Internet Illuminations

Although I love to ride the wave of technology that is our industry, I have to admit that I initially overlooked the implications of the World Wide Web for lighting.
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Although I love to ride the wave of technology that is our industry, I have to admit that I initially overlooked the implications of the World Wide Web for lighting. When I first stumbled across the Web in the early 90s, I could see that it was a moderate improvement on the Gopher system of Internet directories that went before it. However, as the Internet was then a place populated by university professors, defense researchers and computer geeks, I couldn't see how everyday lighting people could take advantage of it.

Perhaps in my defense I should also point out that at this stage of the Web, there was only one very experimental version of a graphical browser available for desktop computers (Mosaic), so virtually the entire content of the Web was text, without even the benefit of color. In fact, there were so few Web sites to visit that a network news group was set up especially for Webmasters to announce the creation of each new home page. This was vital, as back then in the Web's Paleolithic age, there were no search engines or industry directories. The lighting links page that I created at the time lives on nearly a decade later, growing every week. Located at www.lightinglinks.net, it now has more than 900 links to lighting-related Web sites and is used by lighting people of all persuasions.

EARLY ADOPTERS

The highly technological basis to our craft, and its dependence on advanced electronics, has meant that many of the companies developing lighting equipment are populated by the very computer geeks who were early adopters of the Internet and its associated technologies. Even before the Internet became a public and commercial place, there were a few lighting companies using e-mail and forums on the private networks. However, as modems and connection time cost literally much more back then, there were very few participants. Nevertheless, it was the basis for an astoundingly rapid adoption of the Internet by the lighting industry. Today it is most unusual to find a company in our industry without at least a token Web site, or a lighting person without an e-mail address.

For me, preparation for a project begins with a thorough examination of the script, storyboard or treatment, the locations or facilities in which the project will be shot, and the resources available to execute the project. Whether it's a sport remote from a bowling alley, a music video from an arena or a drama with studio and location segments, the process is always similar. It frequently involves locations never intended to be used as production sites. It often presents you with problems you have never solved before, and it invariably hasn't got a budget generous enough to solve a problem through the liberal application of obscene amounts of money.

The World Wide Web is a vast and valuable resource when it comes to researching my responses to the challenges presented by a production. I can generally find everything I need, from the lamp options available for a Brand X luminaire to the load-bearing capacity of the truss system that I need to carry the rig, and from the street map, or satellite image of the production's location, to the address of the nearest gel supplier and pizza shop. If I can't find everything I'm looking for, then I can almost certainly get a phone, fax or e-mail contact to answer my questions..

Research is only one of the many uses I regularly make of the Web and its associated technologies of e-mail, file transfer and personal messaging. Recently, I've used the Internet to find a source for replacement lamps that were out of stock locally, updated the firmware in a lighting console, obtained expert advice from an equipment manufacturer on locating a fault in a robotic spot, put together the specifications and price quotes for a portable lighting control facility, compared the optical characteristics of a selection of correction filters, and obtained the CAD drawings of some luminaires to complete my documentation of a project. I also had a software support operator on the other side of the world temporarily take over my computer to resolve an installation problem I was having with an equipment rental management program.

DUE DILIGENCE

In addition, the ability to quickly and informally connect to colleagues, clients and suppliers makes messaging through ICQ, AOL, MSN or any of a host of private servers extremely useful. The Swiss Army Knife of messaging clients is Trillian, from Cerulean Studios (www.ceruleanstudios.com), which can connect with most messaging systems through a single window.

Unfortunately, the information you seek may not leap out at you; indeed, sometimes it seems that the majority of what is on the Web is irrelevant and useless. The reality is that the 90 percent rule (which states that 90 percent of anything is likely to be garbage) is actually closer to being a 99 percent rule when it comes to the Web. To locate the useful information that is lurking out there on billions of Web pages can prove to be a daunting task unless you are equipped with the right tools.

My personal favorite search tools are the Google search engine (www.google.com) which has a remarkably good relevance rating system for its search results, and WebFerret, a meta-search application that simultaneously offers nine search engines, including LookSmart, Sprinks and AltaVista, and then collates the results on a single screen. WebFerret is a free download from FerretSoft (www.ferretsoft.com).

Using these resources does require some practice, but the minimal effort required to learn the syntax of search engine query construction is time well-spent. Browsing through the help pages for Google and WebFerret will provide you with enough information on query techniques to keep the proportion of irrelevant search results to a manageable level. The most important tool, as always, is your knowledge and understanding of our field and its terminology. As an example, a search on the single word "fresnel" will bring you a lot of interesting information on the 18th Century scientist, Augustin Jean Fresnel, while a search on the term "fresnel spot" will take you to a mountain of information about the lighting instrument.

As a lighting person who has been using computers since small systems were the size of a cluster of refrigerators, I am keenly aware of their shortcomings that I will not even consider them as any kind of panacea. Having said that, my computer and its broadband link have all but eliminated my searches through the cluster of archive boxes and filing cabinets that I have filled with cut sheets, catalogs and manuals over the last few decades. Besides, the chances are that the manual you are seeking may never actually make it into print. It's probably being superseded twice a week, and will only ever be available as a download from a Web site.