Nixies + Raspberry Pi

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A client requested my help to make various sorts of transitions for his steampunk nixie tube display, controlled by a Raspberry Pi v2. He asked me to code in Python, if possible. So, is python fast enough for software PWM? Let's try.

Computer-generated animation is an optical illusion, which deceives the human eye to perceive motion by displaying a sequence of motionless frames faster than the eye can see. A refresh rate of 24 frames per second (fps) is used in movies, and is an acceptable minimum for frames taken with nitrate film photography. The static bitmapped scenes generated with a computer have sharp edges, looking much more like a high-speed photo. This makes it easier for the eye to perceive each individual frame, so computer displays use a minimum of 60 fps for a smooth animation effect. If we are displaying 60 frames per one second, it means that each frame has 1/60 of this one second, approximately 16.7 milliseconds.

Now, to simulate the impression of a fading digit, we should be able to dim the amount of brightness in each frame. This is easy if we use a technique called pulse-width modulation (PWM). Basically, if each frame is displayed for t = 16.7ms, we switch the light on for some time (called ton), and then we switch it off for the rest of the frame (toff = t - ton), so the average power is proportional to ton / t. To implement this routine we need two components: a GPIO driver function and a sleep function, and these two functions need to complete in our frame deadline (16.7ms). To test time.sleep accuracy, I used this snippet to do 100 loops of 100 sleeps of 0.1ms and take statistical measures. Each loop should take 100×0.1ms = 10ms.

#!/bin/env python2
import time
import math

x = []
for i in xrange(100):
    t = time.time()
    for j in xrange(100):
    t = time.time() - t

avg = sum(x) / 100
devsq = [ (xi - avg)**2 for xi in x ]
stdev = math.sqrt(sum(devsq) / 100)

print('Average: %.3fms\tError: %.3fms' % (1000*avg, 1000*stdev))

My computer gives an average 19.568ms per loop, almost the double of the expected 10ms. Also, the standard deviation tells us that 68% of the samples drift by less than 0.810ms, and the other 32% drift more than 0.810ms. Not bad, but this makes almost a third of our frames rendered a little late, so it may significantly affect the animation quality. In the end, we cannot use python's time.sleep for these time-sensitive delays. What can we do now?

My approach was to use a C library for the time-sensitive functions, and use python for the high level animation routines. I choose WiringPi because it provides a standard API across various platforms (e.g. Arduino), offering timing, bit banging and software PWM functions accurate to a microsecond. After everything is set up, we can try to simulate a fade-in transition, that is, a sequence of frames with increasing brightness.

digits = [1,2,3,4]
for brightness in xrange(100):
    # t_on and t_off are in µs = 1e-6s
    t_on  = 1e6 / 60.0 * brightness / 100
    t_off = 1e6 / 60.0 - t_on

So after 100 frames (~1.6s) it will have dimmed from 0% to 99% brightness. After a busy day playing with animations and loops, we have got some effects:

Nixie tubes meet Raspberry Pi from Daniel M. Lima on Vimeo.

This is just a prototype, but we can have a glimpse of how to final product would look like. Now, merry X-mas and happy 2017!

Daniel Lima