There’s a lot of talk about intelligent lighting and a lot of confusion. The objective of this article is to define some of the basic terms and offer some clarity to the subject. No recommendations on specific lights will be made but certain models will be mentioned as examples.Intelligent lights have numerous names, all of which are correct to a degree. The basic definition of an intelligent or robotic light is that it is a light that can be remotely controlled above and beyond simply being turned on and off. Although these terms, as well as luminaire, probably had more specific meaning at one time they’ve all become synonymous with a light which has multiple aspects or features that can be controlled with a remote controller.
All intelligent lights have one basic design feature, which separates it from non-intelligent fixtures. There is always a module and other hardware and software which accepts and recognizes an electrical signal or protocol. The standard protocol is Digital Multiplex or DMX. This protocol is a digital numerical value, which the light reads. Each light needs a number of channels to operate. How many channels a fixture uses depends on the individual model. Typically, a light will have one channel for each color and/or gobo wheel, one and for strobe control, one for dimming, bulb on/off or shutter and one for each of the other effects wheels it may possess. If the light is a scanner or moving head it will have either one or two channels for pan position (left and right) and one or two channels for tilt movement (up and down). Having two channels for each movement allows finer control of movement and allows for more fluid motion. Some older Martin lights operate on a proprietary protocol but most of their lights can also operated on DMX with the simple cable patch.
Intelligent lights are broken down into three basic categories (my definitions): effects, scanners and moving heads. Effects are the simplest of all. An effect typically has the fewest features. Most effects have a bulb which fires through a gobo and/or color gel and out through the lens. They may include mirrors, may be able to strobe, etc. Some examples of effect lights are the Martin Destroyer and the American DJ X-Cel. Color changers (similar to par cans) are considered effect lights. Even with simple effect lights, there are a wide variety of features. Some lights are dimmable, some have separate wheels for colors and gobos and some have other unique features.
A gobo is a stencil, which filters the light and creates an image. Most gobos are made of metal but many are now being offered in glass or glass with colored oils. A gobo can be as simple as an open aperture or as complex as the Statue of Liberty.
The most popular and often used intelligent lights are scanners. These typically start with a bulb projected through various optics, such as gobos and colors, through a lens and then onto a mirror, which is aimed via motors. Some examples of scanners are the American DJ Pocket Scan and the High End Trackspot. An offshoot of the scanner is a light with a barrel instead of a flat mirror. The advantage of these is that these lights disperse beams over a wider area. However, they can’t be used as easily for spotlighting and fixed beam aiming. Also, as the beam is diffused, it is not as bright given the same bulb wattage.
The newest type of robotic lighting is the moving head. The bulb and all optics are in a head that is suspended on a gimbal similar to a universal joint. This allows the beam to be aimed in a 360-degree circle in all three axes, allowing the light to be aimed anywhere in space. The wider coverage comes at a price, however. Because the head is larger and heavier than a small mirror, moving heads tend to be somewhat slower. A High End Studiospot or Martin Mac 250 are examples of moving heads.
Each different type of light has its own strengths and weaknesses. Effects, due to their limited amount of features, are fairly bright for the bulb output since there is little to filter the bulb. The downside, of course, is that they cannot be aimed in more than one direction. Scanners require a bright bulb because there are a lot of effects such as gobos and colors and also because they reflect off the mirror, but are aim-able. Also, scanners offer faster movement than moving heads because the mirror is much smaller and lighter than a moving head. However, the scanner is limited in range. Moving heads can be aimed anywhere but because of the weight of the head are slower. Many moving heads now offer two versions. A spot, which has a hard focus and typically includes gobos and a wash, typically a softer focus which does not usually have gobos but usually has color mixing capabilities so that a greater variety of colors and shades can be created. In addition to the basic optics of gobo and color, some lights offer features such as prism (splitting the beam), rotating and indexing (setting a fixed point so that the gobo will return to a predetermined position), strobing, dimming, etc.
The latest development in lighting technology is not in aiming systems, speed, size, etc. but in the reflector materials used behind the bulb. The greatest drawback to intelligent lights in general, and ones that use discharge bulbs in particular, is that the quality of the red colors is not very good. This is due to the bulb. However, new reflector technology is coming on line, which uses dichroic reflectors instead of metal. This allows for much higher light output from lower bulb wattage. Also, since the reflectors are dichroic, they can be used to put red back into the bulb, making the red colors much richer than before.
Once you’ve selected lights for an intelligent system you’re halfway through. The controller, which tells the lights what to do, is the key ingredient. There are numerous controller options, from the simplest of factory programmed units to concert sized lighting desks, which can control hundreds of fixtures. The most recent innovation in light control is the windows based controller, which offers features such as drag-and-drop programming and fixture copying.
Regardless of which lights and controller you choose, an intelligent light system can take your show to another level.
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