Seasonal lighting displays may be a holiday tradition, but there was nothing traditional about Illumination, a new holiday lighting experience that debuted this winter at The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, Illinois.

Designed by lighting design consortium Lightswitch, Inc., the outdoor experience was packed with interactive LED lighting elements that invite guests to touch, talk to, and take in the arboretum’s collection of more than 222,000 trees and plants.

Lightswitch principal John Featherstone says the company worked with the arboretum to develop a lighting concept that would reframe visitors’ understanding of the winter landscape. “We tend to think of trees as dead in the winter, but they’re not,” Featherstone notes. “So we wanted to energize and activate the trees and encourage people to revisit their relationship with arbor in the context of the winter months.”

To turn the concept into reality, Lightswitch worked with Chicago- based systems integrator and equipment provider Intelligent Lighting Creations (ILC). “ILC has been our steadfast partner throughout the project,” Featherstone says. ‘Their team, led by Matt Pearlman and Joby Benoit, has been invaluable in the smooth execution of the collective vision for Illumination, and they’ve been steadfast and tireless collaborators in the evolution of this complex undertaking, especially the interactive and custom fabrication aspects of Illumination.”

To achieve this, the company integrated more than 300 Elation Q71IPs into the show. “We were challenged by The Morton Arboretum and one of the sponsors ComEd to deliver not only a memorable and unique experience but also one that was extremely energy efficient. So as an integral part of our design and really the work horse of the project, we turned to 300 plus of the remarkable Elation Q7IPs,” Featherstone says. “Not only were we able to light the arbor in vibrant, rich, and beautiful color using these lights, they were also incredibly reliable out- doors in one of the worst winters Chicago has experienced in years. Talk about 'Takes a licking and keeps on ticking! Any light that can deliver flawless performance in those conditions gets my seal of approval.”

Guests were invited to see trees in a new light starting at the “Arbor Court,” the first of several stops on the path that looped around Meadow Lake and then went deeper into the arboretum. Here, Philips Vari*Lite VL440 Series spotlights brought movement, color, and dimension to a grove of stately oaks. Fitted with spiral gobos and placed at the base of the trees, the spots cast fluid, organic patterns of light onto the oaks, which seemed to come to life as a result. ILC created custom, clear, domed covers to protect the fixtures from the elements.

As visitors continued, they were encouraged to reconnect with the natural environment through a series of interactive exhibits designed to engage their senses. At “Treeflections,” a hands-free sensor from Leap Motion activated a piece of interactive media by the Czech Republic-based Flow Studios; the media was then projected on a group of trees across the lake. “The trees act as screens, and we are painting the surface of the arbor using projection,” Lightswitch associate designer Austin Shapley says.

Similar Leap Motion technology also enabled guests to become artists themselves at another interactive stop where software created by Ryan Middlemiss allowed them to manipulate the color and pattern of fixtures that light an island of trees. At another area, “Personalatrees,” Flow Studios software allowed visitors to use their hands to control and select the projection of spring leaves, summer flowers, fall leaves, or snow onto trees. In the same area, face-recognition cameras captured guests’ faces and projected them onto the surrounding grove.

Sight wasn’t the only sense that Illumination sought to engage. Another interactive stop point, “Tree Harmony” asked visitors to “sing” to the trees as pitch- and frequency-based triggers activated colorful lights in response. Even touching was encouraged. Guests were invited to “Hug a Tree,” where sensors affixed to the backs of a group of junipers caused the trees to illuminate when touched. “You can play the grove of trees as a huggable light organ. This area has proven especially popular with our younger guests,” Shapley adds.

The design team also made sure to intersperse some soft, subtle vignettes among the more dynamic, interactive stops. These included a collection of chandeliers that gently swayed and tinkled from tree branches, catenary-strung custom linear pendants that cast intricate shadows on the ground and arbor through their perforated screens, and color-changing LED fixtures that brought texture and dimension to some of the arboretum’s rare species, including its prized Tanyosho pines.

The result was a design that spoke to multiple generations. “It’s fun, exciting, and entertaining for a kid yet pastoral, soothing, and serene enough for a retired couple to enjoy,” Featherstone says.