Ann Arbor Area Business Monthly
Small Business and the Internet
By Mike Gould
Hip bone connected to the back bone
Back bone connected to the shoulder bone
Shoulder bone connected to the neck bone
Neck bone connected to the head bone… Dem Bones by James Weldon Johnson (1871–1938)
All connected up and moving to the music, detected by a Microsoft Kinect, and used to control a laser projector. At least, that’s what happened at FoolMoon. And herein lies my tale – made clear below.
Old Is New Again
Waaay back in 2012 I wrote about how we were using a Kinect to control some laser art pieces I was working on (URL below). The Kinect system was invented at Microsoft as a means of enabling gamers to control aspects of their games by body movement. You would plug in your X-Box, set up your Kinect, and by moving around you could control an on-screen avatar fighting ninjas or whatever.
This works by some clever optoelectronics: the device emits an invisible infra-red speckle pattern of light, and can then detect when that is deformed by bouncing off of your body. The more clever part of it is that the internal computer can detect where your elbow and other joints are, and use that data to control the elbowing of your imaginary figure as it throws shurikens and whips nunchucks at the attacking monsters on your TV screen.
Disclosure: IANAG (I Am Not A Gamer) and as such have no idea whether or not ninjas can fight dinosaurs in video games, but it seems like a reasonable idea to me, so I’m gonna go with it.
Back to the Future
Flash forward to the technical vastness of the future in which we find ourselves here in 2017, and the Kinect is dead to Microsoft. They no longer include the special connector for it in their current Xbox One S devices (although you can still by a USB adapter that will enable it to totter on for a few more years). An article on the ExtremeTech site (URL below) tells the tale, but the short story is that the Kinect really never caught on with either game developers or the public. One problem is that you need 10 feet between you and the Kinect to capture your movements, and a lot of apartments just don’t have this kind of real estate.
Ah, but gamers’ loss is a gain for the arts, as tech-savvy artists continue to explore the uses for movement-controlled, interactive art pieces. Artists like me just love picking up cheap, outdated bits of technology and sending them off in unexpected directions. Case in point: searching on Kinect on eBay finds 1,384 of the silly things for sale, at prices ranging for $17 used to $70 for a brand new one in a box. Seems like once the kids get bored waving katanas at velociraptors, dad puts the Kinect on eBay and we get a new tool for our art/toolbox.
We used to have a programmer on our team, a guy named Krunal Desai, and he came up with a way to control the brightness and movement of a special kind of laser projector with a Kinect. The special laser display is called Lumia, and is a cool wispy effect that looks like colorful smoke. Before Krunal left for Seattle to mine asteroids (long story), he build us a system that we included in a museum exhibit I designed called L is for Laser. One of the pieces in the show was called A as in interActive, and this piece was featured at the Dow Museum of Science and Art in Midland, and at the Ann Arbor Hands-On Museum.
The output of the Kinect was set up in such a way that moving your head controlled the blue lasers, your arms controlled the greens, and your legs moved the reds around. This was a big hit with the visitors to both museums, and at a Maker Faire at the Henry Ford museum.
Pango to the Rescue
The above was pretty cool, but I wanted something a bit more anthropomorphic: a dancing figure sketched out in laser light that mimics the movements of a visitor. Turns out, the major player in the laser lightshow world also thinks Kinects are cool. Pangolin is a software/hardware laser company that produces the most-used software in laser lightshows: Beyond.
This is the software used by the guys and gals controlling the big laser shows that wave dozens of beams around at concerts and raves worldwide. It is also eye-wateringly expensive, with the top tier version, Beyond Ultimate, going for around $5K. Ah, but this version supports the Kinect, enabling you to do all sorts of cool things with interactive movement and lasers.
Fortunately for me, I was able to upgrade to this in January, moving in small steps over the last few years from their beginners’ version (Quickshow) to the three steps of Beyond upgrades, emerging finally at Ultimate. A quick trip to eBay and $30 later I had a functioning Kinect and was ready to rock.
... is a yearly Ann Arbor outside art event, that brings out the best in light-up costumes, displays, and lumenaria every year at the corner of Washington and Kingsley. Held around the first of April as a part of the Festifools celebration, FoolMoon is a great place to present lasers, especially interactively.
This year’s event saw us shining laser-lit dancers on the side of a building, as seen in the photo above. We were busy from sundown to midnight, with people lining up to dance the light coherent. We even had the Violin Monster drop by, and add some colorful fiddling to the event. A magical night, and we are just getting started with this technology. Come see us next year!
There is a great FoolMoon video that features us at:
More video from FoolMoon:
Previous Kinect Article:
Mike Gould spends a lot of time dancing with lasers. He was a mouse wrangler for the U of M for 20 years, runs the MondoDyne Web Works/Macintosh Training/Photography mega-mall, is a laser artist, directs the Illuminatus Lasers, and welcomes comments addressed to firstname.lastname@example.org.