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Byline: P.J. Huffstutter Daily News Staff Writer

The room is dark when John Laraio steps behind his ``drum'' set - a set with no drum sticks, no bass pedals and no cymbals.

In fact, there are no drums at all. There are only a dozen small black boxes perched atop metal stands - tiny boxes each with a single, flickering red light.

Laraio simply brushes his fingers in front of one box, and suddenly the room is warmed with the sounds of an orchestra. Colored lights paint the bare walls with blue and purple hues, which move and dance in time with the music.

His hands and fingers whip through the air, his feet tap pedals that no one can see. And though Laraio touches nothing, he is actually manipulating infrared light to play his music.

``These beams of light are just as viable as the string on a guitar or the skin on a drum,'' said Laraio, a Santa Monica-based musician. ``It's the natural progression in the evolution of musical instruments.''

The boxes Laraio uses are called Dimension Beams. Developed by the Santa Monica company Interactive Light and released in January, the Dimension Beam emits an egg-shape beam of infrared light, invisible to the naked eye. The beam, which can range from a few inches to 9 feet by 3 feet in size, senses the movement and position of any object that enters it.

The technology behind the Dimension Beam evolved from efforts to use light to track motion, said Amir Rubin, the company's chief executive officer.

``We were working with dancers at the time and trying to figure out how to let the dancers create music while they performed,'' Rubin said. ``Instead of dancers having to dance to the music, they could be the ones to create the sounds and the lights and the sets.''

The underlying concept of the Dimension Beam is simple: Plug it into something that makes a sound. It can be an analog source (a guitar) or a digital one (a sampler, a synthesizer, a personal computer).

Then, the beam acts more like a dimmer than an on-off switch. There are 1,000 layers within the cone of light; each layer is assigned a different tone or inflection.

Break the beam with a flat palm and generate one sound. Break it with the edge of a hand and trigger another. Wave a hand back and forth, and create a drum roll. Or make a tiger growl. Or cause the wind to shriek.

Performers can use the beams to control some aspect of sound - say, reverb depth or the wah-wah on a guitar - through their on-stage movements. With a single step, dancers can change a light pattern, trigger a videodisc player or create music. Singers can move their bodies within the beam and change the reverberations in the voice. And guitar players can swing the neck of their instrument through the beam to change the pitch, volume or effect of a note.

``I know this sounds sort of strange, but you learn to feel the light where the light is,'' Laraio said. ``It's like being a good mime. When Marcel Marceau performed, you could tell that he could actually `feel' the walls when he was inside a box, or the glass on a window he was looking through.''

The music industry already has tapped into the technology. U2 and Brian Eno used the Dimension Beam on the their ``Passengers'' album. Peter Gabriel has installed three beams at his Real World Studios in England. And Kitaro, Stevie Wonder and Ozric Tentacles have used the small black boxes while performing.

``I was excited to discover the beam and hear the range of sounds it produced,'' Gabriel said in a statement. ``I think there is some magic in this instrument.''

That ``magic'' was developed by Vincent De Franco, a product manager for Interactive Light. Several years ago, De Franco left his graduate studies in electrical engineering at University of California, Los Angeles, to work as a studio producer at the Record Plant in Hollywood.

``I had a degree in physics, but I always loved playing guitar,'' De Franco said. ``It was a lot more fun.''

While in the studio, De Franco met some staffers from Interactive Light and learned about their work with the beams.

`I loved the idea of building a musical force field,'' De Franco said. ``Musicians can do so many things, but they're limited to what they can touch. For a guitarist, I saw the beam could take the place of a wah-wah foot pedal.''

Though nearly all musical instruments demand physical contact, there have been a few exceptions. One of the oldest and most notable is the theremin, an instrument developed by a Russian scientist and first used publicly in 1920. Based on manipulating electronic fields, people played it by waving their hands in the air near two metal antennae. Concerts for the theremin and an orchestra were performed in New York's Carnegie Hall, and the film industry used the instrument to create spooky music for horror movies.

More recently, scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media Lab developed the Sensor Chair. Used by magicians Penn and Teller, it allows performers to choose one of 400 percussion sounds by touching a specific point in space.

``The main difference, beside the technology, is you can't hook the theremin up to anything,'' De Franco said. ``You can't do this.''

De Franco leans over and plugs a Dimension Beam into a personal computer. Picking up a conductor's wand, he sweeps the tip back and forth through the beam. With each pass, a note is played. And then another. And another, until the audience of curious onlookers realizes De Franco is playing a familiar classical piece - Beethoven's Fifth.

Though developed for artists, Interactive Light's product also has been used as an interface by such game companies as Sega, as well as for corporate safety and security sensors.

``Companies are also looking at it for sales purposes,'' said Stuart Wallock, Interactive Light's director of marketing. ``You step to the counter, a computer says `Hello.' You turn away, the computer says `Good-bye.'

``The artists understand the potential of this technology. It's only a matter of time until other industries take advantage of it too.''

Who: Interactive Light, 1202 Olympic Blvd., Santa Monica.

What: Dimension Beam, an infrared light beam that senses movement, motion and position of an object.

How much: Retails for $499 for the digital model, $525 with an analog wah circuit built into it.

More information: (310) 581-8411.



Photo: (color) Musician John Laraio plays a Dimension Beamby waving his hands over an invisible infrared beam.

Gus Ruelas/Daily News
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Copyright 1996, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:Business
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Aug 26, 1996
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