Odyssey Lights at Blackpool Illuminations

Blackpool’s world-famous illuminations provided the setting for an interactive project that features Raspberry Pi. In the latest issue of The MagPi, Rosie Hattersley gets enlightened.

Wintertime illuminated walks and interactive art shows have proved extremely popular over the past few years. Blackpool’s Odyssey lights combine the two, adding to the appeal of the renowned annual Blackpool Illuminations with impressive large-scale installations that respond to and even follow visitors as they explore the brightly lit site. 

blackpool illuminations

Odyssey is the brainchild of Lightworks, which creates and manages the existing Blackpool Illuminations attraction, Blackpool-born costume designer Jack Irving, and Lancaster University’s School of Computing and Communications. The research team there led by Joe Finney, Professor of Computer Science, includes Raspberry Pi enthusiast and The MagPi regular Lorraine Underwood, a Senior Teaching Associate of Creative and Applied Computing. They had worked with Lightworks before to produce interactive displays, “but this is our first proper huge-scale project together,” she explains. 

Enormous and ambitious

“All three organisations use, and create, cutting-edge technology for the public, and were keen to create something new and exciting for the public to enjoy,” says Lorraine. Jack specialises in creative productions that fuse technology and fashion. Odyssey hoped to harness this to “engulf the world in the most fantastical spectacle.” They began by co-designing and storyboarding, resulting in a vision for a series of 11-metre-tall towers featuring lasers, lights, speakers, and fog machines, each housing a projector and a camera. The six towers would project a ten-minute interactive show with different scenes containing alien sea creatures along an 18-metre path. 

Huge automated drills were used to carve each creature’s shape from polystyrene blocks, before sculptural elements 
were refined
Huge automated drills were used to carve each creature’s shape from polystyrene blocks, before sculptural elements were refined

Cameras detect people along the path while each of the fantastical creatures behaves differently around them. “Some creatures would avoid people; some of them would follow you; others would swim together or appear when they detect a person nearby,” says Lorraine. 

“All the designs came from Jack Irving’s unique style and imagination. It amazed me that Lightworks were able to create his designs in fibreglass at such a height,” she adds.

Technical challenges

“The Odyssey team needed a unique set of technologies for this project,” explains Lorraine. “While the towers are huge, there’s limited space inside them for equipment alongside all of the LED strips.” They needed a small camera with strong video streaming capabilities, but it was also vital to minimise latency so the creatures would react in real-time to the audience. 

blackpool illuminations
The sculptures tower above participants walking along the installation’s 18-metre walkway

Lorraine is the maker in the Lancaster University team and often uses Raspberry Pi in her projects, so she was confident in recommending it for the Odyssey. It transpired that Lightworks also knew Raspberry Pi well: some of the Blackpool Illuminations are controlled by Raspberry Pi too. Although accustomed to large-scale projects, testing the full Odyssey setup was challenging. They took over two lecture theatres at the University of Lancaster for the entire summer, but this had a ceiling only 3 m high. The Lightworks building, meanwhile, is tall enough to accommodate trucks, but the skylights weren’t ideal for trialling something intended to be seen at night. “The cameras were calibrated using QR codes on the ground, which are difficult to see in sunshine.”  There was a final obstacle once Odyssey was unveiled. Several of the cameras fell victim to the “unforgiving” Blackpool wind and weather, necessitating a switch to USB cameras with sturdier protection. The results, however, are stunning. 

  Odyssey being assembled at the Lightworks factory
Odyssey being assembled at the Lightworks factory

“Every time you walk through Odyssey, different creatures appear and act differently,” explains Lorraine. “We wanted to create an intense experience in every sense. The colossal 11-metre-high towers, the sound system, smoke machines, and lasers would complement the interactive projection show on the ground. Wherever you look while standing inside Odyssey, something amazing is happening.”

The team insisted on making Odyssey adaptable – the setup can be easily configured to use fewer cameras and projectors – while plans are afoot to make it easy to load different graphics and scenes into the projection show, ensuring many more marvels to come.

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