CASE STUDY – Discovery Wall by Squint Opera

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Presented by Sara Gazzad and Mudit Ganguly

Link to presentation 

Client: Weill Cornell Medical College
Creative Direction: Squint/Opera
Technical Direction: Hirsch&Mann
Detail Design: The Cross Kings
Fabrication: DCL
Optics: Ely Optics

ARCHITECT: Ennead Architects
INTERIOR DESIGNER: Ennead Architects
INDUSTRY RESOURCE: Hirsch&Mann
INDUSTRY RESOURCE: The Cross Kings
INDUSTRY RESOURCE: Design Communications Limited

Introduction

Biomedical research centres aren’t renowned for creative enterprise – why should they be – but across the pond one New York organisation is bucking the trend with a stunning new digital artwork. The Weill Cornell Medical College commissioned London-based creative agencies Squint/Opera and Hirsch&Mann to produce the Discovery Wall for its new Manhattan premises and the results are super-impressive. The final piece comprises 2,800 LED screens set behind a bank of lenticular discs. For passers-by it can be viewed as a large-scale digital artwork but up close the screens display content that relates to the college’s pioneering scientific research.

There’s a nice making-of below in which the creatives explain the project’s ongoing potential, built around the college being able to upload content through their CMS. As Daniel Hisrchmann puts it: “It is extensible beyond us by design…you get to make something and watch it get better and better as people add more content over time. That is amazing!”

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What is it?

A wall-sized digital artwork created from thousands of tiny screens and lenses was designed by Squint/Opera for the $650m Belfer Research Building, part of Weill Cornell Medical College (WCMC) in Manhattan. The shimmering and animated foyer installation celebrates the college’s research work.

The large-scale digital installation (approx 4.6m x 2.7m) comprises 2800 mini screens set in a grid pattern behind a panel of thousands of circular acrylic discs – a reference to the lenses used in medical research. The dual layer construction makes it possible to read the wall from a distance as a single image, and then, up close, each screen has information about medical discoveries and other news from WCMC’s website. The installation is programmed so that images and stories change constantly.

To bring the concept to life, every aspect of the hardware was designed from scratch.

The shimmering and animated foyer installation celebrates the college’s research work. The large-scale digital installation (4.6m x 2.7m) is comprised of 2800 mini screens set in a grid pattern behind a panel of thousands of circular acrylic discs – a reference to the lenses used in medical research.

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Goals

The artwork operates on three main perspective view points.

1. Far views display ‘macro’ images and text
2. Mid views display ‘mezzo’ layers of additional information
3. Up close views display ‘micro’, detailed levels of information

The goal of the installation was to celebrate the support of the building’s donors and promote the research and discoveries made in the building. In addition, it was designed as an intriguing and beautiful object to be viewed close up in the lobby or seen from outside the building as a single image. Each screen has information about medical discoveries and other news fed from WCMC’s website. The images and stories change constantly. Through the language of discovery passers-by are drawn in and encouraged to learn more. The vision of New-York-based Ennead Architects, was to commission an artwork which would promote collaboration throughout the building and give a light touch to the interior fabric. To achieve this electronics were colour-matched with the stone cladding and circuit boards were mounted on a transparent frame. The clear acrylic lenses magnify the stonework at oblique angles and focus on the screens when facing the wall square on. This elegant approach compliments the natural feel of the building. The double layer, screens and lenses, creates a unique visual effect, as the wall will look as whole from a long distance while the screens can be appreciated as single elements when looked closely. The creators use this characteristic to create large-scale visuals with smaller images, taken from the archives of the Belfer research center. Thanks to its set-up, the installation shows the research and the discoveries achieved in the Belfer’s building, in a way that is visually appealing and can be enjoyed from the street or from the lobby.
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Process

During the commission Ennead Architects advised the client and briefed Squint/Opera to develop creative concepts. The concepts were delivered through a team of specialists brought together by Squint/Opera. Hirsch&Mann led the technology design, production and delivery, The Cross Kings led the physical detail design and fabrication in Boston was completed by Design Communications Limited. Squint/Opera worked closely with Hirsch & Mann to design and build all components from scratch. This involved creating many prototypes which allowed the team to test ideas and communicate concepts to all stakeholders, taking them on the journey of developing a piece of art. The prototypes acted as a key discussion tool beyond drawings or presentations and allowed the team to refine the design and align with the architectural vision and the brief. From the early stages Squint/Opera worked with Ennead Architects to ensure practical elements were successfully integrated within the building. This included provision of extractor fans, IT and AV conduits/storage, appropriate light levels and structural supports to ensure the artwork will remain a permanent homage to medical discovery.
To develop the software, team worked with variable.io to help create both the front end CMS and the backend data storage, crunching, encoding and control. They were able to update all 2,800 LCD screens playback at a rate of 20fps. The software controller was equipped with algorithms for tiled content distribution, procedural layout generation and playlist scheduling. The whole architecture was running on NodeJS with CouchDB and talking to the hardware over serial port via the custom protocols developed by White Wing Logic.
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For the realization of Discovery wall the authors created most of the hardware components from scratch. They chose a tiny screen with a high pixel density that can be used as a single tone pixel or as part of a high res composition, where all screens create a larger image. As the screens are part of a popular consumer device, they had to reverse engineer it and find the ideal conditions for its operation, a huge technical challenge itself.

The wiring and mounting of the pixels is achieved by grouping eight displays into a single printed circuit boards, with their own control components and memory on the back side. The cooper traces are platted in gold to give the installation an aesthetic outlook. Each column comprises five PCB and 40 displays.

Content

Content displayed on the Discovery Wall can be viewed differently at so-called macro, mezzo and micro levels. By looking at the installation in its macro view from across the road, visitors will see a large-scale high-resolution image on what appears to be one large display. The closer individuals get, however, the more levels of detail are uncovered.
At the mezzo level, from outside the window of the building, visitors can see titles of research topics and clusters of images amongst the LED screens. At the micro level, right up close to the installation, visitors can see high-resolution images and paragraphs of related text on the individual screens.Content is selected and scheduled using a content management system that was designed for use with the Discovery Wall. As new discoveries are made at the research center, the content is updated. In addition to the layers of content, the curved lenses create a lenticular effect for each mini screen, changing how the artwork looks depending on where the viewer is standing.
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Additional Info

The work is designed to be permanent and has a modular design. All its parts are replaceable and serviceable, meaning maintenance time and costs can be kept to a minimum. It has a power consumption of less than 1 kW.

Each screen is a reverse engineered LCD iPod nano screen, the resolution has been tested to ensure the screens can be read at the optimum image size at both a macro and micro levels. LCD screen resolution: 240 x 240 pixels Media wall macro resolution: 70 x 40 pixels Total media wall resolution: 16800 x 9600 pixels Power requirements: 1 KW (less than a standard heater) Lifespan: 10+ years

Gallery

 

Works cited

http://www.itsnicethat.com/articles/discovery-wall

http://thecreatorsproject.vice.com/en_uk/blog/2800-screens-create-internet-enabled-lcd-mosaic

http://thecreatorsproject.vice.com/en_uk/blog/2800-screens-create-internet-enabled-lcd-mosaic

http://newatlas.com/weill-cornell-medical-college-discovery-wall/32559/

http://www.squintopera.com/projects/all-work/wcmc-discovery-wall-2/

https://www.codaworx.com/project/wcmc-discovery-wall-weill-cornell-medical-college

WCMC Discovery Wall

Discovery wall – Zoom into medical research