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In early August, we were contacted by the technical director for Brigham Young University’s Department of Dance and asked to collaborate on a project.
The creative group there had been inspired by this idea and wanted to expand on it for an upcoming performance:
However, for this version they needed
- Full color capabilities
- Discrete driving of each node
- Full wireless control from the lighting console
- A final design which could be repeatedly opened & closed by untrained talent.
This of course was no problem.
On our shelf was a stack of tiny controllers which we’d designed for a different project. Each features
- DMX receive stage for live playthrough OR record/playback at 44 frames per second
- MicroSD card (rear side of the card) for storing and replaying data, up to 10 hours of unique content
- Four data outputs, which can drive any combination of 2-wire LED strips (WS2801 or similar) or 1-wire strips, such as the WS2811/12
- LEDs for easy user feedback
- One pushbutton for mode selection
This was an obvious and perfect choice for driving the umbrella. We’d use ‘live’ mode so that the entry and exit cues could be precisely choreographed.
For transmitting wireless DMX in a very radio-heavy environment, we chose the F1 transmitter by W-DMX. This system employs some frequency-hopping spread spectrum voodoo, ensuring that the data always goes through. This was important, because in the performance space there was already wireless internet and wireless headsets for the crew. Add a thousand patrons with smartphones, each searching for an available connection, and there’s sure to be some contention.
Happily, this radio system performed flawlessly.
On the receive side, we had a box of matching radio cards from the same manufacturer. These bare circuit boards are small enough to be neatly covered by a standard business card. They can transmit or receive, pass RDM nicely, are easily battery powered, and aren’t available to the general public. They’re only sold only to equipment manufacturers.
We ordered LED tape from Hong Kong on a Friday afternoon and had several reels to experiment with the following Tuesday. DHL is awesomely fast and very inexpensive, but of all three big international carriers, their packages arrive smashed beyond recognition. Happily, the LEDs themselves weren’t damaged.
All that remained was to neatly package everything together. We fabricated some cloth pouches which attached to the umbrella’s skeletal struts. One held the controller and radio and the other was sized to fit a rechargeable LiPo battery pack, which had enough capacity to drive all the LEDs for about 30 minutes. Then the holes in the pattern were filled in with more cloth, to make a clean presentation.
After some experimenting, we settled on 8 centrally-radiating spokes of 20 LEDs each. This consumes nearly an entire DMX universe worth of data. But, the console which was running the show had plenty of horsepower and output capacity.
During the production, the umbrella light glowed deep blue, overlaid with random twinkling white stars. It was a magical moment for the two unsuspecting performers seated beneath. And the audience loved it.
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