What started as a high school dream became a reality when Aidan Balakrishnan ’26 began his studies at Southwestern. He had long envisioned merging his interests in theater, engineering, and computer science to create an automated spotlight tracker for stage performances. With assistance from Associate Professor of Computer Science Jacob Schrum and Professor of Theatre John Ore, Balakrishnan successfully developed the necessary software to transform his imaginative concept into a functional creation.

This endeavor began in his sophomore year of high school when Balakrishnan’s passion for theater and computer science collided with the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. He wanted to navigate the restrictions that hindered traditional theater productions. He attempted to revitalize a pivotal theatrical component–the spotlight– by eliminating physical contact and potential health risks while preserving the magic of theater. To create the software for his project, Balakrishnan used a code library, OpenCV, and wrote his own. This gave him the ability to interface with cameras and harness their data. He devised a mechanism to transmit commands to external lighting equipment by configuring the camera’s data into his computer.

Balakrishnan started writing the code in August of his senior year in 2021. His dedication marked his journey, even without a usable theater space to conduct real-world testing. When he arrived at Southwestern, he received guidance from Schrum and Ore on code optimization and real-life theatrical application, respectively. However, the bulk of the code was self-authored. He also experimented with several types of cameras, ensuring that the system should be adaptable to any camera.

“I’m enthusiastic about contacting professors to discuss possibly conducting trials in our theater. Notably, I’ve successfully run the system on both my laptop and a smaller but remarkably powerful Raspberry Pi,” Balakrishnan explained. “As a result, I believe the program I’ve developed isn’t overly resource-intensive. It leans toward a minimalistic approach.”

A key objective for this project was to make it accessible to users with diverse technological backgrounds. Although Balakrishnan understood the intricate internal mechanics, he intended to design the tracker so that even non-computer scientists could comprehend the program’s functionality. While there may be a few components that might not be immediately understandable for someone less tech-savvy, he aimed to ensure that the general flow of the program, its operations, and data sources could be understood.

“This inclusivity goal emerged from my high school origins for the project,” Balakrishnan said. “I envisioned this system being useful not only in professional theaters but also in middle and high school settings. Such institutions often lack the resources to hire dedicated spotlight operators, making this program a valuable asset. The target audience is students seeking to learn and gain practical skills.”

Balakrishnan says he understands the concerns about technology replacing jobs, particularly in the theater field. However, his perspective revolves around technology enabling individuals to redirect their efforts toward more engaging and innovative roles. Just as theaters transitioned from manual lighting controls to centralized systems, he envisions a similar transformation with this project.

Though his spotlight tracker has yet to be used in a production environment, the response during its presentation at the Research and Creative Works Symposium last spring was promising. Theater professors approached Balakrishnan, expressing interest in incorporating the system into upcoming productions. While the timing was too close to the end of the academic year for immediate use in ongoing shows, he anticipates implementing it in a play or musical this year.

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