Stage Lighting EquipmentTutorials

Is Something Wrong With U and I?

A quick look at the past, present and future of user interfaces (UI) in lighting console design with the question “Are we actually doing it right?”

So, there we were in the middle of a series of tutorials on the Cham Sys MagicQ when something unexpected happened. Something totally out of the blue. A rumour went around that some students in Bath had used the MagicQ PC and PC Wing as part of a recent show – and didn’t like it! They didn’t get on with it and eventually gave up and swapped it for another controller. The other controller was (wait for it) a Pulsar Masterpiece! (Igor, I thought I told you to round up all the DisasterPieces and crush them?) How could this happen?

At first, this seemed like a case of youthful exhuberance vs. RTFM but I was assured that the User Manual was consulted on this occasion. A further conversation on Twitter brought up the whole question of what makes a good User Interface (UI) for a lighting control. I realised that current console interfaces that work so well for me were evolutions of desks that I already knew, with concepts that are rooted in lighting control history. What if you didn’t have a lighting console history?

What if you had never used a Strand Galaxy or a Celco Gold? Or even a Hog II? What if you only ever used a computer with a Windows style GUI? Would any of these flippin’ desks make sense to you?

What do you want from a lighting control?

  • Speed – You want to be able to do as much as possible in the short time available.
  • Flexibility – You want the console to give you the flexibility to control your specific show, and there are many kinds of show with different control needs.
  • Control – Well, duh.
  • To Spend As Much Time As Humanly Possible Looking At The Stage And Not Fumbling With Buttons And Other Input Hardware – Er, like I said.

There are two types of lighting controller: Those you know. And those you don’t.

The first type ticks all the boxes because you can use it’s many functions quickly, mostly without looking at the thing. The second kind is what makes you question the UI and can turn you off that console early on.

Modern consoles have evolved from older consoles and older operators have evolved with them. In stage lighting control we have some versions of our own standards, but they are incomplete and not always obvious to the newcomer. And first impressions count.

Long term vs short term usability

The new generation of techies have grown up in a world full of standards. Across software apps, the File menu has always been Top Left and it’s contents are pretty predictable. Standards are great because they allow the new, the lazy and (let’s face it) the stupid, a better chance of being able make at least some progress. Most PC apps give three or four ways of doing something in an effort that you will find at least one of Keyboard Shortcut / Right Click Menu / Top Menu / Toolbar.

The trouble with these standards is that they have led the world to believe that anything technical can be used, if you just “have a go”. Someone recently asked me to turn the ring tone on their phone off but I had never seen this phone before , how hard could it be? After a couple of unsuccessful attempts (I hung up on their mother and probably deleted at least one of their Contacts) the ringer was sorted. I could use the phone but only to the low standard.

When you become familiar with a UI, your muscle memory tunes into it and things happen automatically. Speed and accuracy are increased, freeing your mind up to concentrate on the end result while forgetting about process. Looking for functions vs. looking at the stage.

Who is the UI working for
, the casual prodder or power user – or both?

A Cham Sys problem?

Cham Sys seem to have a great idea – Make a good console with loads of familiar features, add some more and create a platform with possibilities for the future. Make a PC software version that is compatible with cheap DMX output devices and hope to build a fanbase, proficient in your console and specifying the top models in your range.


The first time I saw the MagicQ it was real and was accompanied by the man who designed it. And I had a history of using the Hog II, which the MQ shares many concepts. I liked the Cham Sys as a lighting desk and the fact that it came as a free PC app was a bonus.

Perhaps you and I had a different experience of the MagicQ UI. Perhaps you downloaded MagicQ PC, read the help, tried to make sense of an already alien world. No one can pretend that a lighting desk plonked on a computer screen is the ideal UI for anyone. Hell, I defy anyone to download Grand MA onPC and work out that it’s a half decent lighting console. However, the MA has the kudos of being “the” desk on those shows you read about in L&SI, it doesn’t have to introduce itself to you via a PC screen.

The trouble is, many people encounter tghe MagicQ via the PC version and perhaps with little console history. Is this the best first impression? Is there the tiniest possiblity that what seemed like a great idea to spread your message might actually backfire when you can’t put your best UI face on to the newest users?

Where are we GUIng now?

(ok, enough UI puns for today)

While trying to empathise with the guys struggling with an alien interface, I started to question the future of lighting interfaces and their ease of use for all kinds of users – casual and dedicated.
A lot of my initial thinking on this subject was centered around the physical aspects and I asked a question over at the Blue Room that provoked some interesting opinions. Are we using the right hardware and software? Do current lighting controls only work for me because they were designed by my contemporaries? Would it be better if all UI were further standardised?

