Creating a Public Spectacle

As long as our bad air holds out, the laser display planned for Patriots Square likely will be a great success.

The park has been touted as a symbol of the Valley's desire to build itself a high-tech industrial future. The flashy laser show will complete architect Ted Alexander's bizarre brickyard vision for downtown's most important public space.

Ironically, one of the show's more spectacular elements--a vertical column of laser light shining straight up into the night sky, a "beam sculpture" visible for miles--will work only as long as Phoenix's air remains grungy.

As envisioned by Alexander, the light show will have three key elements:
* One, laser beams will project colorful moving images on the large fabric screens tied to the steel grid work above the park's amphitheatre. "On those screens you'll see some abstract images and some realistic patterns that are programmed on a computer module on the ground," says Mike Whiting, an administrator with the Phoenix Parks, Recreation and Library Department who has been overseeing the project. (Alexander refused to be interviewed for this story.)

* Two, the show will be "interactive." "There will be a user-friendly control module--a joystick, basically is what it is--on the north side of the park, where people can control the show, much as you would a video game," Whiting says. "You'll be able to manipulate the image in intensity, the complexity of the image or its rotation or its velocity, how it moves on the screen."

* Three, a tall cone or cylinder of light will be projected vertically from the grid work into the sky. An illustration distributed by the city while Patriots Square was under construction shows a wide beam of light shining skyward from the heart of Alexander's steel spider. Alexander has said he sees this vertical column, which some believe will be visible for miles, as a beacon for downtown activity. It is this last element that will be made possible chiefly through air pollution. The science lesson that explains this phenomenon comes later.

The installation of the laser attraction, which will operate from dusk until eleven on most nights, will be made possible partly though private donations. A fund-raising drive brought in about $250,000 for the project, Whiting says, and the parks department is kicking in $125,000--more, if needed. About $90,000 in "rough-in" cost (ducts for wiring, et cetera) was included in the park's original budget. Phoenix Newspapers, Inc., a large local publishing company, donated three expensive laser bulbs and a cooling system for the project. (These industrial lasers were used in the printing process to make photographic "plates" of newspaper pages and will be adapted for use in the park.) Maintenance of the costly equipment will be paid for with profits from the park's food stands, private park rental to conventions and other groups and through coins collected at the "joystick" operations center.

In the next few weeks, city officials will pick an architect to supervise the laser project, then various production companies from around the country will submit bids. If all goes as planned, the laser show is expected to debut sometime early next year. Alexander, who designed the controversial park, is odds-on favorite to get the laser contract. "We will be looking to him for a lot of input on what we do," Whiting says. "He will also very likely apply to be architect for the project, and with his background and interests, we may recommend his selection. We're interested in his input, but independent of Ted we have done an extended amount of research."

As yet, few details of that research have been discussed in public. "I am sure that most people don't have any idea how it's going to work," Whiting admits. To get a better picture of what the Patriots Square light show will look like, New Times took a crash course in laser-based entertainment technology. Greatly simplified, this is what we learned:

To create projection effects, a laser beam is shot through a computer-controlled maze of moving mirrors, from where it is aimed onto a screen or solid surface of some kind. The beam strikes the screen as a single dot, and mirrors are then used to move the dot, much like the tip of a pencil would move, to create solid lines. By mechanically vibrating the dot faster than the eye can follow, linear, two-dimensional shapes can be formed on the screen. This is how the fabric-screen effects will work in Patriots Square, where the laser will be projected from a catwalk in the center of the steel grid.

Entertainment-laser specialists say that one of the more spectacular applications of the projection technique is practiced at Stone Mountain State Park near Atlanta, where a nightly sound-and-light extravaganza outdrew the Atlanta Braves baseball team last summer (more than 1.8 million people saw the 45-minute show during its five-month season).

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Dave Walker

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