Of Lasers, Waveforms, and 6 Year Old Boys

Last Friday, I took [Liam->] to see Tim Walsh perform a laser show at the Price Senior Center. Liam had seen a flyer advertising the event a month and a half ago at the library, and had been keen to go ever since. Having a certain enthusiasm for such things myself, I decided that would be a great thing for us to do together.

Due to a scheduling mixup, we ended up arriving an hour before the show started and decided to take a walk up to 7-Eleven and get hopped up on Hawaiian Punch before things began. After we had a sufficient sugar buzz, we stashed the remaining drink in the car and took a seat in the welcome coolness of the Senior Center’s main auditorium. The last time I’d seen this room, it was still being renovated, so I was pleased to see that it was now complete, and had been beautifully finished.

The lights dimmed and Mr. Walsh introduced his show, explaining some of what we’d be seeing. The first bit was an introductory sequence that explained how laser shows work, followed quickly by some nice sequences of imagery projected onto a screen above the stage. While there was nothing particularly out-of-the-ordinary about the projection of these images, I was glad to see that the state of the art in the software that drives the projection has come along, allowing Mr. Walsh to move the “camera” through three dimensional spaces, and for objects in the foreground to occlude objects in the background. He then moved on to a few more presentations that demonstrated the aurora borealis effect one gets when shining a laser through a piece of shaped glass, and the various beams, sheets, and waves that one can create by projecting lasers through the air.

After these fairly standard (though well done) presentations, Mr. Walsh launched into some new territory. He explained that he had long been interested in merging the music and the images the laser show creates, and that he had finally discovered a way of merging the two that he’s exploring that he believes has considerable promise. By taking the electrical signals that move the mirrors to aim the lasers and feeding that signal into the speakers, he’s able to use the same waveforms to create both the images and the sound. He went on to play a piece for us called “Sidewinder” which used this technique. It had a very electronic, syncopated feel to it which, while harsh at times, was quite compelling, especially when one observed the synchronicity between the aural and visual aspects of the piece. He went on to demonstrate the technique in several other pieces, including an interesting one based on variations of Taps. One of the central musical motifs of that piece was a slide up and down the overtone series, generated by a spiral on screen slowly coiling and uncoiling itself.

The show wrapped up with a few more traditional patriotic pieces, including a rendition of Deep in the Heart of Texas, for which the assembled audience spontaneously provided the series of four claps at the appropriate spots. (I guess Pee Wee Herman was right about that.) I’d have loved to have gotten to stay and visit with Mr. Walsh a bit, but evening was coming on and we needed to get home. Liam loudly proclaimed the show “the coolest thing ever” on the way home, so I considered it a night well-spent.

See the Laser Spectacles website for more information on the sorts of laser-based shenanigans Mr. Walsh & Co. are up to. Be sure to see the Laser Harp and read about the world’s largest video game (Asteroids, as it turns out).