The Remarkable Journey of DyLOS

It’s early 2018 and lighting manufacturer Elation Professional has just acquired the M-Series of entertainment lighting controllers from Martin Professional. Lighting control engineers at the newly renamed Obsidian Control Systems are thrilled but are also feeling a bit pensive as they know there is still a missing piece of the puzzle. “We knew we wanted to integrate an intuitive system of creative control into the ONYX platform that had never been seen before,” recalls Obsidian Product Manager Matthias Hinrichs. “We knew all about DyLOS and we had a very important phone call to make.”

That the pixel composer DyLOS would eventually make its way into Obsidian Control Systems’ ONYX lighting control software is an amazing journey. To understand it fully, we need to go back to the end of the 20th century and a unique invention called the Farblichtflügel. We start, however, even further back, albeit briefly, to a seminal moment in music and art history.

When painter Wassily Kandinsky first heard a performance of Richard Wagner’s opera Lohengrin in 1896, he was moved by the powerful imagery the music evoked in his mind. “I saw all my colors in my mind; they stood before my eyes,” he said, while unwittingly describing a type of synesthesia in which sound can evoke an experience of color. The experience would have a profound effect on his art.

Fast forward to 1999 and a project at the University of the Arts in Berlin about Kandinsky’s color opera “Violett” where freelance lighting designer Christian Decker, currently a software developer at Elation Professional, was helping students with the lighting. There he met Natalia Sidler, a musician, teacher and synaesthesis who had invented an instrument called a Farblichtflügel that combines music with color and thereby creates a new perceptual experience.


Christian explains: “She had a connection between sound and color that made her see amazing, very detailed images before her inner eye. She was also a pianist and in order to help her memorize the music she was playing, she painted these images. Her idea was to make other people aware and able to experience this type of connection, so she invented the Farblichtflügel. As a starting point, she and her team painted the keys of a grand piano in the colors of the spectrum and added instruments that for her were connected with the color of their sound. She then asked me if it was possible to create a system so that the audience would be immersed in the colors that are being played. Essentially that was the start of the system that even at that time I called DyLOS or Dynamic Light Operating System.”

Writing software and real-time graphics programming
Christian, who has a background in computer science and was heavily into programming before he moved into the creative world of lighting design, relied on that technical background to begin work on a solution. “There was nothing existing on the market that was useful in translating sound to color, so I started writing software myself (on an Atari ST!) to translate the MIDI signal from the instrument to DMX for lighting fixtures. It worked so well that I realized the huge potential in the intricate emotional connection between colors and sound played live on an instrument. So we decided to go further with the project.”

In 2000, the project moved to the University of the Arts in Zurich where Christian worked with a team of instrument builders, and audio, acoustic and electrical experts. “At one point we decided to move away from just using lighting fixtures as they were limiting when expressing multiple sounds at the same time so I decided to go one step further and move into real-time graphics programming.” Although the hardware at that time was limited, it was just possible to portray sound as color graphically. For the time, this was very cutting edge.

By 2001, the system was ready for its first performances, which took place at the University of the Arts in Zurich. Different sounds generated different textures and colors, which faded into each other as abstract landscapes of color that represented the feel of the sound. The images below are examples of the kinds of imagery generated from the software at that time while playing the Farblichtflügel.

Software engine
In the early 2000s, the system was tailored specifically to the Farblichtflügel instrument and it was at that point that Christian decided to create a proper software engine to create more free-moving, animated graphics that could be used in a stage setting. “The goal with DyLOS from the very beginning was to create a way to control lighting in a more dynamic and creative way,” he says. “The idea was to create a tool that lets designers think and work in a graphical space rather than thinking about separate lamps with certain technical parameters. I wanted designers to think in different terms, to keep their focus on the images they want to create in the physical space and be inspired to try out things they didn’t think of before.”

Early steps and projects
By 2005, the initial system was ready for designers and artists to collaborate with. One of the early collaborations was with a group of visual artists around Aleksej Schön in Berlin called Circus of Now. Aleksej wanted a visual system he could use for live VJing in particularly complex settings. This was the first time that the new DyLOS software engine was used. Christian comments: “The main thing with DyLOS was always to create a system that you could interact with and change in real-time. Back then, graphics engines were either very limited or involved detailed adjustments of huge amounts of technical parameters. Reacting to changing requirements was therefore a very slow process and improvisation was nearly impossible. DyLOS allowed you to busk in real-time.” Other events followed – a concept car reveal show for GM at the Frankfurt Motor Show, a VJ event in New York, a large 110-meter-long panoramic projection in San Francisco for Microsoft, and others. Albeit small, DyLOS was starting to generate a fan base.

By the end of 2007, the engine was rock solid and working but there was one main issue - Christian was the only one who knew how to use it! Although the results were uplifting, trying to keep his vision alive in Berlin while his family was far away in Belgium was a challenge, and he definitely needed more sleep! It was time to share his innovation. In 2008, he stopped his freelance work and approached the broader market, giving a demo of the system (mostly media server capabilities) to lighting manufacturer Martin Professional.

