HE'S A WORLD-CLASS LIGHT HEAVYWEIGHT LITTLE KNOWN IN HIS HOMETOWN OF WEST VANCOUVER, BUT IAN ASHDOWN, WHO COUNTS AMONG HIS INTERESTS THEORETICAL ASTRONOMY AND UNDERSEA ROBOTICS, IS NOT IN THE FIGHT GAME. HE HAS MUCH MORE ILLUMINATING CONCERNS.

Ashdown is one of fewer than a dozen specialists worldwide working in an elite international strata where computer graphics, three-dimensional light rendering, and software engineering converge. It's an intersection inhabited by specialized minds - a place where light, heat, and acoustics play key roles in projects ranging from cinematic special effects to space travel.

If you ask Ashdown to describe what he does, the shaggy-haired, absent-minded professor type will advise you that "you don't want to know." And if you're only interested in small talk, you might not: His resume includes terms like "genetic algorithms" and "embedded systems development," all of which add up to important elements for architects and engineers who need to know how light will be incorporated in, and how it will illuminate, everything from offices to sports stadiums. "The biggest challenge is to remember that people want solutions rather than answers," he says. "For lighting designers, this means translating the mathematical results of academic research into easy-to-use software programs that provide solutions to lighting design problems."

Among the places his company, byHeart Consultants Ltd., has taken its solutions is Hollywood. For the land of high-speed car chases, stop-action stunts, and other optical illusions, light is an element more essential than star power.

Consider, for example, West Coast companies like Burnaby-based Action Stunt Productions Inc. (ASP), which provides stunt rigging systems for film production companies in Hollywood North. These include deceleration equipment that allows filmmakers to pull off such stunts as dropping a person from a helicopter and letting him freefall for 200' (61m) before breaking the fall with a steel cable and harness.

Ashdown's byHeart Consultants, along with North Vancouver's MUM Engineering, is currently working with ASP to develop a computer-controlled "flying wire" system that will allow filmmakers to move stunt actors at up to 40' (12m) per second in any direction using a cable slung between two 50' (15m) towers spaced up to 100' (30m) apart. He is developing the computer software that will control precisely the system's electric motors, brakes, and safety devices. It will also allow filmmakers to save libraries of computer-generated stunt paths for reuse in retakes and other movies.

Ashdown's work in the early 90s with Langley, BC-based Ledalite Architectural Products as its head of research has likewise paid big dividends for Hollywood's illusionists. His patented near-field photometric method for measuring the distribution of light from architectural lighting fixtures using a video camera has contributed to the development of image-based rendering in the computer graphics industry, and has spawned such special effects as the stop-motion video used in The Matrix and other films.

"If I were to identify one person as a key mentor, it would be Peter Murphy, Ledalite's president - he had a knack for identifying simple problems in lighting design that required innovative solutions," Ashdown says. "His questions over the past 20 years have led to several patents, numerous academic papers, and a career in lighting research and development for myself and others."

Elsewhere in the entertainment field, byHeart Consultants is developing software for set designers and photography directors. This will measure the lighting of virtual sets, and make it possible to design lighting for rock concerts, indoor movie sets, and theatrical performances far in advance of live performances.

But there's far more than Hollywood illusions on Ashdown's plate. Take, for example, the generation of light without a power source, and tackling the complexities of light and heat in outer space. Luna Technologies is a small company based in Coquitlam, BC, developing high-end photoluminescent materials. Its LUNAplast product, which harnesses strontium aluminate, lasts far longer and is up to 40 times brighter than the conventional short-term zinc sulphide materials that make glowsticks glow.

Luna is currently pursuing emergency light source markets all over the United States and Europe. Last August, Luna's product was approved by NASA and recommended for use in all its space vehicles. Ashdown's work with Luna has helped increase the photoluminescent value of its product five to six times.

The Canadian Space Agency, meanwhile, is seeking ways to control heat transfer in spacecraft, which are subject to solar heating temperature swings of up to 400C. Heat and light act similarly in space, and because of Ashdown's renown as one of the world's foremost radiosity experts his input has been sought in connection with the project. (On a more earthbound note, Ashdown's Helios32 software is used by Lighting Analysts Inc. of Colorado to produce computerized architectural renderings for LDs and architects.)

Last year, Ashdown was appointed a fellow with the 8,000-member Illuminating Engineering Society of North America (IESNA) for his numerous contributions to the lighting industry. "The underlying message of the award was what truly moved me. The IESNA declared the lighting research work I had done over the past decade to be useful to the lighting design community."

Ashdown, who holds numerous US and Canadian patents, is also the author of a book on radiosity and many academic papers and articles on light-related topics. Not bad for a 50-year-old who had trouble with the subject in elementary school and struggled with it until he was about 30, when he got his first computer and realized that he could program the machine to do the math - which freed him to pursue his bright ideas. What's he pursuing now? "LEDs - they will turn the lighting industry upside down over the next decade. This is my current research focus."