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Student Brings Joy to Kids During COVID-19 with Automated Halloween Display

In a typical year, children excitedly count down the days in October to Halloween. However, Halloween 2020 was different due to COVID-19, and many kids felt it was going to be a disappointing nightmare. That wasn’t the case in one town in Utah, thanks to the efforts of Shaun Oaks, father of two young children and an electrical and computer engineering student at the University of Utah. He seized the opportunity to create an engaging, automated Halloween display in his front yard to brighten spirits.

“The year 2020 was exceptionally hard for many people including school age kids who had their lives uprooted by the onset of COVID-19,” Oaks said. “Options for recreational entertainment were drastically decreased. I decided to do something special for my senior capstone project: a Disneyland-inspired Halloween display in my front yard to bring a sense of normalcy to my community. My goals were to engage kids and to gain knowledge and experience in PLC programming to better market myself for a career in control engineering.”

Luckily, through his university program, Oaks was able to team up with AutomationDirect to get the components and advice he needed to make his dreams become reality.

A Halloween Idea Takes Shape

Oaks and his family had planned a trip to the Disney Halloween party in 2020 and were excited about the Haunted Mansion holiday ride featured in Disney’s California and Tokyo parks. However, the trip was canceled as the pandemic unfolded. Even so, Oaks kept thinking about that ride.

In addition, Oaks knew that a four-year-old autistic boy in his neighborhood loved The Nightmare Before Christmas movie by Tim Burton. The boy constantly played with figurines from the movie and wore clothing inspired it. In the movie, Jack Skellington – the king of Halloween Town – learns of Christmas Town and decides to celebrate that holiday with a Halloween-inspired twist.

“Much like Jack Skellington from the movie, I decided that something must be done, and I could bring joy to my community by making a Nightmare Before Christmas Halloween display while utilizing my electrical engineering skills learned from the University of Utah,” said Oaks.

Oaks used PLC ladder logic programming to automate themed props using solenoid valves and pneumatic cylinders. The PLC triggered several micro controllers to control the display’s audio and lighting effects. Additionally, he designed a human machine interface (HMI) to alert if the air pressure fell below an optimal level and to track prop sequencing and internal bit timers.

“I read a lot of material in preparation for this endeavor and came upon a common theme on what technology is used in Disneyland, as well as other attractions, to control such displays. That theme is a programable logic controller or PLC,” he said.

He researched the hardware needed to accomplish the display and used AutoCAD to design it. He separated the display into two parts: the Christmas zone and the Halloween zone, much like the movie. It had eight stations:

  1. Oogie Boogie
  2. Singing Pumpkins “This is Halloween”
  3. Zero’s Dog House
  4. Christmas and Halloween Tree Doors
  5. Presents – Lock, Shock, and Barrel
  6. Singing Jack Skellington “What’s This”
  7. Fireplace with tree eating snake
  8. Scare Sequence lighting display

With plans in place, Oaks got to work to bring some Halloween cheer to his family and neighbors.

PLCs, Pneumatics, and Arduino Microcontrollers Bring the Project to Life

Oaks designed the display components to be controlled through a PLC, pneumatics, and Arduino microcontrollers. The PLC controlled the pneumatics but couldn’t control audio, so he interfaced the PLC and Arduino together to achieve his desired result.

“This project challenged me as an engineer to overcome several problems ranging from electrical, mechanical, and logistical,” Oaks said. “I enjoyed it and was able to bring a lot of joy to my neighborhood. My daughter Lucy and son Fisher absolutely loved this project. The autistic boy in my neighborhood was obsessed with this display and came by constantly to see it. This project was also entered into the Parade of Haunted Homes that is put on by the local radio station and was listed on the map for Rocky Mountain Haunters which brought a lot of traffic.”

Oaks noted that the project gave him a new hobby as well as skills he could use as a control engineer. It worked! He graduated in 2020 and now works for Daifuku Wynright as a controls engineer.

“I thank AutomationDirect for their donation of parts as well as their support through this project.” Oaks said.

For Halloween 2021, Oaks plans to create a Harry Potter-themed display with interactive wands inspired by his family’s recent trip to Universal Studies in Florida. Check out a short video of Oaks’ Halloween 2020 project below!