iCue Mounted with Projector - full view

Lighting designers rely on DMX in a similar way that electronic musicians use MIDI; it’s the glue which binds their performance together. Many older (as in age, not experience) VJs I meet have come to live video performance through a profession in lighting. Younger visualists tend to have been attracted to the artform through work or study in film and TV, or a love of electronic music and culture. These people (like myself) may know that DMX exists, but have no real experience with the protocol, or the gear it controls.

So when artificialeyes demoed the VMS system for Peter and I at ByteMeFest in Perth last year, I was struck by how simple this step into the lighting world could be. Todd and Michael were using off-the-shelf VMS projection units and controlling them with a clever little open source USB DMX controller called the uDMX, which includes software to translate midi messages into DMX.

So when it came time to plan for the 2008 album launch tour with Bobby Flynn, my desire to expand the impact of our show (while keeping to an extremely restrictive budget and baggage allowance) put a moving video system right on top of my list of possibilities. In the end we didn’t have the cash to invest in VMS, but taking Peter’s previously tried route of mating an inexpensive Rosco iCue robotic mirror with the projectors we already had in our rig was a simple backup plan. For around AU$1000 each (around $600 in the US), plus a trip to the hardware store, we now have two functional (if currently rather ugly) DMX controllable video moving systems.

iCue Mounted with Projector, Closeup
Ugly but functional: iCue + projector + hardware store = bouncy bouncy

Currently I’m using Ableton Live’s session view to trigger MIDI clips which send the mirrors to a certain location on stage, or run them through motion sequences recorded from a midi controller or sketched directly into the Live interface. The iCue mirrors have a mode which causes the mirror to reverse all pan instructions, so perching one unit on each front corner of the stage gives me a good coverage, and in small venues is considerably easier to setup than traditional projectors, which are generally mounted to whatever is available, and which may not have the correct throw distance or angle to fill screens.

Controlling the iCue with Ableton Live and MIDI2uDMX
Ableton Live MIDI clips outputting through MIDI2uDMX

After performing a week of shows with this dual-iCue setup I’m definitely sold on using mirrors to augment the impact and increase flexibility of video. However, it’s not just as simple as strapping mirrors to your projectors and going ahead with your normal set. Aside from the issue of controlling the mirrors, as soon as you leave that 4×3 screen and start moving around the stage and walls, the default rectangular projector image looks out of place. Imagery such as text, photographs or live video is no longer able to convey a literal, representative meaning, as it may be unrecognizable, highly distorted or out of focus through much of its journey around the stage. For the same reasons, high-contrast imagery has considerably more impact than subtle tones and gradients. There is definitely a place for representative video in this setup, but you can’t just press play and expect it to look great and convey meaning or emotion to your audience.

Software designed for generating abstract imagery (such as artificialeyes’ upcoming 3L, which has obviously been designed with an eye to this kind of setup) will be able to make the move without much trouble, but if you’ve spent years building up a massive library of clips you may need some time editing and testing to discover what works. I found that VDMX’s flexible layer grouping and media bin assignments allowed me to setup a “mask” layer with a selection of black and white, high contrast mask videos triggering from a dedicated bin. Whatever software you use, being able to select whether to apply effects pre- or post-mask is invaluable, and you may find that you start to favour different plugins than those used when confined to a static screen. Effects such as kaleidoscope – which I rarely if ever used before – are now finding their way into my set in multiple places.

VDMX with Mask Layer
VDMX’ flexible interface with a dedicated media bin for masking

All of this abstract video does lose some of the emotional response afforded by simple, representative images, so I think my eventual direction – for this type of show – will be to combine both static screens and moving projections. This will of course require multiple sources, mixers etc, as well as more projectors and screens. Not really realistic for the casual VJ who is fighting for reasonable pay and infrastructure from club owners and promoters, but for touring shows, larger clubs or collaborative installations it’s not particularly difficult to get a couple of extra projectors together, and the additional impact is definitely worth the effort.

  • mike

    just out of interest, any idea how much light gets absorbed by a mirror like that? We're thinking of ways of getting a stretched image out of one projector without losing resolution, so I was thinking of using 2 angled mirrors.

  • mike

    as in, I doubt if it reflects %100 of the light projected onto it. What percentage might typically get wasted?

  • tom

    Here is a robotic mirror I made with a friend:
    12 small mirrors and 24 servos that split up a projected image. Total cost: less than one ICue.

  • cat

    Moving lights tend to use front surface mirrors so reflect quite a good bit of light, not enough to notice much difference I would think!

