I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

You Got A Light?: Laser Shows

by Kristen Bialik
April 20, 2012

You could say most fun things come with a certain level of danger. If not danger, then a risk, high stakes, something to up the ante and propel moments of banality intomemories worth grappling for and stories worth retelling. The danger doesn’t even have to be immediately apparent. People will be drawn to it as if in orbit, as if good times, like gravity, pull us in and bind us  together. It’s the stuff that youth is made of, the stuff of great plot twists, and hands-down part of the good stuff behind laser shows.

Laser light shows -- now a common feature of planetariums, science centers, and big-budget entertainment venues -- used to be the lifeblood of potheads, providing the awe-inspiring real-world trip (to complement the mental trip) to psychedelic rock shows. Now they’re projected everywhere from the dingiest discotheques to the sides of entire mountains, to the tunes of everything from Tchaikovsky, Jay-Z, and a bit confusingly, laser country music.

The popularity of laser light shows really took off with the likes of Pink Floyd's and The Who's concerts, leaving a legacy of Dark Side of the Moon shows in arenas, planetariums, and mothers’ basements the world over. Electric Light Orchestra’s 1978 Out of the Blue tour famously featured lasers shooting out of a giant fog-ridden spaceship that would open to up to reveal Jeff Lynne and company rising out of the UFO on hydraulic raisers. Naturally, this futuristic vision of alien rock was opened with the 20th century classical Sinfonia da Requiem, Op. 20 by Benjamin Britten. Fantastically, laser shows have only gotten weirder.

Sure, lasers are, at this point, ubiquitous and even taken for granted as part of any rave or club experience. But then there’s Hiro Yamagata, a Japanese artist who worked on bringing the Bamiyan Buddhas destroyed by the Taleban back to life through a multicolored art installation powered by imported windmills, in an otherwise powerless area of villages1. The Afghan government approached Yamagata with the idea, which would use 14 laser systems to project 140 faceless Buddhas over four miles of the Bamiyan Valley cliffs where the statues once stood. The project was riddled with approval processes, but Yamagata has produced laser installations in Cape Town, Paris, Los Angeles, and at the Bilbao Guggenheim in Spain2 and more. Yamagata took lasers into the serious world of art museums and politics, but lasers have been used for everything from Italian musicals to holiday laser shows in Grand Central Station (which is, in case you were curious, the second most popular holiday destination in town!)3.

When Yamagata was working on the details of the laser Buddhas project, physics and chemistry experts at the University of Antwerp determined the show would not pose any significant threat to the cliffs – but only because the lasers would be projected on low power levels from at least six whole miles away4! Anyone up on their science fiction weaponry knows that lasers are awesomely powerful. But few concertgoers and probably even fewer Dead Heads on 4:20 know just how dangerous these bad boys are.

Laser stands for Light Amplification by the Simulated Emission of Radiation, meaning a laser medium that is excited by some form of energy can produce visible light and invisible UV or infrared radiation. As all good campy sci-fi movies have well taught us, contact with lasers can cause fire, skin burns, eye injury, and even blindness. Because of radiation risks of laser contact, laser light shows are actually under regulation by the FDA.

Laser beams are so crazy powerful because they do not spread out very much. Unlike light bulbs, whose light diverges in all directions, lasers stay in hyper-concentrated beams that can travel over huge distances. Because their light is so tightly compacted, some lasers can produce a beam thousands of times brighter than the sun’s surface appears from earth even from miles away! So staring at laser beams during a light show is basically like ignoring what your grandma told you and staring at the sun for hours… except the sun is right there and pointed at your eye. It can be worse, actually. If a laser beam hits the pupil directly, its power is concentrated by the lens into an even smaller area, amplifying the amount of light and heat per unit area. The already insanely potent intensity of the laser beam can multiply by 10,000 times or more by the time it hits the retina! Unsurprisingly, blind spots can happen and not just en route to the concert. The eye is the most sensitive part of the body when it comes to lasers, but the power of the beam can cause skin burns and in some cases, you can even light a cigarette by putting the end in the laser beam5. Take notes for the most badass party trick of all time.

For the most part, revelers in dubstep or Dark Side of the Moon shouldn’t be too worried (they aren’t). Most reported problems, and they are rare, come from the practice of “audience scanning” when visible laser beams are projected back to the audience, submerging them inside the rapidly twisting bodies of light. It’s a stunningly beautiful experience, one that throws listeners into a shared sea of light and color and music. As of 2010, the International Laser Display Association estimated that 109 people have attended audience scanning shows, collectively experiencing over 11 billion laser pulses to the eyes6. It takes only a fraction of a second for a laser passing over the body to cause damage. But like I said, where’s the fun without a little thrill? The FDA and other government and regulatory bodies around the world will worry about how many miles should separate a laser and a mountain, or the strength of a beam aimed at a body. The listeners have bigger problems to worry about. Like where their next drink is, and more importantly, who’s got a light?

1 BBC.co.uk, “Artist to recreate Afghan Buddhas,” August 9. 2005. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/entertainment/4134252.stm

2 Artnet Magazine, “Latitude of Love,” November 24, 2010. http://www.hiroyamagata.com/images/artnetArticle11_10.pdf

3 Laserist.org http://www.laserist.org/Laserist/Laser-Show-News_2.html

4 Associated Press http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/8875547/ns/world_news-south_and_central_asia/t/bringing-back-afghan-buddhas-light/#.T4UKQJpWpK0

5 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Food and Drug Administration, “Laser Light Shows: Who’s Responsible?” May 1986. http://www.fda.gov/Radiation-EmittingProducts/RadiationEmittingProductsandProcedures/HomeBusinessandEntertainment/ucm118907.htm

6 International Laser Display Association, “Scanning Audiences at Laser Shows: Theory, Practice and a Proposal” by Patrick Murphy and Greg Makhov, November 12, 2010. http://www.laserist.org/files/audience-scanning_overview_latest.pdf

Kristen Bialik is a writer, teacher and graduate student of Journalism and Mass Communication. In her spare time, she's a baker of pies and maker of stories.