With the proper microcontroller, a digital temperature sensor, an SD memory card, and a little know-how, you can build a custom outdoor digital thermometer display. Tommy Tyler’s article in the July issue of Circuit Cellar explains how he built such a system. He carefully details the hardware, firmware, and construction process.
Build an MCU-Based Digital Thermometer
by Tommy Tyler
Wondering what to do with your unused digital photo frame? With a little effort, a tiny circuit board assembly can be installed in the frame to transform the colorful thin film transistor (TFT) screen into the “ultimate” outdoor thermometer display (see Photo 1). Imagine a thermometer with real numeric digits (not seven-segment stick figures) large enough to be read from 40¢ to 50¢ away under any lighting conditions. Combine that with a glare-free, high-contrast screen, wide viewing angles, and an accuracy of ±0.5°F without calibration, and you have a wonderful thermometer that is more a work of art than an instrument, and can be customized and proudly displayed.
Almost any size and brand digital photo frame can be used, although one with 4.5″ or 7″ (diagonal) screen size is ideal for 2″-high digits. If you don’t have a discarded frame to use, some bargains are available for less than $30, if you look for them. Search online for overstocked, refurbished, or open-box units. The modifications are easy. Just drill a few holes and solder a few wires. The postage-stamp size PCB is designed with surface-mount components, so it’s small enough to tuck inside the frame. None of the modifications prevent you from using the frame as it was originally intended, to display photographs.
PHOTO FRAME DISPLAY
Although digital photo frames vary in details and features, their basic functions are similar. Nearly all of them can store pictures in external memory, usually a small SD card like those used in digital cameras. Most have a half dozen or so push-button switches that control how the frame operates and select what is being displayed. There’s usually a Menu button, an Enter or Select button, and several cursor buttons for navigating through on-screen menus.
Photo frames feature a slideshow viewing mode that automatically steps through pictures in sequence. You can set the time each picture is displayed to your preference. You can also turn off the timer and have a manual, single-step slideshow mode where a selected picture is continuously displayed until another is selected with a button press. That’s the mode of operation used for the thermometer, and it is key to its accuracy.
The photo frame is loaded with images showing every possible temperature, in precise ascending order. Following power-up, the frame enters Slideshow mode displaying the first image in memory, which provides a known starting point. Based on repeated temperature measurements, the frame keeps incrementing or decrementing the image, 1° at a time, until the display matches the true temperature. After this initial synchronization, the display is simply incremented or decremented whenever the temperature rises or falls by 1° or more.
The frame responds so reliably, the display never gets out of sync with the true temperature. Following a power interruption, the thermometer automatically resynchronizes itself. In fact, for an interesting and reassuring demonstration at any time, just momentarily turn off power. Synchronization might take a minute or so due to the system’s response time, but that’s not considered a problem because presumably power interruptions will be infrequent.
Figure1 shows a schematic of the thermometer. A Microchip Technology PIC18F14K22 microprocessor U1 periodically polls U3, a factory-calibrated “smart” temperature sensor that transmits the digital value of the current temperature via I/O pin RC5. PIC output pins RC4 and RC3 drive sections of U2, a Texas Instruments TS3A4751 quad SPST analog switch with extremely low on-state resistance. Two of these solid-state switches are wired in parallel with the mechanical switches in the frame that increment and decrement the displayed temperature. RC6 provides an auxiliary output in case you are working with a rare photo frame that requires a third switch be actuated to enter Slideshow mode…
Figure 1 includes a portion of the Coby DP700 schematic showing such an arrangement. Switches SW3 (>) and SW4 (<) share input Pin 110 of the frame processor chip (U100). SW3 pulls the voltage down to about 1.5 V to increment the display, and SW4 pulls it all the way down to 0 V to decrement it. If you can gain access to the solder terminals of these switches, you can build this project. Using a solid-state analog switch for U2 enables the PIC control board to work with virtually any model photo frame, without having to worry about voltage, polarity, or switch circuit configuration.
PIC output RB7 continually transmits a running narrative of everything the thermometer is doing. Transistor Q1 provides a standard RS-232 serial output at 38400 bps, no parity, and two Stop bits using the DTR pin for pull-up voltage. This is mainly for testing, troubleshooting, or possibly experimenting with firmware changes. The board also includes a standard in-circuit serial programming (ICSP) interface for programming the PIC with a Microchip PICkit2 development programmer/debugger or similar programming tool.
Photo2 shows the thermometer circuit board assembly…
WHAT’S UNDER THE HOOD?
