Lighting Effects for your Models - MRC Light Genie System Review (and Tutorial)
|Date of First Look||June 2016||Manufacturer||MRC|
|Subject||Light Genie||Part Number||02500|
|Pros||Programmable lighting effects, small module, remote control||Cons||See text|
As scale modelers, we're always looking for an edge to make our models look awesome. One such edge that is growing in popularity, especially in science fiction (starship) modeling, is lighting. If you wander over to CultTVman's Hobby Shop, Steve has a wide array custom (bespoke) designs from some good brands developed to fit the size and provide the lighting effects of specific subjects. As you would expect, the more complex and/or the less soldering required to use these modules, the more expensive they become. Nevertheless, most still require you to solder the wiring between electronics and light modules, as well as the wiring to power. Some level of soldering skill is required. What if you have a project that doesn't have one of these products already developed? I have a suggestion for you.
If you've spent any time in the model railroad hobby, one name has always been there - Model Rectifier Corporation (MRC). They've produced transformers, power supplies, and other model railroading accessories for decades. Of course they expanded into locomotives, rolling stock, buildings, sound effects, and digital command and control (DCC). It would only make sense that they'd create a remote control lighting system as well. Enter the Light Genie.
The Light Genie is a small module with five lighting output channels (zones) and a radio receiver (2.4 GHz) for remote control. That means you can embed the Light Genie inside a project with only a power connection required externally. Since it was initially designed for the model railroad world, it supports legacy grain-of-wheat (GOW) incandescent bulbs, but it also supports a wide range of LED solutions as well. Each of the five light zones are individually programmable and controllable using the wireless remote controller.
The Light Genie kit comes with the fully assembled and programmed control board; wireless remote controller; 3 x three-pin connectors w/leads (for zones 1-3); 2 x four-pin connectors w/leads (for zones 4-5); and one two-pin connector w/leads for power; 12 x resistors that can be used to convert LEDs for 12V DC operations; 2 x AAA batteries for the wireless remote controller; 2 x mounting screws which can be used to hard-mount the control board; and, 1 x Velcro strip for removable installation of the control board.
Nearly all of the custom (bespoke) lighting solutions mentioned at the beginning require some soldering for assembly and installation to your projects. Light Genie is no different but the controller, control module, and wiring connectors come pre-assembled. All you need to do is solder the leads for your choice of lights and power. That is it.
The image above looks at the back of the tiny Light Genie module showing the pin-outs of the connectors on the other side of the module. Each zone (marked Zoom here) has two or three lighting power lines and each zone is controlled individually by the remote controller. The unmarked connector on the upper right is input power and no polarity is indicated. When asked, MRC advised that you can apply power without worrying about polarity. While I was skeptical of this claim, I plugged a battery and an LED into the Genie and it worked immediately. When I reversed the power input, it still worked. Interesting engineering...
The small size of the Light Genie (2.25" x 1" x .4" or 57.2mm x 25.4mm x 10.2mm) makes this lighting solution practical for a variety of modeling projects. Take for example a project I am currently building. I wanted to add lighting to my Kinetic Model 1/24 P-47D Razorback Thunderbolt (the reissued Vintage Fighter kit). I wanted cockpit lighting and I wanted navigation lights. It would have been easy to use five LEDs wired together to a battery and have constant light in the cockpit and at the navigation lights on the wingtips and rudder, but I wanted more. I wanted to be able to switch between red spot lights and white spot lights in the cockpit and I wanted flashing navigation lights (for those of you old enough to remember the sound of the clunky flasher relays in the aircraft).
I intalled two red and two white LEDs through the rear cockpit bulkhead to shine on the instrument panel to simulate those small spot lights, the red lights on Zone 1, white lights on Zone 2.
Since there are three navigation lights, I put them on Zone 4 which is the first with three controllable outputs. Here is a short YouTube demo of the lights in the dark. The white and red cockpit lights will be steady on (no flashing) when running the P-47 (boring) so I have two of the available lighting effects running on those two zones and the flashing navigation lights running on Zone 4. Note that you'll see each zone switch on and off during this video as I remotely control them from behind the camera:
When you are creating a lighting solution, you are creating a circuit. For our purposes, there will be only three components of our circuits: LEDs, resistors, and power. Of course there will also be wire and connectors to interconnect our circuit, but this is our circuit.
