Dmitry at Magictale Electronics recently sent me the Luminardo to review (well, not that recently any more, sorry Dmitry...), and it's a clock that is worth a closer look because of the time and effort that Dmitry put into creating it. It is clearly a labor of love, and ultimately that has been it's downfall.
Unfortunately, you can't buy one of these, because Dmitry is not selling them any more, because he just can't get the price down enough to make it an interesting proposition with a reasonable price. This is the last one.
The Luminardo is a small format VFD clock with bang up to date electronics, which is based on the Arduino, and really it is more of a device platform than a clock as such. The code is all in a GitHub repository, and it is all compatible with the normal Arduino IDE. There's even an Arduino compatible port on the back of the clock, so you can just plug the Luminardo in to your computer to flash new firmware on it right away. In the repository are also the hardware files, and the Luminardo is therefore an open hardware and open source project. Nice!
If making a board for the Luminardo is too much, you can just go over to Magictale's Tindy account and pick up the board. If you have a look on the Magictale site, there is an abundance of information and downloads there. Sometimes it is hard to find what you are looking for, because there is simply so much information there. It's a sort of Geek Ulysses, a huge stream of consciousness, a fire-hose of ideas from the clearly (over?) active mind of the creator.
The clock from the outside
I had to wait a long time to get my hands on one for review: it had to come from Australia, and it had to be built before sending it. When it came, it arrived in a small box, well packed and protected. Unwrapping it revealed a cute white package in a carefully designed 3D printed case:
The Luminardo is a long term personal project that Magictale has been pursuing for quite a while now. I quizzed Dmitry about the price that he would sell it for if he was going to sell it, but he explained that he couldn't get the production cost down enough to make it viable to sell it, because the cost in time and parts was just too high to make it something that is viable as a commercial product. I believe this without hesitation: The amount of work that has gone into this clock must be enormous. Apart from the 8 digit, 15 segment display, the clock literally bristles with sensors:
- The PIR detector on the top turns the clock on when you walk into the room
- There is a speaker in the left with a hole in the front panel to let the sound out
- Below that there is an LDR
- On the right there is an RGB LED
- and below that an IR sensor
Round the back, there is even more:
- On the left the is a temperature sensor
- Just above it there is a connector for an external sensor for outdoor temperature measurements
- Below that, a standard 6-pin ICSP port
- An exposed I2C connector
- A serial port 1
- A serial port 0 which is also used by onboard USB-to-serial converter
- A USB host interface with type 'A' receptacle
- A USB-to-serial interface with type 'B' mini receptacle
- On the side, a power barrel jack
- On top of the case there is a hole for accessing a reset micro switch.
From the inside
The assembly is made of two PCBs. Firstly a motherboard with CPU, peripherals and power source unit, and secondly a display module, the two are interconnected with a 14-pin header. The original idea was to make display panels interchangeable to take advantage different types of VFDs, with different number of digits/symbols and segments. The boards are detailed SMD boards, with a high density, and must be a trial to assemble.
The unit can be powered by a single power source, either through the power barrel jack on the side or through the mini USB connector. The relatively high and filament voltages needed by VFD are generated internally. The VFD power supply design doesn't have notorious shortcuts like powering filament with DC or using a software driven high voltage generator or using a charge pump which by its nature can't provide constant voltage level. Instead, a high voltage generator circuitry has a feedback and a pulse filament drive is used, eliminating typical issues like brightness gradient and dependency between brightness and total number of segments being lit. Still, the solution is simple, inexpensive and doesn't use custom made transformers.
As for the electronic components, the circuitry uses highly a available and extremely popular buck boost switching regulator MC34063 and a mono audio amplifier which are unlikely going to become obsolete in foreseeable future, and even if they do, they could be easily substituted with something else. The VFD glass is controlled by a specialised driver which does the multiplexing, controls dimming and has a convenient SPI-like serial interface, such driver is often used in modern DVD players. The VFD panel has a power down mode allowing significantly reduce power consumption and prolong VFD glass lifetime.
The heart of the motherboard is an ATMEGA with 128 Kb of program memory onboard making plenty of room for experimentations. The board has a battery backed dedicated real time clock chip which doesn't loose track of time even during power outages. It also provides 56 bytes battery backed RAM with unlimited number of read/write cycles which is very convenient for keeping user settings, for example, alarm time.There is also a conventional FTDI-based USB-to-Serial converter for flashing applications and serial debugging, just like a typical Arduino. Besides, there is a USB host functionality based on MAX3431E chip which has a mature software support by opensource library https://github.com/felis/USB_Host_Shield_2.0 evolved over the years. While the ATMEGA clearly doesn't have capabilities to work with web cameras it can easily handle such things as Bluethooth dongles or USB flash drives so it is really easy to turn the clock into a datalogger or control it by an Android phone. The board has two power rails, 5V and 3.3V with most of the logic and the micro using 3.3V. Both rails are available on an external expansion header along with the SPI interface theoretically making a provision for a third board-shield in between the two boards, however, the current design of the case doesn't accommodate for it.
The case is also a little work of art. It's clearly 3D printed, but has curves and recesses, bezels and details that tell you someone spent a long time on it. The PIR sensor on the top of the unit is half hidden and does not call attention to itself. Even though the PIR sensor is recessed, it still has a wide field of view, and the clock wakes up before you are fully in the room.
The remote control
One really nice feature is the software controlled remote control unit. When the clock starts up, it prompts you to set up the remote control by displaying "RCSETUP" if the Infra-red sensor detects any signal during this time, it goes into "learn" mode.
This means you can use pretty much any remote control you have laying around, and teach the clock the buttons you will be using. Gone are the days when losing the remote control was a big problem. That's a really nice feature!
Programming the Luminardo
With a totally normal USB cable you can link up the Luminardo to you Arduino IDE, and after you install a hardware definition file into the IDE, the Luminardo appears in the IDE as a device in the "Tools > Boards" menu. You can make changes to the code and upload it in a matter of seconds. This makes the development cycle with the Luminardo very direct and quick. Have an idea, code it, upload it, test it all in a few seconds.
It's a lovely little clock, and it's a real shame that it is over-engineered to the point of being impossible to mass produce. I mean this in terms that to be able to market a product with this level of sophistication, the price is going to have to be well up in the $250+ range. I paid $150 for mine, which was the review price, therefore basically cost price. By the time that support, returns profit and administration, fees, shipping and all the rest of the costs of production are factored in, the price will certainly end up at least double the cost, so around $300.
It is a shame. This is a really neat little clock, but unfortunately, it does not have a future at the moment, primarily because it is over-specified and over-engineered.