Tuesday, January 13, 2009

This one's for the geeks and the recovering goths

When people ask what my thesis project is about, I tell them. It's about the growth and fabrication of gallium nitride laser diodes. And when they respond with a blank stare, I explain, "Have you heard of LEDs? They're kind of a glorified version of those."

I got into LEDs when I learned how they work, years ago in some introductory solid state electronics course. To me, they're pure quantum physics. Which is to say, they're magic. One ordinary electron, one single unit of electricity, in the right place at the right time suddenly transforms into a photon, a single unit of light. And the other cool thing about LEDs is they come in different colors depending what semiconductor they're made from. Gallium nitride, the semiconductor I work with, emits blue light (and violet and green in the right conditions).

I can very easily geek-out on how cool LEDs are, however, I wouldn't exactly call them my passion in life. So imagine me at work, painfully browsing through RSS feeds of technical journals, and suddenly I came across IEEE Spectrum's report on state-of-the-art LED light shows, namely Nine Inch Nails' "Lights In The Sky" tour. A technical journal writing about NIN? YES!

Say what you want about NIN, but they'll always be a guilty pleasure. Pretty Hate Machine is still one of my favorite albums. And they still put on a good show! I spent over an hour watching concert footage of theirs today and was thoroughly entertained. It actually made me appreciate big stadium rock concerts again. Plus, there's nothing better than watching music videos at work and convincing yourself, "If anyone asks, this is part of my research."

I love this video for "Only." Follow the link to watch it big in HD.

At first the band appears to be playing behind some kind of screen, and then 1 minute in, the stage explodes in dazzling layers of static. There's actually three screens, each comprised of a semitransparent grid of 90,000 LED pixels, each pixel a trio of red, green and blue LEDs. (Most people know this but red, green, and blue together make white light.) The band stood behind one LED screen and in front of another two to achieve a 3D effect.

There's more NIN footage atAsh512's Vimeo channel.

According to IEEE, several bands have used these things called Versatubes in their live shows. They're cylindrical lamps that house 36 LEDs and can be arranged in grids or arrays. There's some amazing Radiohead concert footage from their "In Rainbows" tour on TheLilBearBeeny's Youtube page.

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