Dan Barker is running a simulation of what a potential fireworks show outside of the Sydney Opera House might look like on a strictly hypothetical New Year's Eve. The point of the exercise isn’t to show off the painting, but the brush— software that can synchronize music and the visual bombast of a firework into one coherent spectacle.
When Barker helped to develop the technology more than two decades ago, he and his team wanted to get the placement down to within a tenth of a second. Today that’s considered a long lunch.
The simulation is optional, like jogging home after running a marathon. Barker has designed enough pyrotechnic displays that the real fireworks are happening inside his head.
“A really well done choreographed display is just something that makes you go, ‘Wow,’” Barker said.
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He’s speaking less than a week before the Fourth of July, a busy — but not the busiest — time of the year for FireOne, the business located off of Benner Pike in State College that Barker runs with his wife, Kay. Barker estimates that between 15,000 to 20,000 of the 65,000 shows they’re involved with each year dabble in red, white and blue.
New Year's Eve involves significantly more flags, not to mention citizens around the globe who look up at the night sky expecting to see something incredible. The lights that bookend another year in Sydney, Australia, span the harbor and are regularly viewed by upward of a million people.
FireOne has a hand in that show, plus the last few Super Bowls and select events at Walt Disney World.
“I always tell people it’s kind of like what you want to do when you’re a little kid only you’re not a little kid anymore and you get to do it,” Barker said.
The company specializes in designing integrated digital firing systems, or in layman’s terms, things that make fireworks go “boom.” It’s more complicated than it sounds —there’s striking a few keys and then there’s actually playing a song — but it’s more complicated than it looks, too, which is saying something because from the vantage point of the company’s basement workshop, the whole thing looks pretty stinking complicated.
There are circuit boards stacked nearby on a table that will eventually be packaged into some black plastic housing with a control pad. Those sync to some firing modules (sometimes called “field modules” because that’s typically where you’ll find them come show time) that have been designed to withstand any temperature that falls between -100 and 240 degrees. The clients in Siberia want their equipment to work at least as well as it does for the customers in Dubai.
And then there’s State College and Central PA 4thFest, which won’t be melting plastic any time soon but perhaps did more to further the cause of FireOne than any other far-flung location around the globe. The Barkers oversaw the celebration for years (before it was named 4thFest) and were looking for ways to evolve the fireworks show into a destination event.
“We said, ‘Gee, how can we make State College a place that’s fun to be on the Fourth of July?'” Barker said.
For help, he turned to his fellow graduates from Penn State’s engineering program. Barker wanted to create an elaborate aerial tableau set to music, vistas that would require precision timing and attention to detail. Together the group was able to develop soft/hardware needed to make it happen.
Word spread and other fireworks shows began seeking out their expertise. Barker had accidentally started a pyrotechnics company.
Karl Libhart, executive director of 4thFest, said that the event continues to use the systems developed by FireOne and that Barker was influential in training the event’s licensed pyrotechnicians.
“We are the only all-volunteer choreographed fireworks display that we know of in the country, due in large to Dan,” Libhart said.
Up next is a project for Disney World that Barker can’t say too much about yet. There’s also something called a “software adjustable radio system” that FireOne is getting ready to take into the manufacturing process, which will mean something to you if you’ve ever run afoul of wireless frequency laws abroad.
Otherwise the simplest explanation is that it will make the company’s products easier to use. Barker has been trying to do that since his days managing a fireworks show in Centre County and it seems to have worked out.
“We tried to make it easier and more efficient and expedient every year,” Barker said.