The creator of this Kickstarter project, Tyler Nehowig, explains how and why he designed and implemented his smart, Arduino-powered Nixie tube modules.
A few days ago, I found myself meandering through the Kickstarter.com website (as you do) perusing and pondering various projects, when I ran across an amazingly cool project that mixes two of my favorite things: Arduinos and Nixie Tubes. I was so excited by what I saw that I felt moved to write a blog post about it.
I think this smart Nixie Tube concept is a really great idea. So do a lot of other folks, apparently. This Kickstarter project is already funded to twice its original goal, and it still has 14 days to go at the time of this writing.
I must admit that this project really interested me, so I reached out to its creator, Tyler Nehowig, to ask him more about it. He very kindly sent me a photo of himself holding a 10-digit display (I want one), and he explained how and why he instigated the project, as discussed below.
Max Maxfield: How did you come up with this concept?
Tyler Nehowig: I came up with the idea after my first Kickstarter project, the open-source Nixie Tube Shield. I was getting a lot of questions regarding which Arduino board the shield was compatible with, etc. As a result, I set out to integrate the Arduino Uno hardware into the Nixie Tube design to reduce confusion on compatibility. In the middle of the design process, I thought it would be great to make this display modular, so that if you required only two digits, for example, then that's all you had to purchase. And if you subsequently decide that you need six digits, you can easily add four more. Lastly, I wanted to integrate RGB lighting, so users can easily change the accent lighting to suit their preferences.
Max Maxfield: What were the design decisions you made, and why?
Tyler Nehowig: One of the major design decisions I made was to stack the PCBs in order to keep the design compact. This allowed multiple digits to connect close together and, once enclosed, look like a single display. It also allowed an easy way to light the tube from below, as the RGB LED is directly under the Nixie Tube. The nice part about splitting the layout into two circuit boards is that all of the hardware required to control the Nixie Tube digits is on the top PCB, while all of the hardware to run the microcontroller is on the bottom PCB. This means that someone could design a new PCB for a completely different Nixie Tube series and be able to plug their board into the existing bottom PCB and immediately be running with zero firmware/software changes.
Max Maxfield: What issues did you run into along the way?
Tyler Nehowig: Luckily, I was able to glean a lot of experience from my open-source Nixie Tube Shield Kickstarter project and apply it toward this new project. The boost circuitry was already proven. In fact, with the help of some of the backers from the first Kickstarter, I was able to improve the efficiency of the boost. Creating the Arduino Uno section of the schematic was extremely easy, since there is so much great documentation out there from multiple vendors -- Arduino.cc, Adafruit.com, SparkFun.com, etc. Obviously, there are a limited number of Nixie Tubes out there, so getting a hold of a large quantity is always a challenge. I proactively purchased a few hundred for this project to establish some key relationships with guys in Eastern Europe, so hopefully, if all goes well, I can purchase plenty more to fulfill as many smart Nixie Tubes as people are willing to buy. Also, price was a huge consideration for this project. I wanted to make it as affordable as possible for people while still making it worth my time to design the layout and procure the Nixie Tubes. The nature of modularity often comes at a price, and in this case it means having a microcontroller on every digit, which drives up the cost when compared to similar nonmodular displays. At the same time, I believe modularity is the smart Nixie Tubes' greatest strength.
Well, I for one am very impressed with Nehowig's work. I wish I had his get up and go when I was his age (unfortunately, my get up and go got up and went years ago). I predict a bright future for him, and I will be watching with great interest for his future Kickstarter projects. What do you think about all this?
— Max Maxfield, Editor of All Things Fun & Interesting