Most of the original "laser shows" that exposed the public to the beauty and pure colours of lasers were in the form of art, sculpture and holography exhibitions. This does not meet today's definition of a laser light show.
It is defined here as a show where the laser is the main attraction. It is as an event where the audience expects the laser to be the major component of the show. For example, lasers at a rock concert would not qualify as a laser light show as the audience came to see the band not the lasers (except possibly in the case of a Pink Floyd's tour). Laser light shows typically choreograph projected scanned laser images (abstract, representational and optically generated) and beam effects with a music soundtrack for a complete entertainment experience.
Once lasers moved from the laboratory to production and became widely available, they generated a great deal of interest and excitement especially amongst the artistic community. Early laser "shows" were often static beam array sculptures and did not use the scanned imagery we are familiar with in today's shows.
Lasers were first used in many art exhibitions which do not qualify as "pure" laser light shows since the lasers were an element of the show along with other art works. These laser art shows were the precursors of today's laser light shows. They exposed the public to the lasers pure colours and light as an art/entertainment form.
Much of the early artistic use of lasers was in the creation and display of holograms. Holograms continue to be a popular art form and many cities now have museums and galleries devoted to holography. The original and most famous of which is "The Museum of Holography" on Mercer street in New York City, founded in 1976 (now closed).
Optical transforms (diffraction patterns) were a very popular form of laser art in the early seventies. An optical transform is created by projecting laser light through an aperture and observing the results on a screen. The aperture used for the transforms was typically a black and white image recorded onto high contrast 35 mm film. The resulting projected patterns were often very complex and artistic. To make a permanent record of the transform, the laser can be projected onto photosensitive paper or photographed with a regular camera.
One of the first exhibitions of optical transforms was presented by Canadian photographer Lawrence Weissmann at the International Museum of Photography, George Eastman House, Rochester, NY in 1971. Mr. Weissmann's work differs from most other creators of optical transforms in that he uses images of people and objects rather than geometric shapes.
Early laser art shows
Early light shows relied on images created by mirrors attached to loudspeakers (Sonovision and others), scanning of the laser beam with motorised spinning mirrors, electromagnet-controlled springs and other techniques. While the early methods produced interesting and often repeatable scanned patters, they lack the precise control necessary to accurately position the beam.
The Birth of X-Y Scanning
The heart of the modern laser light show projector is the X-Y scanning system which allows for drawing with light to create abstract and cycloid effects. With today's precision, high-speed, position-detecting galvanometers, scanned graphics and animations are possible.
Steroscopic Laser 3D
Another milestone in the development of laser light show technology was the first presentation of stereoscopic laser 3D. Commercialised by Laser Fantasy International, the first public performance was at Boeing headquarters in Seattle, Washington in 1986.
To project the separate left and right eye views required for perception of a 3D image, the laser projection system used one scan pair for each of the left and right eye images. Polarising material was mounted in front of each scan head in an orthogonal orientation. The audience viewed the presentation using orthogonally polarised glasses. Since the polarised material transmits all laser lines, this technique allowed for the perception of full colour images in 3D.