A head for lights

The Guardian (Manchester); 05 November 1992; Claire Neesham; p. 14

Since Pink Floyd's extravaganzas, laser shows have fallen flat. Now a new generation of technology is involved . . .

AS THE nights draw in, the composers and creative directors come out with their latest ideas for lighting up the dark hours. With firework displays, light and laser spectaculars they celebrate anything from the opening of an office block or new club to the 12 days of Christmas along London's Oxford Street.

The problem with such events is that without extensive investment of time and money they can fall flat - especially if lasers are involved. The advertising flyers may promise the earth, but the reality is merely a jaggy green circle wobbling around in space. To today's sophisticated audiences, no longer impressed by single beams of light stretching for miles in the night sky, this is not good enough.

Martyn Butler, managing director of Horizon Laser Graphics, admits that in the past some laser displays have been disappointing, while the successful ones have often been incredibly expensive. But he believes his company now has the technology to regenerate the excitement seen in the mid 1970s when supergroups such as Pink Floyd first brought lasers out of the physics laboratory and put them on stage, at a price that individual companies, clubs and theatres can afford.

The crux of Butler's strategy is a standard 386- or 486-based PC running Microsoft Windows. Previously laser displays were programmed using a digitising tablet linked to a dedicated controller. These custom designed black boxes looked daunting withm their numerous knobs and switches. Butler says ''It could sometimes take a couple of days to work out how to switch the thing on; these controllers were only for the initiated.''

Butler has spent the last eight years consulting on laser productions including events like Royal Premiers at the Empire Cinema in Leicester Square, the Canary Wharf opening, and the Christmas lights in Oxford Street. Although his work at the Empire Leicester Square won plaudits from Stephen Spielberg, Butler says, ''It was so labour intensive it took us nearly a month to digitise a two minute show - and then we took some short cuts''.

Horizon Laser Graphics has brought together a number of off-the-shelf packages to form a system that does more than most black box controllers, is easier to use and costs less. The main software is a US-designed package called LaserCad which takes images from software such as CorelDraw and provides the tools to edit and animate them. The graphics can then be converted into control signals for laser units using conversion tools developed in house.

This approach means logos that took hours to digitise manually are now scanned in, traced using CorelTrace and edited in CorelDraw. The clean image is transferred to the LaserCad software where it can be stretched, wrapped round a rotating globe, or even mutated into another image. Butler points out that in the past, even four-frame animation could take hours, as each frame had to be digitised separately, whereas 30 frames of animation can be generated in less than an hour with the PC.

Another benefit of LaserCad is that it can link into the latest range of lasers and intelligent mirror systems. One of the persistent problems with laser displays has been flyback lines (noticeable lines where the laser joins two images). LaserCad will identify these lines in an image so that the laser's mirror system can blank them out. Other technological improvements mean that laser images are now more accurate, so a square appears square, not bath shaped.

''In the past, lasers have been incredibly expensive, unreliable and needed nurse-maiding by experienced engineers. Most also needed a three-phase power supply and up to six gallons of water a minute to keep cool.'' says Butler. But more recently a new breed of laser has started to appear. The new lasers are small, lightweight, robust, come with a water cooling and recycling system and can use a domestic power supply.

Together with the LaserCad software these units are now opening up new markets for laser graphics; Horizon offers a package containing white-light laser, PC and software for about pounds 22,000. The price, along with the flexibility, has attracted interest from a variety of organisations including night clubs like Heaven in London, major advertising companies, and even a large computer corporation which is looking at the technology for its exhibition stands.

Heaven is trying out the technology for a combined laser/video/computer graphics display that it will use to launch a new club night. Alan Purnell, the club's technical manager, says ''we have always been in the forefront with computer graphics and lasers: for the past two years we have been displaying our greeting logos using lasers.'' He believes Horizon's approach will cut programming times and allow more creative use of lasers in the club. His only criticism of the system is that it needs a more robust ''front end'' with a single push button for activating events.

Horizon is already thinking about the user interface. One of the things Butler envisages for the future is the distribution of laser productions on CD-ROM. When the system has been installed, the user would simply put the CD-ROM in the player and switch it on. Laser productions could then be used anywhere from Piccadilly Circus to the local sports ground.

Butler believes LaserCad could open the way for a whole new creative dicipline. ''With laser productions in the past, by the time you had digitised your images you didn't have time to be creative so most of the work with lasers has been stationery images projected on to screens. But with LaserCad and the new breed of lasers, animation is possible and practical. What I want to see is full scale animations created by animators rather than laser technicians.''

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