How it All Started

 

From John Chapman, President

Over ten years ago, I was simultaneously finishing an engineering degree, working as a theatre technician in a space shared by the Modern and Ballet departments, and occasionally freelancing as a FOH audio engineer for local musicians and some large-scale corporate A/V productions.

At that time, video projectors were just becoming affordable (1K lumens of VGA finally cost less than $10k).  The dance department’s AV lab was running Final Cut Pro 1.0 on G3 SmurfTowers and analog capture cards.  For the workhorse editing machine, we’d just spent $600 to buy a 6 GB SCSI hard drive for increased video storage.

The modern dance students, artists that they were, began to incorporate video- either live or taped – as part of their productions.  Since displaying the blocky blue ‘play’ screen on stage was messy and embarrassing, the solution du juor involved cardboard sheets, a few pulleys and some tough black trickline from the roll we stashed near the flyrail.  And often the shows were complicated enough that we’d bring in another crew member, just to handle the delicate dance of video playback and image revelation.

I wondered if there might be an automatic way to uncover the projector’s lens, based on a switch or some other control signal from the theatre.

At about the same time, someone on Slashdot mentioned that the proper way to control LEDs, motors & other bits of hardware was with something called a ‘PIC.’  After a few days trolling online, I happened upon Randy at glitchbuster.com (sadly defunct) and the friendly folks at melabs.  A demoboard containing a lowly 16F628 processor (with 2048 bytes of program space!) arrived a few days later.

The rest, as they say, is history.  It took a few weeks to figure out DMX reception on such a small processor.  The only published source code example at the time (which sadly I can’t see any longer online) was written by a gentleman in England, in pure assembly language, and dealt with conversion between DMX and 0-10v dimming systems.

I cobbled together a working prototype shutter, which worked perfectly in all of it’s unenclosed, unrefined, zip-tie-secured glory.

If this worked so well in our space, I decided there were probably other technicians with similar challenges around the country.

A local company (which the yellow pages revealed to be just minutes down the road!) helped with the first official prototype designs.  At the time, we knew nothing of circuit board layout, industrial design, sheet metal forming or design-for-manufacturing in general.

 

Flapper Projector Shutter, Prototype #1.  May 24, 2004

The prototypes were, well, nice.  But only in a way the mother of an ugly child can understand.

The next revision dispensed with doubled-up DMX jacks and beige paint.  These new copies were deemed Good Enough to share with the world.

But how to reach them?

I walked across campus to the library, did some searching, and was rewarded with hundreds of books on marketing, advertising and copy editing.  I checked out 18″ of  the most promising titles and went to work.

At the time, someone published a directory, roughly the size and shape of a phonebook, which included contact information for every accredited theatre and dance program in the country.  Such a find!  But how to use it?

Retyping or otherwise entering all that information into a database, or (as it turned out) a large Excel file, would be tedious and boring.

Some perusing of the directory’s website revealed that all the contact information in the printed book could be had with a few clicks of a mouse, albeit in a kludgy and slow and ten-entries-at-a-time sort of way.

Further sleuthing revealed that the public side of the directory’s database wasn’t terribly well protected.  All the addresses and phone numbers were available instantly if you knew what to ask for.

So, they were harvested.  Instantly.

Armed with a list of thousands of potential customers, plus copies and detailed discussion of some of the highest-pulling direct mail pieces ever written, we went to work.

Our first advertising piece was a simple two page letter.  Page one was a brief introduction of our company and first product, the Flapper Projector Shutter.  Page two was a wholesale copy of the style and layout of a Bose magazine advertisement.  It was of course customized.

Early Direct Mail Inspiration

Rev1 of an Advertising Letter

The marketing gurus stressed the importance of tracking leads, so each postcard or letter contained a unique tracking number, which was stored as a line in the Excel file.  The postcards directed interested uses to a website with lead tracking:

Our first set of mailings pulled an incredible 20% response rate, and for years and years after, we’d take calls from new customers.  “Hey, we’ve had this postcard on our wall for a long time now, and the budget finally came through.”

If you were one of those early customers, please accept our sincere ‘thank you’ for trusting part of your production to a very small and completely unheard-of company.  Certainly our products and services have expanded a great deal since those early days.

DMX control of large projector shutters led to hard-coded DMX triggering of RS232 (serial) data, for customers who wanted to drive their large-frame projectors with internal shutters.

Somewhere along the way we added all manner of back-and-forth processing of MIDI as well. We brought all CAD design & hardware / software engineering in-house.  Now we also have staff, a rolodex full of trusted vendors & contractors, and a weekly UPS bill that can sometimes take your breath away.

It’s been an amazing run.  Thank you, current customers, former clients and Internet passers-by.

We can’t wait to see what the next decade brings.

– John

 Posted by at 8:30 pm