A leading industry figure argues that, sometimes, it's the small product that has the most profound effect

Not long ago, Lighting Dimensions asked its readership to contribute their opinions on the lighting products that had the most impact on their careers in the past 15 years. The answers were almost predictable. Of course, the ETC Source Four came up a lot, as did various moving lights, DMX512 protocol, and color scrollers.

The editors of the magazine were asking for the blockbuster, blow-your-socks-off kind of products that come along only once every 15 years or so, and that's what they got. Of less interest in this survey but, in my opinion, of more importance to most of us, are products in a different category.

Consider the pebbles

Think of the blockbuster products as boulders. In that metaphor, the products I want to discuss are pebbles. They either advance the art in small steps or simply make available to a wider audience a technology or a theatrical effect that was previously unavailable. Here's an example:

Rosco has had different models of gobo rotators in its range for a few years. Other manufacturers followed suit and, pretty soon, designers could choose among several, depending on the features they wanted. Recently, we introduced a new rotator, the Vortex 360. It rotates gobos, like they all do. It offers some interesting features and certainly meets our and our customers' standards for quality. But here's its unique advantage: It costs less than any gobo rotator we or any other manufacturer currently offer.

Why is Rosco bothering to develop and market a product that for the most part simply duplicates what other products do and is only differentiated by a lower price? There's a two-part answer to that question.

The first part is obvious. Since Emerson's time, if you can “build a better mousetrap, the world will find a broad, hard-beaten path to your door.” This new double gobo rotator may not be a better mousetrap, but it is a more affordable one. Maybe the world won't beat a path to our dealers' doors — we may have to encourage that a little — but a segment of the market will be attracted by the price. So Rosco and its dealers will see sales for it.

The second part, however, is more significant: By reducing the cost of acquisition, we make the hundreds of effects possible only with double gobo rotators available to high schools, colleges, and such themed entertainment venues as restaurants and malls. It is in our interest to broaden the potential market, to increase the number of people who could buy. Maybe we haven't produced a new tool, but we have made the tool available to more users. Maybe we haven't extended the art, but we have extended the reach of the art. To me, that's significant. No gobo rotator will ever change the life of a designer or be classified as a product that had a major impact on a career. But making these tools available to college teachers and/or students, so they can enhance their work, strikes me as a satisfying objective.

However, there is a far more compelling reason for manufacturers to introduce new products as frequently as we do. We all dream of creating a boulder product that truly advances stagecraft or lighting in a single, breathtaking leap. But those products happen in, perhaps, 15- or 20-year intervals. In the meantime, we can make advances by creating “pebble” products — products that are a little better, faster, easier to work with, or more affordable than those that were previously available. Rosco and other manufacturers do this all the time. The obvious examples are color filters and gobos.

Small advancers matter, too

Roscolux color filters have been around for more than a quarter century. Virtually every lighting designer or technician working today has used them. Yet most people are surprised to discover that the number of colors in Roscolux has more than doubled since it was introduced; in fact, 38 new colors have been introduced in the last few years. A new shade of blue, pink, or magenta may not be the stuff that impacts careers. But a new color is introduced in response to a marketplace need. It's clearly a pebble, not a boulder, but it represents an advance, an improvement in the range of tools available.

Gobos, as Neil Peter Jampolis has pointed out, go all the way back to the days when he, and others like him, cut up aluminum pie plates. Rosco has designed and manufactured steel gobos for over 20 years. We started with fewer than 50 styles. Now the range is so large — over 800 standard designs — that we have to feature some of the range electronically, because they won't fit in the printed catalog. We've added colored glass gobos — like Colorizers, Prismatics, Color Waves, and Image Glass. That's an additional 66 products. Designers everywhere continue to experiment with them in their work and new applications and new needs will develop.

New steel gobos, like new Roscolux colors or even high-resolution, multicolored glass gobos, will never be in the blow-your-socks-off product categories. Yet they fulfill an important and sometimes irreplaceable function in productions. As designers learn their capabilities, they will also lead to the evolution of new lighting effects not previously possible.

In fact, it's easy to miss how our industry has moved forward if you just look at the blockbuster products. I've touched on just a few here, but I think the accumulated product pebbles have had as much impact on how people work today. But it takes some effort to notice the pebbles when everyone's promoting what they consider their boulder. If you're not careful about how you work the booths at LDI, or about keeping up with manufacturers' announcements, those products are liable to slip under your radar.

The challenge of marketing a new idea

One more word now about introducing absolutely unique and new-to-the-world products, because Rosco makes its share of those as well. Not long ago, Rosco developed the I-Pro Image Projector. This low-cost device allows you to use your existing Source Four instruments to project plastic images you can make or buy for around $35. It's a genuinely new idea and it solves a problem set designers, lighting designers, and technical directors have faced: creating and projecting full-color images, logos, or photos in full-stage sizes economically. The device even won an Award at LDI and ABTT and an Eddy Award. Should be an easy sell, right?

Not so fast. We hesitated and debated before we introduced the I-Pro. The good news was that it was a genuinely new idea in theatrical projections. The bad news was that it was a genuinely new idea in theatrical projections. Emerson may have been right about the better mousetrap, but how about a whole new way to catch mice? As the manufacturer, we had an obligation to educate our dealers and customers about what the I-Pro could do and what it couldn't do. Through various media, we needed to show people when and how to use these new projection techniques properly. There was really no experience base out there. That's a lot of face-to-face presentations, trade shows, mailings, seminars, etc. All that for a product that retails for $250.

Truly innovative products, such as a new idea in theatrical projection, carry a heavier marketing obligation. That's a cost the manufacturer needs to add to the cost of product development and testing. It's necessary to create awareness to create demand or there are no sales, be it a pebble or a boulder.

With all that said, most established manufacturers in our field continue to develop products that offer a new idea, or reach an extended market or execute an accepted idea in a better way. All are Emerson's “mousetraps” better in some way. The path of progress has been paved with a profusion of pebbles and just an occasional boulder along the way.

Stan Schwartz is executive vice president of Rosco Laboratories, Inc. He can be reached at stans@rosco.com.