What do you get if you combine Christmas, jury-rigged electronics, 22,000 lights, over a dozen inflatables, webcams, and custom server software running on a Linux server? Alek Komarnitsky’s controllable Christmas lights, of course! Every year, Alek — who is one of the world wide web’s most infamous OGs — lights up his house with 22,000 lights and over a dozen inflatables, and then lets strangers on the internet control them all via a gaudy (but completely W3C-compliant) website. Why? To raise money for research into celiac disease, which his kids were diagnosed with a few years ago.
Starting at 6pm Eastern Time (4pm Mountain Time), you can hit up Alek Komarnitsky’s website and control his Christmas lights and inflatables in real time. New this year is the ability to send text messages to Santa’s Workshop — a festively illuminated office where Alek sits and works while wearing a Santa hat. There are three webcams that allow you to see your handiwork in real-time. Alek maintains that the rapidly blinking lights, which consume around 70 amps at full load, entertains the neighbors rather than annoys them. In an interview with Slashdot, Alek says that most of the lights are standard, cheap incandescent bulbs rather than LEDs, because he buys most of the lights at garage sales or when they’re heavily discounted. He also notes that, because he only runs the lights in December, it would take a long time for the increased LED efficiency to pay off.
We’ve actually written about Komarnitsky before, back in early 2012 when we were discussing the human brain’s ability to perceive more than just the “normal” range of colors. To rectify cataracts, Komarnitsky underwent surgery to have a Crystalens implant installed in his eye. Not only did this restore his normal vision, but he also gained the ability to perceive ultraviolet light. The story also touched on tetrachromats — animals that have four different kinds of cone cells, and thus perceive a wider range of colors. Humans are generally trichromats, except in incredibly rare cases where a DNA mutation results in tetrachromacy. You can only begin to imagine what the world looks like to a tetrachromat.
Komarnitsky is also somewhat e-infamous because, for the first three years, his controllable Christmas lights were hoax. He basically took a bunch of still images — with all of the possible permutations of lights on and off — and then wrote a simple Perl script to randomly cycle through them: Voilà, a “webcam” that users thought they were controlling. After a lot of exposure (in the early days of the world wide web, Alek’s remotely controlled lights were a big deal) he later came clean to the Wall Street Journal, and since 2005 the lights and webcams have all been online and controllable in real-time. Since then, of course, technology has improved to the point where it’s fairly easy to control someone else’s lights over the internet.
Over the years, the Komarnitskys’ Christmas lights and generous patrons have raised $ 80,000 for celiac disease research. If watching the webcams made you feel more festive, if you switched them on and off a few hundred times hoping to break them, or if you simply feel sorry for Alek’s poor neighbors, go ahead and donate! Afterward, go and check out our only other Christmas-themed story on ExtremeTech: How one guy in Russia used a mid-range point-and-shoot camera to take the most beautiful photos of snowflakes you’ve ever seen.
Alek Komarnitsky’s lights will be controllable between 6pm and 10pm Eastern Time, from now until January 1.