1.5 Million Dollars Buys 850,000 LEDs and 29 Raspberry Pis

You think you like RGB LEDs? Columbus, OH art professor [Matthew Mohr] has more blinkenlove than you! His airport– convention-center-scale installation piece is an incredible 850,000 RGB LEDs wrapped around a 14-foot tall face-shaped sculpture that projection-maps participants’ faces onto the display. To capture images, there is also a purpose-built room with even illumination and a slew of Raspberry Pi cameras to take pictures of the person’s face from many angles simultaneously.

Besides looking pretty snazzy, the scale of this is just crazy. For instance, if you figure that the usual strip of 60 WS2812s can draw just about 9.6 watts full on, that scales up to 136 kW(!) for the big head. And getting the control signals right? Forgeddaboutit. Prof. [Mohr], if you’re out there, leave us some details in the comments.

(Edit: He did! And his website is back up after being DOSed. And they’re custom LEDs that are even brighter to compete with daylight in the space.)

What is it with airports and iconic LED art pieces? Does anyone really plan their stopovers to see public art? How many of you will fly through Columbus on purpose now?

83 thoughts on “1.5 Million Dollars Buys 850,000 LEDs and 29 Raspberry Pis

    1. Honestly, I’ve seen much more futile wasting of money. This actually is something and does something, which means it’s lightyears ahead of a lot of other projects.

      Also, I don’t like a world where the only thing of value is utilitarianism. Pleasurable wastefulness is a great privilege.

  1. It sure is dope. But have fun with those LEDs drifting/failing very soon unless the inside of this thing is solid aluminum with fins and heavy ventilation…
    To be honest I guess using 2 dozen HD projectors and stitching software would have accomplished the same with less power / money down the drain.
    Oh and in the video you see that the LEDs don’t even go all the way round. Hmm..

    1. You can see in the videos that the place where it’s installed is pretty damn bright, finding a bunch of videoprojectors that could match the LEDs light output won’t be easy, and I’m not sure it would be that big of a difference pricewise.
      But more importantly, the visual aspect of LEDs and videoprojectors (even a bright one) are completely different, especially in daylight.

  2. I used to select flights with a preference for stopovers in Detroit because they had this really cool tunnel that the slidewalk ran through between terminals with syncopated watery echo sound effects and blinkenlights diffused through lots of curved panels and blobs of ground and etched glass covering the walls and ceiling of the tunnel.

    As cool as it was, it was clearly designed to entertain that contingent of travelers who find that loading up on various sedatives is the key to making air travel tolerable. I think I would enjoy it even if I were not of that persuasion but it is extra fun with a head full of Valium.

    1. Now that you mention it, back when I used to travel a lot, often on the road for a few weeks going from city to city, these sorts of artworks made a big difference. They added some color and variety to an otherwise dreary one or two hour stopover. Even for a quick transit from terminal to terminal, tunnels like the one you mention had a rejuvenating effect.

      1. 1970’s SciFi movies called. They want their tacky special effects back. If that’s the only way to get through that way, I’d be wearing earmuffs. More hideously annoying than bagpipes.

  3. Nice payday. The LEDs are under $100K, and the rest?

    In the US a lot of these public spaces are required to spend some percentage for art, and they don’t really care, just take the money and get the special interest groups off their backs.

    1. I understand your skepticism but the LED’s are custom engineered modules designed just for this application by Sansi North America and they are brilliant. LED was chosen for several reasons including: radiant light, intentional softness, and an association with modern signage. The Columbus Convention Center Board was very involved and supportive. Genuinely nice people who given many well-researched options chose my work with the intent to engage the community and visitors with my work. It was an honor and a great opportunity to serve my city.

    1. From the linked article:
      “The art collection and the overall $140 million expansion of the convention center and new garage was paid for through bonds and reserves, to be repaid by hotel and bed taxes.”

  4. This freaks me out. There are wayyy less creepy art installations they could have done. Really anything other than a giant juddery glowing head that wastes a tenth of a megawatt would have been great. Bigger is not always better.

    1. Hi Matt, Actually it is an open-ended art piece intended to ask questions about or culture’s relationship to social media. Not always a rosy topic. The size speaks to the democratization of public monuments. Thanks for your comments and I would like to hear more of your thoughts. -M.

      1. Thanks for the respone. So it is intended to make the viewer uncomfortable? As social commentary it’s very interesting but I’m surprised at the choice of an airport as the venue.

  5. 136 kW ???? Not including the air conditionning to cool the whole thing back down.
    WTF!
    What a waste !

    And after that, you will tell the average Joe to replace his 60 W light bulb with a 10 W LED bulb ?

  6. He should make one with Kanye West and one with Trump,, he’d sell them easy for 5 million a piece to.. guess who.
    Oh and one of Kim Jong-un. Which he can sell to ‘an anonymous bidder’ for 10 million.