The star of this effort is of course the LED as it will be providing light or some light effect on our model. Heat inside of models is a bad thing. LEDs, when properly used, emit a miniscule amount of heat so they can be safely enclosed inside of a warp nacelle or wing without the danger of melting or warping the model. If you've never shopped for LEDs, they can be found virtually anywhere but I purchase mine on eBay - 120 LEDs for $8 for example (this is a bundle of 10 LEDs in 12 colors with 2mm flat-top lenses). There are a variety of LED types, sizes, and functions which we can discuss in a future project. For this project, I want simple red, white, and green LEDs that don't change color and do not blink or flicker.
LED (Light Emitting Diode) is a variation of a standard diode which is designed to allow power to flow unobstructed one way and block it completely in the other direction. LEDs perform the same function, but they do emit light and consume a little of that power that is flowing. If you install an LED backwards, there is no light or power flowing, simply reverse the LED and it should light again. LEDs are usually 3 VDC devices. Some of these have power leads and resistors pre-assembled so they are 12 VDC devices. A 3 volt LED will operate at higher voltage but it will be bright, give off more heat, and burn out much sooner if not blink out of existence immediately. When properly used, LEDs will outlast your model.
Next, let's talk about power. The Light Genie was designed to work at model railroad power levels which is usually 12-18 volts DC (VDC). MRC advised that the Light Genie works just as well at 9 VDC. I've been doing all of my testing and operations at 9 VDC with a standard 9 volt battery. It is easy to hide a 9 volt battery on a diorama or vignette base. You can develop your lighting solutions to work at 12 VDC or without the Light Genie, you can even use 3 VDC or 6 VDC. It is all about what sort of power you wish to use. For me, I like 9 VDC and for purposes of this discussion, the Light Genie will be my source of power.
So now we have a 3 VDC LED and a 9 VDC power source. To make the LED compatible with the power source, we need a source of resistence. No, this isn't a wartime partisan movie, we need something to consume the 6-volt difference in power. One solution can be wiring three 3 VDC LEDs in series to create a 9 VDC device. Putting some devices in series simply means that you're connecting the positive terminal of your power source to the positive terminal on your first LED, connecting the negative terminal on that first LED to the positive on the second LED, and so forth until you connect the negative output of the third LED to the negative terminal on your power source. If you only want one or two LEDs in a given circuit, you can replace the excess LEDs with appropriate-sized resistors.
Note: While I pick up many of my electronic parts in quantity on eBay, I also frequent All Electronics which has interesting items that come in handy including an LED tester that is a regular tool on my bench. They also carry a wide range of LEDs, resistors, connectors, and more.
That brings us to resistors, the least expensive components of your circuit. They come in a wide variety of resistance values (referred to as ohms). If I'm developing a circuit with only one LED, I use this LED calculator to determine the correct resistor size. To use this calculator, I need three things: the voltage of my circuit, the diode forward voltage, and the diode forward current. For this exercise, we're using a 9 volt power source, and the spec sheet (above) that was online where I bought my LEDs says that the green LED I am using has a typical forward voltage of 3 VDC at 20 milliamp (ma) of current. When I plug these three values into the calculator, it says I need a 330 ohm 1/4 watt resistor. If I change to a red LED, that is only a 2 VDC forward voltage at the same 20 ma level and the calculator says 390 ohm 1/2 watt resistor.
If you wish to have more than one LED in each circuit, use this calculator which not only shows you the resistors you'll need, it will also design the circuit to show how to assemble the components. Give this one a try: 9 volt power source, 3 volt LED forward voltage, 20 ma forward current, and 6 LEDs in your circuit. The output shows two serial circuits of three LEDs and one 1 ohm resistor wired together in parallel. You can connect this circuit directly to a 9 VDC battery and it will work fine. Do not connect circuits wired in parallel to the Light Genie though as you can see in the calculator's conclusions that the total power of this circuit will be 361 milliwatts, or .3 watts, which may exceed the power that Light Genie can deliver on a given power output.