So what do you think? What kind of UI do you think would take us into the future of lighting control and cater for all users?

Image by Zach Klein on Flickr

  1. Greg Persinger

    This is why I like the Jands Vista. Great interface and it works the way I think.

    The Cham Sys reminds my too much of a Hog 2.

  2. Richard B.

    What’s wrong with the Hog 2 UI? Clear, simple, no distractions, to the point.

    Still beats any UI made in the 15 years since for what it does (ok video and LED’s are a pain on it, but for moving lights and generics – perfect).

  3. Dimitris

    I’ve got to admit that i did not like the “application” in the first place, as well.

    But knowing the power that lies behind it, with all the cues, the timing and the FX engine, i persuaded myself that this is a console i want to learn.

    So, bad interface or not, i am after the console and what i can do with it.

    I hope the tutorials shall continue, right?

  4. Hans

    Being a newcomer to DMX lighting control hard- and software but a veteran in IT and PC standards, I can asure you that the quality of UI and useability in most of the socalled “defacto” standard ligthing control systems is poor.

    Most systems are very hard to learn, and having a long background in standard UI for the PC doesn’t help you much. Think about, if every car manufacturer made their own type of steering wheel, some round, some square, some triangular and their own brakes, some operated with the left foot, some with the right and some with the hands. Confusing – ehh. And hard to use what you learn in one car for driving another. That’s how I feel. The current DMX lighting control software packages (at least the 5-6 I have worked with) sucks. Sorry guys, but that’s how I see it…

  5. Alex O'Donnell

    I too have come to DMX lighting consoles from outside the industry. We are making some networked lighting controllers, and have a DMX prototype. Trying to drive the system is quite a pain.

    We tried a couple of low end consoles (the $200 range) and find they are great for direct control, but for schedules lighting, none had an intuitive way of saving steps in a show.

    We tried software, but it used a lot of jargon, and there was a lot of system set up before we could start to compose (Enttec – but I do have faith in their products).

    Surprisingly the “Light-o-Rama” came closest to what I “expected”. It provides time lines per channel/light/slot and gives a graphic representation.

    I always find replacing slider, knobs and dials with software may have the right look, but the wrong feel. I like the tactile feedback.

    I think the best solution would need a hardware software solution, but aren’t they all the very expensive top end systems. I’d still be concerned they managed to translate the feel properly, even if they got the look perfect.

  6. Lampie The Clown

    When I was younger, and a moving light was a leko on a stick, I spent quite a bit of time behind both the Avo QM-500 and the Celco Gold. Whenever I ran a Celco, I wished it had both bump and solo buttons, like the Avo.
    Having to flip the switch from bump to solo, and only having use of one or the other at any given time, saved Celco money on buttons I guess, or maybe it made the desk look cleaner in the advertising, but I always felt the ADD/SOLO switch was for their benefit, not the operator’s. At the price they were charging for a desk it seemed to be an odd design philosophy. P&G’s everywhere, but sorry, the budget for buttons is tapped out? It never made sense to me.

    Today’s manufacturers are, in my opinion, making the same mistake. When I programmed on the Artisan & Virtuoso desks I really liked the obvious usefulness of the “century panel” and having dedicated encoders for the different attributes. With today’s desks you get software driven touch screens and 3 or 4 encoders at most, even though the number of attributes has increased.

    When I look at how much these lap-tops with faders cost, it makes me think of the Celco, and how far the bean counters have come in 25 years. In another 10 years you’ll get a single button, and a touch screen. It will look like an iPhone, and cost a quarter million. Gee, I can’t wait.

  7. Jimmy Thew

    Hey rob.
    Got to say i like the way things are going in lighting desks. For me the layout seems standard, it’s either got lots of buttons or a fancy interface and very few buttons.
    I’m a fan of buttons for the hands on approach and the ease of tweeking things. Then again i’ve had little experience with the other style of desks (i wouldnt know where to start)
    The thing that has really impressed me tho recently is the jands vista and as said above its lazyness. with it being windows based i’ve found it to be easy to get used to and to be fair i would like to see more take this approach on.
    Now only if we could afford to buy one.

  8. François F.B.

    I’m from the “lazy” generation, in my early twenties and an technology freak (computers hard/soft, hand devices, internet, …) and I found myself to be quite alone on my side : i hate windows/mac os/linux/… based consoles’ interfaces.

    I’ve played with both “worlds” consoles (expresses, series 200-300-520, GrandMa, Hogs, Vista) and I just can’t get to love Os’ inspired interfaces.

