The optical components that create laser effects haven’t changed much over
the years. The biggest improvements over the past five decades have been in
the lasers themselves.
inefficiently reflect off the surface and then propagate back to
the viewers’ eyes. A 1-W laser can show patterns in a movie
theater or hotel ballroom, but larger indoor halls can require
up to 20 W of power. The largest sports arenas and outdoor
stadiums can require 50 to 80 W of power.
Laserium founder Dryer stuck with the water-cooled argon-krypton lasers because they exhibit better beam quality and
less divergence than low-end DPSS systems. For a long time,
he said, solid-state lasers didn’t make the really small dots that
laser artists prize.
With the original water-cooled lasers, Dryer would sometimes experience what he calls “the john effect.” If enough
toilets in the Griffith building were flushed during the show,
the lasers would shut down. Fortunately, the plumbing was
eventually upgraded to eliminate the problem.
Modern laser shows
The Seattle Laser Dome produces its shows in-house with live
laser artists who will create short custom messages for audience
members—even a few marriage proposals over the years,
according to Borcherding.
The Laser Dome started as the Boeing Spacearium, a
cubical building containing a perforated-aluminum interior
dome designed by the American architect Buckminster Fuller
for the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair. (The 80-foot-diameter dome
is hung from the inside of the building.) It showed science-themed films for years after the world’s fair, but once the film
stock began deteriorating, the Pacific Science Center, which
owns the complex, wanted to put the unusual space to another
Unlike the original Laserium and other laser shows at
planetariums, the Seattle venue has no constellations in the
background. “The only thing we have in our theater is a laser
projector,” Borcherding said. He and his colleagues sometimes
do educational shows—a five-minute piece on how lasers create
light—but mostly the dome provides entertainment.
The Laser Dome’s arsenal includes two water-cooled, mixed
krypton-argon ion lasers. They provide a full range of colors,
mixed inside the projector. The dome also has one water-cooled
Nd:YAG laser, frequency-doubled to 532 nm.
Over the last 10 years, the best advances have been in
computer control, Borcherding says. But in his opinion, live
performances by laser artists are far superior to plug-and-play
ONLINE EXTRA: See www.osa-opn.org for more photographs
and video clips of laser light shows.
designs. “The computer’s very cold and the colors are hard-edged,” he said. “People don’t know what they’re missing.”
The future of laser shows
Borcherding believes that laser shows peaked in the 1990s.
That is when there was the greatest diversity in laser companies
and the most live shows, he said. After that, smaller venues
computerized shows that could be played repeatedly. However,
it’s harder to attract repeat visitors to preset shows, he added.
On the other hand, the operations manager for the laser
effects at the halftime light show at Super Bowl XLIV is more
optimistic. Victor Tomei, who works for Pyrotek Special
Effects Inc., associated with Laser Design Productions of
Markham in Ontario, Canada, said he believes that the success of that show will fuel interest in laser displays and boost
Just as the laser itself was seen as “a solution without a problem” when newly invented, laser shows are taking visual effects
to heights that could have never been imagined a few decades
ago. The continuing evolution of laser technology could give
rise to even more spectacular effects in the future. The brilliant, focused colors of laser beams offer endless possibilities for
ongoing innovation at the intersection of art and science. t
Patricia Daukantas ( firstname.lastname@example.org) is the senior writer/editor of Optics &
[ References and Resources ]
>> L. Cross. “ LowellCross.com: Inventing the Laser Light Show,”
>> E. Garmire. “Who Would Have Imagined?” Dartmouth Presidential
Lecture Series, Feb. 15, 2006.
>> International Laser Display Association: www.laserist.org.
>> Laserium and its parent company, Laser Images Inc.:
>> Laser light show information and tips: www.laserfx.com and www.
>> P. Murphy. “Bringing Sexy (Light) Back,” Light Design, April 2007,
>> S.M. Reiss. “Sculpting the Light Fantastic,” Opt. Photon. News 1( 9),
15 (September 1990).
>> J.M. Rice. “The Evolution of a Laser Artist,” Opt. Photon. News
10( 10), 20 (October 1999).
>> Seattle Laser Dome at the Pacific Science Center, Seattle, Wash.,
>> C. Willman. “Laserium finds a vintage Hollywood home,” Los Angeles Times (June 25, 2009).