Richard Hackett photo that went around the world
Reporting by Melanie Sidwell, Longmont Times-Call
Alek does plan to continue the hoax ... Santa is real! ;-)On Christmas Eve 2004, my wife and I helped our 6 and 3-year old boys put out milk and gluten-free cookies (they have Celiac Disease) and composed a note for Santa ... and in the morning, our chimney was open, the milk and cookies were gone, and Santa had written a reply ... plus left each kid 7 presents. Wellll ... as we all know, "Santa" is a hoax, but we assure our kids he is real anyway because Santa is fun.
Meanwhile, due to a media frenzy, bazillions of Internet sufers from around the world (literally!) were having fun turning the 17,000 christmas lights on and off on my "house"and watching it on a "live webcam." Little did they know that two days before Christmas, I had sent The Wall Street Journal an Email saying that while my "Internet controlled Christmas lights webcam" was pretty cool, there was another side to the story that I wanted to talk to them about. So as my kids opened presents from "Santa" that morning, I knew that at least one hoax was about to be revealed. I do plan to continue the "Santa" hoax for at least another year with my older son, and hopefully a couple of years with the younger son, but the time had come to disclose that people weren't really turning the lights on & off on my house. It was all a simulation - the only thing changing was the picture on their computer screens - the light were real, but (contrary to countless media reports) there was no webcam and the lights did not actually blink.
This is the definitive writeup of the Great Christmas Lights Hoax of 2004 from the prankster himself - hope you enjoy the saga! ;-)
People have asked how much media attention this got - it truly went around the world - twice! In addition to gobs of online coverage, there was tons of print, radio, and TV coverage that kept going until Christmas - heck, it hit all seven continents. But this may have been exceeded by the media coverage after I revealed the hoax where it was one of the most clicked-thru stories on sites such as cnn.com and wsj.com ... plus people heard about it as far away/remote as a ship cruising off the Galaoagos Islands 600 miles from Ecuador. Certainly resulted in a blast-from-the-past as numerous acquaintances from years past sent me notes - farthest one back was a childhood friend from the early 70's who I had not heard from since.
While 90-95% of Emails I got were very positive, there were a handful of nasty-grams that ravaged me over two items inaccurately reported - first, as the Wall Street Journal article clearly states, I approached them to break the hoax (not the other way around) and second, Paul Mclellan issued his own press release the very next morning where he said "my words were misconstrued to mean something entirely different" when the AP quoted him as saying I was "unethical" and he continues on to say "I sincerely appreciate his intent of spreading Christmas cheer!" So if you want to be one of the minority of folks who send me nasty-grams, please be upset at me for something besides those two inaccurately reported items. You can either scroll down through this entire document or use one of the shortcuts below:
First, there was never any malicious intent here - I've had thousands of holiday lights since 2000 that have been a huge hit with the tonsa neighborhood kids. While I had posted pictures of those lights on my web site, the webcam started out as a "technology puzzle" to see if I could do it - geeks will understand the desire/coolness of working on that. And I figured I could provide some holiday cheer to folks - as quoted by TIME. Each year, it got bigger and bigger ... and then in 2004, it went exponential, as a local story went out on the National AP wire and was published in lots of US papers and then internationally. You haven't lived until you type your (unique) last name into Google News and see hundreds of results! ;-) I then got deluged with dozens of radio interviews, a number of TV spots (including a helicopter ride from Denver ABC-7 who asked me to report "live" on my blinking christmas lights), millions of hits on my web site, and over a thousand Emails - I lost track!
So while I debated keeping it "secret" and continuing to provide holiday cheer to people around the world, it has gotten too big and started to become a distraction to my family life. Also, while I've enjoyed my 15 minutes of fame, I'm ready to return back to "boring/normal" life. So while I think I could pull it off another year, I'm "coming out" just after Christmas/2004 with the assistance of the best newspaper in the world - The Wall Street Journal - as Charles Forelle writes "High-Tech Holiday Light Display Draws Everyone But the Skeptics."