  • Thanks for posting this Jaymis, I've vaguely known what DMX can do, but translating from midi opens up a lot of things.

  • Actually, I was surprised to find out that the iCue mirrors aren't actually front-silvered. They're just very thin normal mirrors. I haven't been able to see any ghosting at all though, and the light loss is minimal.

    @tom: Awesome stuff! I was actually thinking along those lines after I'd been playing with the iCue for a while. Would love to hear some more detail on the setup of your project. I had off the shelf iCues bought for me for this project because I didn't have time to put anything DIY together, but it's the kind of thing I'd definitely like to see alternate versions of, as it's a very simple piece of gear and seems very accessible for first time hardware hackers.

  • I've done some of this before with first surface mirrors, and its mostly about size of mirror and distance from lens if its a 2nd surface. These icue's look pretty small. I'd think they'd ghost with some projectors, true. But only when seen in optimal environs. Far more disconcerting is the varying focal distance on a moving surface, and the "screen" material (whatever surface its hitting). Great you guys got this working though. DMX needed to be knocked off its pedestal a long time ago.

  • The iCue mirrors are very thin – only a couple of MM, so there really is very little ghosting that I could see. Ghosting is much less of an issue when the image is moving around as well, so realistically it's not an issue.
    As mentioned in the VMS video, focus isn't much of an issue because of the types of content used, and because you setup a "home" point where projectors are in focus, and then everywhere else you have more or less out of focus, but the images are designed around this: using high contrast etc.

  • nice work jaymis~! make sure u twitter early about your next melbourne visit~! : )

  • i do like the whole 'thinking outside of the frame' perspective that this gives you as a vj…
    do you suggest that you use them in symmetry or would one on it's own look ok?

  • @Leon: It depends on the venue and intent. If you have a very small venue and a good vantage point for your projector then a single unit could be very effective. I lost one of my mirrors to a large gust of wind before an outdoor gig last week, and running the show with a single projector was still quite effective.

    If you have complete control over the lighting of a venue and can keep it dim, then just 2-3 projectors can look great.

    Similarly to running 2 mirrored "traditional" projectors, running two symmetrical mirrors can look great. It definitely feels mechanical though, so the next step for me is to add some independent movement and randomness, so it's not quite so robotic.

  • Nice one.

    I too was impressed with the possibilities of DMX after seeing the Artificial Eyes setup and ordered myself a uDMX.

    Lately I've been playing with a LED stage lights and sending them colour and brightness values from Quartz Composer via MIDI -> DMX. It's another way of extending the video beyond the 4:3 box and works particularly well when you've got some interesting objects to light (like a band).

    With the "image pixel" patch in QC you can take the colour value of a pixel on screen, break it down into R, G and B and send those values to the lights so they update in real time to match whatever is playing on screen. Lots of fun.

  • Quick question: I think it was up in some comment string somewhere, but I dare to ask again: Is there any problem with mounting projectors anything else than horizontal with slight tilt angles only? I wanna mount vertically, to avoid 4:3 hell đŸ™‚

  • i figure small deviations from the horizontal are ok, but e.g. mounting projectors vertically will maybe make the thermal management of your projector (especially high-powered ones) go haywire, so i think it's best to check with your projector manufacturer…
    but then, VMS and this project seem to mount their projectors in every conceivable angle :-P…maybe we hear other opinions?

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  • I too am using uDMX, but only for lighting. In using uDMX for lighting it is quite a task to map out different lighting patterns, but it works quite well after you put the work in, but when sending DMX signals none of the data going to Midi2DMX (the uDMX software) will accept anything other than note and attack data (which can not be enveloped-only set once per note) so I am curious as to how you are using midi envelope (looks like controller 31) to react to midi2Dmx? Any insight would be fantastik….
    BTW, this whole mirrored projector rig is amazing, Im extremely impressed.

  • Hello again, I guess I just answered my own question. Midi2DMX takes note on -OR- controller (CC) so I guess you can only do one at a time.

    I would like to also add that running Ableton sending just midi messages to Midi2dmx takes up a miniscule ammount of CPU, and I can successfully fun lighting and video with ease from Live-midi2dmx and Modul8 (which is also getting midi messages from ableton) so im very happy, uDMX rules!

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  • Hackstage

    Very exciting stuff. I’m designing projectors just like these at the moment, using open source arduino and stepper motors to control the mirror. Can’t wait until I can see how it’ll look.