I used a Coby DP700 photo frame as an example for the project because it is widely available, easy to modify, and has excellent quality for a low price. Figure 2 shows the basic components of this frame…
The ribbon cable is long enough to enable the display to swing open about 90°, but not much more. That makes it awkward to hold it open while making wiring connections, unless you have more hands than I do. One solution is to use a holding fixture made from a scrap of lumber to protect the ribbon cable from stress or damage during modification and testing.
Cut a piece of ordinary 1″ × 4″ pine board exactly 7.5″ long. Chamfer opposite ends of the board at the bottom on one side, and cut a notch in the center of that edge (see Photo 3a). Loosen the bezel and slide it up just far enough so that you can insert the board into the rear enclosure near the bottom, below the lower edge of the bezel (see Photo 3b).
The board’s chamfered corners should clear the inside radius of the rear enclosure. Temporarily tape the bezel and rear enclosure together while you fasten the board in place with two of the four bezel screws. Leave the board installed until you have completed the entire project, including all testing.
When you need to access the main circuit board to solder wires and install the PIC board, swing the bezel and display perpendicular to the rear enclosure like an open book and secure it firmly to the fixture board with masking tape (see Photo 4a). Later, during set up and testing when you need to see the screen, swing the bezel and display back down and secure them to the rear enclosure with masking tape (see Photo 4b).
The only mechanical modification is adding a 3.5-mm stereo jack to connect the remote temperature sensor. You may be able to drill a 0.25″ hole in the frame and attach the jack with its knurled ring nut. But sometimes the stereo plug sticks out in a way that spoils the appearance of the frame or interferes with mounting it on a wall. Here’s a way to install the jack that keeps it and the sensor cable flat against the rear of the frame and out of sight.
Cut a piece of perforated project board 0.6″ × 0.7″ and enlarge the three to five holes that line up with the terminals on the side of the jack with a 3/32″ drill (see Figure3). The perforated board acts as a spacer for the stereo plug when cemented to the enclosure.
Before attaching anything to the perforated board, use it as a guide to drill matching terminal holes through the rear enclosure. Select a position low and to the right in the recessed area so it clears the power connector but does not extend below the lower edge of the rear enclosure (see Photo 5)…
Referring to the wiring diagram in Photo 6, first prep the main PCB by attaching six insulated wires about 8″ to 10″ long, one wire to 3.3 V, one wire to ground, two wires to SW4, and two wires to SW3.
Solder all nine wires to the PIC board—six from the main PCB and three from the stereo jack. Trim the excess wire length so the PIC board will lie easily in the empty space beside the main PCB. Route the wires so they won’t get pinched when the bezel and display are replaced. Use masking tape to hold everything in place and keep the PIC board from shorting out.
THE WEATHER-PROOF SENSOR
The Microchip DS18S20 digital temperature sensor is a three-lead package the same size as a TO-92 transistor (see Figure 4)…
Insulating short spliced leads with sleeving is always a problem because the sleeving gets in the way of soldering. One way to keep the probe small and strong is to drip a little fast-set epoxy on the soldered leads, after ensuring they aren’t touching, and rotate the unit slowly for a couple of minutes until the epoxy stops running and begins to harden. Weatherproof the entire assembly with an inch or so of 0.25″ heat-shrink tubing.
LOADING IMAGES INTO MEMORY
Some photo frames don’t have internal memory, so I used a plug-in SD memory card for the temperature images. That also makes it easy to change the appearance of the display whenever you want. Any capacity card you can find is more than adequate, since the images average only about 25 KB each and 141 of them is less than 5 MB. A good source for generic 32-MB SD cards is OEMPCWorld. Their SD cards cost less than $4 each, including free shipping via U.S. Postal Service first-class mail. Just search their site for “32-MB SD card.”
A download package is available with images in 16 × 9 format showing temperature over the range from –20 to 120°F in numerals about 2″ high. The 16 × 9 images will naturally fit the Coby screen and most other brands. There’s also a set of 4 × 3 images for frames with that format. Actually, either size will work in any frame. If you use 4 × 3 images in the 16 × 9 Coby with Show Type set up as Fit Screen, there will be bars on the sides. But if it is set up as Full Screen, the images will expand to eliminate the bars, and the numerals will be about 2-5/8” high.
