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Physics PhD student demonstrates the Laser Musicbox at Electric Fields festival

Spencer Van Dyk | Fulcrum Staff

Photo by Justin Labelle

UNIVERSITY OF OTTAWA physics PhD student Christopher Smeenk demonstrated his pet project, the Laser Musicbox, at the 2012 Electric Fields festival on Oct. 12.

Smeenk, who was one of several of the night’s speakers at Saint Brigid’s Centre for the Arts, took the time to explain his project, which uses light to create sound.

“I think most people are familiar with a few applications of lasers,” Smeenk explained in his presentation.

“Eye surgery, laser hair removal … these are all based on optical properties of light: transmission, reflection, absorption,” he continued. “But there is very little work done using light to create and control sound. In some sense, that is because light and sound are very different, but there are extreme situations in which the two can be coupled together to create kind of a multi-sensory experience.”

Smeenk is doing his thesis in the area of ultrafast physics, using lasers to study atoms and molecules at the National Research Council of Canada (NRC); however, he has recently branched out to using lasers to create sound and music.  His presentation included a simplified explanation of the science behind his Laser Musicbox, as well as demonstrations of its uses and abilities.

“With the Laser Musicbox, you can, from a single physical source, simultaneously produce sound that we hear and colours from the entire optical spectrum,” Smeenk explained.

Smeenk recently received the Awesome Ottawa award and will put the money towards a MIDI keyboard, which he will use to interface with the laser system and create something more akin to what we would think of as a musical instrument.

Smeenk’s presentation was part of the Pecha Kucha event hosted that night, under the umbrella of the Electric Fields festival that ran from Oct. 10–14.

Remco Volmer, the event’s organizer, explained the concept of the Pecha Kucha event.

“It is a worldwide brand that started in Tokyo, and cities around the world can apply for a license to run an event under that brand,” Volmer explained. “It’s a kind of trademarked format of 20 slides, for 20 seconds each, so each presenter has 6 minutes and 40 seconds to make their point, so it keeps things moving along, keeps it fresh and exciting.”

Volmer also said he believes the draw of the Pecha Kucha format is its unique presentation, and hopes that his future events will see similar results to the Electric Fields presentation.

“Apart from numbers, the more important expectation is that people are going to be very excited about this type of performance and that they will come out more, that they will keep supporting us, and that everybody has a wonderful time,” said Volmer. “I hope that it draws them in because it is slightly off-centre, it is a little off-kilter, and it has the ability to surprise and delight.”


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