Terminology

I thought I would start compiling a list of commonly-used terms and acronyms in the pixel-lighting hobby, in hopes of helping others just starting out. I will add to and modify this as time goes on. This is an evolving hobby and some terms don’t necessarily have a clear definition. In these cases I will attempt to provide as many common opinions as possible.

If you think I am wrong about something, or would like to see something added or defined better- please let me know via social media. Links below.

Arch

Popular pixel prop that arranges pixels in an arch shape. The pixels are often either mounted inside translucent plastic pipe/tubing or fastened to a wire frame. They are often called “jumping arches” because of the jumping light effects that are often applied to them. They can be of virtually any size- from just a few feet long and high to dozens of feet long and high. They are often mounted in the yard or on the roof, or extended over driveways and sidewalks.

Pixel Arches
Image Credit: https://lunardenlights.com

Bullet Pixel

This is the most commonly used format for RGB pixels. The are similar in format to mini-lights, but much larger- 12mm in diameter (approx. 1/2″).

“Bullet” Pixels

C9 (or C7)

“Old School” Christmas light format. There were two primary forms of Christmas lights before “mini-lights” became popular back in the 1970s- C7 and C9 bulbs. These actually referred to the wattage of the bulb (C7=7w, C9=9w), but also refers to the size- C9 bulbs are larger than C7. Pixel enthusiasts either make or buy “C9” caps for standard bullet pixels, or buy “Pixa-Bulb” or similar versions pre-made. This is because a lot of people like the old-fashioned or classic look of these large bulbs.

C9 Bulbs
Image Credit: 1000Bulbs.com

Candy Cane

This is a popular Pixel Pole like design, usually consisting of at least three columns of pixels in a classic candy cane shape. Often made of coro-plast, wood, metal, or other plastics. Some are even much higher density, providing a matrix-like canvas.

Candy Cane
Photo Credit: boscoyostudio.com

Cat. 5 (or Cat. 6)

This refers to standard Ethernet networking cable. Cat. 5 (Category 5) refers to an older standard that generally supports up to 100Mbit (Mega-bit) Ethernet, while Cat. 6 is a newer standard that supports 1000Mbit, usually referred to as Gigabit Ethernet. Most Ethernet cable available to day is either Cat. 5e (an extension of the original Cat. 5 standard) and Cat. 6. The former is usually considerably cheaper and is more than adequate for use in this hobby. Ethernet cable is used in 3 ways in this hobby. First- for networking, which is what it was originally designed for. Many controllers can be “hard wired” together into a network using commonly available network switches. Ethernet cable is also used for differential data between a controller and a differential receiver. In both of these cases- standard “RJ45” connectors are installed on each end of the cable using specific connection standards. Ethernet cable can also be used for pixel (WS2811) data, and can provide much longer distances than “straight” LED cable extension options.

Ethernet Cable with RJ-45 Plugs

Controller

A controller sends pixel, and optionally differential, data to control pixels. The most commonly used protocol for doing this is called WS2811. Most pixels either have WS2811 chips in them, or have compatible chips that understand WS2811 signaling. Some controllers use on-board CPUs and can be sent data directly from a “player” computer, or can run a display using data stored on an SD card. Others have a built-in player computer and can run a display by themselves, or accept control from a player computer. Some popular controller manufacturers as of now are…
Falcon
Kulp
Hanson
SanDevices

A Pixel Controller (Kulp K16A-B)
Image Credit: https://kulplights.com

Coro, Coroplast, Coro-Plast

Corrugated plastic, similar in construction to corrugated cardboard. It is commonly used for signs, displays, hobby construction, and kiosks. This versatile material has become a very popular medium for holiday decorating, and especially pixel props. It is available in various thicknesses and corrugation densities. It can be cut using common hand and power tools, but is most often cut using CNC machines.

Coro or Coro-Plast

There are many businesses that cater specifically to the holiday decorating market, including but not limited to:
Boscoyo Studio
Gilbert Engineering
Holiday Coro

Daisy-Chain

In this hobby, and in electronics in-general, daisy-chaining refers to the practice or ability to connect circuits end-to-end. So- the output of one circuit connects to the input of the next, and so-on. In electronic terms- it refers to components running in “series”. A pixel string itself is a daisy-chain of WS2811 pixel modules- each one connects to the next, and the data output of one feeds the data input of the next. Similarly props and other pixel elements can be daisy-chained together, sometimes with F-Amps (Pixel Amps) or Null Pixels, as a means to reduce port usage on a controller or reduce data cabling needs. For example- 10 props with 50 pixels each could be run from 10 controller channels, or if they are close enough to each other- they could be daisy-chained together to only use one controller port.

