Merry Christmas to everyone! Being a geek, I find it extremely fascinating the various ways people who are of the geek persuasion celebrate the holidays. We do not just go purchase inflatable Santa Clauses on motorcycles and Rudolphs in helicopters to garnish our yards. We also do not just string a bunch of lights and call it quits. We engineer Christmas. Today, I would like to feature a local light display that is long on engineering. Lights on Douglas is an automated, synchronized to music, holiday light display. We go in-depth into the tech behind this type of display and talk to Dennis about how he makes something like this happen.
Words by: Chad
Pictures and Video by: Chad
In order to have any sort of light display, it is extremely important to plan everything out. Using software from Light-O-Rama, called ShowTime to plan out the show. If you ever have used an audio program like Audacity to handle multi-track audio, ShowTime will look right at home. A single strand of lights is considered a track.
Running out of the computer is an Ethernet cable and an audio cable. The audio cable is just an audio-out from the computer running into a FM transmitter. Unlike many displays, Lights on Douglas utilizes FM broadcasting for the music to help keep his neighbors sane. The Ethernet cable runs into a box that controls the lights. This control box has 16 power plugs running from it (it's a 16 channel box) and is the real magic behind the setup. It can control power on and off for each channel, along with fading in and out. It takes everything from the software and allows you to turn it all into lights.
LEDs make up the lights. Regular bulbs do tend to provide a better effect, but LEDs are efficient and allow for Dennis to run multiple strands of lights with each channel without worrying about installing a new circuit breaker or blowing a fuse. When asked about how his electricity bill compares to an average winter month, he informed me that the cost increase is insignificant. The neighbors do not complain about the flashing light spectacle, but if you are going to do something like that you will need to have checked with local government to make sure there are not any ordinances preventing you from doing this. It also should be noted that having a light display like this will increase traffic on your street, so you should always check with your neighbors in advance to make sure they will not have a problem with people randomly stopping in front of your house.
So what advice does he have for someone who wants to do this?
"The biggest expense is actually in extension cords. If I could do it again I would have purchased all green extension cords to make them more hidden to potential copper thieves."
"There are a lot of great pre-staged shows available online, that I use to tweak for my own show. When creating a song from scratch, it is possible to spend 8 hours or more per song preparing it."
If you want to see how your house will look all lighted up for next year, check out Light-O-Rama and download the free version of Showtime. It will allow you to take a picture of your house and yard, and show you exactly how your show will look and let you create the songs. The only thing the free version won't do is actually let you control the show. But if you start in April or May, by the time Thanksgiving comes around you will have all the songs staged, and then you'll just need to purchase a control box and you are well on your way.
Also, when planning everything out be sure to remember that you will have to run power to all of those lights! Make sure you keep cords neat and tidy and out of the way for people who may trip and fall or for snow removal.
Be sure to check out Lights on Douglas on Facebook. Happy Christmas to you all!