Pop music megastar Taylor Swift is currently traveling the globe on her 1989 World Tour. In the interest of full disclosure, I’m a big fan. I recently attended one of her two shows in Washington, D.C., which included a heavy dose of girl power and video cameos from her celebrity friends—as well as a lighting element that turned each audience member into part of the show.
Attendees were handed a translucent silicone bracelet, activated by a pull tab on the bracelets when Swift took the stage, and for the entire concert (and then some) they glowed and pulsed with color—as if by magic. But despite what fans may want to believe, this lighting effect is not magic. The technology has been around for almost 10 years, designed by Montreal-based technology/entertainment company PixMob, which has applied the same concept to other objects such as balls and lanyard-style necklaces.
"The original idea of the technology was really to create unity within an audience by giving objects to people that have this kind of magical aspect to them," says Vincent Leclerc, PixMob's chief technology officer. "It seems like a dead object, and then all of a sudden it comes to life at peak moments during an event."
It's not just Swift that's using wristbands made by PixMob. "This is our most popular product," says Leclerc. "We do about five events a week." For instance, PixMob wristbands are used by the DJ Tiësto at his shows each week in Las Vegas at the Hakkasan nightclub at the MGM Grand Hotel & Casino.
PixMob’s wristbands contain high brightness LEDs, a coin cell battery, and a motion sensor. The LEDs are controlled by an infrared signal from a group of transmitters, directed from a central control system. (The PixMob technology works with standard light board consoles using DMX or ArtNet protocols.) There are four different types of features depending on the desired effects: PixMob IMPACT, PixMob LITE, PixMob PRO, and PixMob VIDEO. These wireless control options allow for motion-activated commands all the way to 18-bit full color video display. "The same person that controls the stage lights will control the wristbands, with the same console," Leclerc says. "It's very easy for the designer to integrate our objects with the overall experience."
Setting up that experience requires installing a series of infrared transmitters across a venue. "The range of the typical transmitter we have is about 100 meters (328 feet), but that depends on many factors. For an arena, we would use about 16 transmitters. For a big stadium we would use 32, maybe, 48, it depends on the venue," says Leclerc. "We have technicians, usually, who follow every event and they make plans with the technical directors to make sure that we have good coverage."
The person in charge of lighting for an event can also choose to have different sections of a venue react differently. "You can have people in one section of the stadium be group one, and people in other sections of the stadium be group two, and then you can address these groups of people," says Leclerc. "That’s how you can create effects like the Mexican wave. You split the stadium into 10 sections, and then you have the colors spin all around the stadium."
At the Swift concert I attended, some of the bracelets illuminated at certain times while others stayed dark, in what appeared to be a random pattern. This feature is a programming technique that PixMob has developed that introduces a probability aspect.
After an event, whoever controls the lighting system can tell the wristbands to only react to motion. While the LEDs can display millions of colors during an event, afterwards, according to Leclerc, the wristbands can be programmed to display just 15 different colors. But not forever—the wristband’s battery only lasts about a week after initial activation. (The wristbands cost roughly $5 to $10 per person, according to Leclerc, which covers all the related equipment and support.)
Today, PixMob currently designs their products for large events that host anywhere from 500 to 100,000 people. But, Leclerc says, the company is developing a product for much smaller audiences, with as few as 25 people, which it plans to release this year.
The difference between PixMob’s technology and other concert lighting is the individuality of it. On the website, the company explains that each object "becomes a pixel transforming the crowd into a huge display." So even the people shaking it off in the nosebleed seats are part of the show.