Category: Alarm Clock Project

Beta-testing at the bedside

March 30th, 2010 — 9:28pm

I now have a prototype in use at the bedside for beta-testing. The components are not all inside the clock itself – there is a box below with the main circuit on a breadboard, which is connected to the clock case with a ribbon cable – this allows me to make adjustments as I go without having to make a PCB.

The clock isn’t working perfectly, but it is waking me up in the morning. A few things I have noticed:

  • The clock occasionally  ”crashes” when adjusting the alarm time – some programming glitches remain to be worked out
  • The display is way too bright, even with the tinted glass. Adjustable or  automatic dimming will definitely need to be an option.
  • The doorbell mechanism for the alarm is way to metallic sounding
  • The interval for the alarm is set so that the alarm goes off once every 30 seconds. With the doorbell mechanism I am currently using, this is really annoying. This will definitely need to be an adjustable setting.

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Alarm Clock Survey

March 18th, 2010 — 1:54pm

If you’ve stumbled upon this, please take a moment to fill out this survey about Alarm Clocks – and add your contact info if you are interested in participating in development through future surveys, focus-groups, beta-testing, etc…

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Multiplexing with IV-18

February 28th, 2010 — 11:54pm

What makes it possible for an amateur like me to take on a project like this is the overwhelming amount of support that comes from a worldwide community of developers, often without their knowledge. For example, the circuit design and firmware for the icetube clock are freely available to download and re-use under an open-source licence. The clock design is similar in some ways to my own. The schematics and code don’t have everything I’ll need in the final design, but I have learned a great deal and saved hours, days, maybe weeks worth of time in procurement and experimentation, and this gave me a great tutorial for developing my own design.

I was able to light up the IV-18 tube and have it display digits, without completely understanding how it all works. I guess this is the real beauty of open-source. You don’t have to know everything, you don’t have to do everything. You find something and build on it, and bring your own contribution.

For this prototype I am using an obsolete HV518P high-voltage driver IC, which takes signals from the microcontroller and outputs high-voltage directly to the display segments in the VFD tube. I chose this one mainly because it comes in a DIP package, so I can fit it into a breadboard.

The most difficult part of getting all this to work was wiring from the driver to the VFD tube. The schematics for the icetube were for the popular MAX6921 driver, which I will likely use in the final design, but the wiring for the HV518 seems to be a bit different – so I had to cross-reference the icetube schematic and the data sheet for the HV518 to know which pins went where, which didn’t seem to work so well. It can be a bit like a rubix cube – even if it’s off by just one bit, it can take hundreds of re-tries to get it all in order. In the end I got it working by sheer brute force and determination.



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Futaba 6-LT-23Z

February 27th, 2010 — 3:20pm

I bought a bunch of these VFDs last year for a bargain. I may use these for the first version of the clock. The have a nice large display with an extra 2 digits, an alarm indicator, and indicators for the day of the week.


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Case Design Prototype

February 26th, 2010 — 12:38am

Over past year I have had a few meetings with Brent Rouke about the case for the alarm clock. By the summer we had developed a prototype for the case, and in the fall I had some custom glass cut to match the face. Here is the result:


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February 26th, 2010 — 12:30am

One of the challenges of working with a project like this that uses “exotic displays” such as Vacuum Fluorescent or Nixie Tubes is that these displays are very fickle with the way they are driven. VFDs typically need about 20-80 volts to light up the anode/grid segments of the display, and because they are vacuum tubes, they also need a filament to be heated up with about 1-5 volts.

There are a variety of ways to get the higher voltages. If the tubes you are using are not too picky you might get away with 12-24 volts, but if you want to support a variety of displays, and if you want to be able to drive the displays with multiplexing (i.e. flashing the segments+digits one at a time, in rapid succession), then you will need up yo 80v.

I have very little knowledge of analog circuitry and switch-mode power supplies, so I wanted to change that, and researched various ways to get the voltages I would need, and settled on a switch-mode PSU based on the MAX1771 step-up converter. After some trial and error with procuring the right components, I settled on a design based on this switch-mode power supply. This circuit was designed for nixies, which need up to 250 volts. It’s overkill for my current requirements but I want to support a variety of displays, and may use nixies at some point.

It took me a long time to get this working and I smoked a few mosfets and 1771s along the way, so it was pure joy when I saw the voltmeter jump up to 50v. After playing with some resistor values I soon had it cranking out 250v from a 5v supply. I added a trimpot to make it adjustable from about 25-100v.

I then got out one of the russian IV-18 tubes from my collection and hooked it into a breadboard, and ran 5v into a trimpot and then to the filament, and ran the HV power to the anodes/grid. After some trial and error I finally got it to light up. It seems to like about 60v.


The IV-18 tubes more than are worthy of a close-up. I am quite enamoured with them.


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Updated clock prototype sketch

February 5th, 2009 — 10:33pm



I’m making a few minor updates to the clock design, specifically for the prototype. I’m not as fond of this shape, it’s now 3″ high instead of 2″, not as sleek, but this initial prototype is more about getting everything functional, and will allow more room for error when fitting all the electronics in. Once we have all the components in there, we can see about shrinking it down.

There are now two knobs instead of one. The one on the top will be for alarm functions, and the one on the back will be for time functions. In many hardware interface designs we see instances where many controls can be accessed from a single point, in this case a knob. The downfall in that approach is that you end up lumping together the more commonly-used functions with the less commonly-used. So for example, if most of the time people just want to adjust the alarm time, but they end up paging through the current time, date, etc…, it becomes more cumbersome than it needs to be.

With a single rotary encoder, there is no “back” button, so the user cannot page back if they accidentally skip over the function they want, so they have to click several times to come back to the page they meant to be on. So by having one knob for the alarm, and one for the time, the user will have to do less paging, and they will be less likely to make any mistakes, such as changing the current time.

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Alarm Clock – Prototype 1

January 29th, 2009 — 4:21pm

This is the first prototype of the Alarm Clock Project. It is currently hooked up to a doorbell chime. This demos the user interaction style with the rotary encoder. The 5-digit number on the top line is for debugging – it represents the time of day expressed in total seconds elapsed since midnight.

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January 29th, 2009 — 12:54am


I think I fried my programmer. I knew something bad happened when I shorted 24v into the voltage regulator. So I must have killed the programmer along with it. Now it shorts out my circuits every time I connect it. I doubt there is anything I can do now.  I have AVRStudio running on WindowsXP, running on Parallels, runnong on my iMac, and this little programmer worked through it all without any complaints. I’ll miss this little guy. It might be time to move on to the Arduino platform, considering I can get a USB development board for about $40, and a new programmer will run be about $150.

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Retro clock radio

January 27th, 2009 — 10:01am

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