Differential Receiver

Pixel controllers generally have two different kinds of outputs- “Pixel” and “Differential”. Pixel data can only travel short distances by itself without being amplified. Differential data uses the RS-485 standard to transmit data large distances, often as much as 300ft or more. This data needs a receiver to convert it back into pixel data, which is what a Differential Receiver does. Four channels of data are sent over regular “Cat. 5” or “Cat. 6” Ethernet cable. Differential Receivers can drive four strands of pixels from those four channels. The number of pixels depends on the controller. Because the data connection does not include power- Differential Receivers also usually have Power Distribution functionality built-in.

A Differential Receiver
Image Credit: Hanson Electronics

DMX, E1.31, DDP, Art-Net/sACN

These are all lighting control protocols, with DMX and sACN (also called Art-Net) originating in the theatrical/concert lighting world. DMX is actually a shortened form of “DMX512” and was developed in the mid-80s for professional lighting applications. Later Art-Net/sACN was developed as “DMX over Ethernet”. E1.31 was later developed as a more efficient DMX/sACN data streaming protocol, that can work over WIFI. Up until recently, E1.31 was the most commonly-used protocol for communicating between show-runners/players and controllers. DDP (Distributed Display Protocol) is a newer streaming standard loosely based on E1.31 that is now the preferred protocol for communicating lighting data. It eliminates a lot of packet overhead/waste that exists in the older standards.

Dumb

General term referring to non-pixel lights, where individual lights cannot be set to a specific color (addressed) using a controller. This can refer to classic Christmas bulbs and mini-lights, or to LED lights that can change colors, but cannot be individually addressed. There are “AC” and “RGB” controllers that can flash these lights or change the color of an entire string, which can be used for decorating, but these are largely being replaced with pixels.

ESP, Node, MCU, NodeMCU

Okay, this is confusing, and I admit I have jumbled these words and acronyms together in various ways, which actually all “work”. First- ESP actually stands for Electronic Signal Processor, but we aren’t actually using those. In this case- it stands for a company, Espressif, a Chinese manufacturer of MCU (Micro Controller Unit) chips. Confused yet? Your mobile phone has a similar “SOC” (System On Chip) device inside it. These have microcontrollers and WIFI (2.4Ghz) radios built-in. NodeMCU refers to hobby development boards based on these chips, which are manufactured by many different Chinese companies. The dev-boards, as they are called, add memory, power management, Reset button, status LED(s), and usually a MicroUSB port for power and programming.

So- to try to make an already-long story short- any of these refers to a tiny microcontroller (MCU) board. Why does this matter for our hobby? Special firmware can be loaded onto these little chips, turning them into tiny WIFI pixel controllers! For more information, see ESPixelStick below, and WLED later on this page.

ESPixelStick

ESPixelStick refers to either hardware or the firmware developed for it. An ESPixelStick is a tiny pixel controller developed by Shelby Merrick, based on the ESP8266 (above). It can drive a single string of pixels using E1.31 (and now DDP) signaling from a show-runner or other controller. The newest version has a Micro-SD slot and is being developed as an FPP Remote device. Because the ESPixelStick firmware is open-source and will run on almost any ESP NodeMCU (see above), many also simply buy development boards, solder together a few components, and load the firmware to build their own “PixelSticks”. I started my pixel hobby using these homemade PixelSticks, usually just referred to as “nodes” or “NodeMCUs”. 🙂

F-Amp, Pixel Amp, or Null Buffer

F-Amp is Falcon’s version of a pixel amp or null buffer, but like Kleenex it has become a generic term to refer to pixel amps. A pixel amp is a small weatherproof circuit, often in the similar casing as a square pixel, that is used to amplify a pixel signal between two props. When daisy-chaining props- pixel data can generally only travel about 15′ between pixels (this is a rule of thumb and varies wildly). A Pixel Amp every 15-20′ insures the data will get to the next pixel. These often replace “Null Pixels”, and unlike null pixels do not need to be accounted for in display design as they don’t consume data while amplifying the digital signal.

