Processing, Arduino, stepper motors used to create physical pixel display

Hi! Artist/designer here new to the Arduino platform. I'm trying to gauge the feasibility of project that I've been planning. I want to create a physical pixel display that can show a simple, slow-mo animated gif using stepper motors to rotate angled disks of paper. When angled down, the paper is darker. When angled up, it's lighter. This is how value would be created.

I'm not sure if the Arduino is correct way to go about what I envision. It must be noted that I have little coding experience outside of HTML/CSS, but I'm very willing to learn, just not sure where to start. Likely there are major problems in what I've outlined here, but I'm almost positive that this sort of thing could work somehow. Here's the rundown of what I'd like to accomplish:

  • Small grayscale animated looped gif (10px x 10px to start) is loaded into Processing.
  • Processing continually outputs values of the various pixels as they change, and sends these to an Arduino (or something more appropriate?).
  • Values correspond to individual stepper motors set up in an array that mimics the pixels in the gif.
  • A value of rgb(255) would be mapped to the stepper degree displaying the darkest orientation of the angled paper, while rgb(0) would display the lightest.
  • Hopefully the array of physical pixels would display any animated gif I would feed it.

I realize there could be many issues with this setup—number of motors, power supply, latency, etc. I'm a big fan of Daniel Rozin and his mirror artworks, and want to build something along those lines to experiment with. Thanks in advance for any help you can give! Apologies if anything is unclear or off-base.

By using properly designed mechanics the pixel could be switched using a simple on/off signal. When the number of pixels increase stepper motors looks like hopeless regarding space, weight and power consumption. Any picture processing calls for controller capacity. Is a Mega enough? I can't tell.

If the stepper motors are just moving pieces of paper then maybe the tiny motors used for automobile instrument systems would be suitable. However I have no experience of using them.


Using simple electromagnets and a tiny piece of iron and some simple driver?

If the stepper motors are just moving pieces of paper then maybe the tiny motors used for automobile instrument systems would be suitable. However I have no experience of using them.


Or perhaps the one pole stepper motor that's inside a battery powered clock.

Thanks everyone! I'd like to share some of the work a grad student and I have already figured out. I realized after my initial post that she had video and a project page that I could share, which I thought would be helpful. In this video you can see that we're using polarized film to create value, and that the steppers are being used in a binary fashion. The film is rotated so that it's either in polar synch with the outer layer of film, or it's out of synch and the screen is perpendicular, thus rendering it opaque. We're using an array of steppers to create a series of letters in sequence, which is our first step toward moving imagery:

and more info on the project here:

You can see that there are some latency issues, and the number of steppers connected to the breadboard is limited. We are also not taking advantage of the transitional nature of polarized film; at different degrees of rotation the film can will darken to completely black. Pretty neat stuff. Not sure if this video helps to illustrate what we are doing and where we'd like to go with it. It's been a pretty fun project so far but I'd like to scale up to moving imagery over the summer while I have time.