Tech the halls with high-tech decorations

'Tis the season for color-changing LEDs, fake snow, and app-controlled light shows.

We wish you a techy Christmas

The holidays are a feast for the senses—from the taste of cookies and cocoa to the sound of jingle bells and the scent of pine trees. And oh yeah, the sight of hundreds of thousands of blinking lights everywhere you look. (Half a million on one house, if you happen to visit the world-record-setting Richards residence near Canberra, Australia.)

Even if you don’t want to go full Clark Griswold this year, we found 12 high-tech ways to make the season just a little brighter. They range from DIY snow machines and animated light shows all the way to plug-and-play products that require no knowledge of circuitry or soldering. However you celebrate, we wish you a wonderful, safe, and high-tech holiday season.

Brite Star Magic Touch Symphony of Lights

Brite Star’s lights are a little expensive—$50 for a string of 15 from Brookstone, and only slightly less on Amazon, at $42. They aren’t app-controlled: A small box at the end of the strand has two buttons that let you toggle between the seven colors and four patterns.

The indoor/outdoor bulbs are lovely, and the blinking and chasing patterns go at a nice speed—not so fast that they’ll give you a headache. You can use up to 40 sets together, and the colors and patterns stay synced. Hackers will be pleased to know that each bulb closes with just four little screws, so you can access the tiny circuit board if you want to modify anything yourself.

LEDwholesalers LED Flexible Strip

A little strip of color-changing LEDs offers a versatile way to add Christmas mood lighting, and you’ll find uses for them the rest of the year too. LEDwholesalers has good prices: You pay $32 via Amazon for this nonwaterproof (read: indoor) kit, which contains a 5-meter (16.4-foot) flexible strip of 150 RGB LEDs. You can link more strips together or cut them up to fit a particular space, and 3M tape on the back makes them easy to hang. The lights are dimmable, and you can control them wirelessly with a 44-button IR remote.

LEDwholesalers has lots of info on its site, but the price is higher there too, at $45. Need waterproof strips for outdoor use? No problem; those are also $45.

Philips Hue

Another great mood-lighting option, the $200 Philips Hue 3-bulb starter pack is perfect for holiday parties and definitely cool enough to use all year. And now you can also get $90 LED light strips that work with the existing Hue bridge (which comes with that starter pack). You can easily tuck the strips out of sight to add ambient mood lighting any time of the year, but around the holidays you can try hiding them in wreaths, trees, or other decorative displays.

You can use the Philips Hue app for iPhone and iPad to choose the brightness and colors, match the colors in your photos, create “light recipes,” set timers, and turn the lights on and off remotely.

Don’t forget that Hue also works with IFTTT, which lets you set up behaviors such as having the color of a light indicate the temperature outside, or making a light blink when your favorite team’s big game is about to start. Or maybe you’ll want to set a light up to blink at a certain time when Santa is about to come, as a signal that the kids should get to bed. (Hint, hint.)

Deluxe Electronic Breadboard Menorah Kit

Evil Mad Scientist (how great is that shop name, by the way?) has two other LED Menorah Kits, but this one stands out in that it doesn’t require soldering. So you can give it to a nerdy tween and not worry about their burning themselves, although they will need some small wire clippers and three AA batteries.

This isn’t a centerpiece-sized menorah; it’s just a few inches across. But it is a fun DIY project for kids interested in small electronics, or even college students who can’t burn candle menorahs in their dorm rooms. At just $18, it’s priced right for gift-giving, too.

Android and Arduino LED projects

If you want to get crazy with your LED strips and use black-belt tech skills such as soldering, Instructables is the place to go. Grab a waterproof LED strip with individually addressable lights for this project, which uses an IOIO board and a Bluetooth module to control the lights from your Android phone. The geniuses behind the Instructables post wrote an Android app that matches the colors to what your phone’s camera sees. If you want to roll up your sleeves and program other functions (yes, in Android), some sample code is included to get you started.

If you have an Arduino board instead of an IOIO board, the same light strip can work in similar projects, but note that this is advanced DIY stuff here.

Photo credit: alinke, via Instructables.

