Fiddling with old computer circuit boards and tapping out lines of code, Ross Imburgia prefers the term “tinkerer” to “artist.” Even though the brilliant light trails left in the wake of his colorful, strobing hula hoops might appear artsy at first glance, he maintains that his design process is closer to invention than creativity. Nonetheless, his easy laugh and relaxed demeanor evidence the satisfaction he feels at successfully implementing his ideas and creating prototypes for his fun, functional inventions. A circuit board plugged into a USB cable snakes its way up to his computer, while a tangle of wires and lights cycles through a rainbow spectrum of color, lighting up his basement studio/room as he elucidates his plans for Craft Lake City 2012, and how they work into the bigger ideas he has for the future of his inventive exploits.
After an intense demonstration of his light patterns in motion, Imburgia explains his exhibit: “I’m going to try to make it as much of a light show as possible and not just hula hoops … I want some kind of big backdrop display that is also linked up to software on the computer, flashing and doing all sorts of crazy shit like that … Just in terms of toys, I could make a lightsaber thing,” says Imburgia, explaining that it wouldn’t be difficult to simply alter his prototype to create them. “It’s probably a raver’s paradise. I’m not really into that scene, but they’d probably really dig it,” says Imburgia with a genial laugh.
Creating color-strobing hula hoops came somewhat unexpectedly for Imburgia. “Last fall, it started when my girlfriend, [Jess Dunn], asked for an LED hoop for her birthday. Instead of just going out and buying it … I just thought to myself, ‘Hey, I could build that!’” he says, adding, “I’ve always been a tinkerer, and I’m an engineering major at school.” Though he does point out that his major focus is on mechanical engineering, which is quite different from the task of electrically engineering a luminescent hoop, he contends that, “It’s cool to do something that’s not physical labor, something that’s engaging for your brain.” He appreciates the challenge and the opportunity to use his extensive collection of odds and ends scavenged from old electronics.
“I find that I generate a lot of interest just taking my stuff to festivals and giving it to my girlfriend. Within five minutes, there’s five people coming up to her and asking, ‘Where did you get that?!’” says Imburgia, who notes that the prototype has only come about recently, so he hasn’t had many opportunities to show them anywhere else. “Desert Rocks was the biggest one—it was actually the first one it was done for,” he says. He also showed them off at Pretty Lights. “We go to some dubstep shows because we figure people would be interested in it. The best exposure is to get it out there in the wild and see what happens with it,” he says.
Imburgia fishes through a bowl of little parts, showing me a few and explaining where they came from. He produces a circuit board he says is from an old stereo he disassembled to get at the parts inside. “I’ve always loved taking things apart,” says Imburgia. “I’ve always been fascinated by electronics. It blows my mind to see where technology is going and what you can do now. Ten years ago, this would have been completely impossible for someone like me to do.” He holds up a boost converter he bought on Ebay to power his new, programmable hula hoop. “I initially designed my own circuit for that, but it wasn’t nearly as efficient, and those things are pretty cheap. Mine heated up a lot, especially if it was drawing a lot of current, which some of these patterns of light do. It’s probably a 60/40 mix between things I design and things I buy,” he says. Key to his process is a microcontroller known as Arduino, which interfaces with electronic hardware, allowing Imburgia’s light hoops to switch through various, scintillating light programs. His primary focus while moving forward is creating more programs while using Arduino as a platform for testing new ones and adjusting them if necessary. He says he has 19 of them so far, but he’s already outpacing other LED hoop manufacturers in terms of quantity and quality.
Though he’s thoroughly interested in his current project, his plans for the future are much bigger. “I want to get into any kind of LED stage design. That could entail stage lighting, stage props … I actually had a friend that asked me to make him a wizard hat where it had stars all over it, and the stars twinkled with LEDs,” says Imburgia. He often searches for reasons to combine his love for music with his love for all things electronic, but, to him, the most important thing is continuing to try new things. “I just love messing with stuff, even if I don’t have any long-term ideas for cool projects. I don’t hesitate to put things together and start playing around with it. I feel like it’s really healthy for my education and my thought process.”
If you want to keep an eye on Ross Imburgia’s flashy light toys, go check out his blog at enlightenslc.blogspot.com.