On the Horizon: Examining the new CD-ROM-based lighting control console from Rosco/Entertainment Technology


The Horizon CD-ROM, from Rosco/Entertainment Technology, is available at an unbeatable price: It's free. "It's been in the back of my mind for years--once we would get a console to run on a PC, we would just give away the software. There's no better way for people to find out if this software is for them than to sit down to run it," says Gordon Pearlman, president of the Portland, OR-based firm.

Horizon is a full-featured lighting control console distributed on a CD-ROM that operates on a Pentium-based PC you provide. Developed by Rosco/ Entertainment Technology, the Horizon is truly graphics-based, requiring only a mouse and a special DMX512 interface module (which costs $1,295) for operation. The CD-ROMs are distributed at trade shows, or the complete program (as well as software updates) can be downloaded from the company's website, at http://www.rosco-et.com.

Horizon is more than a simple crossfade-type board allowing changes from one level to another. With the console, overlapping fades can be accessed in an organized structure of cues, with fades of different types occurring simultaneously. Through Horizon, different dimmers can be added or subtracted based on need and the dimmers available. "Horizon can do 3,000 overlapping fades, if you have the patience to write them," says Pearlman.

Horizon is designed to operate under Windows 95 on a Pentium-equipped computer with a minimum of 16MB of RAM. (Horizon will work faster with more RAM, however.) Traditional menus and dialog boxes are provided, appropriate to the requirements of a lighting control console.

Horizon was developed using the Microsoft development tools C++ and Visual Basic, which are primarily for dedicated Windows-based machines. A Macintosh version is not feasible at the present time. Pearlman explains, "It comes down to a decision as to market share and where we can sell the most consoles. With the cost of a PC approaching $800, it's hard not to justify getting a dedicated PC."

Horizon provides for user input from the keyboard (and the 10-digit keypad), the mouse, and the new Intellimouse (with built-in wheel). You do not have to add modules or chips or move jumpers. The interface module is connected via the parallel (printer) port. A special bi-directional cable (supplied) connects the DMX interface module to the PC, and the DMX network is connected to the interface module.

To allow access to 24 submasters and bump buttons, which can be controlled during operation, or to build cues, an external Submaster Wing Panel is now offered as an option. The panel takes an already existing capability of Horizon, and via the serial port, makes it intuitive to use. In addition, it will allow direct control of particular channels within the cue, e.g. fading the reds manually, while blue and yellow stay the same. This is helpful for those situations where things happen on the fly.

Horizon offers extreme flexibility in writing cues, splitting the screen views and even setting the fade rate. For instance, a limited amount of dimmers can be installed, and Horizon provides the flexibility to patch them internally. "At our new church, only a limited amount of dimmers were purchased, and through Horizon software, it didn't matter what channel I ended up on, or what light was plugged into which dimmer. I could assign the light to any channel I wanted to, without having to do a hard patch through the high-current stuff," says Curt Blood, LD for the Canyon Hills Community Church in Bothell, WA. "The Horizon software gives me flexibility to reassign the lights for special services, seminars, and music and drama events. Additional dimming equipment can be easily integrated."

Horizon was developed with careful attention to the issues of PC stability, equipment failure, and loss of DMX signal. The interface module stores the current cue and its number, holding the lighting levels as required by the cue, inside the module. If the computer crashes, the user reboots, starts Windows 95, and restarts Horizon. After the program is back up, and communication re-established between the PC and the interface module, Horizon offers the choice of restarting from the cue being held (with no flicker in the lights), or starting with a different cue.

Staff familiar with lighting design and Horizon is available by phone 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Software engineers will answer questions regarding installation and any loading conflicts that may develop; a plus, because I (and other users) found that other programs and unique system configurations can cause installation problems. Pearlman adds, "The majority of the support calls have been about installation or initial set-up of the DMX512 interface module."

Horizon provides an onscreen version of an operational manual. It is extensive, though not very comprehensive. Following traditional Windows 95 help formats, Horizon provides crisp, succinct answers. This meets the need for onscreen-type help, but the explanations are insufficient for non-technical users. A printed manual is not provided, and printing the help file is not an available option. Since the program is distributed via CD-ROM, the complete help file ought to be available as a printable document. Perhaps the document could be posted on the company website, thereby allowing potential users a chance to download documentation along with the program.

Operating Horizon is straightforward. Usability and functionality are high: Click on the right mouse button and run the dimmer up and down independently of the cues, write subs, assign it to a cue, and repeat. "Horizon is really simple to program and easy to use, even for venues not familiar with computer-based lighting control systems," says John Conti, television LD and president of John Conti Lighting of Glendale, CA.

Horizon is particularly suited for live corporate events, as cues can be easily modified. However, the potential for unwanted changes exists: In one operation, the only separation of commands is a single- or double-click. While updating a cue in Blind mode, an double-click on a particular cue will cause that cue to be executed live. Otherwise, updating a cue, and switching between live and blind, is reliable.

Academic environments will find Horizon useful. Besides being an excellent lighting-control system at a modest cost, it offers theatrical programs a method for evaluating student work. For instance, students can develop their designs for a particular show, using the (free) CD-ROM installed at a computer lab or on their own PCs. Instructors can then review each design in the theatre, and follow the dimmer assignments, chases, or cues.

Software revisions and numerous feature enhancements are under development to meet the needs of different users. Multiple cue sheets (also known as simultaneous asynchronous cue sheets) are now in beta testing. As an example, this feature will provide for a small chase function to be incorporated as part of the larger cue. From the main cue sheet this small chase can be faded into/out of, or started/ stopped. This feature is often needed in theme park applications for control of many different routines in different locations withinone venue, which are triggered by an outside signal (like a sensor activated by device or a ride).

The Horizon Playback module is a compact rack-mountable unit containing Horizon capabilities, which also provides control for all types of lights. It can be synchronized with SMPTE, MIDI, external time clocks, and external closure switches. The Playback module is also an ethernet peripheral, so it can be installed on a TCP/IP network and provide for central monitoring and remote adjustment of cues within the lighting program. Normal operation does not require the network, as the playback module is designed for standalone operation, useful in a multi-venue application such as museum exhibition rooms or theme parks.

Moving light capability will be released during the first quarter of 1998. Dialog boxes will allow you to select and modify the different attributes of each device. You will be able to pan and tilt with a "target"-type display, pick colors and patterns by name, mix colors, and more. Moving light capability can be programmed and called from any cue. Says Brian F. Evans, a Florida theme park LD, "All I can say is that I think Horizon is the biggest innovation in a long time. Horizon is perfect for many applications--once they release their moving light software and multiple cue sheet versions, of course."

The entertainment industry has adopted technological innovation in many forms, ranging from automated lights to DMX512 protocol. Computers have revolutionized lighting design, and microprocessors and software are at the heart of lighting control systems. Will the Horizon find a sizeable following? The answer is yes. The next question is, "How soon?"