    In my beliefs, this kind of interfaces are strickly reserved to computers. They are multiples tasked machines (office work, internet, video, design, gaming, etc.); Lignting consoles are, compared to that, quite mono-targeted. I therefore believe that an optimised interface is not a questionnable option but an utter must! Yes it might be longer to get used to such an interface, but it is possible to push the integration way furter and to leave behind, elements (start menu, right click menu, …), yet well known, but not adapted to our kind of business.

    I’d take the exemple of the iPhone; Apple developed a specific interface for this device, they did not only scale down MacOs interface. They optimised it for the kind of input device, hardware AND usage it was intended for. Yes it took a time for users to get used to it, but multi-touch gestures, for instance, are way more powerful and intuitive with this specific interface than if it had been a computer OS’ based one. Isn’t it?

    I can’t bear Jands’ Vista interface, mind you I love many thing from this console: **timeline** But I hate to be reduce to use a grey, Windows 95 looking interface with tiny tabs just as if it was an excel document to be able to get to this powerful tool. Hey, I’m not an accountant!

    Are you?

    My two cents,

    P.S. Sorry for my bad english…

  9. Lampie The Clown

    François F.B, I understand your point, and agree that taking a piece of software designed for one thing and adapting it to something else can be irritating for the end user. In this case however, I think it’s the smart way to go. The first reason is redundant software and hardware, known more commonly as, “Where ya gonna find a part to fix it when it breaks?
    . I was doing a show with a Virtuoso a few years back, and the hard drive died an hour before doors. The desk wouldn’t even boot. I had the Virtuoso software on my Mac laptop, so I opened up the desk, plugged my laptop into it via Firewire, and ran the show off my laptop. I don’t mean a virtual set of buttons and faders on my computer screen, it was real. I had full use of every encoder, every button, and every fader on the real desk. My show file was loaded, with the preset focuses I’d done earlier that day, and I still had a half hour to kill before house to black. When a redundant system saves you bacon that close to curtain, you forget all about the graphics making you feel like an accountant.
    You listed computer tasks that you feel are out of place on a lighting desk, but I disagree. Every time you have to reach for your laptop while you are sitting behind the lighting desk, the desk is showing how far behind the curve it is. Here are my thoughts on the things you listed..
    Office work: I think having a copy of Lightwright on the desk for managing the patch, or printing out a magic sheet would be a nice addition. You know those little bits of software that figure out what dipswitch setting you need to address an old scroller? Why doesn’t the desk have it built in? When the band changes the set list five minutes before houselights, wouldn’t it be great if the tour manager could send the changes right to the lighting desk via wireless networking or even e-mail?
    Internet: Ever get a desk that didn’t have the correct profile for a light you were using? Being able to download it directly into the desk would save time and headaches. Networking between desks, and instant messaging between operators is already a feature in some of today’s desks. Having a problem with the desk? Tech support could use screen sharing to figure out a solution, and update the firmware/software on the spot. Need a manual for that old obscure light that only survived in one place (today’s venue)? Maybe you want to update your Facebook page during the 17 minute harp solo, or update your on-line resume after 15 minutes of it? How about ordering a pizza for those late night programming sessions. It doesn’t matter where you are, internet is a handy thing.
    Video: One word. Convergence.
    Design: If it had Vectorworks, Lightwright, and the internet (yes, still useful) the desk would be the perfect place. My home computer doesn’t have 3 large flat screens to spread out tool pallets and windows in, or a virtual 3-D stage coming out of one of the video cards, or real lights to look at when I’m trying to decide on a color, position, or gobo. Sign me up.
    Gaming: The original Artisan desk had Asteroids on it twenty years ago, and it wasn’t a computer OS. It was a proprietary OS made for controlling Vari*lites. Today, the Grand MA has Space Invaders. Somebody out there must think games are cool.
    Yes, today’s desks are fairly “mono-targeted”, but with all the different useful directions a computer operating system offers, they can evolve into a much more productive tool.
    What they WILL evolve into may or may not use that potential, but the “off the shelf” OS will remain anyway. It’s cheaper and less headache to buy an OS off the shelf, than to write one from scratch. Vari*lite and LSD both had a hard time learning this. Both of them spent years and went broke, trying to invent what is essentially a DL-3. High End, on the other hand, figured it out quick. The projector industry already spends billions a year on R&D to make their projectors brighter, smaller and cheaper than the competition. Instead of going broke trying to re-invent the projector, they built a moving head with a slot in the back that will accept whatever projector is brightest.
    To put it another way, “the Russians used a pencil”. Operating Systems are no different than projectors or pencils in this respect.

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