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Electronic Imaging & Signal Processing

Dr. Megavolt explores the spectrum from IR imaging to Burning Man

SPIE Newsroom
26 August 2010

Rich Donnelly

With the beginning of Burning Man festival just around the corner, one scientist making plans for the 8-day event in the Black Rock desert in northern Nevada is Austin Richards, otherwise known as Doctor Megavolt.

Megavolt is a larger-than-life character with an electric personality -- quite literally. He performs on stage and occasionally on television, generating huge arcs of electricity from his Tesla coils to his metal bodysuit.

His story began in 1981 when he built his first Tesla coil. He built one in 1991 that he is still using in his performances. It produces lightning that is 14 feet long. In the mid-90s, Megavolt/Richards decided to include a metal cage in the act for a human to get inside. Since high-frequency electricity flows on the outside of conductors, Richards says, the person in the cage (he was the guinea pig) was unaffected by the current.

"I had the idea that if I could do a cage, why not shrink the cage down into a bodysuit?" Richards says that the "eureka moment" came when he was able to touch the sides of the cage with his hand. That meant that a bodysuit could be simply a custom-fitted version of the cage. He topped off the costume with a birdcage helmet to keep the lightning away from his face.

Richards' first trip to Burning Man was in 1996, and Dr. Megavolt first appeared there in 1998. Initially beset with technical challenges, over the years he has refined his desert-friendly infrastructure, and now performs with a double Tesla coil mounted on top of a truck, generating 40-foot arcs of electricity. His act includes his wife, Victoria Charters.

Burning Man has grown from a small annual gathering to an extravaganza attracting more than 50,000 people. Richards initially wasn't too interested, he says, but "soon as I heard that people were doing interesting things with technology, that's when I headed out." This year he'll be in a camp called the Skinny Kitty Teahouse.

Dr. Megavolt performed at San Francisco's Exploratorium in November 2009. (Photo by Amy Snyder, courtesy of Dr. Megavolt)

Dr. Megavolt performed at San Francisco's Exploratorium in November 2009. (Photo: Amy Snyder)

Richards confesses that his motivation for Dr. Megavolt initially was just to do fun things with electricity with his friends. "Then I sold some footage to a TV show called Real TV, and got paid 500 bucks for the little clip that they showed." He realized it was worth doing on a more "legitimate" basis. "It's not like I'm doing it to make money, but it's an expensive hobby, and I want to be able to pay the bills for that hobby," he says. But the best part is living out his adolescent dreams.

"I feel like I'm able to do all the things I wanted to do when I was 14, but didn't have the wherewithal or the resources to do," he says. And if he gets some young people interested in science, that's a bonus. "I think high-voltage electronics is one aspect of electricity that really has mainstream appeal. People can learn a lot about science from it."

Dr. Megavolt in his metal bodysuit

Dr. Megavolt in his metal bodysuit.

The story doesn't end there, however. Megavolt has a day job that's almost as exciting as his electrified alter ego. Austin Richards is a senior research scientist for FLIR Commercial Vision Systems (Santa Barbara, CA). He does research in infrared applications and teaches courses for SPIE and for FLIR. He teaches one in infrared radiometry at SPIE Defense, Security and Sensing every spring. At FLIR, he manages a team that puts together long-range security and surveillance systems for border security. The system can see people 10 km away in total darkness with radar and IR imaging.

Imaging in the dark is another fascination of his, and the genesis of his 2001 book Alien Vision: Exploring the Electromagnetic Spectrum with Imaging Technology (SPIE Press). A second edition of the book is due to be published in December by SPIE Press.

Richards recalls a professor's remark that if an alien could see in the radio part of the spectrum, he wouldn't see stars in the sky at all, but cold patches of interstellar gas -- hence the book's title involving aliens. But Richards became fascinated with "invisible light imaging" at an early age, after seeing a cartoon in which a thief was able to rob everyone in a dark theater with the help of an infrared flashlight.

"It got me thinking about invisible light imaging," he says. "Just the concept that you could form an image with light that other people couldn't see seemed really magical to me."

The book was inspired by the 1968 short film, "The Powers of 10," by Ray and Charles Eames, depicting the relative scale of the universe in factors of 10. "I love the idea that you could explore the universe in 40 orders of magnitude in scale, and I thought about exploring the electromagnetic spectrum in many orders of magnitude of wavelength," says Richards.

The new edition of the book will include a lot of new, higher resolution images in the infrared and ultraviolet bands, many of them by Richards himself taken with UV cameras he developed for his own company, Oculus Photonics. He says that the short-wave ultraviolet is "one of the more interesting bands," a part of the spectrum where a lot remains to be discovered.

"There's been very little work done in the short-wave UV band, and it would be really interesting to take those cameras and get out there and look at everything - see if there's some short-wave UV phenomena that nobody's ever observed."

Whether it's generating huge arcs of electricity of imaging in the dark, Richards understands the mass appeal of his parallel interests, and their potential to attract young people to science. "Both started at an early age, and that's the thing, you know," he says. "You get kids interested at an early age, and these dreams die hard -- they really can take root, and become careers."

Visible-light and LWIR image of person (photo: FLIR).

Visible-light (top) and LWIR images of person in a smoke-filled building; from the forthcoming edition of Alien Vision (photo: FLIR).