“Are you Wireless?” This is the simple question that you will find on the products and brochures of Wireless Solution Sweden AB, aimed at making the lives of lighting technicians and designers just that much easier. The company's W-DMX products for wireless DMX control have been used on numerous projects around the world, including the Soccer World Championship, the Nobel Prize dinner, the Olympic Games, and lighting for the Pope, among others. In 2006, more than 6,000 units were sold, and OEM arrangements were launched with companies including RC4 Wireless, SGM, Clay Paky, LSC Lighting, and more. At the recent Prolight+Sound exhibition in Frankfurt, Germany, Wireless Solutions unveiled Generation 3 of the product range. Among the many new features are high radio output of 375mW (US/FCC) and 100mW (Europe/Asia); a signal-strength meter; battery function with UPS for up to eight hours of use along with a battery level indicator; an improved antenna connector; an option to run on a low-voltage power supply; and an improved die-cast aluminum chassis.
What It Does
“W-DMX is a plug-and-play product for wireless DMX and RDM; it's also prepared for Art-Net and ACN,” explains Niclas Arvidsson, international sales manager for Wireless Solution. “The units use state-of-the-art radio technology with interference-free technology using the unique AFHSS, which stands for Adaptive Frequency Hopping Spread Spectrum. This means that it jumps 1,000 times per second to avoid interference and only jumps on free channels. The units also work together with TDMA, which stands for Time Division Multiple Access.” R&D manager Niclas Norlén explains the use of TDMA: “We use TDMA to let multiple W-DMX units share the same frequency. TDMA is also a very good approach when you are designing true realtime systems. For instance, W-LAN systems are not treated as realtime systems, which is a major drawback when it comes to DMX transmission. One could say that TDMA always guarantees a certain bandwidth because a TDMA radio is bound to a timeslot when it is permitted to send information.”
The W-DMX products are available with both indoor and outdoor models — the outdoor units with NEMA 6/IP65 ratings. Arvidsson points out, “Real-life, independent tests have proven the units can work well at 1,500' with standard antennas, and all antennas are interchangeable. We have done many outdoor installations with distances up to 10,000'; even distances up to 15,000' are possible. The major benefit with W-DMX is that the units are really easy to use and are interference-free. It also makes things that were not possible before possible.” Arvidsson sites Cirque du Soleil's Delirium with its color-changing balloon that is wirelessly controlled, “thus making it price-friendly, whereas in many applications, it would have been more expensive to use cable than to use W-DMX.”
How It Came To Be
Wireless Solution Sweden AB was founded in 2003 by Arvidsson, who had 15 years of experience in the lighting field, and Norlén, who is a former senior RF engineer from Ericsson Microwave System, a division of Ericsson that designs and produces products for GSM, Edge, and 3G mobile phone networks. The company was founded on the question, “Isn't it possible to create an affordable, stable, and simple-to-use product for wireless DMX?” Arvidsson and Norlén started to collaborate in September 2003 with the purpose of combining the best technology from lighting and RF. They exhibited the first prototype in March 2004 at SIB in Italy and officially launched W-DMX at PLASA in 2004, where the new product picked up a PLASA Innovation Award. In 2005, it took home a Promising Prototype, Lighting Accessory Award at LDI.
“W-DMX was completely developed in-house in our R&D department,” Arvidsson notes. “Wireless Solution is the only company that is using AFHSS and TDMA to create interference-free wireless DMX networks. We also have designed our own radio PCB instead of buying ready-made radio modules that are made for other purposes than controlling lighting.”
In an interesting twist, TMB, the world's first and biggest supplier of DMX cable, is now actively supporting and promoting a product that makes cable redundant. “There are many DMX installations and projects, especially larger ones, where the long cable runs, multiple buffers, etc., are a logistical nightmare,” comments Brett “Fish” Paddor, W-DMX product specialist, TMB LA. “However, there was no option that provided the degree of reliability necessary for critical entertainment applications. W-DMX provides a reliable, stable DMX signal over large areas and to multiple outputs.”
“The future for us is to implement the coming Ethernet standards like ACN and more Ethernet protocols, but not just simply using 802.11 as a carrier for Ethernet,” says Arvidsson. “We want to develop a professional standard for the lighting, audio, and video industries that will be able to do multi-cast of HD formats — somewhat like 1,080i video formats — where we would be controlling up to 64 universes and more. At this point, I can't go too deep into this subject.” We'll all have to wait and see what Wireless Solution comes up with next.
