Pulsing Lightbulbs Turn Poetry Reading Into High-Tech Magic

Creative programming and intimate lighting design give a visual rhythm to Sabrina Mahfouz’s live poetry performances.

A live poetry reading is usually an intimate experience, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be augmented with some high-tech spectacle as well. That’s exactly what “creative coder” Andrea Cuius and designer Roland Ellis created for poet Sabrina Mahfouz‘s live performance entitled “So… I Was At A Party Last Night.” While Mahfouz sits in a chair on a spare stage, thirty vintage lightbulbs seem to float delicately above her head, pulsing, flickering, and dimming in rhythm to her spoken words.


Based on a brief by Mahfouz, Ellis and Cuius worked closely together to develop a concept that would marry a hushed, antique look and feel with modern interactivity. Ellis selected vintage tungsten bulbs from Historic Lighting, because the delicate filaments inside lend themselves well to smooth dimming. “We used various lamp forms pitching up over the seat, which not only allowed us to play with the depth of the illuminations, it also avoided distracting Sabrina,” Ellis tells Co.Design. “Throughout the show she could not see the lights directly, only feeling warmth, as they were in fact quite close to her.”

The lighting effects are on demand and in-sync with the performance.

Cuius, meanwhile, designed a hardware/software package from scratch that would use Mahfouz’s voice to control the lighting in real time. A directional microphone feeds the sound information into a laptop running custom software based on Cinder (an open-source collection of C++ programming libraries expressly designed for creative projects), which controls the lamps on the fly through an electronic dimmer board. “[Cinder] provides all the functionalities I need to work in a 3-D environment and communicate with pretty much any piece of hardware,” Cuius explains. “Most of the effects we used for the show are in fact based on 3-D graphics. With an exact replica of the real stage, the software responds to the audio by generating and moving objects in a 3-D model. The physical lamps are then triggered by these digital objects, and the brightness of each lamp depends on the distance between the object and the lamp model in the 3-D environment.”

The result allows Mahfouz to create an impressive array of lighting effects on demand and perfectly in-sync with her performance — from cascading sheets of white glow to starlight pinpricks of orange and yellow. And for Ellis and Cuius, the collaboration fit like a glove. “Much like an art director works with a copywriter, a designer and creative coder make a logical team to explore digital design,” he says.

About the author

John Pavlus is a writer and filmmaker focusing on science, tech, and design topics. His writing has appeared in Wired, New York, Scientific American, Technology Review, BBC Future, and other outlets.