The new laser light show

Lisner Auditorium was covered in graffiti late last month. The words “pirate,” “hello,” and “thank you” dripped down the walls in green lettering.

But by the next morning, it was all gone.

That’s because instead of spray paint, the GW chapter of Graffiti Research Lab used high-powered laser pointers to draw temporary images on buildings. The fusion of technology and art gives graffiti artists a new venue.

Junior Mike Specter, a founder of the group, describes the innovative urban artistry as “something random we stumbled onto” online.

The original Graffiti Research Lab began in New York City in 2005. It gives graffiti artists open-source technologies to increase “urban communication,” according to its Web site. Tech-based artists Evan Roth and James Powderly of Eyebeam OpenLab, a nonprofit arts and technology center in New York, started the organization as a way to deal with the “ridiculous problem of graffiti in New York,” Specter said.

In a quest to show graffiti in a more positive light, members of G.R.L. NY decorated skyscrapers with laser pointers in a process called “laser tagging.” The advantage of this alternative advertising method is that “without getting arrested or damaging anything, you can still get your message out there,” Specter said.

The group uses codes to create the images they project onto buildings. The codes are open source, which means that anyone can borrow the technology.

While junior Phil Molloy insists that any computer-literate person can handle the codes and software, Specter clarifies that “you have to know how to program.” As a computer science and international affairs major, Specter has that part covered.

But he said being computer savvy is not a requirement of the group. “We need people from diverse backgrounds. We need more ideas,” he said.

After learning how to use the software, Specter and Molloy helped create a D.C. chapter of G.R.L. to embellish the bare buildings of Washington. Several chapters of G.R.L. exist worldwide in Brazil, Tokyo, Vienna and other locations. Most have coordinated with G.R.L. NY to replicate and extend its work. Paying homage to the original New York group through its name, G.R.L. D.C. strives to “mimic what they’ve done and improve on it,” Molloy said.

The organization’s first laser tagging event occurred in late February. From about 6 p.m. to midnight, Specter, Molloy and other group members drew laser images on the H Street side of Lisner Auditorium.

Tagging works by combining a high-powered laser, a camera, a laptop and a projector. First, the laser points a stream of light at a wall. Then, the light is tracked by a camera within the laptop. Finally, the computer analyzes the image and draws the laser trail onto the wall using a long-distance projector.

The laser tagging process operates much like an oversized Smartboard, an interactive whiteboard sometimes found in classrooms that involves a similar connection between a computer and a projector. Whereas Smartboards rely on touch-sensitive technology, tagging uses light-sensitive software.

Instrumental in facilitating the Lisner tagging event, Director of the Student Activities Center Tim Miller offered his office on the fourth floor of the Marvin Center as a vantage point for the laptop and projector.

The late-night laser demonstration attracted a crowd of about 20 people, including campus police.

“UPD found it pretty interesting,” Specter said.

The group let officers and passersby try their hands at laser tagging, proving that anyone can master the art of laser illustration.

The organization currently falls under the financial umbrella of the Engineering Council, which serves as the engineers’ equivalent to the Student Association. G.R.L. plans to apply for funding from the SA next year as a way of becoming more organized and garnering more attention.

The group hopes to organize more tagging events after spring break. They also plan to expand their urban enrichment endeavors to include LED throwies, which transform magnets and batteries into balls of light that stick to metal surfaces.

Using technology in unexpected ways, the group shines an inventive light on citywide canvassing while providing a legal alternative to mainstream graffiti. As Specter put it, “making something big and shiny is always a plus.”

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