What End-Users Have To Say
An extensive W-DMX system was used for Cirque du Soleil's Delirium, where assistant LD Valy Tremblay was responsible for — and specified — the wireless system that included a large number of custom-made RF cables, antenna arrangements, and power options to accommodate this project. Based in Montreal, Canada, Tremblay is president of Proluxon Inc. (www.proluxon.com), a full-service design house. “I was in charge of all product specifications, and since we — at first — expected to use over 16 wireless universes, I did an extensive search on all available products,” says Tremblay. “W-DMX caught my eye at the LDI show, and the company helped us study the needs of the gig and designed a large system that we could use in any circumstances. This looked to me to be the most simple, stable, and scalable wireless system available. I love the fact that the technicians don't need any ‘frequencies knowledge’ to make it work properly. The manual is one page. I still wish they would put out their monitoring software soon. Even if it is simple, on larger installations it might be helpful to see how the whole system reacts. I know they are working on something, but I have never seen it finished.”
Ola Melzig, senior production manager with M&M Production Management (www.m-m-pr.com) in Sweden, has used W-DMX products on a few high-profile gigs, including the Eurovision Song Contest and the Nobel Prize dinner. “You plug it in and — boom — you've got DMX,” says Melzig. “Of course, I'll use cable when it's easy, but too many of the things I do would need enough cable to circle the world. It actually saves a lot of time, money, and headaches. We'll use five transmitters and 30 receivers in Eurovision this year. The cable equivalent would cost more than the units, especially if you factor in labor needed to run the cable.”
The one feature that Melzig really likes is “that it actually is plug-and-play, and I hardly ever believe that when I see it. I can't tell you how many things I've thrown at a wall, yelling, ‘Plug-and-play, my ass!’ The only thing I would like to see changed is people's attitude about it. It's like there's this fear of being wireless. But why? This is so easy, and it works perfectly. There have been a lot of high-profile events that used W-DMX without a single problem. I see a lot more people putting the success of their show in riskier products. I think that for lighting people to catch on, they need to do one of two things: One, buy a big book about radio technology, or two, just get one and really, really try to make it fail. I, of course, would suggest option two!”
Joshua Thatcher, principal of LA-based Lighting Control Solutions (www.lightingcontrol-la.com) is a lighting console programmer for films. He has worked with W-DMX products on films such as Transformers, Spider-Man 3, and Mission: Impossible III. “It is one of my favorite products out there,” he says. “I am currently using it on Iron Man. All of the gaffers that I work with — my bosses — they all love it. The ease with which we come in and control the whole rig is pretty huge.”
Thatcher points to several features that he particularly likes, including its reliability, easy setup, range, and lack of conflicts with other devices. “It's incredibly easy to set up a network,” he says. “There is just no extra setup or external interface; it's pretty much plug-and-play. I have not had any interference issues on film sets, and I have had it in some pretty interesting situations. I used it to turn off three city blocks for Transformers, and I put it inside a Huey helicopter with Color Kinetics LED ColorBlasts actually doing color changes while the helicopter took off and flew away. I have had it inside soundstages where we have tons of other wireless gear, and I haven't had any problems.”
Thatcher's wish list for improvements is short. “The only thing that I would change — and I think that they are working on it now — is to have more of a diagnostic: knowing exactly what my signal strength is. If I am asked, ‘What I am transmitting at?’ I can actually get some statistics from it to be able to give people that information. With diagnostic information, I can then start figuring out what is causing problems. Right now, it's great in its simplicity where I see an LED that tells me “Go” or “No Go,” but being able to get some of that hard information back would be nice. Like, ‘How close to the edge am I?’ Still, the gaffers are just amazed at how much money it is saving, logistics-wise. It has provided so much flexibility. It's my new favorite thing.”
In the US, Wireless Solution products are distributed by Creative Stage Lighting (www.creativestagelighting.com), Sand Network Systems (www.sandsys.com), and TMB (www.tmb.com.) For further information on W-DMX products, visit www.wirelessdmx.com.
Michael S. Eddy writes about entertainment technology. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.