Modified Han Solo toy blaster controls LED displays of Star Wars characters

Posted by Jon on 12 July 2018

A while ago, I made a wedding gift for some friends, both of whom are avid Star Wars fans. The gift was basically a multi-piece decorative set that consisted of a modified toy Han Solo blaster, a stand to hold the blaster, and three edge-lit LED displays: one each of Boba Fett, Darth Vader, and Jar Jar Binks. I painted over the toy blaster to make it look more like it came straight out of the movies and added electronics so that it could interact with the displays (and the couple’s TV!).

The blaster uses IR TV remote codes to do several things: it can shoot the LED displays (and they’ll respond by blinking and playing audio recordings unique to each character), change the color and brightness of each display, and it can act as a limited TV remote by turning on or off the TV. At the heart of the blaster lies an A-Star 32U4 Mini ULV, which monitors the state of a switch, a couple of buttons, and a few potentiometers in order to decide which actions to carry out. The ULV version of the A* Mini is especially convenient for this setup because the toy blaster was originally powered by two AAA batteries, which produce too low of a voltage for a 5V microcontroller. The ULV’s built-in switching step-up voltage regulator allows it to operate directly off of the batteries and power the other components, unlike typical Arduinos that need at least 7V.

The blaster has two modes: one for shooting the displays and turning on/off the TV and another for adjusting color and brightness of the displays. Which mode the blaster is in is determined by the state of the programming mode switch, which is accessible with a flick of the thumb. While powered on, the A* continually checks to see if the programming mode switch is enabled. If it is disabled, the blaster will respond to trigger presses. When the trigger is depressed, the A* does two things: it sends a pulse train to a 5mm IR LED and drives an input pin low on an Adafruit Audio FX Mini sound board, which then outputs sound to a speaker through a 2.5W audio amplifier, producing DL-44 blaster firing noises. The blaster and displays use the IRremote Arduino library for sending and receiving the pulses. For these blaster shots, the blaster emits the IR TV remote code that corresponds to the generic power-on/power-off code for an LG TV. This same code is decoded by the Star Wars displays as a “hit” and the characters react to being shot. You can watch videos of those reactions in the YouTube playlist below (the playlist also includes the displays’ bonus Easter egg content, which is only accessible by sending certain button presses from the LG TV remote!). The sound level is a little low, so you might need to increase your volume to hear what the characters are saying:

If the programming mode switch is enabled, the blaster repeatedly emits a set of IR TV remote codes that contain information on what color and how bright the displays should be. Color is adjusted in the HSV color space using the blaster’s three rotary potentiometers (one each for hue, saturation, and value). There is also a linear potentiometer that can be used to set overall brightness (this effect combines with the change in brightness from adjusting the value potentiometer). So long as a display’s IR receiver can detect the IR signal sent by the blaster, the LED information can be decoded and the LED arrays can be updated.

Each display features a ~12″ tall profile of the head or upper body of a Star Wars character. The profiles are laser-etched onto a 1/2″ thick clear acrylic piece, which also has holes at its base. The holes allow the piece to be fastened to a recessed channel at the top of the display box. A short segment of an APA102C LED strip lines the bottom of the recessed channel and faces upward into the acrylic profile, which allows its light to disperse across the laser-etched surfaces. The display box has the same sound board and amplifier as the blaster, but uses a more powerful 1W speaker. An A-Star 32U4 Prime controls everything and power is supplied via a 9V 3A wall power adapter.

Compared to the rest of the system, the design of the blaster stand is pretty straightforward: it is just several pieces of 1/4″ plywood arranged into a frame that houses two channels. Those two channels have mounting holes which allow two clear acrylic pieces, which conform to the shape of the blaster, to be fixed to the frame. A lip along the inside of the frame makes it easy to mount the silver mirrored acrylic piece. The bottom of the mount features a personal well-wish from me to the couple. The message is written on the inside of the Alliance Starbird, which is cut from gold mirrored acrylic. The stand also houses some scrap metal parts (a bunch of prototype Zumo blades) to give it some weight. Four adhesive rubber feet, one for each corner of the stand, help make sure the stand doesn’t slide around easily and scrape the gold Starbird piece.

I owe a part of the inspiration of this gift to my coworker, Kevin, since in some ways I was basically trying to one-up his Harry Potter-themed wedding gift, which was given to another coworker, Brandon, for his wedding. Kevin also ended up helping me make some good decisions and generate some clean-looking CorelDraw files for the display cutouts/rastering. So, thanks, Kevin! You the real MVP.

For more pics, gifs, and a build log, check out this Imgur album! Also, you can find 2D (.DXF and .CDR) and 3D (.STL, .STEP, and .SLDPRT) CAD files for the laser cut parts on my Thingiverse page!

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