Light Moves


Fittingly, Light at Play — a business whose sole purpose is to create mesmerizing ambience — was conceived at Burning Man.

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Company: Light at Play
Founders: Yona Appletree, Wayne Skipper
Headquarters: Eugene
Launched: 2013

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Fittingly, Light at Play — a business whose sole purpose is to create mesmerizing ambience — was conceived at Burning Man, the Nevada music festival known for wowing crowds with art exhibitions and a huge wooden effigy that is burned each year.

0215 launch03 500px“The hundreds of people staring at our work gave us the ‘aha’ moment,” co-founder Wayne Skipper says. “We saw we could draw crowds and create an immersive experience that extended far beyond what we could imagine. We knew we had something magical.”

Skipper, 43, and his partner, Yona Appletree, 28, had fashioned their first “Radiance Dome,” a 20-foot, freestanding geodesic structure featuring lights that react to a user’s presence. Imagine a shrunken, half-size version of Disney World’s Spaceship Earth — if that attraction incorporated lights coded to track a visitor’s movements.

Capitalizing on their Burning Man success, Skipper and Appletree started building tech-driven, environmentally interactive domes and orbs — for sale and for rent. “We think of code as art, and technology done well should be art,” says Skipper, who, like Appletree, has a background in software development. 

Not that the co-founders are interested in being starving artists. Skipper and Appletree bootstrapped Light at Play but may aim for a seed round “once we have the business model heightened up,” Skipper says. Although the pair continues to target music festivals, they seek to do business with hotels and casinos — “anyone who needs to create an immersive experience.”

A dome of one’s own

Light at Play scored a coup this month when its 200-pound Radiance Orb was featured at the UNESCO International Year of Light 2015 celebration in Paris. The Radiance Orb typically rents for about $1,000, while the dome clocks in at $15,000. Buying your own dome will set you back $250,000; an Orb, $50,000.

Flower coders

One of the advantages of being located in Eugene is “the rich cultural history around the ’60s and hippies,” says Skipper, who describes the Radiance Dome as “liquid tie-dye on a 3-D surface. We’re known as the tie-dye capital of the world, and here we invented electric tie-dye.” 

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Hacking Art

A growing number of organizations are using interactive software programs to create state-of-the-art light shows.

This past December, Portland-based Umpqua Bank built its own computer-coded orb to promote its products and services. “We thought they were beautiful, and that it would stand out and be striking and different,” says Eve Callahan, Umpqua’s senior vice president of corporate communications.

Cities are also getting in on the game. The San Francisco Bay Bridge “Bay Lights” project launched last year and consists of a constantly changing display of 25,000 LED lights. The project was created by artist Leo Villareal.

Closer to home, Portland’s Tilikum Crossing bike/rail/pedestrian bridge will be lit by 178 LED lights on the cables, towers and abutments. That project was conceived by San Francisco artist Douglas Hollis and his wife, the late Anna Valentina Murch.

The possibilities for tech-driven, environmentally interactive art pieces are infinite, says Norton Young, academic director of design at the Art Institute of Portland. “Imagine: You can reconfigure whole streetscapes to conform to seasons or events,” he says. On the private side, homeowners and businesses are installing systems in which “the mood color and pulse of the lighting system is completely changeable.”

Illumination isn’t the end game, Young says. “You could impact any part of the environment to be expressive — not just be completely functional but to also add interest and excitement.”