The end goal was adding neopixel strips on my shirt sleeves and pant legs:
Here is a 6mn clip showing the shoes and shirt if you'd like the details:
The problem with my shirt, though, is that the colors you see on the picture are actually due to broken traces, causing the colors you see. It's better than nothing, but not what I was trying to do, and no way to create streaming effects. This is of course where neopixels come in.
I'm not going to repeat the excellent Adafruit Neopixel Uberguide here, but I have a 3mn video clip showing a standard IR RGB LED controller, compared to a neopixel strip. It also shows how I use standard remote control servo cables to wire neopixels, and how to watch out for:
signal wire being in the center, so you must not feed 5V on the middle wire like you would with RC and servos
how if you have a neopixel strip that doesn't work right, you can only connect to the first LED, and you have to start cutting off LEDs from the strip one by one until you get to the first one that works
before you start cutting, make very sure you aren't connecting to the last LED (DO vs DI)
Why IR and Neopixels at the same time, is hard
So, the main point of this page is however to look into the issues of controlling Neopixels and receiving IR signals at the same time.
It's easy to listen for IR, and then change neopixels, leave them alone, and listen for IR again. It's hard (or near impossible on some chips) to actively update neopixel strips for animations and listen for IR commands at the same time.
Why? This video explains the issue:
What's going on is on low end arduino chips (328p, leonardo, or even AT mega and all other 16 bit AVRs), neopixels are controlled by stopping chip interrupts and sending a very precisely timed signal to the neopixels. If the timing is off just a little bit, the wrong colors get sent, or nothing works at all. This is why interrupts must be disabled
Now, there are actually many other addressable multicolor LED types. The nice ones are 4 wire and work via SPI, which allows the CPU to control the timing and the clock, removing this exact bit banging timing issue. The cheaper 3 wire ones have a set clock and require that the CPU sends a very precisely timed signal, usually done while disabling interrupts. See https://github.com/FastLED/FastLED/wiki/Overview
But since neopixel strips (aka WS2811/WS2812/WS2812B) is what I already had, I now had to deal with this precise timing issue. As you can guess, disabling interrupts causes issues with the IRRemote library because it has its on interrupt handler timer that also requires being run at a special timing, or it doesn't capture proper IR signals.
The end result is that you cannot disable interrupts and receive IR signals, and if you don't disable interrupts, the neopixel signal is unstable and the colors flicker (demonstrated int the video above).
So, unless you use some special hardware to drive neopixels strips on an AVR chip, concurrent IR + neopixels is just not going to work.
an arduino nano v3 running neopixel strips
my 328p arduiny chip (equivalent to arduino nano) and anti plug backwards toothpicks :)
because my 328p chip was unprogrammed, I had to figure out direct ISP programming pinout for it and I flashed a bootloader on it
Concurrent IR + Neopixels solution #1: be fast (Teensy 3.1)
a few chips for comparison (uno, leostick, nano v3, arduiny, and Teensy 3.1 in green)
Thanks to better FastLED hardware support, when I moved my code to a Teensy 3.1 32 bit ARM CPU, the CPU was fast enough that it had time to re-enable interrupts in the middle of updating neopixels. This in turns allowed the IR Remote interrupt handler to just barely run in between pixel updates, and capture IR codes. Success!
See this video for details:
The magic code that makes this work, is here: https://github.com/FastLED/FastLED/blob/master/platforms/arm/k20/clockless_arm_k20.h#L34 sei(); delayMicroseconds(WAIT_TIME); cli();
Thanks to this re-enabling of interrupts, things work.
So at this point, someone sensible would have declared victory. However, I felt bad wasting a Teensy 3.1 on something as simple as driving a single neopixel strip (it can drive 8 in parallel) and reading from an IR receiver, when it has around 32 I/O ports. This is why I checked if I could get this to work on ESP8266 chips which are even cheaper and have much fewer I/O pins (but add Wifi)
Concurrent IR + Neopixels solution #2: don't use the CPU for neopixels (ESP8266 (I2S) and ESP32 (RMT))
I had more 32bit chips, so I thought I would give them a try. I tried the ESP8266 and ESP32:
However in my tests, the IRremoteESP8266 library was maybe a little bit too slow and caused occasional visible neopixel glitching (this has been fixed in FastLED since I originally wrote this). This is where I found this interesting library: https://github.com/JoDaNl/esp8266_ws2812_i2s/ which manages to drive the neopixels without doing bit banging with interrupts disabled ((ab)-using the I2S hardware support). It's not a very fancy library in what it offers, but it works perfectly with interrupts enabled.
There is another DMA library using the UART instead of I2S interface, that also works without affecting interrupts: https://github.com/Makuna/NeoPixelBus
Same thing for ESP32. Actually ESP32 is even more difficult to get a perfect timing out of using bit-banging given that it's a dual core CPU running on top of an RTOS, and no matter how precise your code is, you just cannot guarantee that it'll run perfectly at the timing you need all the time. I did add ESP32 support to the Adafruit Neopixel library, but it only works most of the time, which isn't really good enough.
This where its built in RMT support comes in. It can generate 8 precise signal waves, which are perfect for neopixels, so this is the way to go to animate neopixels without disabling interrupts (making IR receiving trivial). IRremote was missing ESP32 receive support, but I added it recently, so it's all working.
FastLED now supports RMT on ESP32, so you can run interrupts while talking to Neopixels.
Here's a video summary of ESP8266 and ESP32:
Software and Libraries
So, here's a summary of all the libraries I went through, 2 for IR, and 4 for Neopixels:
FastLED is a more complete library with better hardware support (both in pixels and CPUs): https://github.com/FastLED/FastLED . The big plus of this lib is that it support re-enabling interrupts on 32bit chips, allowing the IRremote ISR to run.
Instead of FastLED (which does work), on ESP8266 you can use https://github.com/JoDaNl/esp8266_ws2812_i2s/ . The support is bare, but uses an inventive (ab)use of the I2S subsystem (I2C for audio) to generate neopixel signals using an onboard co-processor unit without tying up the main CPU or requiring the disabling of interrupts.
On ESP32, FastLED wasn't supported when I wrote this blog (I added support in Adafruit-Neopixel but it require disabling interrupts at least temporarily and it's hard to do anything real time on a dual core ESP32 running on top of an RTOS). The good news however is that it has 8 RMT channels which are designed to handle precise signals like this without tying up the CPU. See this code that supports Neopixels with exact timing: https://github.com/MartyMacGyver/ESP32-Digital-RGB-LED-Drivers . After I wrote this, FastLED added RMT support on ESP32, so it "just works" now.
This is a 25mn mashup of all the video clips, including a section on flashing the arduiny via ISP (AVR 328p):
I also have a video showing the evolution of lights on my shirt from v1 (single non controllable color) to v2 (tri color, but not pixel addressable), to neopixels with cool patterns (jump to 3:50 if you'd like that):