Water Cube!

Large Scale Installation
National Aquatics Stadium, Beijing, China
Water Cube!

This is a great project I worked on by Jennifer Wen Ma ( I did the creative technology direction )
We are controlling the individual "bubbles" surrounding the structure. Each day has it's own different animation based on the I-ching, modified by the mood of the day on Weibo, the Chinese twitter.

The Water Cube is now the Beijing National Aquatics Center. It was originally constructed for the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing and later converted into a water park.
The structure is a metal space frame holding up a special plastic film (IETF)shaped into bubbles. Each bubble is illuminated from the inside with rows of addressable RGB LED lamps.

Water Cube!

Close up of the water cube. You can almost see the individual lamps shining up from the bottom of each bubble

Since each bubble is addressable we can use the water cube as a gigantic low-resolution screen.

So each day a program calculates what animation the day brings based on the I-ching and modifies the animation according to the total mood of the day on weibo. For example the day's animation might be thunder. The mood can make the lightning flashes more frequent, more intense and brighter (or the opposite)
This makes each animation a unique combination of the nature of the calendar day plus the experience of the people that lived that day.

How we do it:

Water Cube!
Photo with The two main developers from the Beijing team and Jennifer

Zhao Fei in the foreground was part of the original water cube deployment team during the Olympics and is in charge of the final step of converting the renderings to the specially designed control interface. He is also in charge of the hardware. Zhao Liang , behind him, is in charge of fine tuning the software that generates the daily renderings. In the back Jennifer provides Zhao with guidance. To the right is one of the indefatigable video crew documentarians that followed us around close to 24 X 7

Water Cube!
Zheng Jianwei (Lighting Designer) Zhao and Jennifer discussing an effect. You can see various Water Cube Lighting Control systems on the monitors

I setup a framework that would read the data from Weibo and the Calendar as an XML file, generate the animations and output them into the Water Cube format. This was all done in a great real time video synthesis toolkit called vvvv (check them out: vvvv.org )

Water Cube!
Jennifer's favorite patch. It reminds us of a Sol Lewitt. It is actually controlling the joints between a line of particles that we use to generate waves (and yes vvvv-ers a recursive subpatch could have been used, but this is so purty!)

So we have the I-Ching telling us what the nature of each day is, say Thunder, or Fire, Water ... We also have the day's emotional content in China. The day's emotion is read by scraping emoji (emoticons) posted on Weibo

Water Cube!
Liang Mao Yin doing the final touches to the Weibo scraping program while Zhao and Cindy Ma look over his shoulder in awe

The emotional content affects the day's nature. For example if today is Heaven (which is symbolized by a white circle) and the day is sad, the circle will grow very little and very slowly. If instead China had a great day, the circle grows quickly to a very large one.

Water Cube!
Heaven. The top is turned off during this test.

Programming this was a trip. We normally render animations in High Definition, but here we were working with a kind of very low def as each side is 72 giant bubbles long. And while the bubbles themselves have dozens of lamps in a row along the bottom of each bubble, and each lamp is individually addressable, the effect is that the bubble lights up with one color, or a very gentle gradient. To complicate things further the bubbles do not line up so straight lines are squiggly! On the other hand, basic geometric shapes displayed on the water cube as wonderful abstract images.

For example: Fire starts like this in vvvv:

Water Cube!

and ends up like this:

Water Cube!

Needless to say I'm very happy with the way this project happened, and I loved working with Jennifer and all of the Beijing team. I can't wait to get back to Beijing to spend some fun times with them.

For more about this project please see Jennifer's website. Also there is a great post about it on The Creators Project.
Jennifer Wen Ma
The Creators Project

ps. featured on CNN! Fareed Zakaria's The last word

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