While commercial mainstream video technology has focused more on 3D and stereoscopy in recent years, there’s a whole bunch of talented people working below the radar looking into the ways in which it’s possible to enhance your viewing and gaming experience through the use of colour LEDs. Chief among those are the talented people behind the Lightberry ambient light project.
The Lightberry ambient light kit is quite simple really. An array of multi-colour LEDs are positioned around the outer perimeter of the rear of your TV. Some technical jiggery-pokery goes on behind-the-scenes on a Raspberry Pi and the outer edges of the image being currently outputted to your TV is analysed, with the LEDs changing colour or brightness to match. The strength and brightness of these LEDs combined with the almost immediate refresh rate means the ambient colour and light of tthe current image is further extended beyond the edges of your TV with your wall, or in some cases, entire room illuminated to further enhance the general atmosphere and ambience.
Lightberry is developed in Poland by Tomek and Jacek Tokar, founders of the Raspberry at Home blog which is an extremely useful resource for developing applications and hardware modifications for your Raspberry Pi. We quizzed Jacek on the project’s origins and his background.
“I bought my first Raspberry Pi in January 2013 and instantly fell in love with it. I started to play around with it, trying to install many different things but I had to visit many different websites for guidance before I actually got a solution. There wasn't a whole lot of information available at the time. So I got talking to Tomek and we started our raspberry-at-home.com blog. One of the tasks we were trying to perform was the setup of an ambilight DIY kit, so we ordered strands (LED) from Aliexpress to play with it and the rest is history. When we eventually succeeded with this (and I am very bad at soldering, actually this was the first time I ever did it right), we quickly realised this was something we could offer for people that do not want to play with all aspects required to build it from scratch. That's how it started.”
My own initial experiences with the Lightberry kit were not promising. The first version we were sent developed an issue that meant only one LED lit up and didn’t actually respond to any video inputs. This was then further compounded by the fact that the power supply going to my Raspberry Pi didn’t supply sufficient current to power both the Pi and and USB grabber which meant the latter simply wouldn’t work and also stopped the Pi’s network adapter from working. A powered USB hub rectified this issue, but when its power supply also packed in, for a while there I wasn’t convinced I’d ever get the Lightberry working. However, throughout the process, Jacek was always at hand to either answer emails or to speak to through Skype and we easily troubleshooted our way through the many problems I had. Lightberry’s customer support really is second-to-none and I have no hesitation in recommending them.
Lightberry is extremely versatile and can receive video inputs via HDMI or RCA composite – though be warned when using the latter, you will need a dual output as there’s no way to forward on your video signal from the USB grabber back to your TV, as I found out when trying to connect my Wii. This means that Lightberry is compatible with Xbox 360, Xbox One, PlayStation3 and PlayStation4 – basically any device that can output through HDMI. Lightberry will also react to any images or video outputted from your Raspberry Pi, which, thanks to XBMC’s ability to play pretty much every video format out there, means there are endless possibilities.
Lightberry is at its best when your TV displays a rich in colour and high contrast image. Still and flat video makes for a subtle extension of the general palette, whereas fast-moving colourful action makes for a dramatic and more dynamic effect. Fast sweeps and swoops are particularly effective as are quick colour changes. Check out the embedded videos to see the Lightberry in action in various different scenarios.
During my play test with the Lightberry I trialled many different types of games. From Call of Duty, TitanFall, Trials Fusion, Alien: Isolation and Wolfenstein on Xbox One, to Rez HD, Rock Band Blitz, Pac-Man Championship Edition CE and Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved 2 on Xbox 360. In my experience, more abstract colourful games worked better with the Lightberry. Geometry Wars in particular was fantastic thanks to its rich vibrant palette and its glorious explosions of light and colour. Rez HD was also a particular highlight with its abstract design, constant light shows and colourful nature lending itself perfectly to the Lightberry.
First Person Shooters were less immediately effective thanks to their static environments and consistent colour themes, but during Alien: Isolation this proved to be wonderfully effective as the subtle effects were suddenly transformed when I fired up a red flare and my entire room was bathed in the bright red glow. In fact, the Lightberry combined with surround headphones made Alien: Isolation a genuinely terrifying experience and one I can heartily recommend.
The requirement of a Rasberry Pi running a compatible version of XBMC, and a decent level of computer literacy means that the Lightberry kit is not something your average layman can quickly and easily get up and running. Jacek speaks glowingly about the Rasberry Pi and its versatility and told us that:
“I think many people start with the Pi as a media centre. But after a while you start to think: "If it's running an operating system, maybe I can also do this or that with it". And the great thing about Raspberry Pi is that, usually, the answer is yes. Then you can start researching a project in order to see if someone already did it and use his or her experience to do it yourself.”
On the subject of the technical difficulties in getting the system up and running, Jacek stresses that the Lightberry kit never intended to be a commercially available product and that it’s an open-source project with the emphasis very much on doing-it-yourself.
“We had many customers with absolutely no experience with Linux, and after few emails back and forth they were very proud of what they could achieve. With regards to the blog, it brings a lot of fun for the author, when one sees that his or her work is used by many people and comments under the post say, that it actually works”
One of my biggest criticisms of the Lightberry kit is that for the full HDMI converter kit you’ll need 4 plug sockets: one for the Raspberry Pi, one for a powered USB hub, one for the LEDs and another for the HDMI Converter. It’s a spider web of cables and adapters, unfortunately, and there’s no elegant solution other than to hide them behind the back of your TV or entertainment unit.
When pushed on whether this is something the company is looking to develop or improve upon further down the line, Jacek replied honestly and refreshingly stating that Lightberry isn’t looking to be a commercial, mainstream product. It’s an open-source hobbyist project designed to encourage others to experiment and take the concept further.
“One of our objectives is to make people think and learn. We spent a lot of time teaching people how to do various things programmatically via SSH, and our goal will never be to delivered an out-of-the-box solution. However, we are very close to introducing a new device that will eliminate a lot of cables, but it will be standalone component that can be used anywhere to provide HDMI video to analog grabber.”
Lightberry is not for the faint-hearted then. If you're not comfortable with terminal windows, SSH and getting your hands dirty with command prompts and switches then Lightberry unfortunately isn't for you. But if you have a reasonable level of technical competency, any of the modern consoles and a decent digital video library then I can heartily recommened it. I personally loved getting under the bonnet and figuring things out as I went along. Sure, it's a steep learning curve if you're new to the scene but Jacek and Tomek offer superb support if you have any problems and the Lightberry website contains tutorials and videos which should help you get up and running in no time. For between £100 and £200 all in, it's also a bargain and certainly sure to wow your friends and family.