The story behind this giant interactive toy / by Alan Rorie

Remember your favorite childhood toy, the Lite-Brite? 

Now imagine it 42x bigger, with rotating dials instead of removable pegs, and capable of running cool animations. This is Everbright. It’s a giant, interactive LED light board. Turn a dial to produce any color of the rainbow. Press a button to start all over. This is the story of how Everbright came about.

When I met with client Jen Quan about the children’s playspace she was founding, she had a big list of ideas, including a large-scale Lite-Brite. It seemed like a fun project. I was hooked right away because it had:

1. Repeating elements. I love repeating elements.

2. Tactile and kinetic things.

3. Electronics, which I consider to be one of my strengths. Not only do you need to know how to design something like this to make it look good, but you also need to know what kinds of electronics to use to make it truly special.

What happened next was far from a perfectly formed, step-by-step process. In retrospect, it went something like this.

HOW TO BUILD AN EVERBRIGHT: STEP 1. GOOGLE “GIANT LITE-BRITE.”

I wanted to see what other people had done, so I turned to Google. My research showed that plenty of people had already built giant Lite-Brites. There appeared to be a couple of ways to do this. No doubt, these large-scale Lite-Brites looked pretty cool. People faithfully adhered to the look and function of the original toy. But the Lite-Brite was invented in the 1970s. Technology has evolved since then. To me, it seemed less important that this look like a large Lite-Brite than that it actually do what Lite-Brites did really well for their time. This led me to the second step in my process.

STEP 2. WHAT MADE THE ORIGINAL LITE-BRITE SO COOL?

The Lite-Brite was one of my favorite toys as a kid growing up in the 80s. At its heart, the Lite-Brite was about instantly creating. You could jump right in and start playing with colors and patterns. It wasn’t really about putting a plastic peg in a hole. That was just the design needed to make a small, mass-produced toy in the 70s that let people start creating and playing with colors and patterns quickly. When you scale that design up to a giant, interactive light board, you begin to see the problems and limitations that distract from its essence.

STEP 3: HOW WOULD I INVENT A LARGE-SCALE LITE-BRITE TODAY?

If I was going to make a large-scale Lite-Brite today, how would I do it? Well, first, you’d need a light element. The original Lite-Brite used a single, incandescent bulb. This is not 1980. There’s no way I was going to use 464 incandescent bulbs! It’s inefficient.

STEP 4: USE LEDS AS THE LIGHT SOURCE.

LEDs don’t burn out. Well, they might burn out in 200 years if you got a bad batch.

STEP 5: USE RGB LEDS.

Now that we were using LEDs, I realized that instead of white LEDs, we could use RBG LEDs. Colors!

STEP 6: BYE, PEGS.

It was very clear to me that once we were using RGB LEDs, we could present any color of the rainbow. We didn’t need to put an acrylic peg into a hole to produce one color. You could just turn a dial. Getting rid of those pegs solves several problems—no parts to lose, faster creation, no need to keep giant acrylic sticks lying around for kids to pick up and aim at each other’s heads.

STEP 7: MAKE DIALS CONTINUOUSLY ROTATABLE.

I thought it was important that the dials be able to turn continuously. Rather than mapping the color space to 180 degrees, I wanted to be able to continuously turn a dial to move through the entire color spectrum. Not just one way, but endlessly. This approach would enable each pixel to present more colors.

STEP 8: RESET WITH THE TOUCH OF A BUTTON.

There are 464 dials to turn. When people were done drawing, we didn’t want them to have to turn all the knobs back. Who wants to do that? It gets in the way of creating. Now that the color space was relatively defined, we could erase the board and reset all the dials back to a single position. This way, no matter how many times you’d used the board in the past, you could always start fresh. I designed a button to clear all the pixels and set them back to black. The continuously rotating dial design enabled this push-button reset feature.

STEP 9: GEEK OUT ON TECHNICAL FEATURES. REIN SELF BACK IN.

I considered creating a capacitive touch interface like a scroll pad. Then I decided against it. I’m a big believer in kinetics. The turning of the dial felt important. That physical action and the feedback from turning the dial was a part of the core experience. I wanted to preserve that.

STEP 10. GIVE IN TO TEMPTATION. ADD A FEW COOL INTERACTIVE FEATURES.

Well, I wasn’t too strict about the rule that you must turn a dial. I wanted to have a little more fun. So I made Everbright programmable. Each pixel can be set to override its manual display to show a specific color, so Everbright can run animations. These animations might range from stunning visual effects to simple games like Pong. After running the animation, the board can revert back to what it looked like before.

And guess what? Everbrights can talk to each other from anywhere in the world. So the people in the Austin office could send a little design to the people in the San Francisco office.

Another thing I’m proud of is the materiality we chose. I don’t want to give away all of my tricks, but the materials we chose give it something special. When Everbright isn’t in use, it looks elegant and clean. A matte black surface really lets the color shine.

STEP 11: BUILD PROTOTYPE.

You can turn it in any direction. It changes to any color of the rainbow.

STEP 12. IMPLEMENT.

Once we worked out the specifics, it was time to implement.

We partnered with LumiGeek for a first-rate implementation of the LEDs and electronics. Brian S. and Matteo helped with assembly, and John Hollis made his genius inventor’s brain available so I could think through some design problems.

HOW AN IDEA BECAME A PRODUCT

From the moment I conceived Everbright, I wanted to turn it into a product. Because doesn’t everyone want one? I mean, if you could, wouldn’t you want one? Everyone likes to play with colors and patterns. It’s the type of thing everybody can have fun with. It’s timeless.

I NEVER WANT TO STOP PLAYING WITH THIS.

Even after all these months of developing and building Everbright, I still play with it every day. It helps me think. I get tired of sitting in the same spot. So I’ll walk into gallery adjacent to my studio, and just start playing with lights. I think better when my hands and my eyes are busy. I find it very meditative and focusing.

I’m sure it’s that same impulse to create that makes people in downtown San Francisco stage elaborate Post-It communications on their highrise office windows. People need avenues for creative expression and connection. And they will do crazy things to get it, like play hangman. People will never stop wanting to play with geometry and color. Everbright is not the only option, but I think it’s a pretty cool one.