The new Vari superscript *Lite[R] Virtuoso[TM] control console has the potential to change the way many lighting professionals view the design process. That may sound rather bold, but the fact remains that this console has surpassed others in the field by providing a variety of tools to give programmers detailed information about their entire systems in real time. And that changes everything.

In June, I used the Virtuoso for the first time to direct the lighting for Barry Manilow's Broadway musical production, Copacabana. We spent two days working offline to program four production numbers, and I was able to take designer's notes backstage during the show. I immediately saw that the capabilities of this system could quickly change our pre-show approach to design. I used the console for the second time during an industrial show on which we worked mostly on-site. The benefits on that show were the same in that the console allowed us to do our jobs much more efficiently. Since then, I've continued to learn more about what I believe to be an innovative system that brings unprecedented simplicity to programming.

It's obvious the Virtuoso borrowed its foundation from its predecessor, the Artisan[R]. But the Virtuoso is much more than a beefed-up version of its Vari-Lite cousin. The console is a complete package of versatility that allows the user to move easily from one preferred style to another. But even more important, it was designed to allow programmers to do their jobs much more efficiently. The bottom line? The Virtuoso console reduces the amount of time it takes to program cues and create lighting designs. It was built for speed.

The layout of the console provides the framework for this "speed" concept. The dedicated Channel Select Panel, located on the left side of the console, gives the programmer instant access to 100 channels at a time via backlit buttons. The panel is equipped with databanks allowing easy access to all 2,000 channels and up to 400 user-labeled groups of devices. Programmers can use the panel to select single or groups of functions that can be adjusted, stored, and called back at any time. When a function or group is selected, it is indicated simultaneously on the panel and throughout the system. The Virtuoso utilizes an integrated database to display selected fixtures throughout the entire console, allowing the user to view the selected functions from several places on the board. With just a glance, programmers can see which functions are highlighted and make changes in a matter of seconds.

A variety of palettes with dedicated hard buttons and high-quality displays allow programmers to select colors, gobos, and numerous presets without undergoing the time-consuming process of sifting through multiple file layers to find or change configurations. Competing consoles display this information on touch screens that require the user to walk through numerous screens or layers before getting the information. With the Virtuoso console, programmers don't have to dig for data because everything is easily accessible and right in front of the user.

In addition, programmers have direct access to any luminaire function via nine encoders. The console has three dedicated encoders for manual control of pan, tilt, and intensity functions. Six "soft" encoders can be assigned different parameters for manual control and programming. Programmers can use this feature for rapid manual control operations.

The center of the Virtuoso console is equipped with two display monitors, a touch screen display, command-line keypad, and retractable backlit keyboard. The high-contrast monitors have adjustable brightness and are easy to read, even under bright sunlight conditions. They are mounted on the consoles with swivels to provide the user with adjustable viewing angles. The console can be expanded to include up to four monitors.

The right side of the console is home to the Effects Programming Panel, a dynamic feature that saves lighting professionals valuable programming time by allowing them to apply pre-programmed sequences to groups of fixtures. Filters are also included in the panel to enable users to mask selected information from a pre-set effect, and timing can be adjusted to create more complicated sequences. These features reduce programming time and give programmers a creative edge by allowing them to build more complex cues and sequences.

Reconfiguration of the entire system can be achieved with the touch of a button. Programmers can set up multiple configurations, save them as snapshots, and call them back at any time. Other consoles currently on the market display the selected information on the touch screen only - the rest of the console is not affected by the recalled settings.

This next feature is one of the most impressive assets of the Virtuoso control console: It is the only lighting control system with an integrated graphical user interface. Virtuoso's 3D graphical interface is the most effective way to view multiple pieces of information about your design. A powerful tool that allows the programmer to do much more than ever before, the 3D display gives an accurate representation of the entire lighting rig and venue. Transparency levels show intensity, and focus, color, gobo patterns, and other settings can be displayed. The Plan View window, which looks like a lighting plot, gives the programmer yet another view of the complete system. In addition, the interface is equipped with a System Configuration feature that gives the user a graphical representation of everything included in the rig - cables, interface hardware, luminaires, and all other equipment.

