I have a thousand and one little projects and project ideas floating around at any given time, but there’s been one thing I’ve always wanted to build: a replica of the ‘Time Circuits’ from the Back to the Future movies.

Overview

At their heart, the ‘Time Circuits’ are a clock – three separate displays, showing the time machine’s present time, destination time, and last departed time. In true ’80s fashion, these are displayed using LEDs: 7-segment and alphanumeric displays, with individual LEDs for the AM/PM indicator and the seconds timer. The displays are controlled by a keypad, where you can input new destination times.

To build a replica, I’m going to need to make three custom LED segment displays in their own casings. a custom keypad, an aluminum enclosure, and the supporting circuitry to make everything work and react like it does in the film.

Basic Goals

  • 3 working ‘Time Circuit’ displays
  • 1 working keypad, used to set the display times
  • Match the look of the film as well as I can (within reason)
  • ‘Present’ display keeps track of time

Stretch Goals

If I have the time / energy, I hope to add the following to the setup (in no particular order):

  • Arduino library to easily address each display
  • Sound effects
  • Stopwatch / Timer / Alarm functionality
  • Serial parsing (display text from a computer)
  • CAN bus connection (swap times when a car hits 88 mph)

Roadmap

Here’s a tentative outline for how I think I’ll tackle this:

  1. Proof of Concept (rough prototyping)
  2. Display Design
  3. Keypad Design
  4. Driver Design
  5. Total Assembly

With each design ‘sub-phase’ formed of separate steps:

  1. Planning & Part Sourcing
  2. Breadboard Prototype
  3. PCB Design
  4. Case Design
  5. Assembly
  6. Programming

Obvious the “programming” aspect will be sprinkled throughout, but I want to hold off on doing too much coding until the parts and pins are finalized.

Conclusion

This is a fairly ambitious project, but I think I have the knowledge to build something that does the film justice. As always, I’ll do my best to include my progress on this blog. Only time will tell if I will get it done!

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