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Around Labor Day, Obermiller told his wife, "It's only 13
December 20, 2001
Walking in a Wired Wonderland
By DAVID L. MARGULIUS
INE reindeer wait patiently on Mark Obermiller's lawn in Scottsburg, Ind., with the whine of a jet engine rising in the background. Behind them Santa sits on a white sleigh and can be heard running through a preflight checklist with Rudolph:
"Master switch on — check."
"Transponder on and set to 12-hundred — check."
"Cloaking device set to engage on takeoff — check."
"Roll turbines — check."
"On Dasher, on Dancer, on Prancer, on Vixen, on Comet, on Cupid, on Donner, on Blitzen — and away!"
With these words, a simulated fireball shoots from the sleigh's afterburner, and Santa and his cargo vanish into blackness. The theme music from "Top Gun" fills the night, and the 80,000 lights in the Obermiller family's Christmas light show — surely one of the most high-tech in the world — begin to pulsate and dance.
The sleigh and Mr. Obermiller's other animated displays — which include a Santa driving a tractor, another piloting a helicopter, and snowmen roasting hot dogs around a campfire — are a new twist on the holiday lights that have set the seasonal scene for generations.
Harnessing computer sequencing software, elaborate electrical circuitry and a lot of creativity, a small group of hobbyists is breaking new ground in the art of making people smile in December. Colorful poinsettias grow and bloom. Snowmen tap- dance and throw snowballs at one another. Carousels spin, angels flap their wings, penguins sing, and toys roll down conveyor belts, all thanks to the new technology.
"People will sit in front of the house in their car watching for 20 minutes," said Joe Faszl, who runs an elaborate digital display at his home in Ballwin, Mo. "It just brightens up people's attitudes." He said that he put up his computer-controlled lights every year for the payoff of seeing "a 5-year-old's face stuck to the window of a car on a cold night."
Mr. Obermiller agrees. "Digital basically is a crowd driver," he said. He switched to computer-controlled lights in 1998 after he had a dream "about using my lights to tell all about Jesus at Christmastime," and traffic to his display increased fourfold from the previous year. "I was flabbergasted," he said. "People were lined up on both sides of the highway."
A millwright who works the night shift at a local Ford plant, Mr. Obermiller said that his display drew 300 to 400 cars of spectators on a typical weekend night before Christmas. This year's theme is "America the Beautiful," and he is using a lot of red, white and blue lights.
Mr. Faszl and Mr. Obermiller are among the few dozen hard- core digital lighting animators who congregate on the message boards at http://www.planetchristmas.com/, a site run by Chuck Smith of Franklin, Tenn. Combining the skills of electrician, programmer, artist and construction worker, they share tips on software, hardware and new animation concepts as well as lend moral support to one another.
"There's not a whole lot of lunatics like us out there, but it's growing," says Mr. Faszl, who got started in 1985 with a Commodore 64 and "a fire hazard of a relay box." He was captivated by a Budweiser Eagle sign in St. Louis in which the eagle seemed to be flying, and wanted to build a similar display of poinsettias that would appear to grow and bloom.
He got an old advertising sign from a stereo shop that flashed the letters in "Panasonic" one by one, ripped out the control circuitry and hooked it to red and green lights he had arranged as poinsettias. As the circuitry for each letter in "Panasonic" was activated, another part of the flower's stem would appear, making the plants appear to grow and then bloom.
"Anything I could find that was electronic I pulled apart, anything you could blink lights with," Mr. Faszl recalled. "The animation just got the better of me."
These days digital lighting equipment is easier to buy off the shelf but does not necessarily require less of a time commitment. The main components are the lights themselves, the electrical control boxes that turn the lights on and off, and the PC software that drives the control boxes and that programs animated sequences with accompanying soundtracks.
Dasher, the leading software program for controlling these digital displays, was developed by Drew Hickman of Merriam, Kan. Now 30, he started working on the program after his college years, writing a simple DOS program that turns light circuits on and off using a PC's printer port. Dasher 2.0, the latest Windows-based version, provides a spreadsheet-like grid that makes it easy to program sequences of lights and sound, including patterns in which objects seem to be chasing each other. For example, Dasher can program four reindeer on four separate circuits, turning them on and off in sequence "so it's like a reindeer walking across your yard," Mr. Hickman said.
"The patterns are simply based on the user's creativity," said Mr. Hickman, who said he had sold nearly 100 copies of the software, at $79. (He is keeping his day job as a network engineer.) Dasher can synchronize the playing of MP3 music files with the lights and build play lists, automating an entire sound and light show with daily start and stop times. To avoid disturbing neighbors with loudspeakers, most serious animators hook the PC's sound card to a miniature FM transmitter to broadcast the music. A sign on the lawn instructs viewers to tune their car radios to a certain frequency.
Lights shaped in popular patterns like reindeer, trees and snowmen can be purchased at local stores. More intricate designs can be made from scratch with standard light strings and almost any kind of backing — plywood, plastic cardboard, blow molds, wire frames, tomato cages or chain link fence. Those patterns can then be wired into control hardware, with the type of control box depending on how much wiring the user can tolerate snaking through the house and yard and how fast the animations should run (some lighting sequences involve changes every half-second, which requires more sophisticated hardware).
The control hardware takes the PC's low- voltage digital signals and translates them to the standard electrical current powering the lights.
