Where would this industry be without widgets? Sure, everyone talks about the big flashy lights, the space age consoles, the sleek new speakers; they get all the headlines, not to mention advertising budgets. But every designer and technician knows that at that critical moment in a show when the wheels are in danger of falling off, it's the little gadget you have in your pocket, key chain, or toolbox that ends up saving your sweet behind. Well, to be honest, we forgot. See, we started this section called “Widgets We Love” several years ago, and the response was great, so we kept it up for a few years. But, we took it for granted. It was great and all, but there were other fish in the sea — media servers, digital consoles, LED this and that — and we moved on. But you know what, it was wrong. We knew where our heart lay. And so we stand here, hat in hand, begging for forgiveness, little widget. To make it up to you, we offer this roundup of some new doo-dads, do-hickeys, and thingamabobs no self-respecting gearhead should be without.
The dmxLAN System offers the conversion of DMX to Ethernet and back, and allows complete network management through PC or Pocket PC software. All the functionality of an Ethernet basic network, like switches for multiple access point or wireless LAN, are supported. It also supports all the functionalities of new and future RDM and ACN/BCN protocols.
“A free software package is linked to ELC Lighting's Node4 Art-Net node. The software package consists of a visualizer for WYSIWYG to pre-program shows and dmXLAN to program nodes. With the visualizer, if the Node4 is connected to DMX lines and the user's PC (standard Ethernet, with WIFI access wireless connection is possible), users can check on fixtures during the show. For example, if your job is to keep all the fixtures running and one shutter is closed, you can check if it is an operator or fixture error. The dmXLAN software has many features, like three types of merge-HTP, LTP, and Custom merge-and channel per channel merging and patching. Custom merge allows users to merge two lines into one (individual for each output), with an offset for both of the merged lines. This eliminates the need for complicated patches in the desk. dmXLAN also allows users to create the same patch as in the desk. Users can isolate and control fixtures from their laptop or PC. Arrange the fixtures' bitmaps in the plan view, then select the fixture to control (in patch view or plan view) and choose “control”; now the user controls the fixture. This feature is very useful for testing without a desk, and if running wireless, users can test the fixtures with a laptop or PDA near the fixture through its standard data lines. Users can configure and monitor all nodes on the network and monitor all DMX universes. There is a full data log, and there are also macros for Reset and Lamp On/Off, so users don't have to ask the operator again and again to reset a fixture. More functions are Highlight, Lock Fixtures, etc. When I go to a job, a Node4, a WIFI AP, and my laptop are standard things in my car!”
— Bart van Stiphout, freelance light technician
Cable Clones offer an alternative to physically checking the cable lengths for video system specifications or installation headroom by simulating the effect of the cable needed with a lumped constant network. Cable Clone simulates the effect of various lengths of cable, versions suitable for different types of cable and bit rates of 270, 360, and 1.5Gbts are available.
“I have a clone of 10m (33') of Belden 1694A cable. Put this little guy in the line. If you don't see spakles on the screen (bit errors) or a closing eye, it means you are AT LEAST 33' from the digital cliff. A very easy and cost-effective way to tell you are okay.”
— Steve Lampen, multimedia technology manager, Belden Cable
The HRM-1500 is a practical way for television engineers and technicians to measure the quality of HD-SDI signals.
The HRM-1500 shows the strength of the signal in a bar graph (red, yellow, green) and then shows the direct energy and reflected energy on that HD line. It is a great way to tell if something is wrong in that line. It costs $1,500 but will do as much as a $60,000 network analyzer.
— Steve Lampen
Hook & Loop ties are ideal for applications where changes are anticipated or continuous access is required. There is no risk of over-tightening cables. They are available in multiple colors for easy identification of cable bundles, and the different sizes accommodate various bundle diameters.
“To preserve cable quality in HD use hook-and-loop ties instead of plastic self-locking cable ties. The hook-and-loop ones are pretty expensive. Rip-Tie has lower-cost large size hangable ties meant to make everything cheaper, easier to install, and maximize cable performance.”
— Steve Lampen
GT 3100 GAM CHEK is a 3-in-1 electrical tester with cable, lamp, and circuit tests. The cable test monitors line continuity and shows completed circuits. Lamp test indicates the lamp and fixture continuity. Circuit tester checks available power, if polarity is correct, and if wiring is correct.
“It saves time and is not as clumsy as a standard electrician volt-meter and also fits in the back of your pocket. It is a must for all stage/screen and rock ‘n roll electricians. My students and colleagues have been using them for years, and I have had mine since 1994.”
— William Liotta, assistant professor lighting & sound design, Department of Theatre & Dance University of New Mexico
The Handle fits onto an existing bolt found on pipe clamps, eliminating the need for a wrench. It is secured through the bolt, so it cannot be knocked off.
