TV for a head: I took an old broken CRT monitor from my college’s recycle bin in Fall 2020 and converted it into a helmet with a working RGB LED display. Here’s some background on how I created it and how it works. This method should still work if you ignore all the electronic bits if you want to create a TV head without the electronics. Skip to the gallery if you only want to see the finished costume.
TV for a head Non-electronics
To avoid an unpleasant electric shock, I carefully disassembled the CRT display, making sure to discharge the cathode.
(I believe my display was already self-discharging, but it’s always a good idea to double-check.) I stowed the large glass cathode ray tube in a cardboard box so I wouldn’t trip over it and cause it to implode, which would be a pain for a variety of reasons.
I shook out the dead ladybugs that had accumulated within the monitor over the years and cleaned it thoroughly. I eventually cut a hole in the bottom of the monitor with a dremel just big enough for my head to fit through.
The screen on my first prototype was made of plexiglass, but I discovered that a thinner sheet of polycarbonate was significantly lighter on my neck and flexible enough to bend into a convex form, giving the helmet a more realistic appearance. I used privacy window film to tint the polycarbonate.
Getting the helmet to fit comfortably with upholstery foam was the most challenging and irritating component of this process.
Other internet guidelines suggest simply cramming your head between three blocks of foam cut into rectangles, but that was unacceptable to me.
I eventually figured out a suitable foam setup that leaves my ears exposed, which is convenient because it allows me to hear and wear my glasses at the same time.
Everything was stuck together with hot glue.
The screen is made up of 300 RGB LEDs, specifically WS2812Bs, that can be individually adjusted. I sliced a single 5-meter, 60 LEDs/meter strip into 15 strips of 20 pixels each and soldered them together to make the LED matrix.
People frequently inquire as to how I am able to see through the helmet; the explanation is that I constructed the matrix with blank space between the strips:
A programme I built for a Circuit Playground Express microcontroller (similar to an Arduino) controls the lights. For input, a tiny PS/2 keyboard is connected to the microcontroller via an adapter. I can use this to regulate the lights.
For playing animations, just a few buttons would serve, but I wanted a full keyboard so I could input phrases that would display on the screen. A built-in accelerometer on the microcontroller is used for a few gravity-sensitive animations.
Here’s a diagram of the entire system. Click it to see a larger version, much like the other photographs on this website.
Here are some things I learnt and suggestions for anyone interested in creating one of these.
• Look for LED strips with a black PCB so they don’t show through the tint.
• You can buy clips to connect ws2812 strips without soldering them together, but be careful! They may provide an inconsistent data pin connection, causing the matrix to strobe and glitch.
• Of course, don’t make your animations strobe on purpose, or you’ll cause someone to have a seizure.
• Minimize the amount of light your animations use to save battery life and reduce current requirements. The brightness of the programme can also be adjusted.
• Make sure you don’t get hot glue in your hair.
• It appears that the level shifter isn’t required. Even when I used 3.3V instead of 5V everywhere, including the USB keyboard, everything functioned flawlessly. However, it’s probably a good idea to add that.
• Keep the screen light as low as possible to avoid straining your neck. To balance the screen, place the battery in the back.
• Use something to cover the monitor’s logos so it has a personality. The lovely bow works perfectly in my instance.
Feel free to ask me for help if you’re trying to design your own TV head! Send me an email at [my first name]@[this domain] or send me a message on Mastodon or Twitter. Even if you don’t require my assistance, please email me after you have completed your TV head so that you may show it to me!
Thanks to Franci Bolden for assisting me with the dremel and bandsaw, as well as giving me suggestions I would not have considered! Thanks again to fuchsia and Izzy Swart for their early hardware recommendations!
Mk. 2 of the TV Head
In 2021, I worked with my buddy Ellie to create a TV head that was similar to mine, but better! Ellie wanted to display Chinese text on the screen, thus the changes were mostly motivated by that purpose.
Because Chinese glyphs are more sophisticated than ASCII, we needed a resolution that was at least as high as mine, despite the fact that the screen was smaller.
The problem was that you could only make LED strips so dense before they needed to be broader as well. The densest density you can get without sacrificing strip narrowness appears to be 60 LEDs per metre.
We cleverly got around this by putting the strips diagonally rather than laterally across the screen! As a result, the grid was tightened to a resolution of 24×18.
We also utilised extra-narrow LED strips, which offer Ellie more area to see between them at the expense of more light shining back into their faces rather than being blocked by the strips’ margins.
The front panel is removed in this video so you can see how the strips are laid out. If you want to view the wiring, here’s a photo of the back of the panel.