Department News

BYU electrical engineers light up ballroom dance team

Last summer engineering professor Aaron Hawkins saw a performance during an episode of America’s Got Talent that caught his eye.

A group of dancers were performing in the dark, wearing suits that lit up in sync with the music.

“I thought, why can’t we do that too?” Hawkins said.  “Especially with the world-class dancers we have on campus.”

Less than a year later, with financial support from L3 Communications, Hawkins and a team of electrical engineering students and faculty have created fully-functioning, eye-catching light suits that flash to music.

The suits will be worn this weekend by members of the BYU Ballroom Dance Company during a number in their annual concert.

See the suits in action at the BDC Concert, April 6-7, 7:30 p.m. in the Marriott Center. There is also a 2 p.m. matinee on April 7. More details here.

The light suits are equipped with 16 light channels that turn on and off in sync with a musical number. A master computer plays the music which is synched with signals that are sent wirelessly to a box on the back of each of the four suits.

The phonebook-sized boxes hold battery packs and a circuit board, with an antenna to receive the signals. Once the signals are received, a microcomputer in the box translates the instructions to the strands of electroluminescent wire on the suits.

The result is a flashy routine where dancers appear, disappear and reappear in lines of red, white, and blue light.

“The hardest part was making reliable circuitry on the boxes,” said student James Mackie. “It’s one thing just to have the circuitry turn things on and off, but it’s another thing to make it work on a moving person. If the wires bend too much as the dancers move, we can get a short that turns off the entire suit.”

Guided by their faculty advisors, Mackie and his fellow students built the entire system as part of a senior-level design class.  They had to perfect everything from the circuit boards to how the lights attached to the fabric of the costumes.  A good dose of computer programming was also necessary.

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