Miral Kotb is the entrepreneur behind iLuminate, a wearable lighting system that enables novel dance acts. The iLuminate dance team placed third in last season's America’s Got Talent, and has opened two new shows in Six Flags theme parks this month. We spoke with Kotb to talk about Tron, the Royal Dutch Air Force, and whether Mark Zuckerberg secretly break-dances.
FAST COMPANY: For those who didn’t see it yet on America's Got Talent, what’s iLuminate?
MIRAL KOTB: It’s a new technology in which dancers have these illuminated costumes on their body that I can control wirelessly. The lights turn on and off with the music, and there’s choreography to match what they’re doing. We can bring a lot of illusions to life that you couldn’t do otherwise.
You’re both a dancer and a software engineer.
I always did both since I was a kid. I wrote software since I was 9, and I’ve been dancing since I could walk. I always kind of separated them. I majored in computer science while dancing in New York City. I worked at Bloomberg, with the intention to quit and to try dancing as a profession. Then I got diagnosed with cancer, which changed my path in life. I couldn’t dance after the surgery, so I got better at writing software. Once I was out of remission, I left my job and started dancing again, and bringing dance and technology together.
When was the aha! moment that this was the way you'd do that?
It was at the Apple developers conference in 2009. They were talking about how wireless devices were something you could place in different places, like kids' toys. And I thought, "What if you could connect to dancers wirelessly on stage?" Then it turned into, what if there were lights on the body, and you could turn the lights on and off to react to the movement and the music? Then I started exploring the programming of the lights, the choreography and music, how to make people appear and disappear. That’s how the idea of iLuminate came to be.
I feel like it’s fitting an Apple conference inspires you, because the dances remind me a bit of the dancing iPod silhouettes.
I first used iPods to light the dancers up, to control the dancers.
What are your other influences? Tron comes to mind.
Apple definitely influenced me. William Forsythe, the choreographer. Other dance companies, like Momix and Pilobolus. And definitely my work at Bloomberg. A lot of the software involved is very similar to trading. It’s very time-controlled, with a lot of networking involved.
Sometimes your work seems as much like animation as dance. Did you consult with any animators or cartoonists?
It is like a live comic strip, a live cartoon. One of my choreographers is also a sketch artist, and he helps come up with the illusions. I didn’t go to a cartoonist or anything. You’d be surprised what creativity people have right under your nose but haven’t tapped into yet.
Apart from being cool to look at, iLuminate is also a business. How do you monetize?
The first part that took off was renting of the light suits. Various major artists have used the suits, like Christina Aguilera, Death Cab for Cutie, and Katy Perry. We’ve even rented overseas, to people like the Royal Dutch Air Force.
Why is the Royal Dutch Air Force in need of light-up dance costumes? Shouldn’t they be busy patrolling the Dutch airspace?
Their orchestra has dancers, and they have a concert every summer. I guess they don’t have much to do. They’re not at war. We’ve gotten odd requests, from soldiers stationed in various parts of America. We get a very odd client base. After America’s Got Talent, what took off was the production of shows. We travel nationally and internationally. That’s great, because then I get to be creatively involved, not just renting out the suits. We just installed two shows at Six Flags, one in Atlanta, one in Dallas. Between those two, 4,000 people are seeing iLuminate every day. If all goes well, Six Flags will want to install the show in many more parks.
In 10 years, where do you hope iLuminate will be?
I guess in 10 years, I hope iLuminate has different shows globally, similar to Cirque. So there’s a show that’s more like a cartoon, one more like a love story. A Christmas musical, a Halloween show, all over the world, and it’s a global sensation.
So, modest goals: global sensation.
Yeah. You have to think big.
Do you ever get in those suits and dance yourself?
Sometimes someone can’t make the show, and I fill the spot.
So you’re the founder/CEO/understudy.
Yeah, something like that. I know every aspect of the system, so I can jump in when needed, with the tech, or soldering lights, or performing. When people can’t make it, I do what I have to do to get the job done.
I talk to a lot of entrepreneurs, but you’re the only one who might suddenly be required to break into dance at any moment. I don’t think Mark Zuckerberg ever has to randomly start dancing.
Maybe we just don’t know about it. I bet he has hidden talents somewhere.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
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