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Control the Christmas lights at an Alaska cabin from half a world away

Dermot Cole
Ken and Rebecca-Ellen Woods' cabin near Fairbanks is adorned with lights that can be controlled by visitors to their website. Courtesy Ken and Rebecca-Ellen Woods

FAIRBANKS -- There are brighter and bigger displays of Christmas lights in the woods of Alaska, but none that twinkle around the world through the long subarctic nights like those on the cabin of Ken and Rebecca-Ellen Woods.

The Woodses live in a typical small Alaska log cabin outside of Fairbanks, with a freezer and a dog kennel on the front porch. The cabin exterior features strings of about 700 LED lights that go on and off through the nights, which last nearly last all day long at this dark time of year.

What makes their display unique is that the white lights on the roof, door, windows and porch are turned on and off by people around the world, watching the action unfold on the Internet.

At any moment, there may be hundreds of people enjoying the lights from afar, with dozens turning selected strings on and off. It’s the ultimate in remote viewing.

To try it yourself, go to the website, christmasinfairbanks.com, where the lights -- and the on/off links -- are at your command.

Fairbanks public radio reporter Dan Bross did a story on the vicarious experience this week, and I had to see for myself. I contacted Ken Woods and asked him about it.

“Everyone that I’ve interacted with about the lights, they really enjoy playing with them,” Ken said. “It is a little nerdy. I’m OK with that. My profession is IT and electronics.”

“There’s a lot of repeat visitors, people who will come and play with the lights one night, send it to their friends and come back two or three nights later. People will sit for an hour and turn the lights on and off.”

Ken spends his working hours as a systems administrator for the state. His spare time presents opportunities to ponder mysteries of the electronic universe, such as how to build a system that allows your Christmas lights to be controlled by people on the Internet.

In 2010, he developed a system that allowed people to use the Internet to control the family Christmas tree lights. That proved to be mighty distracting as the Christmas tree began to blink at all hours like a turn signal.

In 2011, Ken and Rebecca-Ellen moved the lights outside. Ken said their neighbors know in September when they start preparing for Christmas as the system requires extensive wiring and advance planning.

He expects their light bill will be about $100 more than normal this month, which is a small price to pay for the joy of receiving excited emails from grateful people around the world.

“I’m still hoping I get a visitor from somewhere in Antarctica. Then I’ll have all seven continents,” he said.

Last year they had more than 315,000 unique visitors to the site. He said he keeps the website plain so the focus is on the lights and the interactive nature of the experience. The lights and the cabin are simple, with no inflatable Santas or ostentatious plastic reindeer.

The electronics, however, are complex, but Ken said anyone who wants to know the details is welcome to email him.

“It involves a couple of Perl scripts, an Axis camera (with dry contacts to trigger the power switching), and a power strip that looks like something out of Frankenstein's laboratory,” is how he describes the setup on the site.

“The interface between the programming when you click on a link to drive that signal to an electronic switch that turns 120 volts on and off, that was pretty challenging and to get it to be sustainable,” he said.

To reduce the burnout potential, he set up the system so that each circuit can only be turned on or off one time per second. At its high point, about 500 people have been watching the lights at the same time.

“We pretty much can have unlimited viewers, but we can only have about 100 people at a time turning things on and off. At that point you have, like, a five or six-second delay from the time you click it until the time the lights actually change. Then there’s another two seconds to update the image and push that out to the remote client,” he said.

The camera is in a wooden box with a heat pad, so when the air temperature drops to 40 below, the camera is a relatively toasty 5 below.

“If I turn all the lights off myself just to see who is on the site, one light will turn back on. There’s always somebody there who wants to keep the lights on,” he said

It’s probably Tom Bodett for Motel 6.

Try out the lights on the Woods cabin for yourself.

Dermot Cole can be reached at dermot(at)alaskadispatch.com. Follow him on Twitter at @DermotMCole.

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