We incorporated store-bought flashlights into our rehearsals, but we quickly realized that handing the audience a bunch of flashlights from the dollar store wouldn’t work for us. We didn’t want the audience to be able to turn their flashlights on and off themselves; we wanted to decide when there would be total blackouts. We also wanted the color control that an LED-based theatrical lighting system would give us, in order to use color to affect the mood and meaning of each scene. Ultimately, we were putting control in the hands of our audience but wanted to carefully calibrate and refine its axes: the audience could choose where to point their flashlights, but not when they were on or off, their brightness, or their color. We wanted to create a spooky experience, and having a flashlight that operates independently is even spookier than having no light at all (because the lights are probably being operated by ghosts).
I did some research to see if there was an existing product that would operate the way we needed it to. As much as I’m devoted to a DIY ethos, I also believe there’s no reason to re-invent the wheel if you don’t have to. The Gantom Torch, a small, color-changing flashlight designed to be used in haunted houses that could be operated wirelessly with an IR emitter, seemed promising. We ordered a couple to test them, but, when they arrived, we discovered their colors couldn’t be changed individually. While that was disappointing, finding a product that almost worked for us gave us the courage to pursue developing and building our own flashlights that would do exactly what we wanted. We had no idea what we were getting into.
I’m a big believer in the power of internet forums; the ones focused on DIY tech and coding are full of people who are encouraging to beginners and excited about answering questions. So while we continued rehearsing and developing other aspects of the show, I spent time researching LEDs and how to control them. When I reached an impasse online, I got in touch with my professional lighting friends before diving back into the forums.
We ended up ordering the electronic components for the flashlights from Adafruit Industries, which creates and markets their supplies to beginners and hobbyists. There’s a trade-off using hobbyist websites like Adafruit, because their products tend to be more expensive than at professional-focused ones like Mouser Electronics, but for us the tutorials and support provided was worth the extra expense. It also didn’t hurt that our audience size was only nineteen—if our goal had been to manufacture a hundred flashlights, we would have had to explore ways to keep the cost of components down.
Ultimately, we were putting control in the hands of our audience but wanted to carefully calibrate and refine its axes: the audience could choose where to point their flashlights, but not when they were on or off, their brightness, or their color.
Even with the user-friendliness of Adafruit’s site, the help of the internet, and a room full of fairly smart collaborators, we went down several blind alleys before we figured out which LEDs to use and how to control them, what wireless protocol was needed to communicate with the board that controlled each LED, and what software to use at the main computer to communicate with each flashlight. After purchasing flashlights from the dollar store down the street, we took them apart to use the housings. We settled on Adafruit’s Feather HUZZAH board as the “brain” of each flashlight, because it is Wi-Fi enabled and we could easily communicate with it from our main show computer. We used one of Adafruit’s DotStar Addressable 5050 RGB LEDs in each flashlight because they came with an integrated LED driver.