Into the market?
Enter Elation Product Manager Matthias Hinrichs, who at the time worked for Martin Professional (coincidentally, Matthias and Christian both studied event technology at the University in Berlin in the late 1990s but weren’t acquainted with each other at that time). Between 2008 and 2010, Matthias and Christian worked together at Martin on the company’s Maxedia media server, but it wasn’t until a retreat in Denmark in 2012 that Matthias fully immersed himself in the DyLOS system for the first time. For that, Christian, who had since moved on to an audio software company, created a new prototype of DyLOS to show how he envisioned dynamic lighting control.

Matthias recalls: “Simply put, we wanted to change how shows were programmed and operated. We wanted to introduce a lighting control system that had a more creative way of dealing with large arrays of lighting fixtures. Something that wasn’t number based or data entry focused, which is labor intensive and unimaginative, but a system that encouraged creativity. We sought an alternative way to program fixtures focused more on design and the creative process that encourages the user to try new things. That more artistic process was really missing in the market but Christian had this engine that was really interesting and it had a lot of these underlying elements already in it.” Matthias was convinced of the system but getting management to move on the project was another matter. Presentations and workshops ensued with the goal of integrating DyLOS into Martin’s M-Series of controllers but with other priorities pending, the company eventually shelved the idea.

Program thousands of elements in an instant
With ‘convergence’ the buzz word in the industry at the time and with productions growing, a lot was happening in the market with video, pixels and dynamic control. “At this time, the amount of pixels used in a show became so large that it became a huge math problem and nothing felt organic or smooth,” Matthias reflects, emphasizing that the evolution made DyLOS an even more attractive solution. “With DyLOS, we saw more creative ways to interact with large amounts of pixels and fixtures where you could program thousands of elements in an instant and create effects that would be impossible to program with a traditional time-intensive system.”

Meanwhile, Christian explored concepts, made prototypes and took the opportunity to develop the graphics capability of the DyLOS system further, drawing inspiration from living at the seaside in Belgium, for example the undulation of the waves, the color gradient of a sunset, inspiration you can find in the DyLOS generator today. “At this time, I did a lot of groundwork and explored different concepts that laid the foundation for the actual integration that took place at Elation from 2018 on,” Christian states, adding that prototypes were also built for other advanced concepts that are planned for release in the coming years.

By the time Elation acquired the M-Series range of lighting controllers from Martin Professional and launched Obsidian Control Systems in 2018, Matthias, who had joined the company months earlier, had already made that phone call. “Of course, I was excited as I had put my heart and soul into DyLOS,” says Christian, who was then brought onto the Obsidian development team. “By that time, the engine was working very reliably and performant, and most preparation under the hood was done so we started the process of integrating the engine into ONYX.”

The process of compatibility, synchronization, configuring and testing took about 18 months and in February 2020 DyLOS launched as a revolutionary new component of the ONYX lighting control platform. The cue-based system brought an innovative toolset of media composition, effects, content and text generators, along with a large variety of parameter manipulation, right into the core of any ONYX system.

Creative play
By enhancing the design process as a more natural workflow and encouraging playful experimentation rather than an overly technical and uninspiring approach of numbers and values, DyLOS was unique, allowing the designer to focus on the creative process. “We’ve taken concepts from video production systems and let the whole room play as an ensemble,” asserts Christian, aptly alluding to the system as a musical metaphor. “Good designers have always done this anyway but they had to do all the hard work of tediously programming the lighting controller step by step. With DyLOS, the idea is to create the effects more playfully. Less technicality and more creativity. DyLOS is fast to sketch out the overall look at first, but at the same time is flexible enough to build on your previous work, to further refine the details of your effects, change them, expand them, incorporate more, try out things you didn’t think of before. And it all can be reduced to a few faders that you can control in real time. With each iteration in the development, we open up a broader range of applications and it becomes even more intuitive.”

A new approach
Everything a lighting fixture can do can be mapped with DyLOS, not only color, meaning any media file or effect can have hundreds of variations. It opens up a whole new approach to adding intricate lighting effects into cues quickly. “I find it interesting to explore ways of handling hundreds or thousands of lamps or LED pixels in a creative way without seeing it as just a video canvas but really treating them as fixtures,” Christian says. “The fascinating thing with lighting is that each fixture has its own personality, which goes beyond the experience you can create with video, a physicality that is unique. DyLOS is a way to quickly program dynamic lighting effects that would take hours and hundreds of steps by conventional programming. It opens up a whole new approach to adding intricate lighting into cues quickly with just a few brush strokes.”

Full circle
Christian concludes by bringing the story of the development of DyLOS full circle, to Natalia Sidler and her Farblichtflügel. “DyLOS really has its origins in the worlds of art and music. We wanted to build something that encourages people to play and experiment, more like composing and playing music, but also like creating complex, immersive pieces of visual art.”

The journey from the Farblichtflügel in Berlin to integration into the ONYX platform at Obsidian Control Systems has been an extraordinary one, rooted in the desire to intuitively control lighting in a more dynamic and creative way and changing the landscape of lighting control in the entertainment industry.

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