Aqua Illuminaria: A performance of light and water


Special thanks to Stephanie Cohn from Philips Color Kinetics for writting the following blog post.

“Come fly with me, let’s fly, let’s fly away.” The swing music of Frank Sinatra resonated throughout the new terminal of McAllen Airport, in McAllen, Texas. Lighting designer Daryl Vaughan was running tests on the new water feature at the center of the terminal, making sure all the elements were working correctly. Meanwhile the feature came to life with dancing lights and bubbles coordinated to the catchy tune. That’s when Vaughan noticed the two young children staring at the feature in absolute awe with their eyes and jaws wide open.

The McAllen Airport installation is one of the many projects that Vaughan has created in the series he’s named “Aqua Illuminaria.” Though each water feature is different in shape and size, the basic design consists of acrylic panels filled with water. The panels have air pumps inside of them that use air pressure to create floating bubbles in the water. Vaughan then uses different versions of Philips Color Kinetics iColor Flex, flexible strands of high-intensity LED nodes, along the outer edges of the panels. Using an iPlayer 3 controller with ColorPlay 3 software he is able to control each individual node to reflect dynamic light shows through the water panels. The lights are strategically programmed to a timeline that coordinates not only the lighting, but also the music cues and air bubbles.

VIDEO McAllen-Miller International Airport

The inspiration for “Aqua Illuminaria” began in 2010 when Midwest Tropical, a company that creates custom water installations, was manufacturing a huge six-panel feature in the University of Oklahoma Children’s Hospital. The company needed a lighting solution to bring a lively element to the feature.  Vaughan got the call and specified iColor Flex LMX. In 2011, Midwest Tropical returned to Vaughan for a second project, but this time asked if he could also provide the programming for the lights.

“I started playing around with the iPlayer 3 and ColorPlay 3 and wondered if there was a way to use the software to trigger the release of the air bubbles,” Vaughan explains. After finding a supplier who could provide him with a DMX interface to control the pumps, he was then able to use ColorPlay 3 to synchronize all the elements necessary for the project in the Siena Hotel and Casino in Reno, Nevada.

“I have quite a soft-spot for the Siena project, because it was the first where I felt we were really making the most of the system’s creative potential system. I was very excited too because I knew we were creating something unique, so I spent several long nights getting the timing as precise as possible,” Vaughan says. The project included three different water features manufactured by Midwest Tropical.

VIDEO – Siena Hotel and Casino, Reno, Nevada, USA

Since the Reno project, Vaughan has designed several dozen “Aqua Illuminaria” features of varying shapes and sizes in locations such as hotels, restaurants, airports, and hospitals across the United States.

The captivating and soothing nature of “Aqua Illuminaria” has made the installation popular in healthcare settings, particularly in children’s hospitals. “It allows the patients to relax and be transported for a while, and if you can give the children a pleasant distraction during a stressful time, then you’ve done a good thing,” he says.

VIDEO Helen Devos Children’s Hospital – Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA

The features have also taken center stage in many restaurants and hotels. For example, one restaurant owner originally intended it to just be a part of the ambient environment. However, after seeing all of its potential, the owner now dims the lights in the restaurant to allow a short “Aqua Illuminaria” light show to dazzle diners every hour.

Vaughan developed the eye necessary to create these stunning water and light shows through his background in performance lighting. After working in theater, television, film, and concert lighting, he started his business Light Partners in 1992, which assisted light manufacturers with product marketing. It wasn’t until 1997 when Vaughan first came across Philips Color Kinetics early cove products and was absolutely entranced. “I immediately glued onto the potential of RGB LED color mixing, and that’s what really kick-started me into designing with these fixtures,” he says. Greatly inspired by these products, Light Partners became a full-service lighting design company. In addition to “Aqua Illuminaria,” the company has provided architectural lighting for many unique buildings such as, the Endeavour Condo Clear Lake in Houston, Texas, and the historic Davis Building in Dallas, Texas.

“The kind of lighting I’m involved in is a very visceral thing. It’s the essence of rock concerts or dramatic arts in that it appeals to the emotions,” Vaughan says. Whether it’s the glowing façade of a symbolic building, the flashing lights of a Broadway play, or illuminated bubbles, the goal is always the same he says, “I want people to be moved by what I do. I want them to gasp!”

This is exactly what happened when the two children in McAllen Airport saw “Aqua Illuminaria“ perform. “They started dancing right there in front of the feature!” Vaughan recounts, “That’s when my colleagues and I looked at each other with satisfaction, and I thought to myself, ‘Job well done.’”

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