There's something to be said about using existing commercial-based products as the backbone to specialized entertainment lighting control systems. Recently I used an off-the-shelf wireless Ethernet network in conjunction with Entertainment Technology's Horizon control console and got quite a tickle out of what is possible today. When programming the exterior architectural lighting of the Point Edward Casino (near Sarnia, Canada), I actually did the work from 400 yards (360m) away, across the Saint Claire River in a park in Port Huron, Michigan.
In December 2001, N. Rutenberg Sales of Mississauga, Ontario, installed over 700' (630m) of TIR Light Pipe with outdoor LED color-changing luminaires to delineate the roof of the long, aluminium-clad, submarine-shaped casino. They chose the Horizon control system for its ease of use and friendly programming. When I was asked to program the system, my immediate concern was that I absolutely could not see the fixtures from anywhere in Canada. The installation was purely intended as eye candy for the American public, fitted to lure them across the river to gamble. The casino is right on the river's edge, with only a narrow boardwalk between the building and the water. As the fixtures are along the roof's uppermost edge, standing on the boardwalk does not offer a view from the side the casino is on.
I got the wireless idea from my experience last October working on the integration of four Horizon Playback Control (PBC) units at the new flagship Toys “R” Us store in Times Square [see LD February 2002]. There we used a system employing the new 802.11b Ethernet standard to communicate with one of the PBCs on the Ferris wheel. I wondered how far we could stretch the limits of this technology. At Point Edward, there is a park just across the river from the casino that looked very inviting, but my worry was that the river was too wide and the system would not work. We explored options like programming from a boat or dinghy anchored in the river, but the steady stream of enormous lakers going from Lake Huron to Lake Erie was a major deterrent.
Logging onto mapquest.com, I zoomed in on the geographical area of concern. (The maps are really quite detailed.) Using the scale, I estimated the distance from shore to shore to be about 400 yards. The specifications on the side of the Ethernet box say that, outdoors, 802.11b can function at distances of up to 450 yards (405m). It was a bit of a risk to buy the system, but at only around $350, it was worth it just to see if I could make it work.
After the electrical contractors had finished, Tony Rutenberg and I went down to Sarnia one very cold December evening to turn on the Light Pipe system. I had programmed a number of looks ahead of time, but we were eager go Stateside to see the effect. We were blown away by how the Light Pipe complemented the building, but my curiosity was getting to me. Could I connect to the Horizon system all the way over there in Canada? I was very pleasantly surprised when it did; to prove the point, I sat on a very cold park bench and plugged in two or three more looks just to say I could do it.
The operations people at the casino were so happy with the system that they asked me to install Horizon to control every fixture in the casino, entirely replacing the existing control system. This includes the impressive outdoor tower lit by High End Systems EC-1s®, neon signage, incandescent wash luminaires, and a 7kW searchlight. Westsun International and High End went to the casino (once the weather was more suitable for outdoor work) and tuned up all the EC-1s, making them ready for me to reprogram the system.
It was a stellar spring evening in mid-April with temperatures reaching 83ºF (28ºC) in the day and dipping no less than 60º (15ºC) at night. Taking my trusty laptop and wireless Ethernet node, I crossed the border and set up my lawn chair in the park and started to program. I was amazed at how reliable the link was and what an ideal view I had from such a distance. The only time I had to take a pause in my programming was when a laker passed between the casino and me. It's not surprising that a ship the size of two city blocks obstructed the signal.
I'm not sure if it was my laptop battery getting old or the power drain from transmitting all the way across the river, but midway through the session I was running very low on power. There are no stores or restaurants nearby and I had left my 2,000' (600m) extension cord at home that day. I was desperate for juice and had nowhere to turn. I got back in my truck and started driving, in the hope of finding an old man drinking a beer on his back deck who would be willing to let me charge up. What I finally did find, just around the corner from the park, was the Thomas Edison Depot Museum, which houses a tourist train station commemorating the young inventor's life in Port Huron. At well after midnight on a Thursday, the museum was most definitely closed, but they happened to have an outside receptacle at which I could charge up. If they knew, I hope they didn't mind, but I find the irony in the situation too much to bear.