High-Tech Christmas Light Displays Let it Show

When Carson Williams of Mason, Ohio, posted a YouTube video of his lively computer-synchronized Christmas display on his front lawn a few years ago, the video went viral. Millions of online viewers watched Williams' multi-colored lights in the form of peace symbols, glowing stars and dancing trees, move in sequence to the song "Wizards in Winter" by the Trans-Siberian Orchestra.

His creation even showed up in a Miller Lite beer commercial, as TV viewers were told to "Enjoy the Lites."

Christmas display experts credit Williams' spectacle for popularizing what was once just a niche hobby. Ever since that video, consumer expectations of Christmas shows haven't been the same.

"People used to be happy with just static Christmas lights because it made them feel good," said Chuck Smith, publisher of PlanetChristmas, a magazine for Christmas decorating enthusiasts. “Now people expect lights, sounds and a big production. As a result, many Christmas decorators are giving their neighborhoods a show, and more of these videos are showing up on YouTube."

Thanks to YouTube, people don't have to drive to see a light show such as the one at the Larson home in Elburn, Ill., which uses advanced floodlight technology, or Richard Holdman's house in Pleasant Grove, Utah, which features a low-power radio station that transmits music into cars as people tune in and drive by.

Still, some hobbyists are willing to drive many miles – or even fly – to see these light shows in person, clogging up neighborhood traffic as they catch a peek.

"I'd travel far to see a lawn-show that's supposed to be great. Although jumping on a plane might sound a bit much, there are others out there with the passion to do it, too," said Jeff Holmes of J. Holmes Productions, a company that works with businesses to create Christmas displays.

Creating these shows has been propelled by technology, mainly programmable light controllers and software. These products can be purchased at specialty and chain stores for a couple of hundred dollars.

Light-show controllers allow the Christmas lights to be plugged into various channel outputs that manage the speed, audio and effects. These systems can be operated manually or programmed to run automatically.

"It makes running a show from inside a house simple, and the technology is easy to find," Holmes said.

The price to keep the lights running isn't as high as you might expect, Holmes added. Compared with static Christmas lights, lawn shows that have lights blinking in intervals suck up less energy. The availability of LED lights is also better for the environment, he said.

DIY show

Preparing and executing a holiday spectacular for your lawn can take months, but you don’t have to do it alone. There are forums on sites such as PlanetChristmas.com to discuss techniques and tips. Meanwhile, trade shows such as Pro Décor Expo and PLUS+ are held each summer to get professionals and casual enthusiasts thinking about what to do in the upcoming months.

"A lot of Christmas lights and equipment goes on sale from January to May, so that is when a lot of hobbyists make their purchases for their next show," Smith of PlanetChristmas said. "Shows should also be tested months in advance; no one wants to troubleshoot at the last minute or when snow is on the ground."

Some people go as far as hiring consultants to visit homes for decorating help, according to Holmes.

"However, now that the control boxes are simpler than ever – and come with select songs that you can use in the show – the set-up for casual hobbyists is easier than ever," Holmes said.

Installing radio transmitters is also a growing trend. Allowing people to listen to the music in their cars as the light show occurs is a far more popular technique these days than using outdoor speakers, according to Smith.

"Speakers on your front lawn are so 20th-century," Smith said. "Transmitters usually blast frequencies up to about 150 yards away, so there is good range. Plus the sound doesn’t annoy the neighbors."

Not just for lawns

Many businesses, too, are luring people through cutting-edge Christmas light technology. SeaWorld in Orlando, Fla., is at the forefront of this trend. The tourist attraction is using 75 trees – from eight to 25 feet tall – for its 140,000-light show. All but eight of the 75 trees are mounted in the middle of a big lake. Every bulb on every tree is individually controlled, and the display can change to one of 4,000 different colors on the fly.

This is made possible by new LED-based RGB (for "red green blue") lighting technology. These specialized bulbs contain computer chips that manipulate color on demand. Since one light needs three controls to set the intensity of each color, SeaWorld's show involves 420,000 control channels, all run by a DMX device. DMX equipment links controllers, dimmers, advanced fixtures and special-effects devices to easily manage all of the technology on the same network.

The end result is so seamless that the images created on the trees look as if a movie is playing. Another major accomplishment in Christmas light technology is the largest computerized, artificial tree in the world, residing in Guatemala City in Central America. The tree, 145 feet tall and 57 feet in diameter, holds a whopping 1.5 million lights. It debuted in November.

The tree dazzles as "Wizards in Winter" and other songs play in synchronization with the lights’ movement.

"It's a joke in the industry that everyone hates 'Wizards in Winter' by the Trans-Siberian Orchestra because it's used so much. But it’s always a crowd-pleaser," said Holmes, whose company worked to select the music for the Guatemala City show. "That’s why it is so popular, especially in lawn shows that show up on YouTube."

Moving forward

Smith believes RGB lights will hit it big with businesses in 2011 and that the technology could even come to homes.

"RGB is still new and pretty sophisticated, so you would have to be pretty geeky to install them on your own lawn," Smith said. "But the technology is already out there for some pretty amazing things to happen.

"Although it's still a hobbyist profession, when the prices fall – and they will – more cutting-edge technology will be showing up on Christmas trees near you."

Samantha Murphy
Samantha Murphy was a contributor to Live Science, covering the tech industry. She holds a degree in journalism and cinema studies from New York University.