Xylobands!

Over the Jubilee weekend, we went to see Coldplay at the Emirates stadium. I saw them at Glastonbury 2011 and thought they put on a really good show so I was pretty keen to go again and it was a great gig. One of the highlights for me this time round however was finding out about their use of Xylobands. On our way through the turnstiles, stewards were handing out adjustable material wristbands in an array of colours and, somewhat compliantly, I just took one and put it on, not thinking anything of it.

As soon as we got into the arena and took our places, I made a quick visit to the address printed on the back of a small plastic compartment which formed part of the wrist band to find out more. Each Xyloband contains a series of LEDs and a small compartment which contains a printed circuit board and some batteries. As far as I understand, each Xyloband also contains a small radio frequency receiver which serves as a switch for the LEDs and can be triggered remotely. The resulting effect is that during the concert the audience, in effect, become another light switch on the control desk and each of the Xylobands throughout the stadium can be lit in time with the music. What a great idea! – It looks really cool, engages the audience even more with the concert experience and is a really innovative and interactive touch.

Further reading on the Xylobands website revealed that they were originally invented by Jason Regler, with whom there is a really interesting interview here. In the article, he explains how the device came about and how he managed to get it in to the hands of band members of Coldplay, who appear to have done a great deal to back the project both in terms of funding and facilitating large scale testing opportunities for the device. I think this represents real forward thinking by a band to whom the development of this technology really has no immediate commercial gain, it’s purely an experiential enhancement for their fans who attend the gigs. I realise it could be argued that Coldplay’s funding in the development of this technology could, in future, lead to it being sold to other bands, or indeed for any other application within a mass/live audience context, but in the mean time, this level of support from an internationally known band, presents real opportunities for people with great ideas who enjoy hacking around with technology.

It seems that recently, there are more technologies emerging that deal with new and innovative ways of pleasing crowds, the most impressive of which include the use of digital 3D projection – see the launches for the Nokia Lumia 800 and the LG Optimus One and now with experiential products like Xylobands, I’m sure there are many more avenues to be explored. I’m also really keen to see what the forthcoming London 2012 Olympics opening ceremony will serve up as I think it’s an event that has massive potential and I would be very surprised if there wasn’t some interesting use of technology going in to it.

The Xylobands concept also reminded me a lot of Seb Lee-Delisle’s Pixel Phones project which he presented at Flash on the Beach last year, and it is interesting to draw comparisons between the two projects. On one hand, I think the idea and execution of Xylobands is really well done, but on the other, it also feels as though it could have been developed further. I think the thing that concerns me the most is that you get a Xyloband when you go to a Coldplay gig which is good for the duration of the concert, but the minute the concert ends, it becomes something useless, a souvenir at best. This is where project like Pixel Phones comes into it’s own – one of it’s single greatest achievements is the fact that you are making use of a device which a high percentage, though admittedly not all, of your audience is going to have bought with them. As such you eliminate the wastage that is generated by a project like Xylobands as a means of connecting the audience.

So…with a recent new found love of physical computing, the experience spurred on my curiosity…how could these bands be reused? Is it possible to programme them, or modify them for other uses? Alongside a few other physical computing projects, that I’m currently working on, I’m pretty determined to see if I can get these working outside of the context of a Coldplay gig. So far, being more of a closed project that has purposefully been developed as a consumer product where the aim is to not have people take apart or hack the device, information on the workings is scarce and largely anecdotal. This has really reiterated to me the huge importance and benefits of open source communities, api documentation, tutorial sites, and the wide range of other resources that the internet enables.

Since the gig though I’ve been searching around the internet to see if I could find out how they work and have been able to uncover various bits of information here and there including details about the operating frequency, the range of the equipment used to broadcast to the bands, the integrated circuits being used and a few other things which might help in experimenting with them. Perhaps one of the most intriguing things of all though were the reports of the bands appearing to randomly switch on in people’s homes, which leads to me to think that somewhere between, wifi networks, wireless peripherals and bluetooth sound systems, there must be something in the domestic environment that will help me trigger an open source Xyloband light show, it’s just a matter of time…

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