Published by the Hartford Courant
EAST HARTFORD — LED strips and twinkle lights flash constantly in the office of University of Connecticut professor Ed Large, just waiting for a beat to latch onto.
They’re controlled by a brain, an intelligent listening system designed by Large, who himself is partial to jazz and funk. He thinks his invention, Synchrony LED, which listens to music and creates real-time light shows, is too.
“If you play a rhythmically boring song. it’ll just go with the beat and it becomes boring really fast,” Large said of Synchrony’s lighting effects. “But if you listen to music that has an interesting rhythm, that’s when it does super interesting things.”
Large teaches psychological science and physics and directs UConn’s music dynamics laboratory. Synchrony, his first commercial product after 25 years of research, will be available for sale to the public this winter.
Synchrony works in the same way that people bounce their knees to a tune; the same way that mangroves full of fireflies in Southeast Asia blink their lights in unison; the same way that pacemaker cells all fire at once to make our hearts beat.
People, organisms and even cells have a natural rate of internal vibrations, or oscillations. This back-and-forth activity tends to sync up with surrounding vibrations. In humans, this is particularly effective with music, which explains how a snappy tune can set people tapping their toes, nodding their heads and harmonizing to the beat.
Synchrony does the same, just with patterns of light.
And the more Large learns about the way the brain perceives sound, the more intricate Synchrony’s effects will become, he said.
“At this stage of programming, we’re not going to compete with a light show that somebody spent two months programming,” he said. “But we will.”
Large began the project in October from the office he rents at the Connecticut Center for Advanced Technology, a nonproft manufacturing innovation hub on Pitkin Street. He launched a Kickstarter campaign in June and, by July 12, raised more than $60,000 to move into final engineering and production.
Large says he’s already seen interest from other companies interested in using his technology in their own sound-capturing products and apps, which is exactly what he was hoping for.
“One goal of this was to show off to them,” Large said.
Unlike other sound-activated light shows on the market — some of which sell for about $25 — Large’s nearly $200 version does not need to be programmed and its visuals go beyond flashing in time with every note.
Using a built-in microphone and an advanced neural network, it synchronizes its rhythms like the human brain does, intelligently translating songs into patterns that mimic the way we process music.
“We’re taking a flashing light and making it feel really good to watch,” said Dylan Reilly, chief technology officer for Large’s company, Oscilloscape.
A starter kit, including a controller box and one LED strip or two LED strings, will sell for $189.
Large says it all started with the desire to understand how the brain predicts and hears the beat of a song.
“It seems like it’s so easy and it’s so obvious. You listen to music, and there it is,” Large said. “But no one knew how it was done.”
In the early 1990s, he decided to go to graduate school to study in the then-novel field of music cognition.
Since then, his experiments have ranged far and wide, including finding a bonobo at the Jacksonville Zoo that was amenable to banging on a drum to a steady beat.
Large wanted to prove that apes could sense oscillations in music the same as humans, and the same as Snowball the dancing cockatoo, whose head-banging and high-kicking moves gained Youtube fame in the mid-2000s. The parrot was deemed the first animal capable of “beat induction,” or perceiving music and synchronizing body movements to it.
Large has moved on to another group of bonobos in Iowa, but his auditory research has also attracted the attention of the U.S. Air Force, which issued him contracts worth $2.5 million.
The technology behind Synchrony was developed with significant grants from the National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health, Large said.
He went through several iterations of the product itself. The first concept, wearable pins, were bad business — too costly to manufacture for the price people would be willing to pay. A second idea, rave gloves, was a bit too complicated.
Then he hit on LED strips.
“It was really captivating. When you see it happen, you just can’t take your eyes off it,” Large said. “So we decided that’s got to be the thing.” Large says he plans to send the first round of products to his backers in time for them to string up their Christmas trees.
And though holiday lighting was Large’s original concept, and it remains one of his favorites, he says Synchrony works best with songs that have some funk. The more complex the music, the more interesting the visuals.
When he was developing the system, Large played Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” on repeat.
And no, he’s used to saying: That didn’t ruin the music.
“You could play that song for me every moment of the day.”