While a limitation of three lights per channel might sound like a serious limitation of the Light Genie, let's take a closer look at the specifications:
- Zone 1: two outputs = up to six LEDs
- Zone 2: two outputs = up to six LEDs
- Zone 3: two outputs = up to six LEDs
- Zone 4: three outputs = up to nine LEDs
- Zone 5: three outputs = up to nine LEDs
That's up to 36 LEDs that can be controlled by the Light Genie. If you need more LEDs than this, you can use Light Genie at its 12 volt power level and that adds one LED per output for a total of 48 LEDs (no modifications to Light Genie required). All of the lights in each zone will perform a selected lighting effect. The effects that are pre-programmed include:
- Steady on
- Sequential flash w/pause
- Crossing Signal/Traffic Street Light
- Alternating Flash
- Simultaneous Flash
- Sequential flash (no pause)
- Gyra light
- Gyra light on at the same time
- Oscillation (simultaneous)
- Stepped lighting
- Stepped lighting (parallel)
- Single strobe (varied/alternating)
- Single strobe (simultaneous)
- Double strobe (varied/alternating)
- Double strobe (simultaneous)
- Rotating beacon
- Rotating beacon (simultaneous)
- Flicker (pattern 1)
- Flicker (pattern 2)
- Varied intensity (arc welding)
The effects will vary a bit depending on whether you select one of the above functions on a two output zone or a three output zone. It is rather fun to see what they can do to animate your project. The video earlier above demonstrates the simultaneous flash to simulate the flashing navigation lights while the red and white cockpit lights had other flashing modes selected. In the model, the red and white cockpit lights will be using the steady on function which I can toggle off or on with the wireless remote. There are still two zones available on the Light Genie but I'm not going to use them in this build though one could use one on the landing/taxi light and the other for the three identification/signal lights on the bottom of the aircraft.
A note on the wireless remote control. This unit has buttons identified 1-6 but the Light Genie only has five controllable outputs. Button 6 serves as the master on/off switch for all effects while the other numbered buttons turn the individual zones on/off. When you press the up and down arrows simultaneously, you enter the programming mode for the Light Genie. You can press the zone number you wish to program on the remote, then as you continue to press that number, you will step through each of the pre-programmed functions. While in the programming mode, you can select the up and down arrows individually to increase or decrease the speed of a given lighting effect. Pressing the up and down arrows simultaneously again will exit the programming mode.
In normal operating mode, you can select a zone number to activate it, and then select the up or down arrow to increase or decrease the brightness of the lights on that zone.
When you remove or change the batteries in the remote controller, you also lose your pairing with the Light Genie module. Not to worry, you pair them back up as you did when you first pulled everything out of the package and powered them up the first time. Apply power to the Light Genie module, put the batteries into the remote controller and watch the LED blink. In a second or two, the LED will go out and the remote is now paired with the module again. You will not lose pairing with the Light Genie module when you remove power from the module, only when you remove the batteries (or they die) in the remote control.
In more complex models, you can have more than one Light Genie installed. The remote controllers are paired with individual Light Genies so you'll have two or more controllers to work all of the lighting effects in your model. You can pair any remote with any module but they will stay paired until you remove the batteries from the remote and the controller will not inadvertently operate another Light Genie in the model or in a contest room (at least in theory).
While the Light Genie won't do some of the lighting effects of the custom (bespoke) solutions, this provides a simple solution with a little flexibility for a variety of modeling applications and offers one feature that most do not: wireless remote control. Some of the applications you might consider include:
- Simultaneous Flash (blinking navigation lights on aircraft or starship)
- Steady on illumination (cockpit lights, headlights/taillights/landing lights, internal illumination)
- Flicker/Varied Intensity (battle damage, gunfire, fire/candlelight)
- Sequential flash (signs, approach lights)
- Single strobe (emergency flashers, NATO tank training lights)
- Rotating beacon (aircraft, emergency vehicles)
You get the idea; the applications are limited only by your imagination. Like the custom solutions on the market, there is a little soldering involved to wire up the lights but there is no other complexity to using the Light Genie. I'll be back in the near future to show you what can be done using the Light Genie in a science fiction spacecraft model. If you've wanted to add some lighting effects in your models, give the Light Genie a try as it is cheaper than most of the other solutions and gives you the option of watching folks look at your model on a contest table while you work through the lighting effects.
My sincere thanks to MRC for this review sample!