I apologize to those people who may be angry with me, but hopefully most will see the humor in the whole situation ... and realize that my attempt to bring joy and a smile to people's faces was successful. BTW, I truly succeeded there - read some of the heart-warming notes people sent me beforehand ... and I also provided a lot of post-holiday laugher now that I've gone public with the hoax.
And a special message to the media editors, producers, and managers who might be angry at their employees who "ran" the spoof story - cut 'em some slack! Bazillions of people believed in the lights and it spread some good holiday cheer ... plus it's Christmas ... so I hope absolutely no action it taken against any of these people. If anything, take it as a lesson learned to do a better job in the future - there are many not-so-nice people that would attempt to use the media for malicious things. And if you still feel compelled to vent some anger, pls send your nasty-gram to me rather than take it out on your employee.
Some other "tricks" to complete the illusion is that you will occasionally a car drive be - but since the bottom of the "base" image is dark, it's simply a matter of taking one of a dozen "real" pictures of car's driving by (all you see is a streak of lights) and pasting that on the image; darkness is your friend! And people sometimes "walk by" looking at the lights; these are actually computer generated stick figures, with varying heights and arm/leg angles (I used to "add" a real picture of myself in front of the lights, but it's a pain to get this exactly right). There is even an occasional "airplane" that shows up flying overhead - again, this is computer generated, as-is the stars across the night sky (and these actually "move" as the night progresses). Note that the number of stars visible depends on how cloudy it is that night, (weather doesn't change too fast, so I just downloaded it every half hour from local sources), but since airplanes fly low (airport is nearby), I show those even if it is socked in! And while clouds (and the moon) would be visible in real life, those are very difficult to model in a convincing way, so I just don't show 'em!
I also had fun making the garage door go up - this was accomplished by shooting 4 more pictures (garage up and garage down but interior lights on (times two for nearby overhead zone 4 lights on and off) and then overlaying a garage cut-out onto the base image. While the cars/people/airplanes/stars were "full-auto", the garage controls were manual and I enjoyed doing this a few times a night; heck, people even sent me Email letting me know my garage was open! ;-)
I should mention that the twelve "base" images were re-shot several times depending if there was heavy, medium, light, or no snow! ;-) And oh yeah, I got a chuckle out of putting a clock up in the window and having the hands of the clock display the right time (it actually started out 3 minutes slow, but then gained a minute a day, until it was 4 minutes fast, and then reset itself) - again, all computer trickery!
Some people may recall that for Halloween/2004, there was a "light board" showing Bush, Kerry, or THE HULK ... and along with the rest of the lights, surfers could turn those on/off and "cast a vote" ... that light board never existed - I used Photoshop to add the appropriate letters (hacked up to look semi-realistic) to the base images for 'ya! BTW, someone out-geeked me as they wrote a "Kerry-Bot" that did repeated hits on my webcam voting for Kerry - I was confused how he got 500+ "votes" from the same IP address ... needless to say, those votes were chucked.
People ask "but what about all those christmas pictures such as kids running around in your yard, you driving up and into your garage,etc." ... welllll ... those are all "real" ... in that they are actual pictures shot in the same way as outlined above ... and then "post-processed" through the webcam image generator so as to look like they came from the webcam!
One final processing step was to "dirty up" the picture, since the Canon 10D produces very low-noise images, which would be quite a stretch for webcams to do. I tried various things, but finally settled on just adding a couple of hundred random placed pixels in the final 640x480 image. Note that these couldn't just be black, since it would look funny on a bright object, so I had to check the RGB values of the random pixel, and then tweak accordingly. The final image still had outstanding image quality compared to consumer webcam technology, but wasn't that far out to be unbelievable.
