At Britelite, we’ve been incorporating lighting into our projects from the very beginning. We initially used controllable fixtures, however, developments in lighting technology, especially around LEDs, have opened up many new possibilities.
A closeup of our latest LED project, showing a “peach tree” program
Let’s go through the different ways you can use light to enhance an immersive experience, and the skills and capabilities required.
LEDs as accents
Adding LED lighting is a great way to add impact to an interactive experience. People today are already very familiar with screen-based experiences, so using LEDs to complement and enhance an interactive installation makes a lot of sense.
For our Perfect Pint project at Visa Payment Forum, we used LEDs to highlight specific interactions in our automated beer pouring kiosk. LEDs were used to draw attention to an NFC card reader, an automated selfie-camera, and most importantly, a freshly poured beer!
In this project, we integrated Arduino microcontrollers with LED strips, and connected them to the core app that drove the kiosk.
LEDs are used to draw attention to the augmented reality selfie camera, the NFC card reader, and the freshly poured beer!
For the gala celebrating the opening of CPMC’s brand-new Van Ness hospital, we created a network of sensors to read smart bracelets worn by the attendees, in order to provide a personalized experience.
Smart wearable bracelets were a key element of the gala, allowing for greater personalization and interactivity
We used animated LED rings to draw attention to the sensors, and indicate when the bracelet had been successfully scanned. Here the implementation used Raspberry Pi computers, which managed the sensors and drove the LEDs. At the same time, these computers are capable enough to be integrated into our overall event management system.
A guest plays the labor simulation game, after checking in using her bracelet and the wearable sensor (on the right)
LEDs as a display surface
Another highly impactful way of using LEDs is as a display surface, using them to present videos and animations, but in a much larger and brighter format than a typical screen.
For the CPMC gala mentioned before, we were charged with transforming the VIP floor by using light. For this, we built a system of LED panels that completely covered the walls, creating a truly immersive space.
Panoramic view of the LED panels set up
These panels can be used with the popular ArtNet standard for lighting control, which requires setting up a network of all the LED control boxes. We designed and built custom 8’ x 5’ LED panels, using a new type of tubular LED fixture designed for use in chandeliers. We adapted an existing software package to play back video clips and map them onto the lights, with algorithms to make them change over the course of the evening.
These panels are designed to be easily moved and redeployed, and we used them again at San Francisco Design Week, in a completely different layout. (Shown here at our R&D lab).
Panels flanking an interactive piece by Marpi, at San Francisco Design Week
Here is another configuration of the panels, showing their flexibility:
Linear configuration of the panels at our R&D lab
The most exciting application of LEDs, however, is in building large scale sculptural works. We are currently working on a project to make a large tree with LED leaves.
This project required a very wide range of skills and capabilities. Working closely with a manufacturing partner, we designed leaves with built-in diffusion and developed a custom PCB with the LEDs. We also came up with a strategy for keeping the wires internal to the tree branches.
Interactive tree control software
For the software side, the client was very insistent that there should be a great deal of variety in the patterns shown on the tree. We created a system that makes it very easy to define ever-changing light patterns, with interesting events to punctuate the tree programming over the course of the day. Unlike other systems, nothing is pre-recorded: everything is generated “live” over the course of the day. Internally, we used an advanced protocol for lighting control, more efficient than DMX and easier to configure. (Our lead developer: “It worked on the first try! That never happens!”)
Autumn state on the tree
An important feature of this installation is a custom content management system that allows the user to easily schedule animations and content for the tree. This is a crucial component for building installations that not only look beautiful, but also help achieve a customer’s vision.
Tree fully installed. Everyone is taking pictures!
For another customer, we explored the creation of a large-scale volumetric (3D) display using LED columns. For this, we would model all the content and animation in three dimensions, and display it on an array of custom fabricated LED tubes.
Rendering of 3D volumetric LED installation
Going forward, we are very excited by many of the new developments in this field. One very exciting advance is the use of LEDs with multiple channels, beyond the typical red, green and blue (RGB) components. For example, adding a dedicated white channel (RGBW) allows for a wider range of colors, and really creates a powerful impact. Some LED projects are now using an extra amber channel (RGBA) to create unusual effects. For example, Leo Villareal (famous for the Bay Lights) is using LEDs with an amber channel for his London Bridges project.
Illuminated Rivers project, showing RGB + Amber LEDs in use
Another exciting area is new physical formats. For example, we recently saw this LED mesh display at Newark airport, and were very intrigued with how this can be used to create free-form sculptural shapes.
LED mesh installation at Newark airport
Finally, we are very intrigued by the possibility to make these large scale projects reactive and interactive. This large scale installation by TeamLab allows users to “send” shapes into an enormous volumetric display, using a simple web app:
Guidelines for success
If your organization is interested in building an impactful LED installation, here are some important things to keep in mind when looking for a partner:
1. Experience with creating interactive and immersive experiences
2.Deep skills and capabilities, including:
a. Creative design – it’s got to look good and original
b. Physical design – if it’s big, make sure it is strong and robust
c. Networking – these pieces have a big networking and infrastructure component
d. LED control software – making sure that content is fast, bright and ever-changing
e. Content management software – allow customer to adapt and customize the LED experience
3.Close relations with suppliers, to ensure that you are getting the best and most current products available, and to allow for customization.
4.Focus on building to last, ensuring that the LED project will work reliably for a long time