Last summer engineering professor Aaron Hawkins saw a performance during an episode of America’s Got Talent that caught his eye.
A group of dancers were performing in the dark, wearing suits that lit up in sync with the music.
“I thought, why can’t we do that too?” Hawkins said. “Especially with the world-class dancers we have on campus.”
Less than a year later, with financial support from L3 Communications, Hawkins and a team of electrical engineering students and faculty have created fully-functioning, eye-catching light suits that flash to music.
The suits will be worn this weekend by members of the BYU Ballroom Dance Company during a number in their annual concert.
See the suits in action at the BDC Concert, April 6-7, 7:30 p.m. in the Marriott Center. There is also a 2 p.m. matinee on April 7. More details here.
The light suits are equipped with 16 light channels that turn on and off in sync with a musical number. A master computer plays the music which is synched with signals that are sent wirelessly to a box on the back of each of the four suits.
The phonebook-sized boxes hold battery packs and a circuit board, with an antenna to receive the signals. Once the signals are received, a microcomputer in the box translates the instructions to the strands of electroluminescent wire on the suits.
The result is a flashy routine where dancers appear, disappear and reappear in lines of red, white, and blue light.
“The hardest part was making reliable circuitry on the boxes,” said student James Mackie. “It’s one thing just to have the circuitry turn things on and off, but it’s another thing to make it work on a moving person. If the wires bend too much as the dancers move, we can get a short that turns off the entire suit.”
Guided by their faculty advisors, Mackie and his fellow students built the entire system as part of a senior-level design class. They had to perfect everything from the circuit boards to how the lights attached to the fabric of the costumes. A good dose of computer programming was also necessary.
Get a close-up look at the light suits and see other electrical and computer engineering projects April 11, 1-3 p.m., at the Wilkinson Student Center Garden Court. Details here.
Ballroom Dance Company Director Lee Wakefield saw the potential for a “definite upgrade” to something he had tried a dozen years before with light strips, so he welcomed the light-suit proposition from Hawkins and his team.
“We jumped at the idea and just thought it was wonderful,” Wakefield said. “The piece is really fun and works well in our show since we like to appeal to a wide audience – kids love anything that glows in the dark.”
The ballroom team already had a black light routine anyway, so the project fit right into their program. “Though they’ve certainly added an element or two of sophistication – like coordinating the lights to the music,” Wakefield added.
The Ballroom Dance Company is one of the most prestigious ballroom teams in the world, winning the British Formation Championships 19 times and winning national championships nearly 30 times over the last 50 years.
The light suits have already been used in a couple of the ballroom team’s performances and will be used throughout the summer. Thanks to the collaboration, one of the engineering students has even joined the technical crew for the dance team and will be traveling with them through the summer.
“At first we thought combining engineering and dance students was really going to be a strange mix, but, in the end, it has been a very fruitful, cooperative effort,” Hawkins said. “We’ve grown to truly appreciate each other and some real friendships have developed.”
Added Mackie: “Some of the dancers were actually very knowledgeable about what we were doing and we appreciate that they are helping to show off our work. It makes us feel like we are doing something that really matters and excites people. It’s been a great experience.”
See another dance department collaboration here: