July 1, 2007
LEDs transform monotone area into pulsating musical explosion

By Christine Lewers 

At 300 square feet, the newly refurbished teen disco aboard Celebrity Cruises' Infinity might be small, but it gets a lot of attention. And not just from kids.

Grown-ups on the ship's port-side resort deck pass by the disco's rounded glass exterior at night and are attracted to the glowing, pulsating, changing colors of light within.

"A lot of adults ask us what's in there," says Celebrity's Robert Vazquez, specialist, cruise activities and youth programs. "It's probably the best looking room on the ship at night. When they find out it's just for teens, they're jealous."

The disco, called The Tower, hasn't always stood out. When the ship launched in 2001, the space debuted as a colorless and conventionally lit listening lounge, equipped with headphones and touch-screen stations where passengers of all ages could select from among 50,000 songs. They could also pick from a collection of CDs held in neat rows by custom-made jewel case pockets built into the walls.

By 2005, the pervasiveness of iPods and other portable MP3 players had rendered the listening lounge obsolete, says Brian Lunsford, Celebrity's fleet operations manager for entertainment/technical. In addition, with more families cruising today, the ship needed a contained area for 13- to 17-year-olds to socialize, enjoy music, and dance.

The ship's management turned to an LED lighting solution to transform what had been a dull space into a colorful dance haven without removing walls. After working on another Infinity lighting project, New-York based lighting designer Michael Riotto, principal of Michael Riotto Design LLC, suggested taking off-the-shelf LED fixtures and retooling them to create dynamic, custom lighting that not only fits perfectly with the space's existing walls and ceilings, but also serves as interactive artwork.

"We let him run with his creativity," says Lunsford. "From an architectural standpoint, the design of the space did not change, so the lighting was adapted to take advantage and accentuate the existing architectural treatments."

The LEDs, while initially more expensive than other lighting options, save long-term costs because of their low energy consumption. They also deliver on the ship management's need for a low-maintenance, durable, automated space.

Working With What You Have

The team achieved big cost savings by leaving much of the listening lounge intact. Other than replacing some flooring, the entire look of the listening lounge was transformed through lighting at a cost of about $30,000 installed.

The disco's rounded, irregularly-shaped floorplan includes an entrance, a dance area, a seating area, and a curving glass staircase leading up to a small mezzanine that hangs over the seating area and offers ocean views. The platform is made of 6-inch-thick opaque glass. Its underside serves as the ceiling above the oval-shaped seating area. Sharing a common wall with the seating area is the wedged-shaped dance floor, where jewel case holders line facing walls. At the end of the dance floor are three built-in enclaves designed to hold the listening lounge's audio racks.

Riotto says his inspiration for lighting the dance floor walls came from the glowing, modular exterior lighting by Anne Militello of The New 42nd Street Studios in New York. The CD walls weren't going anywhere. The two walls contained 168 CD pockets, each one 13 inches long with a ½-inch gap designed to hold CD cases upright against the wall.

To light up the walls, Riotto filled each CD pocket with a strip of linear LED PC board taken from Elation Octo Strip fixtures and enclosed in 1/2-inch clear polycarbonate tubing. Each strip washes the part of the wall behind it with color and works with the other LEDs to create gradual color shifts, movement, and patterns across the walls. To pop the colors, Riotto glued strips of Anofol reflective white metal to the back surfaces of the CD pockets. "When you're in there, the walls are completely enveloping you, and they are very bright," he says.

New Uses for Old Spaces

Riotto also found a new use for the area at the end of the dance floor that was originally designed to hold the listening lounge's audio racks. Here he stripped the three spaces to their shells, covered them with opaque acrylic sheets, sanded and backlit the acrylic with crisscrossed fluorescent strips to mimic Celebrity's "X" logo, and used the front of the acrylic as a mounting surface for the disco's 13 LED power supplies and the Interactive Technologies CueServer lighting control console that directs the disco's lighting.

"I didn't want to bury [the power supplies] into the ceiling," says Riotto. "Instead, you actually see the guts of the place - what makes it work. The kids get to see what's powering the LEDs, and it gives the place a techy feel."