F-Amp, Pixel Amp, or Null Buffer
Image Credit: http://www.hansonelectronics.com.au

Flat Tree

This can be “mega tree” size, but consists of pixel strips either mounted to a wall, or hanging down from a wall, in a tree-like shape. A flat tree can have a pixel density that supports matrix-like displays, similar to a mega tree, but is generally not rounded, and is not free-standing like a mega tree.

A Flat Tree
Image Credit: https://lunardenlights.com

FPP

FPP, originally Falcon Pi Player, is show-runner/player software that runs on SBCs (Single Board Computers) such as the Raspberry Pi and BeagleBone. It stores sequence and media files that can be assembled into playlists, which can then be scheduled to run at specific times/dates. It sends DMX, E1.31, or DDP data to controllers to “play” lighting effects based on the sequence, and provides audio and/or video output for those sequences. It is also integrated into some controllers, such as Kulp’s, providing full controller management capabilities as-well. It is currently the preferred method of running pixel-based shows.
https://github.com/FalconChristmas/fpp/releases

Master (Controller)

A “master” controller is the primary controller that runs a light show. The master controller sends synchronization data to any secondary/remote controllers to keep everything running together via a WIFI and/or wired network. The Master controller may or may not run pixels itself- it may just be used for audio or to manage the other controllers.

Matrix

An arrangement of pixels in a grid pattern that can be used to display complex light patterns, graphics, and text. Matrixes can be almost any size and density. Some use 1″ or smaller spacing and are suitable for closer view. Others are use up to 3″ spacing and are better viewed at long distances. They do not necessarily have to be square, such as in the case of a matrix-capable Mega Tree or Spinner.

A Pixel Matrix
Image Credit: https://lunardenlights.com

Mega Tree

This is a large tree-shaped assembly of pixels, generally capable of displaying discernible graphics and text as a matrix. There is a lot of debate in the community about what constitutes a “mega” tree. Most feel it needs to be at least 10′ tall, and again- have enough pixels to display graphics. Some feel it must be much taller- but if it is over a certain height (say 20′), it doesn’t necessarily need to have any matrix capability. For example: many feel it takes 16 “strands” of at least 50 pixels each for a minimal matrix-style mega tree. A 20’+ tree could be made with fewer strands, which can’t display graphics and text but can display complex light patterns. This would still be a mega tree by nature of its size. Older Mega Trees were simply 15′ or taller with either “dumb” RGB LED lights, or mini-lights. These were not pixel trees. Most insist that a mega tree needs to be free-standing. Not all of the tree needs to be lit. Some do prefer a 360 degree tree for authenticity or for “walk-through” displays, but most make trees with a 180-240 degree viewing area to conserve pixels.

Mega Tree Example
Image credit: magicchristmas.org

Mesmerizer

New term for a large and extremely high-density spinner. These are essentially round matrixes capable of displaying very complex patterns, graphics, and in some cases text.

A Mesermizer
Photo Credit: boscoyostudio.com

Mini Tree

This is a smaller pixel tree, generally under 10′ tall with fewer strands than a “Mega Tree”. These are usually capable of displaying simple patterns and showing “movement” in lights, although some higher-density configurations can display matrix-like content.

Mini Tree

Null Pixel

This is simply a pixel that is not used as part of the display. More specifically- it often refers to a pixel that is being used just to increase the transmission distance between other pixels while daisy-chaining props or other display elements. Normally pixel data can only travel around 15′ reliably between pixels. (This is just a rule of thumb, and varies wildly.) For runs longer than that- one or more Null Pixels can be used to help bridge the distance. Null pixels need to be accounted for in show design- as they still consume data, and generally need to be set to remain dark. They can be coated or covered too, but will still be accounted for in the pixel count. These have largely been replaced with F-Amps (Pixel Amps).

