearly as difficult to configure. It’s something even my kids could do with this system.
But of course annoying the neighbors is only fun for a short while. With this system, I could easily see myself having creative fun with all kinds of projects, from costumes to bikes to that life-size R2D2 that’s sitting half-done in the corner of my living room. And obviously, my fellow Scouters would have nothing on me in our unofficial tent lighting contest.
RocketLife has already achieved its Kickstarter funding goal, so if you back the project now, you are definitely going to get a lighting system of your choice. Pledge levels with rewards start at $99, and I highly recommend taking a look and backing them. But hurry–the campaign ends this week.