There is a saying that if you build a better mouse trap, the world will beat a path to your door. While Wybron's new InfoTrace system is definitely a better mouse trap, and Wybron's headquarters in Colorado Springs is a beautiful part of the country, it is a bit remote. You're probably better off beating a path to Wybron's booth at LDI 2006 [Booth #1731] or to your local Wybron dealer for an in-depth demonstration of this new technology. As lighting systems get more complicated, the InfoTrace system is designed to make setting up, operating, and maintaining those lighting systems that much easier. This article is an introduction to this new technology, intended to point out some of its benefits. To really understand what Wybron has accomplished, you have to see it demonstrated in person.

InfoTrace is a new system that uses Remote Device Management (RDM) for the control and management of DMX-controlled lighting devices such as color changers, moving lights, conventional lights, and accessories. A complete InfoTrace system consists of the following components: InfoGate software, InfoChip legacy converter, InfoStore, a web-based aggregate information tool, and Wybron's new line of IT products. The heart of the system is InfoGate, specialized software that uses RDM to facilitate remote addressing and diagnostics for potentially every piece of DMX equipment mounted on a rig, even non-Wybron gear. InfoGate works with all RDM-compatible equipment from any manufacturer. And for legacy equipment built prior to RDM — which is most equipment — any non-RDM equipment can be upgraded with the installation of an InfoChip. Because InfoGate can work with any equipment, the setup, unit testing, and troubleshooting for an entire rig can be coordinated from a single laptop or a PDA.

“InfoTrace simplifies the setup, maintenance, repair, and integration of professional stage lighting,” says Keny Whitright, founder and president of Wybron. “Time saved during load-in and pre-show checks translate into more time to create innovative lighting sets for stage, touring shows, architecture, and other spaces.”

Wybron's IT range of equipment — Coloram IT color changers, CXI IT dual scrollers, and Eclipse IT and Eclipse II IT mechanical dowsers, and ColorExpress IT Gelstrings — is equipped with a series of sensors that can relay a wide variety of information to the InfoGate software. InfoGate can both send instructions to devices and gather back status information from the devices. These sensors can detect everything from light, temperature, and voltage to fan speed and even gel string frame color information. So, while RDM equipment will allow identification and remote addressing, IT equipment can give more specific status information and even warn of potential problems, possibly averting failures in the middle of a show. If the status of a device indicates any problem, InfoGate displays an alert with the nature of the problem and the exact location. Troubleshooting is now done in a fraction of the time.

ColorExpress IT Gelstrings have InfoTrace capability too. Every gel string is built with a radio frequency identification (RFID) tag, which relays information to the sensors in Coloram IT and CXI IT scrollers. The tag contains individual frame information as well as a unique job number, which allows for easy reordering.

The InfoGate software can control and monitor an unlimited number of lighting devices. The data transfer occurs through a black box gateway, which can process up to four universes of DMX (2,048 channels). Additional black boxes can be connected to accompany an unlimited number of universes on a single laptop.

InfoChip is the technology that allows DMX devices without RDM capability to be recognized by InfoGate and communicate back to the system. It can be installed by the user in place of the DMX receiver/transceiver IC in any non-RDM gear, regardless of manufacturer.

For any multi-channel device, InfoChip and InfoGate will detect the footprint — its number of DMX addresses and their functions. Any unit equipped with an InfoChip will work in both an InfoTrace environment and a standard DMX environment.

For permanent installations, operations requiring remote monitoring, or multiple locations, Wybron offers InfoStore, a web-based program that gathers all the information sent from InfoGate. This makes the supervision of multiple locations possible, even from a distance. (It should be noted that InfoStore is not a required component to make the InfoTrace system complete.) For instance, at the end of a production, complete status reports can be sent to InfoStore. The lighting dealer or rental house can view reports immediately, and any replacement parts or repair orders can be arranged in advance. You could track touring equipment and send an order for additional equipment or a service call between shows. You could also test out a rig in the shop with InfoTrace, and when the equipment arrives on site, it is already known if every piece of equipment is present and working.

InfoStore can also analyze combinations of readings, detect trends, and store unlimited amounts of information. Before long, it will be able to know the average life of a lamp or gel string under various conditions.

In the past, setting up and monitoring a lighting system required constant access to a lighting console, hand addressing dipswitches at each fixture, and locating problems by physically inspecting the equipment. With InfoTrace, all of these things can now be done by one person equipped with a laptop or a PDA.

“InfoTrace makes it easier to do what we could only accomplish with long costly hours in the past.” Whitright explains. “The benefits of InfoTrace go beyond traditional lighting products because with the introduction of this bold new technology, lighting designers and engineers will buy themselves time and ease of production.”

As lighting systems continue to get more complicated, rather than simpler, with the addition of new products, the new InfoTrace system from Wybron has the promise to make the lives of technicians that much easier. With the development of the InfoChip, the ability to bring legacy equipment up to a new standard means that this is not just a Wybron product but an entertainment technology product that will make taming the whole lighting rig an achievable goal.

