Coca-Cola’s New 3D Times Square Sign Invokes Inceptionism

Coca-Cola has updated their sign in Times Square, and this one has a mesmerizing 3D aspect to it, giving the spooky feeling you get from watching buildings curl up into the sky in the movie, Inception. That 3D is created by breaking the sign up into a 68’x42′ matrix of 1760 LED screens that can be independently extended out toward the viewer and retracted again. Of course, we went hunting for implementation details.

Moving Cube Module
Moving Cube Module

On Coca-Cola’s webpage listing the partners involved in putting it together, Radius Displays is listed as responsible for sign design, fabrication, testing and installation support. Combing through their website was the first step. Sadly we found no detailed design documents or behind-the-scenes videos there. We did find one CAD drawing of a Moving Cube Module with a 28×28 matrix of LEDs. Assuming that’s accurate then overall there are 1,379,840 LEDs — try ordering that many off of eBay. EDIT: One behind-the-scenes video of the modules being tested was found and added below.

So the patent hunting came next, and that’s where we hit the jackpot. Read on to see the results and view the videos of the sign in action below.

The search turned up three patents by Coca-Cola that seem relevant, the most recent one being US 9,640,118 B2, Display devices, filed in January 2016 but published in May 2017. Clearly they’ve been working on this for a while. The link we’ve given is to the European Espacenet patent site because Google’s didn’t seem to have the drawings.

This patent of Coca-cola’s reads like a detailed overview of the Times Square sign. It has 35 figures that include the same actuator assembly as what we see in the CAD drawing from Radius Display’s website.  The patent runs the whole gamut from hardware to software, handling scaling issues and even content creation procedures.

Here are a few notable features mentioned in the patent, though we can’t guarantee they made it to the actual sign. The actuator assemblies are divided into modules, for example, modules can be made up of 5 rows of 5 assemblies. This is to make installation more efficient, and to better handle stresses due to weather. There’s also a physical locking mechanism to prevent the actuators from moving at all in case of extreme winds. Display on and movement of each assembly is done in a synchronous manner, supposedly ensuring that the resulting image is coherent before moving on to the next. As the patent’s Fig. 13 shown here illustrates, there’s a high level of parallelism used to manage all the actuators and screens. In the figure, Ethernet is used as the communication protocol but more options are given in the patent. And that’s just a small sample of what’s in the patent. It actually makes for quite a good read.

While Coca-Cola’s advertising video below shows many views of it, we’ve included a second video below by Radius Displays that focuses more on the sign and better shows it off we think.

This 3D sign should remind Hackaday readers of inFORM, MIT’s morphing table which we’d covered previously. Their video no longer works but you can find a different one on MIT’s page here.

Coca-Cola’s video:

Radius Display’s video:

EDIT: Video of motion testing the modules. Video is by Cicoil who supplied the flat cables. (Thanks for JH and jason701802 for pointing this out in the comments.)

58 thoughts on “Coca-Cola’s New 3D Times Square Sign Invokes Inceptionism

          1. ever drank flat coke? its nasty…shows how much carbonated sugar water seels cheaper than spring water!!! cool innovation on the screen but i get why some dish out critisism to Cola company….thier very model isnt sustainable and Colas reputation is waining, hense the over prices marketing campaign.

  1. Seems kind of pointless to me to be honest. Unless you’re very close, would you even realise that the entire sign is moving? Maybe it’s different when you’re there in person and have the benefit of binocular vision?

    1. It’s in a prominent position and VERY large, you don’t need to be that close, and I think that at any place you can actually see the sign (surrounded by big buildings in time square) you will be able to see the effect.

  2. Funny that they mention DMX in the patent picture, I was hoping that in this day an age, they would use another protocol to control that many LEDs. I guess I’ll have to read the patent to find out the other options they explored.

    1. It seems likely that the DMX is for controlling the positions of the modules, while something else is used for streaming pixels; I can’t imagine DMX would have enough bandwidth for the image itself.

      1. DMX has a refresh rate of around 23ms/44hz So you get roughly 170 rgb pixels per dmx universe, or higher refresh rates if you drop the pixel count per universe. Also often these screens use sACN or similar to transport DMX over Ethernet.

        DMX is often used for LED displays within the entertainment industry, as its familiar, and robust. They just use multiple universes depending on the size of the display.

