Montana State University

Engineering student lights up Christmas

December 13, 2006 -- By Tracy Ellig, MSU News Service


Montana State University-Bozeman engineering student Craig Hicks, 24, stands in front of his 50,000-light Christmas display in Billings. Hicks claims it's the state's first residential computerized display. (Photo courtesy of George Wilson.)   High-Res Available

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After friends called him "Scrooge" last Christmas for not having any holiday lights, Craig Hicks went to work this year on a seasonal display that few passers-by are likely to forget.

The Montana State University-Bozeman electrical engineering student has wired up his Billings home with more than 50,000 lights that make up 21 stars, 10 wreaths, 6 deer, more than 15 Christmas trees, and a 20-foot-tall, 6,400-light "Mega-Tree."

"It draws a lot of power," Hicks said. "The lights inside the house flicker when it's on and we don't use the electric stove or clothes dryer for fear of overloading the whole system."

Hicks built the light show after spending December to Memorial Day researching various hardware and software designs on PlanetChristmas.com, an on-line forum for holiday decoration enthusiasts.

With the help of some kits, he soldered together light controllers, built a low-frequency radio transmitter to broadcast holiday music in time with the lights and built the 20-foot-tall "Mega-Tree" out of black plumbing tubing. The whole thing is run off a lot of electricity and a 2.8-gigahertz computer in Hicks' garage.

"I have no idea what the electrical bill is going to be," he said.

The light show features 18 holiday songs, sifted from a collection of more than 300 Hicks assembled during his research. Five of those songs are synchronized to changes in the lights, which Hicks accomplished with a computer program. The lights look like a high-speed fireworks display when flickering to the music.

Every minute of light-synchronized music took three hours of programming. Hicks claims it is the first computerized, residential light display in Montana.

"It was a lot of very, very late nights," said Hicks of the programming. He was also commuting regularly to MSU-Bozeman for a full load of classes at the time.

A bit of a self-described EBay junkie, Hicks financed the project by scrounging items from thrift stores and reselling them on the on-line auction site. He figures the lights, the controllers, the 400 feet of network cable, the two miles of extension cords and everything else cost nearly $10,000.

"When I do things, I don't tend to do them in moderation," said Hicks, who even has a website for his display: www.montanachristmas.org.

Originally from Slippery Rock, Penn., Hicks just finished his first semester at MSU. He plans to get a double major in electrical engineering and German with minors in computer science and computer engineering.

"I'd love to go to work in the entertainment industry, working on lights for Las Vegas or for one of the Disney theme parks," he said. "I want to go into pure entertainment. People will always crave entertainment."

His music and light show seem to bear that out. The show runs from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. seven days a week and draws bumper-to-bumper traffic in front of his house at 1415 Miles Ave., in Billings. So as not to bother the neighbors, the music can only be heard via radio - FM 104.7 - and then only for a quarter mile.

Some onlookers park, tune their radios and watch the show, which runs for nearly two hours before repeating.

Onlookers clap. If Hicks or his housemate, George Wilson, step outside people yell "Great Display!" or "You rock!" Hicks said. They receive fan mail. A local TV news station did a story on them.

"It's been hard to walk out of the house and have all these people staring at you. I'm very shy in front of crowds," said Hicks, who never expected to be in the public eye because of his work.

Not everyone has been pleased with the display. One neighbor described it as "junking up the neighborhood," Hicks said.

Additionally, there is a holiday-light contest in Billings and Hicks has heard some of his competitors jealously grousing about his display.

Hicks shrugs it all off. He didn't build the display to win a $200 prize or for a bunch of media attention, he said.

"It's been an incredible learning experience, like six semesters worth in this one project," he said. "I'd like to think that this project would inspire other young people to go into engineering and to bring new technologies to Montana."

He calls the display his "Christmas present to Montana."

Will he do it again?

"I feel like I have to do it again, because now people will have an expectation," he said. "I plan to be shopping at 5 a.m. the day after Christmas. That's when the lights go on sale."