Blinkenlights’ Stereoscope Goes Live In Toronto

We’re happy to present this guest post from History Hacker’s [Bre Pettis]. Today [Bre] catches up with the Blinkenlights team, who turn entire buildings into displays. Their current project is Stereoscope which goes live in Toronto, Canada today.

Earlier this week, I posted about the beginnings of the blinkenlights project. It started in 2001 in Berlin, but now Seven years later, in May 2008, blinkenlights is back. The City of Toronto asked the blinkenlights team if they would be interested in joining another Nuit Blanche (as they did in Paris in 2002). Short on time and with a lot of ambition, they decided to redesign and push the envelope on the project to make it wireless for The Toronto City Hall since there would be 960 windows split up in two towers. In the above photo, you can see Stereoscope in all its glory.


I can’t help it, this is such an awesome project. I need to know more! I asked Tim to break it on down and give up the details.

What’s the story of the stereoscope project?

After having had a variety of new attempts around Europe that didn’t work out (due to either financial reasons or building owners that withdrew their support in the last minute) it took six years until we could come up with a new project (not counting two small Blinkenlights reprises at the original location).

But in May 2008, the City of Toronto asked us if we would be interested in joining another Nuit Blanche (as we did in Paris in 2002) in October 2008. There was really not much time left, so we immediately started working on this baby with a few really tough deadlines to be met. Especially because we did not want to go with the same technology we used back in 2002. The Toronto City Hall was even bigger than the Bibliothèque nationale de France (960 vs. 520 windows), split up in two towers and we also wanted to push the envelope a bit.

So we came up with the idea of going mostly wireless to save setup time. Although being a much bigger installation, we will probably need only half the time to set everything up – if things won’t go wrong of course.

What makes the stereoscope special?

The facade of Toronto City Hall is special in many ways. First there are two separate towers: both of different height and width. Both facaces are split in two parts of unequal size because there are mechanical floors in the middle without windows.

Even more important the towers have a curved structure and all the windows are faced inwards. This makes it impossible to see all the windows at the same time regardless from where you are. All our previous installations presented just one single screen very much like the screens we are used to on our computers.

Blinkenlights is not about building displays. It’s about participation of people and interpretation of architecture. So we try to “speak the language of the building.” To compensate for the difficult viewing angles, we promote a fluid appearance: things move slowly – what you can’t see now you will see in a few moments. This all also underlines the strange spatial appearance of the facade – hence the name Stereoscope (”spatial view”). We’ll see how this all turns out – we never know how are installations will feel before. It’s going to be a surprise to us as it is to the casual viewer.

How hard was it to create an iphone app?

The idea to create an application for a mobile device is as old as our project. But in 2001/2 there was nothing on the horizon that could do that. The iPhone however is the device we have been waiting for.

First of all we wanted this app to be useful to everybody. So we focused on a simulator that provides a real time view of what is going on. Everyone can load the app and tune in live – wherever they want (as long they have Internet access of course). The foundation for this we had in our code for a very long time – as we have been using IP packets for frame distribution inside our installation all along it just took a copy to be streamed to individual applications that could display the data stream on some kind of visualizer.

The blinkensim program of our original toolkit did that. An intelligent proxy – the blinkenproxy – enhanced this to an on-demand model: the proxy constantly receives the data stream from a single source and re-distributes the stream to every simulator that asks for a copy. We hope our infrastructure scales well enough to handle demand.

For Stereoscope we enhanced our protocol in many ways: each packet is realtime-stamped so the simulator can display the time the stream was generated – either in real time or as a playback from an archival copy. We also added support for multiple screens as Stereoscope supports the notion of individual subscreens and virtual matrixes and more.

We wanted the application to be really, really beautiful to look at. So we put together a team of gifted 3D and 2D graphic artists and two excellent iPhone/Mac-Programmers: the Coding Monkeys from Munich, known for their collaborative text editor SubEthaEdit and the useful Circulator iPhone application. They all joined forces and the result is a pretty outstanding little app that allows to view the building from any angle or predefined viewpoints while it fluidly displays the data stream coming from our central server.

Due to the strange distribution model and the long approval times of the iTunes App Store we might not be able to add more functionality. Every update usually needs a week to show up which is really bad for such a time critical piece. We have tons of more ideas on how to turn this app into a location-aware controller allowing for collaborative painting and other nice ideas. We’ll see how it turns out in the end. Project Blinkenlights is always work in progress and we will keep the data stream running after we have to take down the installation itself so that we can continue to play and experiment with a virtual building for future installations.

What’s broken so far? Has anyone been hurt?

Setup is going really well and we are confident to be ready in time. No casualties so far, knock on wood.

Are you going to port the old movies to the new project and are you specifically going to show a video of a woman dancing in greyscale?

We’ll show a medley of old and new stuff. The new multiple-layer core of our software allows multiple movies and games to run at the same time, target different subscreens and such. There are more new features in the code than I think we can make use of in just two weeks. We’ll see.

Concerning the dancing woman, I was just being told the original data is locked in a computer that is wrapped in plastic standing in a cellar in a small house in the Australian outback. I guess we won’t make it in time to revive that particular animation.

But we want to go for new original content anyway. There is a capable set of tools available for the Mac. We have built an infrastructure to use Quartz Composer to create animations for Stereoscope and we hope experienced designers will use it to create cool stuff. There is a stand-alone 3D simulator for the Mac as well (not yet as beautiful as the iPhone version but we’re working on that).

There will be additional tools for Mac and Windows like a Blinkenpaint-style editor for smaller movies and an updated blinkensim simulator for Linux and BSD Unix. There are third-party tools for as well that we will list on the website.

Is there anything else people should know about the project?

All of our hardware and software will be out in the open. The wireless dimmer technology will be released under a Creative Commons license and the new code will be either BSD or GPL licensed. We are still thinking of Project Blinkenlights as an open platform and something that should evolve and grow. We’d like to see both software and hardware hackers to take up on the work we have done and come up with new ideas and extensions.

We really hope we are not again running into such a long phase of inactivity and will be able to pursue a followup project sooner than later. It might be a nice idea to go ahead with a virtual representation of former installations but I guess it is the real world where it gets interesting as stuff needs to be tangible for people. Nothing beats reality.

Want to be involved? The iPhone app is a tool for people to watch in real time and it can also be used as a testing app when developing animations.

What the blinkenlights team are most interested in is that people create funny animations for the building. They provide an extensive toolset now including a Quartz Composer based development environment on the Mac and a library for Processing that works cross-platform.

They are busy setting up the submission form now and will post more background on everything. So everybody who is interested in participating to subscribe to the blinkenlights blog.

They are also working on a Java based Game API for people who like to code little apps to interact with people calling in with their mobile phones.

If you’re not following Tim on Twitter, you should! He recently twittered that they had ordered pizza and the pizza delivery guy couldn’t find the building so they made the building light up with the words, “Pizza Here!”

[photo: antenne]

7 thoughts on “Blinkenlights’ Stereoscope Goes Live In Toronto

  1. I was there last night/today. It’s so much fun (and a bit surreal) playing Space Invaders on a building at 6 am. There was no obvious opportunity to visit the control room, but I didn’t try.

  2. dangit mikey! I was going to post the same thing…. it actually didn’t make it the whole way (at least last time I let it run for… uh a long time. About 30 minutes in it ended, I think it was.

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