      2. Ah damn, I reported your comment, and I wanted to click on reply, sorry
        Also, I wrote a damn big reply yesterday, but another mistake sent it to the abyss.
        In short : read the patent, it’s really interesting. My take on this is I’m happy to see that some of the methods I applied on some of my older projects are in line with what is in the doc, but I’m sad that now it’s patented with the wide spectrum sentences like “another configuration might use xyz” ad nauseam. It’s like you can’t even think about doing anything with LEDs moving in space.

    1. Thanks for the link! A self portrait of the designers and a technical description of their work. A rare technical / promotional video made by engineers. Amazing they have such tight beamwidth (2 deg) from LED lighting and a very limited lens requirement. Compact and efficient.

  3. anything to sell the high fructose corn syrup & colored water & artificial flavors, coca cola has absolutely no nutritional value and all that high fructose corn syrup is worse for you than sugar, it is what is making people fat because the food industry put it in almost everything because it is a cheaper alternative to sugar

    1. HFCS is exactly as bad for you as sugar. HFCS is sugar. Just because it was refined out of one grass (maize) or another (sugar cane) or something else altogether (beets) doesn’t change how your body metabolizes it.

      1. Aren’t there different types of sugar, with ratio’s depending on the source and used processing? Technically you could make any ratio from any source with the right processing (and waste), but I doubt that is what is actually done.

      2. Most of the simple sugars metabolize similarly, but are not identical…especially sucrose and fructose metabolize differently, fructose does not trigger insulin production, so it’s supposed to be better for diabetics.

        What you can normally buy labeled as sugar tends to be mostly sucrose, which is more complex then fructose (basically it’s a fructose molecule with a glucose molecule stuck to it) and we perceive it as less sweet then pure fructose.
        HFCS is a loosely defined mixture of fructose and glucose and glucose is perceived even less sweet, so we tend to consume more of it…

      3. While correct, HFCS is sugar and mostly the same, it is not exactly as bad as sugar. HFCS is still worse for you. The problem is in extraction methodologies. Extraction of pure sugar (cane/beet) is a simple process whereas extraction of HFCS is incredibly complex (read as lots of chemicals added/subtracted). 100g of HFCS = 100g of sugar in terms of calories, but with HFCS, you have left over traces of the chemicals used to extract it. It’s basically add this chemical to get it to this form, then add this chemical to remove the first chemical used, then add this chemical to remove the second chemical used.. etc.. etc. The reactions are never 100% and there’s always a little bit left over.

        Myself, I don’t drink sugars (I’m a water guy), but if had to choose, I’m taking a natural extraction with water and evaporation (cane sugar) over chemical extraction.

  4. This is probably a silly question, but… couldn’t they just achieve the same effect in software?

    Think of projection mapping—the artists often do an effect where the façade of a building appears to “pop out” or crumble or something like that. Just render the shadows in software and send the rendered bitmap to your regular 2D display, it seems a lot simpler!

    1. Projection mapping benefits from the 3d surface it is being projected on to. Indeed, this is how it differs from a regular 2d projection and why the effect is so effective. Coca Cola certainly could have built a 3 dimensional surface and projected on it, but this allows them to change the surface.

  5. This is the sort of thing you’d expect in a dystopian SF movie; quite impressive and a bit unnerving at the same time! And it will probably catch on bigly. Piccadilly Circus and Akihabara will never be the same again.

      1. Dead pixel? What about a dead module that’s stuck and won’t move?

        A simple temporary patch would be to detect the defective module, read its position and move all other modules to the same depth and stick to 2D until the module is repaired or replaced.

          1. My thoughts exactly. I’m looking forward to seeing how well this works when covered with an inch of ice. Like self driving cars, they work great on a nice comfortable day, but nature doesn’t give you just that. Also what if the retraction of a sticking out part tangles with feathers or other body parts of birds. It could become a real bird mangler. It will be fascinating to see how this works out in the long run. I’m putting my chips on it being a failure.

  6. I think the building coming down analogy is quite fitting. As brain adapts to ignore the onslaught of advertisement brainwashing, the advertisers have to tap in to more primordial safety responses to steal our attention and hack the product into us by implanting ideas (i.e. You need to drink our sugar syrup to enjoy life). Consider it as a DDOS, hoping for a lucrative overflow.

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