Oh, high tech night ...

Christmas glow gets digital edge

Staff WriterDecember 18, 2009 

— Excited about his extravagant new plan for lighting up the house during Christmas, Denny Cole knew he would need to start early.

In Cole's candy-colored, bulb-filled world, that means April.

When you string more than 17,000 lights and use more than 3,000 feet of wire in a display connected to a computer program that synchronizes those lights to music sent over a short-range FM transmitter, a Saturday afternoon, a ladder and a staple gun won't cut it. From design work, which started this spring, to decorating the house and yard, which began in September, the effort has been worth it, he said.

"I'm having a blast."

Cole, 58, has joined a growing number of hobbyists, in the Triangle and beyond, who use their knowledge of computers and electricity to design elaborate, synchronized light shows. Inspired by Internet videos posted by other tinkerers, these hobbyists are helped by a growing software industry aimed at simplifying the process.

Synchronized lights are the kind of over-the-top flourish that Americans love to pump into Christmas. Mexicans may light luminaria, and people in Ghana dance in the streets, but in America, we do it our way: We open stores that sell nothing but Christmas all year, we have our dog's picture taken with Santa, and we spend hundreds of hours to make our Christmas lights blink in time to rock songs.

For help and inspiration, Cole joined a small local group of enthusiasts who trade tips and expertise. He guesses there are fewer than a dozen displays like his between the Triangle and Greensboro, some of which dwarf his own.

Cole, a project manager for IBM, was inspired by a YouTube video from several years ago that showed a light display synchronized to a Trans-Siberian Orchestra song, "Wizards in Winter." He remembers what he thought when he first saw it: "Wow, I'd like to do that."

Help from an old pro

Raleigh resident Al Love, a veteran of several years of synchronized displays, helped Cole put together his project. Love, who owns his own property management company, put up 60,000 lights last year, but is taking this year off.

He has already begun next year's project, though, and works nearly every day on it.

"This isn't exactly a hobby," Love said. "It's more of a passion."

Cole's yard features a blinking light display to a series of songs, including two from the Trans-Siberian Orchestra. He can control the lights via 96 separate channels, meaning there are 96 different groups of lights that can be controlled separately. He turns on the display each night around dark.

On a recent evening, cars drove slowly by, taking in the lights and the music, which booms from outdoor speakers. In addition, visitors can tune their car radios to 104.9 FM to hear the music. Cole said he hasn't yet received complaints from neighbors.

Natalie Kopitzke of Cary slowed her car to take a few pictures. Kopitzke had passed the house earlier and was so impressed that she turned around to snap some photos.

"Anyone who wants to put forth the effort to spread the cheer, I think that's great," she said.

Cole enjoys the feedback from visitors, especially the smiles on kids' faces. But the fear of drawing too much attention, and too much traffic, gives some other lighting artists pause.

Because the lights blink instead of staying on all night, Cole figures to spend less than $200 on electricity for his creation - not so bad; he spent $3,000 on supplies this year.

Not that the price or time commitment scares him. He's already planning to expand it next Christmas.

matt.ehlers@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4889

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