FidoLED By WookiesoftNov 01, 2021
Article written by Omar Colom and Laura Massas
“My techs a long time ago asked me how you learn to code, I said you need an idea for something, and you go from there.”
The simplest idea can have the biggest impact, and FidoLED is no exception. We love having Darren back with us on yet another super great app build. I am a huge fan of his honesty and his willingness to share information with our loyal readers. Now, if you’re new to these articles or this your first time reading one we would like to introduce you once again to Darren Alexander who also created another amazing app called BlendZ, and half a dozen other apps that we will be diving into.
FidoLED could become one of the most crucial apps of 2021 with the new age of AR and VR. Getting up to speed on your LED knowledge is a must have skill set and being ready for changes on the fly is no exception. That’s where FidoLED comes into play- having the right tool for the right job. FidoLED will help you with all the math, pixel counts, and panel layouts needed for the team to build an LED wall.
Now remember, it's just a tool and it's not going to do everything for you but it does help speed up your process. But enough from me, dive into the FidoLED journey and maybe you could be inspired to create the next tool we need that works hand and hand with FidoLED.
Check out the interview below.
Responses provided by: Darren Alexander
Q: What drove you to create the app?
A: Way back when LED was still fairly new, there were a few choices of Rental LED, Barco being one of them and at the time their processing, the D320 required a little bit of math to work out how many processors were needed to drive an LED screen. Back then it was limited by a clock frequency of 32Mhz, so there was a formula you needed to know to be able to figure out how many D320’s you needed. I still (only just) remember the formula. It was, if anyone is interested:
(number of active horizontal pixels + 50 blanking pixels) * (number of vertical pixels + 25 blanking pixels) * refresh rate = pixel clock
Processors using the PAL signal could drive a few more tiles than the NTSC signal could, but that was the calculation that needed to be done when doing LED walls. Of course, I had this as a simple Excel spreadsheet.
I was on a show in San Francisco in 2008 and had recently decided to get back into programming again, something I had last done in my early teens when the Vic 20 first appeared, and on the course of this show I was on had come across some software called RealBasic. This software let you compile programs for both Windows and Mac computers, and I thought that being able to figure out the number of D320’s needed for a given size LED screen would be a great first project as it’s pretty simple math.
After a few hours of noodling away, D320Calc was born. It was very simplistic: you put in how big your screen was, it worked out how many D320’s you needed. It was plain and simple and worked. As the afternoon wore on, I thought it would be great if I could also get the number of pixels in the wall shown, the number of tiles needed, and how much power it needed too. So, a bit more programming and I had that information too.
By this time it was pretty late, but I was quite pleased with what I had made: a simple calculator that told you for a Barco iLite 6mm wall how many processors you needed for a given wall. I compiled the program and sent it to a mate of mine at work to show him. He came back with “this is great, but what about the other LED we have!” and so began a project that has led to where FidoLED is now. I would never have guessed that this simple app would grow into the beast it is now, with it being used across the entire globe.
Q: What other apps have you developed?
A: I have a few other industry tools: BlendZ, GridZ, LEDGridZ, and some other utility tools: Network noodle, Squirt, and reboot notifier.
Q: Who are your target users?
A: Any tech or project manager that is building an LED screen, or giving technical information for an LED screen and needs to know: how big, its resolution, how much power it could draw, and want grids for it.
Q: Do you work in the industry, if so, what sector and what’s your technical background?
A: I do work in the industry. I have been in the AV industry since 1991 when I first entered with a small AV Rental company that used to hang projectors at the BBC studios in London amongst other things doing Scenic projection. From there I learned video wall projection cubes and monitors, as well as camera system and vision switchers. I was mainly a projectionist though, that was most of the shows I worked on.
From there, I moved to a larger AV company that had a single office in Wandsworth in London called Creative Technology. There still working as a projection tech I learned new camera systems, and flypacks, and also got to work with their Outside Broadcast trucks. I moved up and became a vision engineer, and eventually a systems engineer, before eventually somehow becoming a project manager after installing a large project to celebrate the millennium in London. In 2003 I was transferred to one of the US offices where I have been ever since. Today I still work every now and then as a tech on site, but mostly I am on site as a project manager who is also responsible for training the new generation of techs.
Q: What was the process for you to code and test this app?
A: FidoLED has gone under a lot of changes as it’s been developed. At first it was a very rigid program that required almost a total rewrite as I bolted new bits on. The very first few versions there were only a few products in there and they were all hard coded, so every time we bought new LED I would have to go back into the code and write new chunks, compile, and send out to people.
While on site on another show, I was playing around with databases and decided that what I should do is write a database for all the LED products we have and be able to select the product via the database as I would no longer need to recode my program every time we added a new product, and this worked out really well. At this point, it was still only available for the Mac and PC’s. Mobile versions were still a long way off, and the program was really only distributed internally to our company for PM’s and techs to use. Testing was done by the users and because it was simply a big calculator there were not many bugs.
Q: What was the process to unveil and launch to the public?
A: In 2012, I got my first android smartphone, and decided to see if I could write FidoLED for that platform. It took a while and was nowhere near as slick as the desktop versions, but I managed to get a working version and passed it around to a few people to look at. At this point I needed to put it on the Google play store for them to download. There was no real way to keep this private then and soon techs were showing it to fellow techs and very slowly I noticed it was getting more and more downloads.
Around the same time, I noticed that the desktop versions were also being downloaded more and more from people outside of the company. I very quickly needed to add the option of allowing other people to ask for LED tiles to be added, as this was quickly becoming something that was no longer unique to Creative Technology’s inventory.
