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Holiday innovation mixes greetings, music and electricity

I’m a bit of a nerd, so when I heard SapientNitro was using big old Tesla coils to great emailable personalized Christmas greetings, you can imagine my excitement.

For those of you unfamiliar, Tesla coils basically allow electricity in the form of alternating current to travel “wirelessly” (a.k.a. through the air) over short distances. Developed by Nikola Tesla just before the turn of the last century, the coils were used in a variety of devices ranging from sparkgap radio transmitters to Kirlian photography. You may be more familiar with the low-fi version: that electricity ball thingy at Spencer Gifts that makes lightening and your hair stand on end without the voltage involved killing you dead.

Did you know these coils can also carry a tune? Indeed, if modified to produce musical tones by modulating the spark output. The resulting pitch is a low-fidelity sound reminiscent of an analog synthesizer.

Or as SapientNitro Europe’s chief creative officer Malcolm Poynton said, “It’s an unusually distorted form of music. The sound has a degraded and garish effect compared to the hi-fidelity the world is used to.”

Basically, by going to this special microsite, you enter your name and email address and the same for the individual to which you would like to send a greeting. Then you pick a holiday tune and write a brief personal message. Hit “watch” or “send” and the Tesla coils start sparking out a distorted version of Jingle Bells (or what have you) and your personalized message runs in LED along the bottom of the screen. This happens more or less in real time.

It all started because, Poynton said, the agency was knocking around some ideas for an unusual way to say, “happy holidays” to friends and clients. They got to the radio idea first. “We wanted to create a radio player with a different impact; a different effect,” he said. “As a company, we’re idea engineers. It’s very much who we are.”

Poynton has a personal fascination with the coils, though, which made this project his brainchild. He managed to find an engineer to create “two of the largest musical Tesla coils in Europe,” which were then taken out to a pine forest and shoved in a snowbank to evoke a holiday feel.

This, Poynton admits, is where it could all go wrong. “The coils are unreliable when there’s water around. And it’s not particularly safe either. You can’t get within three meters of them while they’re playing,” he said. “There’s a high element of risk around this.”

Risks, of course, are at the heart of many innovations, and this is no exception. So if you’re looking for that last-minute original holiday wish to send, maybe Tesla coil carols are the way to go — before they short out or blow up a bucolic pine forest somewhere in Europe.

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