I've already mentioned Photoshop, but for the techies out there, the image generator used the Larry Stein's GD.pm module which is based on Tom Boutelll's GD library - both awesome freeware tools - thanx guys! For Christmas/2004, I added Stefano Bettelli's Image::MetaData:JPEG which allowed me to embed metadata in the JPEG EXIF header - so for those folks that looked at this (always a good thing to do), I left something for them. The poster of the Christmas/2004 Slashdot story noticed this ... and at the bottom of the thread, one comment even listed it all - among other things, I put a reference to a company called Indigo Vision - heck, I figured that a company that says on their main page that they were "used as the IP video backbone for the entire security system for the Athens 2004 Olympics" probably makes good webcams, so it was more believable if I got it from them. Question D-6 in my FAQ says I have a friend in the digital imaging business who allows me to "test" stuff ... so that was the explanation for why the quality was so good.
BTW, here are some pictures of the actual ... uhhh ... webcam and much more can be said ... but you get the idea!
One challenge would be the whole system integration problem - where do you put the webcam, sending control data to it, sending the image data back to the web server (and therefore the web surfer), etc. Real world analog stuff is much less reliable than digital, so don't underestimate the challange of having something like this work reliably - for example, you need to make sure that snow/rain doesn't get on your lens or line-of-sight ... and there were 90MPH winds in Colorado a week before Christmas - those might send it flying!
Another challenge would be if you did streaming video (versus one frame/second maximum update rate as I did here), you'd need some pretty serious bandwidth to handle the influx of surfers - remember I got Slashdotted 4 times (and then a 5th when the hoax came out) - I had over 10,000 inbounds from them in an hour - that's a LOT of of people using your site/webcam at the same time. In fact, the USA Today guys mentioned that even their web site slows down a bit when Slashdot pay 'em a visit.
Yet another real-world issue would be do you really want your 17,000 Christmas lights flashing continuousely in the real world? Heck, even if you still throttled at one/second, that's a lotta flashing, not only for you, but also for your neighbors who might consider it cute at first, but then annoying. Related to that is visitors wanting to see your display - how would you feel if you had a traffic jam every time you came home? There have been a number of news articles about disputes and lawsuits over "excessive" christmas lights displays.
I suspect bulb mortality will increase a bit with flashing lights - anyone who does LOTS of lights know that you have to keep in eye for burned out stuff and this get tiring after a while. People have asked what about your circuit breakers, but I doubt this would be too much of an issue, but I'm not sure how well X10 appliance modules would handle being toggled thousands of times an hour, although other technology exists to handle this and even provide faster update rates. Regardless, don't underestimate the real-world ... 2005 Update: When I did it for real, there were no noticeable issues with the circuit breakers, but several X10 SuperSockets died. Given that these are typically designed to turn lights on and dusk and off at dawn, I probably exceeded their rated duty cycle by just a wheeee bit! ;-)
Finally, for those that have actually used webcam's (rather than watch the totally bogus "image improvement" on TV shows where they identify people reflected in someone's sunglasses), they don't come close to the speed of pan/zoom and especially the image quality I was demonstrating. To be able to swivel 30° left/right and 20° up/down plus zoom 1-5x within a second is quite a challenge with current technology - I actually added some sleep statements to the code to slow this down to make it more realistic. While the final image displayed was 640x480 (not shabby actually), it allowed up to 5x zoom. The original image was a 6 mega-pixel 1/4 second exposure from a Canon 10D DSLR that is 3,072 by 2,048 - that's a pretty decent camera with excellent image quality - I borrowed it from a friend. Due to some geometry stuff that I won't bore you with, it wasn't a true 5x "optical" zoom, but needless to say, if you zoomed in, you got much higher image quality than you can get with off-the-shelf webcams these days.
Oh yeah, I should mention that the weather data was real - pulled every half hour from a local weather web site. However, the garage sensor, ground-motion-cam, road-cam, sky-motion-cam (debated having it tell you exactly where the airplane was, but that would have been over the top), sky sensor, and house amperage/voltage were all fake ... although again, they could be done ... but those also would be a bit of system integration work to get them to reliably work in the real-world.