Ceilings were left in place, too. Riotto simply replaced incandescent lighting above the dance floor and the seating area with LEDs. He down-lit the dance floor with programmable RGB Elation Riva 80s by rearranging those ceiling tiles that were already cut out to fit a new pattern.

The glass ceiling above the disco's seating area also got new LED fixtures, but here, and elsewhere, Riotto fashioned custom fixtures by combining stripped-down, out-of-the box Elation LED fixtures in innovative ways with glass, metal, and plastic.

Low-cost and Custom

Using the PC board from off-the-shelf Elation fixtures, Riotto, in collaboration with his father, Andrew Riotto, a retired electrical engineer, created two types of custom fixtures for the disco's seating area that both light the space and dress it up.

He built the new fixtures above the seating area by lighting antique insulator glass (4-inch-diameter, 6-inch-tall cylinders used to top telephone wires along railroad tracks) from within using 3-inch-diameter PC boards he took from Elation Octopod 36 LEDs. He mounted the fixtures to cutouts already in the ceiling's fascia using trimmed and hammertone-coated ABS flanges designed for plumbing work. The thick glass and sturdy mountings are durable but also aesthetically pleasing. The insulator glass ribbing asymmetrically diffuses the light, uplighting the glass ceiling. The six LED fixtures are programmed to change color and pulse with music.

Riotto also made six custom fixtures to dress up the bare, green walls of the seating area. Here, he cut long ovals into 11-inch-wide by 30-inch-long metal sheets bent to fit the curved walls to which they were mounted. Riotto senior carved wood molds from which were made 4-inch-deep Vacuform plastic shells to fit behind the metal into holes cut out of the wall. Tucked between the metal and plastic shell, out of site at the top of the fixture, the Riottos mounted LED PC boards from Octopod 36s and pointed them down to illuminate the recessed oval shell with morphing color.

The oval fixtures are scaled perfectly to the walls of the disco. In addition to lighting the seating area, they provide much-needed artwork to a space previously devoid of it.

Automated Artwork

In fact, lighting comprises all of the new disco's custom artwork. In addition to the linear LED dance walls, the protruding insulator glass lights, and the oval fixtures, Riotto mounted to the glass ceiling a Martin Professional MiniMAC Maestro fitted with five Apollo Design custom glass gobos that spill and move inspirational messages onto the disco's walls.

The Maestro, along with all the disco's lights, is completely automated by the CueServer, making the room technician-free, 24/7. During the day, the room is set to "glow" with unchanging ambient lighting. At 6 p.m. the LEDs begin cycling through 30 crossfades per hour. The gobo messages kick in at 8 p.m. Everything shuts down around 1 a.m. Simple.

Riotto also installed two panels with a total of eight colored buttons that represent different color pallets teenagers can choose from to light up the disco. As soon as the buttons are released, the disco goes back to its preprogrammed setting. "The buttons are the video arcade game type intended to take a good beating over time," says Riotto.

Other than replacing the lamp in the MiniMAC Maestro every 3 months and adjusting the CueServer's timer to reflect time-zone changes, the disco's lighting runs itself.

In addition to the lighting facelift, Celebrity outfitted the teens disco with a Denon DJ DN-S3500 tabletop CD/MP3 player, a Dance Dance Revolution music video game, and two Samsung 40-inch-wide LCD screens for playing music videos and games. Internet stations and a digital jukebox are next.

But it's the lighting that draws kids in and keeps the ship's staff happy.

"LED really works because they're low maintenance - the lamps almost never go out," says Lunsford. "My feeling is that we're seeing a lot more architectural lighting effects to accentuate interior spaces and LED-based fixtures are becoming more and more prevalent."

Want to learn more about this project? Watch the webinar on October 31. Go to www.architechmag.com/webinars/avawards to register today. This event is free.


Elation OctoStrip, OctoPod 36, Riva 80
Martin Professional MiniMAC Maestro
Apollo Design custom glass gobos
Interactive Technologies CueServer
Barbizon LEDs, theatrical equipment
Graybar Electric wiring, electrical parts
CBS Studios vacuform moldings
o8o Studios oval LED custom face plates

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