Q: How long did the total process of creating your app take?
A: From the initial idea to having a computer program that worked was a few days, but from the initial idea to something someone could look at and say it’s FidoLED was about 18 months. At first development was very fast. As more people used it, more features were asked for so I spent a lot of free time adding to the program to try and make it better and more useful. Even today 12 years later I am trying to add things and make it better, though it has slowed down a little.
Every time I try and work on it I have to pour over a lot of code that is sloppy. This was built upon my first app that was messy from a coding point of view. Really,I should start from scratch, but feel if I did that I would not have the energy to see it through to the end!
Q: How did you get the word out there about your app once you launched?
A: Mainly it has been spread by word of mouth. I passed it around our company at first, sent a few copies back to our UK office for them to play with, I would send freelancers that asked for links to it, and they in turn told other freelancers, and so it went on. There is a Facebook page for it where I used to post updates of products that had been added, but I don’t really keep that updated, as I can now push database update notifications directly to the users, something I was unable to do when I started the Facebook page.
Q: What’s your approach to user experience and design principles?
A: Like anything, it’s got to be easy and obvious to use: enter the information and be presented with the results. So, I have kept it neat, with things in boxes so that you can see everything at a glance without having to scroll around, something you can snapshot on a single page and see everything.
Q: Does your app work offline?
A: Yes, it has to. Sometimes you find yourself in a place where there is no internet so everything is stored on the device it’s being used on. No mobile data or wifi required unless you want to update the database!
Q: Is your app the same thing from when you first created it or has the idea evolved?
A: Oh it has evolved for sure, both the mobile and the desktop versions. The database is constantly being updated, I keep wanting to add new things, and I have a list of items I want to add. Half tiles is the biggest thing, being able to calculate a wall with both full and half tiles has to be the biggest request I get and everytime I sit down to do it I look over my code and decide to put it off until another time!
It’s my own fault, the code, as mentioned before, is sloppy so I instead find myself going back in and optimising it little by little and making sure I have not broken anything. Recently I had to make the desktop version run on the new Mac os and that meant a massive code tidy, so now that I have done that I might tackle this again over the summer...
Q: What platform is this app on and how should people new to your app be using it?
A: FidoLED is available for Windows, Mac, Android, and iOS. It’s pretty straightforward to use: open the app, select the manufacturer, select the model, enter the width and height of the LED screen, and press calculate. You will be presented with the information about the LED screen and from there you can have a grid generated for you to give to media folks, if needed.
Q: Can you break down each part of your app and what people can and can’t do with it?
A: Well at the moment, it can’t work with mixed full and half height tiles! That is pretty much what you can’t do with it. What you can do with it is get all the information you need about a given LED screen: its total size in height and width, the total number of pixels, the power it will need (given the manufacturer's specs!), and the weight of the wall.
You can draw a grid of the wall and also print out this information to send to someone if they need it. On the mobile versions, you can request new LED tiles be added. On the desktop versions, you can generate grids with custom colours if you know where to click and the code. This was more an easter egg to annoy a few people so I could generate LED grids with custom colours – if anyone wants to know how just hit me up with an email message at [email protected].
Q: How’s the feedback, the audience response, since launching your app?
A: It’s been great, people find it useful and I have seen it being used all over the globe. It’s sometimes weird walking through a convention centre during set up where there are many other AV companies setting up booths with LED and seeing grids generated by my app. I am pleased that people find it useful.
Q: What features are being used the most since launch?
A: Probably the Grid generator I would say, it saves a lot of time having the app generate it rather than opening photoshop to build one.
Q: What stands out about your app compared to other options?
A: I have seen a few manufacturer specific apps out there, and also another app made by another AV company. They seem to focus on just giving you the information about a total wall build. My app is different because it can generate a grid that is pixel for pixel and ready to use.
Q: How do they buy the app? Are there additional features?
A: The app is available for free on the Google play store, and from my website for the desktop versions. The iOS version I charge a small fee for, and there are two reasons: the first is Apple forces me to pay a yearly developer fee to keep the app on their store. They also force me to test on actual hardware so I have had to purchase a few iPhones over the years as they change their screen sizes and hardware. It also stops people from downloading the app who don’t need it. I noticed a few negative reviews on the Google store from people that downloaded it thinking it was something else. There are no additional features that paying more money unlocks!
Q: What’s next for the app?
A: For the mobile versions, I intend to add something that is in the Desktop versions. We have a lot of ROE products, and they have clips on the corners that attach them together for their Carbon range. On the desktop versions, I already list the number of 2 and 4 way connectors you need. I added this to help me when I write quotes so that I would have enough, so I plan to add this to the mobile versions.
I also plan to add a favourite list on the mobile version so that you can get to a manufacturer without having to scroll down a list that keeps getting bigger. I also want to get the half tile thing sorted out, but that will take a little longer to do.
Q: Best advice you could give to someone reading this article?
A: If you have an idea for a tool that you would find useful, learn how to code and write it! One of my techs a long time ago asked me how you learn to code. I said you need an idea for something, and you go from there. His first project was controlling a router, he used to giggle as he would switch signals around from the push of a button on his laptop. He went on to write the Octopus app, a total show control program that we now use a lot and is used on shows large and small where you want to automate things. we have used it to run entire shows automatically, reducing the amount of time people are glued to their seats at auto shows while the same thing runs all day long!
Well AVE community, we hope this has been helpful in introducing this app to you or shedding light on some of the capabilities if it’s something you already use!
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