“My favorite widget is The Handle from Mutual Hardware. It is presently ‘out-of-manufacturing’ and I hope by expressing interest here we can get this back into production. I am the in-house LD at two local arenas; I do special effects and specialty lighting for a semi-pro hockey team, semi-pro arena football team, and the men's and women's basketball and gymnastics teams at the local university. As such, I am always moving instruments and effects around on the catwalks. Not carrying a wrench makes for less to drop on the deck (be it ice, turf, or gym floor). My crew also finds it easier to deal with the units, as they range from ETC Source Fours® with 19° lenses to those with 10° lenses, as well as those outfitted with City Theatrical EFX Plus2 large-format projectors and the occasional confetti/streamer cannons and pyrodistro boxes. The Handle combined with the Light Source “Mega-Clamp” is just great. (Although I'm also using it on all my older style C-clamps as well). It costs about $3.00 each, but it saves me labor and worry when setting up over a setup crew or easily damaged deck surface (Did you know that a warm Crescent wrench can melt into the ice before you can get from the catwalk to center ice to retrieve it?).”
— Donn Mason, president/designer, M&M Effects Incorporated
The SoundPlug contains a sensitive high impedance transducer connected across pins 2 and 3 of a female XLR plug. When plugged into the end of a sound cable, users are able to hear balanced line level audio. Use it to troubleshoot a cable that is already run out, or when both ends aren't available for a traditional cable tester. There is also a 5-pin DMX version for lighting applications.
“The SoundPlug has changed my life. This thing is basically a little XLR connector with a transducer in it. When you plug it in to the end of an audio cable you can hear what sound, if any, is traveling through it. This little ditty has saved me countless hours troubleshooting systems. There is no other way (other than tracing thousands of feet of cable through conduit) to sort out a mislabeled patch pay.
It will even let you hear MIDI and DMX. It is small enough to fit on a keychain, and you can make little adapters to allow you to plug it into 1/4", RCA, MIL, or anything else you need (except power amplifier output).”
— Jason Romney, sound design instructor, North Carolina School of the Arts; vice commissioner for computing industry, USITT Sound Commission
The sleeker, compact version of Apple's original iPod® is available in 4GB and 6GB versions, capable of storing 1,000 or 1,500 songs, respectively. The ubiquitous Mini is a must-have for designers on the go, with long days of tech and travel ahead of them.
“I use the iPod for all kinds of stuff — from listening to music, holding contacts, files, and even playing games. Plus it solves a lot of issues when programming shows to music, I don't have to carry CDs any more, I can hold the music right there along with everything else.”
— Ignacio “Iñaki” Rosenberg
USB storage keys come in 256MB, 512MB, and now 1GB sizes. They plug in to any PC or Mac with a USB port, and provide handy, portable storage. We use them constantly to move big video and audio files around. Much faster than cramming it over a network.
— Bob & Colleen Bonniol, “On Projection,” August 2004
“As a lighting designer, I travel a lot (duh!). Therefore, I am constantly searching high and low to find anything that can lighten my load. [I found it in] the iGo Juice70 power adapter. One brick allows you to power your laptop and simultaneously power a cellphone or PDA. But it's more than that-this little wonder can handle 12VDC and 120-240VAC. One brick works on airplanes (it comes with both airplane-style plug adapters), in cars, and anywhere in the world with AC power. They have interchangeable tips, so when you buy a new laptop, you just change out the tip for $10 and it's good to go.”
— Andrew Wilder, principal lighting designer, Luxious Lighting, Inc.
[Editor's Note: The iGo Everywhere Power 7500 is available as the next generation of Juice Power. It improves upon the time-saving features as Wilder listed for the Juice70. Using the Power 7500, users can recharge anywhere, as it plugs into standard AC wall outlets, fits into standard vehicle auto power outlets, and is designed for an aircraft's inflight eMpower® outlet. The iGo DualPower accessory allows iGo EverywherePower to simultaneously power/charge a notebook computer and a mobile phone, handheld/PDA, MP3 player, digital camera, and more. Its AC input is 100-230VAC, 50/60Hz. DC input is 11.75-30VDC (10A max). It features continuous power output up to 90W.]
The automatic pencil with a large retractable eraser. Look, it's a pencil, what more can we say?
“If I don't have my Pentel Twist Erase 0.9 in my left inside breast pocket, I might as well step on all the cracks and break my mother's back in a thousand places. The 0.9mm lead is the key. They're hard to find. The 0.5mm and 0.7mm are everywhere, and they're worthless. You can't dot an “i” without breaking the lead.… But the 0.9mm makes a line I can see even without my glasses, and it never snaps on me when I'm frantically jotting down someone's email address on the back page of my pocket calendar. The patented Twist-Erase emerg-o eraser? I'm blushing. Yes, it's sexy. My Twist-Erase 0.9 is my mojo.”
— Brian Massman, MFA Media Arts, University of Montana