Programmers can use the 3D targeting feature to click a selected point on the screen and focus (point) multiple luminaires to the same location. Also, the console is equipped with 3D encoders that allow the user to move groups of lights in an XYZ coordinate pattern as opposed to pan and tilt. The programmer can simultaneously move groups of lights without diverging from a central point of focus, a powerful tool to move multiple fixtures across the stage.

Offline access to the entire system using the 3D graphical interface is an invaluable benefit not seen in other consoles. Programmers can cue their shows in advance, without having a single Vari superscript *Lite, conventional, or DMX luminaire connected to the system. Because the 3D graphics capability is integrated into the Virtuoso, there's no need for outside connections, differentiating the console from others on the market that require a separate CPU and software to achieve representations of the lighting rig.

The alternative to the 3D display, as we all know, is to scroll through pages of spreadsheet data - intensity, pan, tilt, focus points, color, and a myriad of other numeric values. But with the Virtuoso console, programmers and designers now have a real-time view of what was once invisible.

The Virtuoso is unsurpassed in its ability to control up to 2,000 luminaires - regardless of the number of parameters per fixture. It's remarkable how much this console can handle. Up to 10,000 cue numbers are available, as well as 1,000 effects, up to 1,000 macros, and 1,200 snapshots. The system is capable of managing large DMX shows with up to 26 DMX universes, more than I've ever seen from other consoles on the market today.

Why can the Virtuoso control system handle so much more than other consoles? Because Vari-Lite designed it to go beyond DMX tradition by replacing copper connections with high-speed, bidirectional communications between the console and network interface units. One Virtuoso can be connected to up to 99 network interface units, and each unit can be connected to two consoles, allowing for multiple control points of massive systems. The Virtuoso system's bidirectional communications with Vari superscript *Lite luminaires and distributed multiprocessing frees the console from the millions of pieces of information flowing to the luminaires. In fact, the luminaires carry a heavy part of the workload, allowing the Virtuoso to handle more show data and luminaires than is possible with other consoles.

Conversely, traditional DMX consoles store all information at the desk, which forces it to send a steady stream of data to each luminaire, telling the fixture what to do and when to do it. But the Virtuoso control system records all data in local memory at the luminaires as the user stores it. When the programmer pushes the go button for a certain cue, the fixture plays back the pre-programmed information from its stored data and moves accordingly. As it is moving, the luminaire sends status reports to the Virtuoso, indicating its position and level of performance.

This two-way protocol allows the Virtuoso to handle more fixtures than any other console on the market. Because the luminaires and hardware interfaces are helping with the work, additional fixtures connected to the console optimize the system's bandwidth and do not degrade system performance. This extra capacity allows programmers to program cues and make other changes while the console is in use.

When working with massive lighting rigs, it's nearly impossible to know what's going on with every part of the system, and troubleshooting in a time crunch can be a nightmare. But with bidirectional communications, the luminaires report and identify to the Virtuoso specific system errors, such as problems with luminaire calibration, gobo wheel complications, and a number of other system functions. They will also report when the wrong type of luminaire is connected to the system. The problem is highlighted on the board, right in front of the programmer, so that it can easily be identified and corrected.

An experienced automated lighting programmer can learn the Virtuoso in just a few days, a benefit made possible by the system's easy-access layout and design. With the Virtuoso, designers can view an accurate representation of their entire lighting systems. They can see hidden fixtures - lights under the floor or behind a backdrop. In the past, identifying problems was very time-consuming and sometimes involved a lot of guesswork. The Virtuoso has changed that.

In my opinion, the console has raised the standard for the entire industry. And, probably most important, the Virtuoso has lightened the load for overworked designers and programmers.