P5, P10

This is a modular pixel matrix, used to construct larger matrixes. These are roughly 12″ x 6″ modules consisting of a matrix of tiny LED pixels. They are designed to be mounted to to each other to present a “seamless” display. The number refers to the “pitch” between the pixels. A P5 has pixels on 5mm centers, while a P10 uses 10mm centers. These modules are commonly used in the “real world” for HD scoreboards, billboards, promotional and directional displays. Many prefer to use them as alternatives to pixel matrixes or virtual matrixes. Just one can be used for small scrolling text displays, but otherwise the can be connected like building blocks into rectangular displays of varying shapes and almost unlimited size. They require special controllers and cabling, as well as connectors and housings.

A P5 Panel

PDU

Power Distribution Unit (Board or Block). An “old-school” analogy would be a fuse box/block. This is a circuit board or assembly that provides fused outputs from a larger PSU (Power Supply) source. Generally you will have more power lines running to pixels and controllers than there are terminal for on a PSU. Most PSUs are internally fused and provide 10 or more Amps of power, while individual pixel circuits require fused protection in the 5-7A range. Because of this, some form power distribution is required for safe operation. You can, of course, just use a bunch of fuse holders and several electrical junctions to do this, but a safer way is to use a PDU. Some just use automotive/marine fuse blocks, while others use specialty boards specifically for the hobby.

An Automotive/Marine Fuse Block

Pixel

An LED module capable of being individually addressed and displaying a wide variety (theoretically millions) of colors using internal red, green, and blue (RGB) LEDs. These modules come in a variety of different shapes and sizes. 12mm diameter WS2811 pixel modules are primarily used in this hobby. The key defining factors are- individually addressable and multi-color.

Pixels

Pixel Column

A column of pixels, usually attached to a physical column. Generally consisting of 3 or more columns of pixels. Some are high density- amounting to tall-thin matrixes.

A pixel column
Image Credit: https://lunardenlights.com

Pixel Pole

These can vary anywhere from a longer single-column Pixel Stake to 3-4 columns of pixels. They are generally 3-4′ in height, although there are no limits. They are generally too narrow to provide matrix capabilities, but can display complex patterns that accentuate other elements in a display. Think of these as somewhere between a Column and a Stake.

Pixel Poles
Image Credit: http://facebook.com/NelsonFamilyLights

Pixel Stake, Peace Stake

Originally called Peace Stakes for their use in the Peace Family Light Show, where they were first debuted to a wider audience, these are now more-commonly just called Stakes or Pixel Stakes. A small stake usually consisting of 3-5 pixels spaced 1-2 inches apart. The most common arrangement is 5 pixels about 1.5″ apart, although there are many-many variations and styles. Usually these are used in large quantities as pixel “ground-covers” which can accentuate other yard props. In advanced configurations and large enough numbers- they can product matrix-like effects, or make it appear that the yard is “moving”. They are very-very versatile.

Pixel Stake Example
Image Credit: https://lunardenlights.com

Pixel Strip

Generally these are plastic strips with holes cut in them for pixels and fixed distances, usually 1″, 1.5″, 2″, or 3″. These can be used to build pixel trees, matrixes, house outlines, roof outlines, and anything else that requires pixels to be held at specific distances from each other in a straight line.

Pixel Strips
Photo Credit: boscoyostudio.com

PSU

Power Supply Unit, or just Power Supply. Provides power for pixels and controllers, and associated equipment. Pixels, while very-very efficient compared to “old school” Christmas lights, still need a lot of power. You can’t run them off a simple plug-in power supply- you need (several) industrial-grade power supplies to provide either 5v or 12v for the pixels, depending on the kind you choose to use. There are “weatherproof” PSUs primarily used for outdoor signage, but most use indoor-rated “metal frame” PSUs, and put them in weatherproof boxes/enclosures.


A commonly-used PSU. (Amazon Link)

RBL, RBB

Really Big Light (Bulb). This is a large hollow plastic representation of a (C9) Christmas light bulb. Usually these are at least 8″ in diameter. Clear and frosted versions can often be had at Home Depot and similar home centers. They come with cheap battery-operated or plug-in lights that people replace with pixels.

An “RBL”

Remote (Controller)

This is a controller that runs a specific set of pixels or other components (such as audio or video) as directed by a Master controller. It generally cannot run a light show by itself, and usually only has the sequence data it needs to run its part of the display, and not any media or other data.