The Development Path

Developing new products — products that people really want and really need to solve everyday challenges — is an art form. Some companies get it, and some don't. Some hit a homerun with a new product that catches on with people, while others launch products that just miss the mark with the market. With product research you have to ask the right questions; you have to avoid leading the interviewee; you have to be able to weigh the requests and needs and balance what you can do effectively to make a useful product that benefits people as well as your company's bottom line. Wybron understood all of this when doing the market research that resulted in InfoTrace.

It seems that so many companies are in such a hurry to hit the shelf with the latest and greatest toy that market research is ignored, or scant, at best. Many companies, particularly those that have been in business for a long time, assume they already know their market. Others probably feel that market research is too expensive. Of course, it's far more expensive to release a product that no one wants.

In 2004, Keny Whitright teamed up with retired marketing guru Stuart Agres, to find a way to learn what the industry was thinking. Agres holds Master's and PhD degrees in psychology from Michigan State University. He began his career in the then emerging field of consumer psychology. The primary focus is to uncover the basis of consumer decision-making when consumers are unable to articulate them and then to translate the findings into actionable ideas.

“We desperately need a more comprehensive way of understanding our industry,” says Whitright. “Technology is impacting our business in ways that were almost unthinkable a decade ago. To some, technology provides easier ways of doing what we could only accomplish with long costly hours in the past. But today's and tomorrow's technologies are also providing opportunities to further enhance audience involvement, to absolutely ensure repeatable effects, and to provide new mechanisms for creative interplay.”

Agres explains why it was impossible to ask the market what it wanted. “The reason that you can't get accurate feedback is simple: they don't know the answers. People simply don't know the weight that they give to elements of a complex decision. Worse, some of what they tell you is actually dead wrong.” It's a research problem that has been solved, refined, and solved again and again in the consumer products world. The key is in getting the questions right and asking those questions to people who really know, even if they don't know that they know.

Whitright and Agres enlisted the help of Acromatics Market Research to tackle the task ahead. Because Whitright wanted to speak with the most knowledgeable and influential people in the lighting industry, it was decided that this research would best be conducted at trade shows with the highest concentration of these people. The surveys consisted of one-on-one interviews, followed by an online survey. In all, over 200 interviews were conducted in the fall of 2005.

What struck the research team immediately was the enthusiasm of the respondents after completing the questionnaire. One comment that was heard repeatedly was that the research questions really made them think about things in a new way. Agres himself was pleasantly surprised. “The cooperation of the people in this industry has been outstanding,” he says. “Many have offered to participate in future research projects.” Of course, it didn't hurt that participants in in-depth interviews were given iPods for their efforts, either.

While the data gathered at PLASA and LDI was quite complex, the conclusion seemed quite simple. The direction for equipment is for ease of use and simplicity. Lack of simplicity/ease is what is likely holding back the “advanced” offerings. “What they're saying is ‘make my job easier’” says Agres.

Because of the response and the wealth of information received from the in-depth interviews, Wybron decided to continue doing research via online surveys posted on the Wybron website.

The number of respondents that participate in the survey averages from 100 to 200 each month, with a good representation of lighting designers, technicians, salespeople, and other professionals. This information was used in conjunction with the next step: brainstorming.

Wybron encouraged employees from every department — sales, production, engineering, marketing — to share ideas (even crazy ones) on ways that products could make someone's job easier. From a room filled with giant Post-Its stuck all over the walls came countless ideas. Some were far-fetched, but a great many of the ideas were simple, logical improvements that would make the operation of a product either easier or more effective. Very soon after these meetings, the first InfoTrace Coloram prototype was finished, complete with a long list of features and benefits.

By March, enough information was known about the InfoTrace system in development that it was time to find out if its benefits would truly be considered valuable and which attributes would be the most useful to survey respondents.

This survey presented respondents with scenarios in which InfoTrace technology could potentially change the way their job is done. The first — The Load-In — described a show being loaded into a new venue. As each pipe is powered, the power supply signals its location and the location of each light, color changer, and dowser that is installed on it, plus other information like: is each fan motor operating at spec; is the lamp working; is the correct gel string mounted in each color changer at each position? If everything is set up and working correctly, an “All is Well” message is received. If not, an exception report is generated stating both the nature of the issue and the specific device in question. Respondents were asked how valuable this scenario would be to them. The response was unanimous:

“It has a direct effect on my bottom line! I cut time lost on diagnostics, maintenance, and manpower.”

“Time, unlike a lost hat, cannot be found. Identifying problems when they can be solved at a working height is great!”

“Anything that can save time on a load-in is always welcome in my venue.”

“A tool that can help identify problems quickly at the load-in would save time on troubleshooting, leaving more time for focus and programming. What LD wouldn't want that?”

The other scenarios presented additional times during a production that InfoTrace could streamline tasks, minimize risks, and provide knowledge. The reaction was very favorable and confirmed what was learned during the trade show interviews. People want their lives to be easier. Currently, troubleshooting is cumbersome and time consuming. The fact that InfoTrace can lead to more knowledge and control was seen as a huge benefit.

The encouraging part is that all the hard work has paid off. InfoTrace has been custom designed through the input of hundreds of industry experts, not just a few people behind closed doors. And it promises to make all of their lives easier.