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Magazine section: Features

Light fantastic
New Scientist vol 176 issue 2374 - 21 December 2002, page 58

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From bridges to your backyard, festive decorations will never be the same again A PINE tree decorated with a small strand of outdoor bulbs is so passé. These days, every city across the US has its Candy Cane Lane, where homeowners compete for the title of kitschiest outdoor Christmas display. Picture herds of glowing reindeer suspended over driveways and icicle lights dripping from the windows while an animatronic Snowman shares the porch with a nativity scene. I love the glitz, but it's time to drag this 20th-century phenomenon into the 21st century with digital smart-lighting. Future festive displays will be far more versatile - you'll be able to change the colour, patterns and flashing speed and rhythm of your display from your home PC. The first example of this intelligent illumination is already wired up on the Mid-Hudson Bridge in Poughkeepsie, New York. The suspension cables of the bridge have been strung with hundreds of coloured lighting panels designed by smart-lighting company Color Kinetics based in Boston. Greg Herd, the New York State Bridge Authority's IT manager, has designed a multitude of lighting shows in a graphics program. Come Christmas, he will use a wireless link to conduct the lights from his PDA. Color Kinetics' offices are already bathed in coloured light in October, and a fellow in a red sweatshirt is intently soldering hundreds of fingernail-sized lights onto a circuit board about the size of a small book. The scarlet-clad figure is not Santa Claus but Ihor Lys, co-founder of Color Kinetics. He's developing the company's plan to take Christmas lighting to a sublime new level of excess, by tapping the potential of light-emitting diodes semiconductor lights that glow when a voltage is applied. LED displays, made of thousands of LEDs collected together, are already in giant TV screens, laptop screens and traffic lights across the US. Apart from their energyefficiency, long lifespans and reliability, their big advantage is that they're very easy to control. LEDs need a junction of two types of semiconductor - positive "p-type" which doesn't have quite enough electrons to fill its atoms' electron shells, and negative "n-type" which have slightly too many. Applying a voltage across the junction persuades electrons to cross and give up some of their energy in the form of light. The material the LED is made from determines how much energy the electrons give up, which in turn determines the frequency of the light emitted and hence its colour. Right now, Color Kinetics is working with red, green and blue LEDs. The big advantage of LEDs for Christmas lighting is that they can be pulsed several thousand times a second. Try that with a normal light bulb and it would overheat or even explode. That's one of the problems with conventional flashing Christmas lights. Remember all those times you have switched them on, only to find half the bulbs have popped? That won't happen with a string of LEDs. And, if you put arrays of green, red and blue LEDs onto a circuit board, the fast pulse rate lets you control the overall colour of each board very

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precisely. For example, if the green LEDs were set to pulse slightly slower, the red and blue lights would seem relatively more intense, and the colour of the overall board would shift towards magenta. This controllability results in millions of different shades, making circuit boards like these ideal for cutting-edge lighting companies. Better still, the circuit boards can be integrated with a microprocessor that controls the colour of the board and supplies a digital address for it. This is what makes Color Kinetics' lights smart. When hundreds of the boards are wired together - like the panels on the Mid-Hudson Bridge - each of the boards receives a stream of digital data from a central processor, telling it when to light up and what colour and intensity to display. The company has also developed a graphics program that shows the locations of all the lights in a lighting display. For example, the Mid-Hudson Bridge is represented as a schematic diagram with the locations of the lights plotted on it. At the moment, someone has to log the positions of the lights by hand, but the company is working on ways the central processor can find lights automatically. One possibility is to have a camera feed into the central processor. By turning on each circuit board in turn and seeing where the light comes on, the central processor should be able to plot the lighting display by itself. Once the lights have been logged, anyone can import images they have designed in a standard drawing program or selected from clipart - candelabras or Christmas trees perhaps - and use the software to turn each picture into a dotted image that can be displayed on the lights, as if the panels were a kind of TV screen. Unlike a TV though, the network of coloured circuit boards don't have to describe a square shape. Instead, they can be distributed over a bridge, or across your porch. Put together a sequence of images and you've just written a light show. "My eleven-year-old daughter can sit down and write a show," says Kevin Dowling, Color Kinetics' vice-president of strategy and technology. In fact, Dowling himself has some designs up his sleeve, although his aren't of the traditional festive fare. He is experimenting with some unnerving psychedelic effects. He shows me concentric coloured circles that can be turned into a shifting pattern on the lights, making them appear to rotate. But according to Dowling, the strobing rhythms can induce something akin to a feeling of holiday excess. "The cones in your eye cannot adjust. Your brain gets confused. It can induce a headache in seconds," he says. The company is hoping to make public displays interactive, allowing passersby to pick what they want to see. A circuit board under development will relay graphical data to others in the network. A passer-by could use a touch screen to design an image or pattern of a Christmas tree. They could then see it displayed on the nearest panel before sending it along the entire display, down the road or even across the city. And passers-by may be able to interact with the lights without meaning to. At an experimental site in Tokyo, Color Kinetics is testing circuit boards that include proximity sensors. When people walk by, they trail a kind of light silhouette behind them. With technology like this, "your Christmas tree will react to you when you approach", says Dowling. I wonder what will happen when my neighbours get their hands on this kind of technology. Soon they could be networking their Christmas lights with their home PCs. They will upload Christmas decoration themes and digital music files, so their decorations will flash in time to their choice of music. It all sounds great in theory, but I'm not sure I credit my neighbours with the taste to pull it off. Even if they do, surely it won't be long before sociopathic hackers get their hands on Dowling's more extreme designs and start beaming them into other people's lighting displays. Incandescent bulbs might seem outdated, but they do have their plus points.
Wendy Wolfson Wendy Wolfson is a science writer in Somerville, Massachusetts

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