SBC (RPi, BB, BBB)

Single Board Computer. These are small fully-functional computers that usually run a version of the Linux operating system. These are used as general-purpose controllers for small groups of pixels, as media players, show-runners/schedulers, and as the “brains” of many pixel controllers. The most-commonly used SBCs are the Raspberry PI (RPi) and the Beagle Bone Black (BBB).

In most cases, you don’t need to know much about them, other than that you may need to “burn” or save a software package to an SD card, and plug it into the SBC. They are usually then managed using a Web browser, with no need to learn the intricacies of the operating system.

SD

Usually actually refers to Micro-SD. This is a small form-factor digital storage device, previously used primarily in cameras and digital media players. It resembles a plastic chip with some conductor strips on one end. The Micro-SD, as the name implies, is a tiny form factor of the older “SD” card. It’s about the size of a thumbnail comes in storage sizes commonly ranging from 4G up to 256GB and larger. Generally Micro-SD cards (or “chips”) between 8-32GB are used for pixel controllers and SBCs. They perform the same function as a “hard disk” or SSD in a laptop- providing digital storage for the firmware and operating system, program files, and data/media files. Larger sizes are needed to store large numbers of audio, graphics, and video files.

A Micro-SD Card or Chip.

Sequence

The verb form is the process of generating display parameters for a pixel light show. This uses computer software to map various patterns, text, and other effects onto one or more (or all) elements of a pixel display. Often this is done to synchronize the display to an audio or video track. The most common software used for this is xLights. The software generates a controller-specific data file, also called a Sequence (File) that can then be used by the pixel controller to light/flash individual pixels to the colors specified according to a specific timetable based on the source audio or video, or pattern specifications.

Part of a Sequence in xLights

Snow Flake

A snow flake shaped (six-sided) construction, usually of coro-plast but sometimes made of wood, metal, or other plastics, which holds pixels in a pattern, able to display colors and light patterns.

Snow Flakes
Photo Credit: boscoyostudio.com

Smart Differential Receiver

These are Differential Receivers developed by Falcon that can be “daisy-chained” together. Up to three of them can be connected together by Ethernet cables using the daisy-chaining functionality built-in to the RS-485 standard. This allows for more effective use of the four channels available, as they can be separated by larger distances, saving some cabling and better-utilizing differential channels. The overall length is still limited, and the three receivers still only have a total of 4 channels that need to be split among them.

Sparkle Ball, Sparkleball

This is an “old school” holiday decoration made by fastening clear plastic cups together into a ball. The design can be adapted for pixels to provide an organic display of colors and patterns, sometimes liquid or crystal-like.

Sparkle Ball
Image Credit: https://lunardenlights.com

Sphere

A 3D ball-like construction surrounded by pixels in a set pattern. These can generally display complex 3D light patterns at 360 degrees. Some have high pixel density and can provide a matrix-like display.

Sphere Example
Photo Credit: boscoyostudio.com

Spinner

A round construction, usually of coro-plast but sometimes made of wood, metal, or other plastics. These are usually “high density” props with matrix-like properties that can display a large variety of complex light patterns. Called a “spinner” because spinning

Spinner
Image Credit: https://boscoyostudio.com

Square Pixel

These are a popular pixel format often used for props and outlines where their format may be easier to mount because they have a “flat” bottom. The LED “pixel” itself is the same 12mm diameter, but the circuit board(s) are in a flat block underneath it and the wires come more out of the side, instead of back like a bullet pixel.

Square PIxel

Star

A classic star shaped construction. Some are similar to Snow Flakes and Wreathes with basic pixel patterns capable of displaying colors and simple patterns. Others are higher density can display complex patterns.

Star
Image Credit: https://boscoyostudio.com

Strip

Refers to LED strips. These are the flexible ribbons of LEDs most commonly used as accent and cabinet lighting inside the home. There are WS2811 compatible outdoor-rated versions that can be used for house outlines, arches, pixel trees, etc. These can usually be driven by the same controllers as pixels. Sometimes the LEDs cannot be individually addressed, but can be addressed in groups of three, still making them usable for many decorating applications. These are not in-favor as they have a very high failure rate compared to pixels. They are also almost impossible to repair and difficult to replace. A very common term used about them is “Friends don’t let friends by strip!” They do have their place though and many do use them successfully.

LED Strip – Note: Groups of 3 are addressable.

