We caught up with the three minds behind the WISP aerial light writing project to find out more about their nighttime drone flying expeditions in parks across Toronto and the stunning photos they produce as a result. We chatted with Patrick Dinnen (PD), Brent Marshall (BM), and Dré Labre (DL) to find out more about how WISP started and what they plan to do next.

Tell us a bit about your background, and how you grew into the maker/tinkerer/hacker that you are today.

PD: I fell into the maker world pretty much by accident. I was part of a loose collective or art/tech types called Media Lab Toronto back in 2007 or so. We were exploring ideas around public/interactive/physical stuff. Some of the experiments we did got attention from people who wanted to pay us money to do it with their brand name attached. From there I gradually shifted from doing this stuff for fun to making my living at it. I’m not a salesman, so I find that building the thing I think would be cool is the way to get other people interested.

BM: I was an avid subscriber of Art Byte magazine back in the 90’s. They would frequently feature projects that would blow my mind. I knew what I wanted to do back then, just didn’t know how to get there, so I went in to the web world till I got bored of it. During that time I taught myself electronics and fell in love with it. At that point I figured it would be a good time to start building the things I’ve always wanted to build.

DL: When I was a kid, I took apart all my toys to figure out how they worked. Well, I still do that that. Be it music, technology, design, photography, whatever. I’m compelled to study the parts. That and my dad – a mechanic by trade – is a resourceful problem solver and builder. I learned a bunch by helping him out on projects over the years.

What is WISP and how did it get started?


DL: WISP stands for Weird Illuminated Sky Paintings. We use a quadcopter to create images using arduino-controlled lights all being captured by a camera taking a long exposure. When Brent sent me Patrick’s initial apartment tests, I asked to be involved. The next week we were flying in Grange Park.

PD: I’ve been fascinated by light writing as a technique for ages plus I’d been following what was going on with quadcopters as they became cheaper and more accessible. At some point I started wondering how the two could be combined.

BM: I got involved when Patrick approached me and said he had this light writing idea. I dismissed it because I felt that people wanted immediate gratification with their interactions. I was wrong. Patrick sent over a photo he managed to capture in the park one night. There was movement, magic, and a whole lot of potential in the shot. Every time you finish taking a long exposure shot there’s a moment of anticipation before you see what you’ve got. From an interactive perspective, anticipation is an emotion we don’t explore enough. I loved it and jumped on board.

What has been one of the biggest surprises since you started?

PD: How few people take any notice when you fly an odd noisy little machine covered in flashing lights in Toronto parks at night.

BM: The legs this project has. People love the images that are coming out of the project. We’ve got a ton of ideas in the hopper and now that the winter is over we can’t wait to get back out flying.

DL: I’m surprised by how surprised I am every time I see a new image. I’m always amazed by the fluidity and character of light painting. It’s like an elaborate history of a microscopic aeon.

What has been some of the biggest lessons learned throughout the WISP project process?

PD: Not a new lesson, but one I need to constantly re-learn: that thinking is no substitute for building. You can get a sense of how a project might work out by thinking it through, discussing and researching. At a certain point though you really can’t beat the sense of what works and what doesn’t that you get from prototyping.

BM: Finishing is hard. Not that there is a finish line in this project, but as you’re developing one idea you constantly get another one. It’s a constant state of discovery. “What if I add these LEDs to my kite?!” or “How will it look if the lights fade as they rotate instead of blink?” Sometimes you have to put things on the back burner just so you can get something out the door.

DL: There’s no better way to learn than doing. I fiddled with light rigging designs on screen for hours, but it wasn’t until we laser cut the frame that I immediately knew what the next improvement needed to be.

What will we see from you in 2014? (any fun new projects we should look out for?)

PD: I’ve been fortunate in getting a few projects done so far in 2014 – I hope to expand on these over the next while. I completely rebuilt the hardware for Analog Defender, a ridiculously complicated physical control console for playing Space Invaders that I co-created with Alexander Martin (aka Droqen). I also built a window mounted drawing machine called Auto Squiggler. I have a lot of ideas around making the drawing process (which is fun to watch) into more of a live performance thing.

BM: I’ve been educating myself on the intricacies of product development, fabrication, and design. Its looking like this summer will be a busy one for me with a bunch of projects being released.

DL: I’m a partner in an ad agency that built a smart dog collar to address heat exhaustion from dogs being left in cars. We also created a beer fridge that only opens with a Canadian passport. Beyond work stuff, this year I’m continuing to make music with The Darned, experimenting with solar energy and building a delta robot 3D printer … not to mention getting ready for the next season of WISP.

Where can people find you and how can they get involved? 

PD: for the WISP project we’ve been (occasionally) updating our Game of Drones site. We’re always interested in talking to people about ideas they have for ways the project could evolve or be put to good use. We’re all findable by email or on Twitter (@pdinnen@drelabre & @eightlines).

Do you have any advice for someone who is just starting out in the maker world?

PD: Find a community of people who are doing things you like with an attitude that makes sense to you and go from there. I saw Ben Fry at FITC in 2007, he talked about exciting stuff that people were doing with the Processing programming language. I’ve been using Processing ever since. It’s a good way to get things done, but so are dozens of other languages. The really valuable thing for me is that Processing is used by people doing the kind of stuff I want to do and they’re generally a group very open to sharing ideas and advice.

BM: Seek out ideas people say are impossible. They’re the most fun to work on.

DL: If you build it, show it off. Take pictures of the process. Throw it on tumblr. Open source it. Share it with the world.

How would you describe the maker community in Toronto?

PD: Burgeoning. I think there has been a small but strong contingent of people who identify as makers here for a long time. Now though I’m seeing a greater variety of people becoming interested in making, people with all kinds of mindsets and backgrounds and that’s very exciting.

BM: Massive. There’s a ton of small splinter groups out there. I’m constantly at meeting new people. And despite just meeting people, people love to share their ideas, which is really heartening.

DL: The Toronto maker community is very eager and inclusive. Everyone I meet is just so friendly and talented. This city is bound to be a centre of DIY excellence.

Find out more about the WISP project in Brent and Dré’s PechaKucha talk.