Exploded Views

I stopped by the SF Museum of Modern Art the other day for the first time in a few years and was blown away by Exploded Views, an installation by Jim Campbell (an alum of the EE and math departments at MIT – my kind of artist) that is hanging in the atrium. If you look above your head as you walk into the museum, you will notice 2880 white LEDs hanging from the ceiling in the shape of a large box. From below, you can notice that various lights are flickering on and off but the pattern driving them is not immediately apparent. However, when you walk up the stairs to the first balcony and then look back at the array, you immediately find that you are looking at a kind of 3d screen showing footage of moving silhouettes. When I was there, the film was a boxing match, but there have been several clips that have played at various times.

From a technical perspective, this piece is fascinating to me for a variety of reasons. First of all, the conversion of what I assume is originally standard 2d footage to a signal controlling when each LED turns on and off is a meaty design problem, especially given the ability of the 3d array to provide depth of field. Furthermore, I know from experience that driving large scale LED arrays can be a surprisingly involved process from a hardware perspective, involving thermal management and a significant wiring effort just to locate, connect and debug nearly 3000 LEDs without sacrificing serviceability.

Beyond the engineering points of interest, though, seeing the installation was an extremely compelling artistic experience. Campbell did a great job of executing what was an inspired initial vision to begin with and created an effect that was surprisingly sticky – I spent a lot longer staring at the piece then I normally do at museums and spent the next few days thinking about ideas for variations that would be cool personal projects. I think I talk a lot in these posts about how much I appreciate it when I see something inspiring, especially something that can get people excited about the potential of mechatronics – this is a perfect example and if you have a chance to visit SFMOMA while the piece is up (until October 23), I strongly recommend checking it out.

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