BYU engineers and dancers collaborate to create educational performances

The Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering and the BYU Kinnect Dance Company have combined their respective skills to create a light and dance performance that is both entertaining and educational for elementary students.

The BYU Kinnect Dance Company, a student outreach performance dance company focused on developing teaching, creative and performance skills in its members, in collaboration with BYU electrical engineers, have choreographed performances using LED lights. Engineering students have created light balls and light suits, which are used and worn by the dancers to create a brilliant spectacle and an engaging performance.

The light suits contain bars of LED lights attached to the arms, legs and body of a black bodysuit worn by the Kinnect dancers. These suits are able to make a variety of colorful patterns, designs and displays.

According to Aaron Hawkins and Doran Wilde, BYU professors of electrical and computer engineering, this collaborative venture has been both challenging and enlightening. Not only have the engineering students learned much about the world of dance, but they’ve also found ways to improve the technology and the performance of the LED lights.

“First we thought, as the music goes, we’ll send out instructions to the suits,” explained Hawkins. “But we realized that there is a lot of interference possible through a five-minute song or performance, so we had to look at how to fix that.” 

In order to solve the complications with interference, the team decided to pre-program the suits, by saving the light and music cues directly on memory chips which are part of each suit’s electronics. Wireless radios then send out the proper “go” signal at the beginning of a performance, triggering action from microcontrollers connected to the LEDs. The final result was individual light suits and light balls which had entire performances saved locally, and simply require a red-light/green-light type signal to initiate the sequence.

 While the creation of the suits themselves is an impressive feat, what is even more impressive is the back-up plan for each of the lights in case of a power failure. 

“We’ll see things like power glitches in suits when they’re moving around, or maybe a connection comes loose, or there’s a static discharge that shuts things off,” Wildesaid. “So the suits are programmed to talk to one another if they do shut off and come back on.”

Each set of lights contains a micro-radio that is keeping track of the performance time, and is continually broadcasting that information to one another. These radios continue to keep track of their own time, as well as its neighbors' and averages out the time in order to keep in-sync with one another. The ultimate purpose of these internal timers and radios means that if a light bar were to malfunction, rather than starting the performance over again, it would receive the necessary information from nearby light bars and regain its correct place in the performance.

“It’s like a bunch of clocks working together,” explained Hawkins. “Every suit is running at a slightly different time, and this is one way of keeping them from drifting apart too much.”

The BYU Kinnect Dance Company has performed at elementary schools for over a decade, including visiting over twenty schools in 2015 to showcase the latest light suits and light balls.  The Company will also be leaving June 29, along with three electrical engineering students, to perform in Denmark.

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