I've read and gotten Emails from a number of folks who have said "great idea Alek, I'm going to do this next year" (heck, even when my stuff was first posted to Slashdot back in 2002, some folks commented they planned to do something similar) ... yet, to the best of my knowledge, there was nothing "out there" by xmas/2004 that approached the technical ability, image quality, and scalability of what I demonstrated, and I'm sure if there had been, I would have heard about it. But technology continues to advance and (now that there may be more motivation to do so), perhaps for Christmas/2005, we'll see a number of Christmas Displays that allow folks from around the world to turn those lights on and off - I'm sure it will get a lot of publicity if done well. And heck, maybe I will put a REAL webcam out there too - think anyone will believe it?!? ;-)
I'm not sure how much the other neighbors really knew. Word got around that I was up in the Channel-7 helicopter ... plus it was just North of the neighborhood for about 40 minutes and quite visible/audible. And earlier in the month during our annual neighborhood lighting festival, I had used the X10 remote to toggle the lights as people went by ... so I actually believe some people "thought" it really was controllable via the Internet ... even though they had the best vantage point to see that the lights rarely changed ... but they may have just been chuckling behind my back; who knows. I have a bit of a "rep" in the neighborhood for doing zany things for the kids - for example, I've had the Hulk lead the neighborhood parade in 2003 and 2004 ... plus the Hulk ends up in the pool made the local paper. And rest assured my Halloween decorations are very popular in the neighborhood - I even use the X10 remote to trigger "Hulk SMASH" audio as the kids come up to trick-or-treat ... and after they jump back, I ask the smallest one to look that Big Green Guy in the face and tell him to be quiet ... and the Hulk shuts up when the scared kid says so ... and then you oughta see that little kids face light up with a big smile!
The TV station with the copter didn't have anyone on the ground, so this was an easy one. There were several other live TV interviews at the house the evening before, but I had anticipated this. My website said that the "webcam bearings broke and I am waiting for a part from Fed Ex" - so I apologized for the lights not changing, but did show 'em what it looked like with the remote ... and one station even comments "Alek's webcam is down tonight, but he hopes to have it back up tomorrow" ... and "fortunately" Fed Ex delivered the replacement webcam bearings the next day in time for the helicopter ride. The Morning Show TV interview on the front lawn was easy because I just said they won't be flashing ... although since the web traffic never stops on Komar.Org, I was kinda surprised they didn't ask me to "enable" it. I never was really asked any "hard" questions, and once I started talking X10/Ethernet/Wireless/etc. their eyes would glaze over. None asked to see the webcam ... and at the time, there was actually NOTHING in the "tree" across the street - I subsequently tossed a goofball contraption with lotsa duct tape up there, with extension cord going into a neighbors garage ... and of course, not being plugged in.
So you can see this was kinda spinning out of control - it was just a media feeding frenzy (some of these guys were not that polite) at my house. So I was wondering if I should "come out" since the lights at the "real house" never changed, even though they blinked on & off like crazy on the Internet ... and I was getting quite a few people driving by to look at 'em. Things were starting to slow down just before Christmas and I doubt it would have been "found out" before the 31st when I take it all down ... but I felt I should come clean. I'm sure there will be some people "upset" about this hoax - and since darn near every local press, radio, and TV station were duped, I don't expect them to send me anything for Christmas! ;-)
Finally, many people have said that they have found my comments/corrections on the media coverage of the hoax quite facinating to read and even some that have initially expressed their displeasure have subsequently written back to say now they are upset at the media for poor reporting on the hoax itself.
Paul McLellan was quoted in the evening AP press release as saying I was
"unethical", yet, but the next morning, he ended up
own rebuttal press release which says:
It seems as though my words were misconstrued to mean something entirely different than what I was actually saying. I have absolutely no hard feelings at all against Alek. I sincerely appreciate his intent of spreading Christmas cheer! I have since been in discussion with Alek and we have mutually come to the conclusion that this whole thing has been blown out of proportion."