  7. The Raspberry Pi is awful versatile. But really, if you need 29 of them and you are paid $1.5 million… then there are probably better tools for the job that you can and should use. What happens when one of those Pi’s gets a corrupt SD card?

  8. I’m more concerned with the multi-angle picture of your face that is taken in the photobooth. Pretty sure you could make a rough 3D reconstruction of the face, cleanly textured, and put that in some database somewhere…

  9. … when did the word installation turn to mean a big thing/sculpture. To me an installation has to do with making artistic use of the space it is in. This would be the same in a library airport hotel meuseum or other place… not an installation I think.

    If a tech term was used incorrectly this place would go nuts lol. But art rearms… meh whatever. Haha

    Anyhow I’ll go back to splitting atoms now…

  10. I think it is different, new, and interesting. I would like to see it talk. I don’t think I would like its eyes to follow me as I walk by. I would like to see a 14 foot Max Headroom talk and stutter.

  11. 30 cameras, if you include the RealSense camera above the interior touchscreen for preliminary alignment and facial recognition. The Pi cams were used primarily for their small form factor versus DSLR or more expensive cameras that are more difficult to trigger and capture simultaneously. The resolution, as was pointed out, is not the highest possible res or the worlds biggest display. It is simply based on the native resolution needed for the custom 5mm SMD display. A custom module was required so that we could create a faceted curve able to support an 8″ bend radius, maintain consistent pixel spacing, and put out more than 1000 nits brightness (so it could be seen within the brightly lit atrium). LED modules are front serviceable and hot swappable in case of any failures or dead pixels. The Pi cams then have 3D printed housings for positioning within the booth. The interior walls of the booth have laser etched LED panels that are dimmable and enable 270 degree even lighting within the booth. All components are front serviceable in case of any service needs. The cameras take 29 simultaneous photos and then use photogrammetry to reconstruct the 3D head. Within the process there is facial recognition that adjusts locations of eyes, nose, ears, and mouth and manipulates an unwrapped texture map of the face to align features to correspond to the sculptures features. The structure is made from aluminum and head form is derived from a scientific research project where several thousand male and female heads were scanned from all different nationalities, then averaged to create a head form that could at least attempt to be both gender and race neutral. The head form was then sliced into 24 layers which corresponded with the height of a custom 5mm LED video module. There are just under 3000 of these LED modules on the head. The entire piece weighs about 7000 pounds and has a driveable electric base that allows it to be maveured into different locations as well as rotated each night to face the outside of the building (when the convention center is otherwise closed). There is a thermostatically controlled fan cooling system that draws the heat from the interior chassis and exhaust through the top of the head. Speakers have been integrated into the base of the sculpture and there are future audio enhanced content scenarios and performances planned. The automated 3D headscanning is processed usually within 30 secs and then displays on the head for 30secs to a Min. An email with a 3D animation of the scan is sent to the visitor and then also archived within a Library. Through a custom CMS, galleries of scans can be curated and grouped for future display. The computers that control content mapping and the touchscreen reside within the head (where the brain might be) while the 3D image processing resides in a satellite control room. The system can be monitored and controlled onsite and remotely for service needs, content changes, or programming upgrades. For anyone who feels they could design, engineer, program and build a better and more elegant solution – please email me so we can bring you in to collaborate on our next project. Always looking for talented creative technologists.

      1. Lazy.
        Some guy took time out to give an interesting insight into the technical side and instead of making him feel warm and fuzzy for doing it, (or shutting the hell up) you randomly criticised him.

        Not an addition to the world or internet to be proud of.
        Go think about your life.

    1. Yes. Taking colour data from one or more camera view and projecting it to the unmeasured position is projection mapping. This would only be avoidable with contact measurement at the location required. On top of that a second projection mapping would likely be used to project the image data from the inferred 3D face map to the physical genderless/raceless average face shape to make it look as good as possible a match.

  12. Small correction – Jeff Grantz’s comment indicates they used custom LED modules – not custom LEDs.

    Big thanks to Jeff for sharing technical details.

    When engineers and artists work together, the results are just plain cool. We should do this more often! $1.5M is a small number when you consider the number of highly qualified folks who devoted considerable time to deliver something which functions reliably, can be controlled/operated quickly and simply by a non-engineer, and was built with long-term maintenance/repair in mind as well. Clearly much thought was given to this installation, in pleasant contrast to many of the hastily-composed comments on this page.

    1. StrikeCity, I couldn’t agree more. There is so much to say with technology in service of communication. Reduce any invention or idea down to pieces and parts, materials and cost, then it’s easy to dismiss. What counts is human intelligence and drive and Design Communications Ltd. has it in abundance. They were a joy to work with.

  13. Don’t feel bad, here in Calgary some stupid idiot (the city) paid $500.000 for some steel beams and rocks. The most ugly thing I have ever seen, but oh it’s art. No actually it isn’t. At least with this you get some tech!

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