Sound-Reactive Christmas Lights

As long as we’re talking DIY projects, this one doesn’t look too difficult. It uses three sets of Celebright LED holiday lights ($20 each), as well as a $100 add-on called the Apollo Jammer that will make the lights flash and change color to your music. (Both the strips and the Jammer are 20 percent off through December 3.)

You just connect your smartphone or other player, turn on some tunes, and use the Jammer’s two buttons (come on, you can handle two buttons) to select the mode and intensity. Christmas is going to rock.

Photo credit: Elemental LED, via Instructables.


Once you’ve replaced all your old Christmas lights with modern LEDs, what do you do with your outdated mini lights? Get some clear plastic cups and make a Sparkleball! It could add some fun decor to your New Year’s Eve party, and you can bust it out again next summer to brighten up your patio when your barbecue guests stay long past sundown.

To make the Sparkleball, you connect 50 clear plastic cups, either the 9-ounce cocktail size or the 1-ounce size that holds ketchup and stuff. You can use the end of a soldering iron (or even the hot part of a glue gun) to gently melt the cups together at each joint, or you can use this no-melt recipe to connect cups with 200 small zip ties. (Either method works with either cup size.) Never before has something as low-tech as plastic cups and old Christmas lights looked so futuristic.

Photo credit: Sparkleball_lady, via Instructables.

Belkin WeMo

One easy way to get some app-enabled control over your Christmas decorations is to plug them into a $50 WeMo Switch from Belkin. With a free app for iOS and Android, you can turn your decorations on or off from anywhere, and even set a schedule.

Like the Philips Hue, the WeMo Switch has its own IFTTT channel, which lets you make arrangements such as automatically having your Christmas tree light up each day at sundown. Plus, if you upgrade to the $60 WeMo Insight device, you can even get stats on just how much electricity your creepy animatronic Santa burns.

No-Power Holiday Lights

Calling all mad scientists! This awesome Instructables project will teach you how to make strings of glowing discs that could substitute for lights if and when all your new toys finally take up every last power outlet in the house.

You use glowing phosphorescent powder, which comes in many colors, and mix it with resin to coat pieces of white cardstock. You even get to wear a dust mask and safety glasses—it’s geeky and crafty all at once!

Lumen Bluetooth Smart Bulb

An alternative to the Philips Hue, the Lumen smart bulb uses Bluetooth instead of Wi-Fi, so as long as your iOS device has Bluetooth 4.0, you can get started with one $70 Lumen bulb instead of shelling out $200 for the three-bulb Philips Hue Starter Pack. For the holidays, you’ll mostly use this for mood lighting—the LED bulb is RGBW (the W stands for white), which allows it to make almost any color (great for your party’s photo booth), all adjustable in the free app.

The app includes a Music Sync Mode that can take over your light’s colors and make it flash along to all the seasonal hits on your holiday playlist. You’ll also find a Party Mode for rocking out to multicolored flashing lights, but it isn’t synced up to the tunes, which is kind of a party foul if you ask us.

Light Flurries

What’s a high-tech Christmas without something from Sharper Image? The Light Flurries machine is fairly corny but pretty darn cool too. It basically consists of a light shining on a box that holds a kind of disco ball, which reflects lights onto the front of your house to mimic falling snow. The maximum size is a generous 40 feet wide by 60 feet high, and you can even control the size and speed of the “flurries.”

This item would be great for cheering up someone who has moved to a warmer climate and misses December snow. Or you can use it to show off—er, I mean, festively greet guests—at your holiday party. Pipe “White Christmas” and “Let It Snow” through an outdoor speaker for the full effect.

DIY Snow Machine

“Light flurries?” you may have scoffed while reading that last slide. Yes, real snow is better. And this Instructables project will take you step-by-step through the process of making an external snow machine out of more-or-less common supplies such as an air compressor and a power washer.

Now, this won’t work everywhere. For starters, you’ll need to be someplace where temperatures are cold enough to create snow—36 degrees at the warmest. But if that applies to you, this looks like a fun project, and it’s the best reason we’ve heard all day to buy Teflon tape.

Photo credit: MakeSnow, via Instructables.

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