-Paul McLellan (General Manager) ServiceLighting.com"
I won't wait (hah!) for an apology from all those folks who "ravaged" me based on the inaccurate press articles (nor do I blame Paul), but yet another example of where people formed the wrong impressions from press articles ... read more details/info on my media commentary page and once you've heard my point of view, then form your own opinion.
And oh yeah, Google DID respond to my Email inquiry shortly after Paul issued his press release, and their response (case #18704719) was: "Hello Alek, Thank you for your email. We appreciate your concern to remain compliant with our program policies. I have reviewed the page in question and I can confirm that inclusion of the paragraph about Google AdSense is not in violation of our program guidelines and Terms and Conditions. We very much appreciate your continued compliance with our policies. Please feel free to reply to this email if you have additional questions or concerns. Sincerely, Mike The Google AdSense Team" - thanx guys - and I asked 'em for a quote from Sergey! ;-)
Some people (including one New York Times Reporter who frown'd upon the whole hoax - ironically he is an amateur magician) said I did this for the money. If I did, then (despite two waves of international attention that brought more traffic to my site that I could ever dream of) I sure hope I don't quit my day job because this wasn't a big money-maker for me ... but I was pretty darn successful in providing a lot of christmas cheer to folks beforehand, and a good chuckle for most afterwards.
One thing I implemented in the code was looking at the referer; i.e. which web site did people come from to my site, and I had a very easy way to add/edit those entries. Since the script is a CGI, versus static HTML, I could do customized actions based on that referrer. So I'd see traffic coming from some forum where people were talking about me, and then I'd setup a customized pop-up based on the ongoing discussion, and then people would say "He's on to us" - was quite the crackup as I would continue to modify it. One example can be seen at DSL Reports Forum where they comment on the changes on the pop-up. There were countless others - this added a nice personal touch, although sometimes I goofed. When the story ran in a very popular German web site, I typed "Alek welcomes Christmas Lights Fans to his site" into the Google English-German translator ... and then put that text as the pop-up for those surfers ... and shortly thereafter got a couple of Emails saying that what I was saying in German was "Alek welcomes Christmas Lights Ventilators to his site" ;-)
While the Internet is not as "nice" as it was a decade ago, people are still willing to help you out and there were countless examples of this. I had people clean up my audio recordings, save and convert video's, provide mirroring, and just all sorts of stuff. Truly impressive was that when I'd post a "can someone help me with XYZ", I'd get an email within a day offering assistance and you'll notice that I thank people in various places in the web site.
It was all in good clean fun and I received over a thousand (yes, that many!) Emails from folks around the world saying they enjoyed turning my lights on and off ... so I brought some Christmas Cheer to a lotta people plus some good post-holiday chuckles and there certainly was no malicious intent. I was quite amazed that NOBODY every came by with a web-enabled cell phone (or at least called their friend from a cell phone ... or just drove by) and said "wait a minute, the web page shows the lights being turned on and off like crazy ... but there ain't nothing happening here!"
For those folks with a sense of humor who enjoyed the "show", you are welcome to
send Santa a public email about the whole thing.
© 2000-2005 www.komar.org - Author: Alek Komarnitsky
So then the issue was how can I PROVE to Charles that it really
is fake since he is on the East Coast. I suggested he have a trusted
person come by the house some night, and (while Charles was on the
Internet watching the lights flash on and off), his friend could
park in my driveway - not only would the car not be visible on the web,
but the lights would not be changing. Charles said he would try "something"
but would not tell me - again, good for him! Another thing we
did is I enabled the webcam dedicated to his IP address ... during the day!
Needless to say, my house looked pretty dark on his computer screen
despite it being 1:00 in the afternoon here. And then I did some
stupid geek tricks like make tonsa cars drive by, lotsa people,
have the garage door go crazy up/down, and have the entire United
Airlines fleet show up in the sky over my house. While he got a
good laugh out of all of it, I'm sure he independently did some
confirmation - yet another reason why I've been a WSJ subscriber
for 20+ years - these guys do good news!