Power Injection

Pixels are powered by DC current. As any electrical current passes through a wire- it slowly loses voltage. For reasons beyond the scope of this definition- this is much more of a factor with DC current. The size of the wire (gauge) effects this as well- the smaller the wire, the faster the voltage will be reduced. Pixels unfortunately tend to have very-thin wires between them. This “voltage drop” means that after a certain distance- there is no longer enough voltage for the pixel to operate, either at all, or at a desired brightness and color accuracy. Pixels not provided with enough voltage tend to dim and not display all of their colors correctly first. Even lower voltages result in data failure (random flashes/strobes), and eventually pixels not lighting at all. Because of this- it is necessary to “inject” power at intervals along a string of pixels. There are whole articles written about power injection here and elsewhere.

Stand-Alone

This often refers to a single controller that runs a light show by itself. It does not need to “talk” to any other controllers. In some cases- it can run the show entirely by itself- handling scheduling and playlists internally. In other cases- it can still receive schedule and playlist data from a separate show runner/player computer.

Virtual Matrix

A virtual matrix is a video representation of a matrix created on an HDTV or a projector incorporated into a display. Very large, very high-density matrixes can be created this way, and are often preferable to actual pixel matrixes which can become unruly at larger sizes. Another advantage is the HDTV or projector can be used to present video content as an alternative to matrix content when appropriate. For example- a virtual matrix of 160 rows by 320 columns can be easily created. A similar pixel matrix would require 51,200 pixels, which would be very expensive and heavy to construct, requiring multiple controllers and power supplies.

WLED

WLED is pixel controller firmware that can be loaded on an NodeMCU (see “ESP” definition). While it was originally designed as a stand-alone controller to display from a pretty extensive list of pixel patterns. It can also be controlled by Alexa and other home automation systems. it has more-recently been adapted as an e1.31/DDP controller, which can accept data from a show-runner/scheduler like any other controller. Like the ESPixelStick- it can only support a single string of pixels. It saw recent favor over ESPixelStick because it supported ESP-32 devices, which have better WIFI radios than those using older ESP-12 (ESP8266) chips. It has a lot more overhead than ESPixelStick and hasn’t been as reliable as an e1.31/DDP controller. ESPixelStick is being ported to ESP-32, and should be a better option eventually. WLED is a great option for off-season displays where just color changes or patterns are desirable, such as for flood and accent lights.

Wreath

A round donut-shaped construction, usually of coro-plast but sometimes made of wood, metal or other plastics, which holds pixels in a pattern able to display colors and light patterns.

Wreath
Image Credit: https://boscoyostudio.com

WS2811

This is a data signaling protocol used by most pixels in this hobby. There are some similar and compatible protocols supported by some controllers, but this is what you will see the most of. WS2811 actually refers to the chip that drives the pixels. In a string of WS2811 pixels- a data stream containing color intensity data is sent that tells every pixel on in a string what colors to display, in order. In simplest terms- each pixel displays the first color data it “sees”, and then re-transmits the remaining data to the next pixel. This happens very quickly, but there are timing limits which is why each channel on a controller only supports a limited number of pixels, based on how often the pixels need to be updated. If a string is too long- it simply becomes impossible to feed it all of the data it needs within the time period needed to synchronize the display.

xLights

The most commonly-used software to “sequence” a light show. Can be used to generate patterns of lights on one, many, or all configured pixel props and installations, and can sequence those patterns to music, displaying patterns, text, and other elements such as “singing” faces that are synchronized to an audio track.
https://xlights.org/

xScheduler

xScheduler is a show-runner/player currently only available with the Windows versions of xLights. Mac development and support was abandoned in early 2020. It can be used to run sequences, sending display data out to controllers while providing an audio source for pixel light shows. Because it only runs on Windows computers, and other Windows activity and computer usage can disrupt it, it has fallen out of favor and has largely been replaced by FPP. It is still supported by the xLights developers, and many do still use it, usually on dedicated “show” computers that aren’t used for anything else. It is necessary to disable all other applications, notifications, system sounds, and things like Windows Update, as these can all interfere with a show.

NOTE: In many cases- product images, logos, and names of specific vendors have been used for illustrative purposes. Their use does not imply any endorsement or recommendation.

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