There are several ways to do this. Digital input-output cards that fit inside the computer can be connected to solid state relays outside the computer that are then connected to the light circuits. A control box can be connected to a PC's serial or parallel port as well as to the light circuits. In a third option, a control box based on the X-10 home automation standard connects to the computer and then to any household wiring, which is then be connected to the lights. That minimizes the need for extension cords running through the house but slows performance.
Almost any PC will do. Mr. Smith, the Webmaster at www.planetchristmas.com, uses a 450-megahertz PC clone to control a 96,000-light display with 399 individual circuits, revered as the granddaddy of digital Christmas displays. "It doesn't take a lot of computer horsepower," he said. "The computer just looks at it as 400 on-off switches. I literally fire up the program Thanksgiving night and never touch it until Christmas."
Many conventional light displays use some form of preprogrammed control box, which at best enables the user only to vary the animation's speed. "People are usually satisfied with that for a year or two, but then they learn about computer control," Mr. Smith said. PC-controlled systems also help the user avoid a big power bill because the lights are rarely all on at once.
Mr. Smith's Web site, created five years ago, remains a catalyst for experimenters. Mr. Faszl of Ballwin is helping a newcomer from Arkansas build his first computer display. "Mistakes can be very expensive," he said. "Having to rework something can literally cost you dozens of hours in the basement." Mr. Faszl is also working on a new feature that will enable people visiting his Web site (http://www.faszl.com/) to control parts of his show remotely and watch the results.
Mr. Smith, who takes four days off from work each year to put up his lights, feels no less enthusiasm for the project than he had when he started in 1986. "It's a labor of love," he said. "I get to play Santa Claus out in front of my house, and see all these people going ooh and aah. It's a wonderful feeling."
Scott County man hopes miles of bulbs set to music will help others see the light.
The (Louisville) Courier_Journal
December 8, 2002
SCOTTSBURG, Ind. -- Mark Obermiller has put out 135,400 lights. He has connected them with five miles of extension cord. He expects a wattage bill alone of $800.
He has sunk $40,000 into his yuletide yard display, plus too many hours through the year. Called to this megawatt ministry, Obermiller has gone holy overboard.
The only question is whether Obermiller will continue to outdo himself, though he realizes he shouldn't.
"If I stop, I will disappoint a lot of people," he said. "I do refer to it as a monster. Like a monster's always saying, 'Feed me.' It's gotten so big."
Lights are absolutely everywhere on and around Obermiller's one-story house between Vienna and Lexington in Scott County. They form words, characters and lines. Strobe lights pulsate and lights chase across 104 tiny trees crafted from tomato cages and chicken wire.
The setting also includes a wide gravel parking lot, so traffic won't come to a halt, as it often has in the past.
And the show entails sounds synchronized with the sights. Visitors tune to 88.7 FM, Obermiller's own low-powered radio station, for a born-again Christian message and musical accompaniment.
This is a 190-circuit, computer-controlled fest of 37 minutes that continually repeats itself nightly. And it typically draws a crowd fitting of a spectacle. This year, the fifth, Obermiller finally has weekend volunteers to direct cars.
"We're still in the learning stage," Obermiller said. "It's not down to a science. Believe me."
Obermiller, 44, is a third-shift maintenance man for Ford Motor Co. He is a husband, a father of three and quite beholden to the Lord for having been saved. His goal is to influence light-show guests more than to entertain them.
Obermiller is motivated more to win converts than to set illumination records. Getting people to his house -- the one with "Praise God" and "Remember Jesus" in lights on the roof -- is a presumptive step toward getting them into church.
Even the candy canes given out by the real-live, meandering Santa -- yes, Obermiller -- have a spiritual slogan attached.
"I tell people, 'If you want to thank anybody, thank God,' " Obermiller said. "He gave me the job, for whatever reason."
The New York Times has noted Obermiller's talents on its technology page. His is a ministry that apparently has not been replicated, from all Obermiller can tell. Yet it could be, he contends.
Having studied the circuitry and the computer programming of the show, Jeremy Perry remains unconvinced. As a devotee of the light show, he responded to Obermiller's Internet plea for assistance.
Perry was at Obermiller's scrambling side preparing for the show's Thanksgiving night debut. There seemed to be no end to the pesky maintenance crises.
"I never dreamed there was this much involved," said Perry, a welder.
This all started smaller. Formerly content with a traditional, static display, Obermiller was referred to an Internet site for gung-ho lighting types. He soon began traveling distances for bargains on bulk supplies.
His display in 1998 included 41,000 lights. In 1999, Obermiller's production had more than doubled, to 85,000 bulbs.
The total topped six digits in 2000 -- 110,000 -- and already it amounted to overkill to Obermiller. He had gone to extremes, and he didn't especially care for the ride.
The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks shook Obermiller, as they did all of us. He responded with a 71,000-light display that focused on patriotism as much as on Christmas. The soundtrack included the national anthem.
"Mainly everything was red, white, and blue," he said.
Obermiller returned dutifully to his upward spiral this season, further fueled by his faith.
This year's show involves a back yard full of children's characters. Families are encouraged to wander the grounds.
Obermiller has heard the slurs -- that he is wacky and his efforts are tacky. He wishes the display had not been a factor in a wreck or two, and he feels no glee that some locals alter their commutes to avoid his hubbub.
"It's not for everybody," he said. "But I'd say a small minority doesn't appreciate what I do."