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Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Gadget Review: Lightpack: ambient backlight for displays

Review by Nick H.

Ambient lighting for a computer or television display has been a popular idea for some time now. Just a quick Google search turns up a tonne of options, many of which are of the do it yourself variety. Lightpack is a professional system to bring ambient lighting to a variety of displays. It is very quick and easy to configure, but those advantages do come with a few drawbacks as well.

A lot of science and testing has gone into the Lightpack story, with all sorts of data about how quickly an eye's pupil can adjust to bright light and then back to very dark scenes. Lightpack's glowing illumination helps to compensate for those potentially rapid changes in contrast. Another study was on the ability of an eye to focus in on an entire screen. Because our eyes tend to hone in on a single point and then lose focus as the distance outward is increased, Lightpack claims that the ambient light created around the edges of the monitor more or less trick our eyes into believing that we are watching a larger viewing surface than we are.

Both claims seem legitimate, even if they are trying to solve problems that some people may not have (or realise that they have). I have a fairly large television screen in both my living room and den, and never really felt the need to trick my eyes into thinking they were larger, nor am I someone who has ever really been prone to headaches and eye fatigue (despite countless hours working at my computer or playing video games).

That being said, I found the actual experience to be quite a pleasant one. Initially it was a little distracting, as I had a tendency to move my eyes towards the edges of the screen and see how accurately the Lightpack was holding up. This is through no fault of the device itself - I was simply curious. The effect is notably less exciting depending on your environment. I have a two monitor computer station with my primary monitor also cloned to a 42" 3D LG television. I decided to set this up on the television, because I tend to use my smaller monitors for more basic tasks like surfing the web or checking my email. Playing video games or watching movies? Then I turn off the two smaller monitors and output to the television.

When browsing a website or working within a program, the effect tends to be less interesting. White or grey edges and scrollbars along the top, right and possibly bottom or left sides means that all the lights display are those same shades of grey. Because the environment fails to be dynamic, the lights do not really get a chance to shine.

Then my son and I started to really put the system through its paces. We started with a variety of YouTube videos. Again, if the video was somewhat static (he loves Game Grumps, but the videos tend to be boxed by relatively static colours, which meant the ambient lighting also matched and as a result was static), then there wasn't much of an impact. Others when pushed to full screen actually were quite well represented by the ambient lighting. The real test for us came with video games. Again, we had to make sure we were pushing them to full screen instead of windowed mode, but dark games like Dark Souls II were generally nice and dark around the edges, with a nice touch of ghostly ambiance trickling in as I walked toward a corridor or additional sense of light. By contrast, a brightly coloured game like Shovel Knight had a lot of black along the top corners and bright greens or blues near the bottom ledge and corners, doing an effective job of emulating the flow of colour coming out of the television.

The variety in light that can be outputted by the various nodes is actually quite impressive. There are some other settings and modes that can be turned on as well through the software interface. While technically the unit requires no drivers, it does require software to be installed on the machine. The software is easy enough to use, allowing you to adjust a variety of settings ranging from overall brightness, to modes (such as when you are not watching television - you can actually set it to be a standard colour or to oscillate between a rotating list of rainbow hues) and more.

This does bring us to one of the disappointments to the system. All of what I am about to say is clearly documented on the website, but it could be a point of confusion were someone to skip said materials. The Lightpack requires an operating system. Just running the USB cable into a port on your television or gaming console does not do the trick - it will not be able to pull any usable data. The hardware relies on the Prismatik software, which can have some issues on Windows 8 according to the documentation (though it works just fine on my machine). The capture also may not work for games using OpenGL as its main renderer or games relying on DX11. The team  has openly committed to resolving the OpenGL issue soon.

The biggest bummer from my standpoint is that this means the Lightpack is not going to be producing the same effect for the gaming consoles I have hooked up to this particular television (PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360 and Wii). This is not an HD pass-through or anything like that. Here the Prismatik software is actually capturing the screen's contents to relay it to the lights. I understand the challenges associated with this, but I just wanted to make sure everyone that considers purchasing this realises that it does not support gaming consoles.

When I first pulled the Lightpack out of the box, I saw a whole lot of cables and found myself wondering just how much of a challenge this was going to be. Truth of the matter was, the diagram and simple instructions were more than enough, and I had this hooked up to the back of my television in less than ten minutes. Essentially there is a single Lightpack box that adheres to the back of the set, and then has ten wired LED modules that you fan out across the back edges of the set. There are three different pattern variations you can choose from (I went with the first one listed, Andromeda) and then installed the software off of their site and everything fired right up.

Each LED has its own adhesive strip, and spare ones were packed with the unit as well. There are some ties for cable management, an AC adaptor that has a handful of different plugs to help get power to the unit in a variety of regions. Once the LEDs are in place, it is just a matter of running hooking the USB adaptor to your computer and running the power adaptor to your nearest outlet. Despite all of those cables, the set-up process proved to be a breeze. It is recommended that the back of the television is at least five inches from the wall, which makes sense and gives the light more room to bloom outward and show off its effect. I tried it at a variety of ranges, and would not want to set it much more than eight to ten inches from the wall either, for fear of too much light escaping the back of the set or the colours perhaps diluting slightly. Still, that is a pretty reasonable range for people who have a television or monitor against or right next to a wall.

All in all, the Lightpack is a very cool piece of tech that does precisely what it says it will. There are some limitations in place, and a fair number of documented, reported issues that some users have apparently encountered, but I am not among them and my own experience has been spot-on. The only real disappointment for me was that I could not leverage this for my consoles as well. As a result, the Lightpack will probably only get used during movies or games played off of my PC, which is still plenty, but left me wanting just a little more.

- Nick H.
US Editor

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Gadget Review: Lightpack: ambient backlight for displays
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