The download filenames have a sequential numeric prefix from 100 to 240, so Windows will list them in order before you copy them to the SD card. Notice that the sequence of images is as follows: 70°, 71°, 72°…119°, 120°, –20°, –19°, –18°…–2°, –1°, 0°, 1°, 2°…67°, 68°, 69°. The first image is not the lowest temperature. That’s so synchronization can start from 70° instead of all the way from –20°. You can split the temperature range like this as long as there are no extraneous pictures on the SD card, because the frame treats the SD card, in effect, as an endless circular memory, wrapping around from the highest to lowest image when incrementing, and from lowest to highest when decrementing…
SETUP & FINAL TEST
It’s always best to make sure frame power is disconnected before plugging or unplugging the temperature sensor. Position the frame so that the screen is visible. Plug in the sensor and SD card, then connect power to the frame. After a few seconds, what you see on the screen will depend on how the frame was last used and set up. It may start showing pictures from internal memory, or it may start showing temperature images from the SD card. In either case, the pictures will probably start changing rapidly for a while because the frame thinks it is synchronizing its initial display to the temperature of the sensor. You can’t use on-screen menus to check the setup of the frame while it is flipping through all those pictures, so you must wait. After a couple minutes, when things settle down and the display stops rapidly changing, press Menu to bring up the main menu. Use the left or right arrow buttons to select the Set Up sub menu, then use the Enter, Left, Right, Up, and Down buttons to set up the following parameters: Interval Time = Off, Transition Effect = No Effect, Show Type = Fit Screen, Magic Slideshow = Off…
After completing all the setup adjustments, momentarily disconnect power from the frame and confirm that it properly powers up. The Coby logo should appear for a few seconds, followed by the first image in memory, the starting temperature of 70°F. About 12 s later, the display should start changing in 1° steps until it gets to the current temperature of the sensor. Warm the sensor with your hand to ensure the sensor is responding.
This is a good time to demonstrate an error indicator designed into the thermometer to alert you if the PIC can’t communicate with the temperature sensor. Disconnect power and unplug the sensor, then restore power with the sensor disconnected. The display will start at 70°F as before, but this time it will keep incrementing until it reaches 99°F, where it will stop. So if you ever notice the display stuck on 99° when you know it’s not that hot outside, check to see if the sensor is unplugged or damaged.
If everything seems to be working properly, you can skip the following section on troubleshooting. Close the frame and start thinking about how and where you will install it…
ABOUT THE FIRMWARE
Credit for design of the PIC firmware goes to Kevin R. Timmerman—a talented freelance software design engineer, and owner of the Compendium Arcana website—who collaborated with me on this project. Kevin’s backyard in Michigan, as well as mine in Colorado, were the beta-test sites for the design.
A firmware download includes the temperature.hex file needed for programming the PIC, as well as the following source files in case you want to make changes:
The file named one_wire.c deals exclusively with sending and receiving messages to/from the temperature sensor. If you use a photo frame other than the Coby DP700 that has some special requirements, the only file you might need to modify is inverted_main.c. The firmware is available on the Circuit Cellar FTP site.
When you finish the project, you will have the satisfaction of knowing you probably have the most accurate thermometer in the neighborhood—providing you take reasonable precautions in locating the sensor. Don’t place it in sunlight or near heat sources (i.e., vents or ducts). Even placing it too close to a poorly insulated wall, roof, or window can affect its accuracy. There are articles online about the best places to install outdoor thermometers.
Even after you have completed your modifications to the frame and closed it back up, there are endless ways to customize the project to your taste…
For those living overseas or accustomed to expressing temperature in Centigrade, the download includes an alternate set of images covering the range from –28.9°C to 48.9°C. Images such as 70°F, 71°F, 72°F, and so forth are replaced with their Centigrade equivalents 21.1°C, 21.7°C, 22.2°C, and so forth. The thermometer control can’t tell the difference. It goes on incrementing and decrementing images as if it were displaying the temperature in Fahrenheit. By showing temperature in tenths of Centigrade degrees, the thermometer accuracy is unchanged. The temperature sensor is inherently a Centigrade device, and one could modify the PIC firmware to use the reported temperature in degrees C without ever converting it to degrees Fahrenheit. But this method is a lot easier, and enables you to change between Centigrade and Fahrenheit by just swapping the SD card…
Tommy Tyler graduated with honors from Vanderbilt University with a degree in Mechanical Engineering. He retired after a career spanning more than 40 years managing the product design of industrial instrumentation, medical electronics, consumer electronics, and embedded robotic material transport systems. Tommy earned 17 patents from 1960 to 1995. His current hobbies are electronics, technical writing and illustration, and music. Tommy is a contributing expert to the JP1 Forum on infrared remote control technology.
DP700 Digital photo frame
Coby Electronics Corp. | www.cobyusa.com
PIC18F14K22 Microprocessor, DS18S20 digital temperature sensor, and PICkit2 development programmer/debugger
Microchip Technology, Inc. | www.microchip.com
TS3A4751 quad SPST Analog switch
Texas Instruments, Inc. | www.ti.com