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The Award-winning Tessellated Tetra Sculpture from VVOX

Experiential Design outfit Volvox Labs' magnificent Tessellated Tetra Sculpture is a meandering kinetic installation spanning nearly 100 ft with 300 individual computer-driven motors, and 150 programmed LED lights. Congratulations are due here too as Volvox recently received not one but two awards: a Merit from ADC Awards in the Spatial Design/Installation Design category, and an Honoree from NYCxDesign in the Corporate Office category. Well done!
Architectural design partner, Gensler conceptualized the idea and the team at Volvox Labs were brought on to engineer, design, and develop Tetra making heavy use of TouchDesigner in the process. The collaboration led to the creation of an iconic new media installation illuminating the client's brand and creating a memorable experience fusing responsive LED lighting and kinetic motion.

That Tetra was inspired by client AT&T founder Alexander Graham Bell and his tetrahedral box kites stands to evidence.The forms of the sculpture are an abstracted version of the client’s geometric logo. As they undulate across the ceiling surface, the triangles move and shift to create a dramatic sense of activation and movement to the area and direct the viewer’s eye to negotiate the space between motion and light in a unique and ephemeral way. Human presence triggers kinetic motion and light so that each experience is invariably unique.

Derivative: How was the design of such a complex and "organic" kinetic installation established and developed?

VVOX: Due to the bespoke nature of Tetra, our team started with a cluster mockup to work through various design details such as proof of concept, materiality studies, physical/digital models, and kinetic motion studies. Digital fly-throughs in VR were necessary to understand the appropriate scale in the lobby. 

The team worked to architect a one-of-a-kind solution that synthesizes multiple design methodologies both traditional and new, to arrive at an iconic solution that expresses the essence of Xandr’s (Alexander Graham Bell's) place visually and historically.

Derivative: VVOX is certainly adept at delivering incredibly large-scale motor-driven kinetic installations. I’m referring here to MOMENTUM, the kinetic sculpture you produced for the DTLA Microsoft Theatre Lounge. These are rather large puzzles. Can you explain how you went about conceptualizing and programming the motor system that runs Tetra?

VVOX: When programming motors we start by answering a list of questions, i.e are the motors on a regular grid, what motion relative to one another are we looking for, what is the rate of change in motion throughout the day and so on. Working with a system like this on a grid array is relatively easy. A pixel value on a texture simply corresponds to an individual motors actuation and speed.

For Tetra the motor mapping became a fun challenge. The layout of the sculpture is very asymmetrical. We took the asymmetrical layout and mapped it inside a grid. That resolution relates to the width and length of the sculpture at its longest and widest points. This layout was then converted into CHOP channels. From this list of channels, we removed every channel that did not represent a motor in our sculpture. 

What's left is only the pixel values that represent motors with the rest omitted. This method allows us to create animations that are within a common resolution but our “channel mask” will only output the channels relevant to the motors. 

Equipped with clean animation data we were able to begin communicating with the motors. The motors that were used for this project used the CANopen protocol. After solid iterations of research and testing, we ended up using nine raspberry PIs to act as CANbus gateways. The main content server running TouchDesigner communicated with the gateways. The individual gateways then communicate to multiple custom-built controller boards that deliver both power and data to all the motors as well as light tubes installed in the sculpture. Each of the 9 gateways managed a cluster of 24-36 motors and 12-18 light tubes. 

The 12 individual clusters of motors and lights were broken down into 2-3 control boards running in a series. The individual control board had a dedicated power supply connected to the building's electrical power through a smart plug controlled in TouchDesginer using python.

Controlling smart plugs from TouchDesigner proved to be invaluable for testing (especially when your power source is 17' in the air! ), for troubleshooting, and for day to day operations. 

Derivative: What safety measures did you adopt to ensure failsafe operations of the sculpture and no "accidents" from above?

VVOX: The sculpture turns on and shuts down power based on a schedule that is dictated by TouchDesigner while CANbus will also report back on any power loss and communication failures. If either of these circumstances occurs, TouchDesigner will tell the entire cluster to shutdown and restart via the smart plugs. With permanent installations, fail-safes and redundancy of information are crucial to keeping knowledge of the state of the 'machine'. We try to make our software and hardware as verbose as possible.

Tetra also has 7 small wide-angle cameras strategically attached to the frame. These are used for the purpose of tracking. In TouchDesigner we leveraged blob tracking based on image difference. The cameras are all composited and warped in the software to create a texture that can be fed into the motor animation pipeline creating an interaction between the audience and the sculpture. 

Derivative: How did you communicate the concept and workings of Tetra to your clients and other contractors? It's not the easiest thing to imagine a 100' tesselating motor-driven light sculpture!

VVOX: We used TouchDesigner to build a real-world scale VR previsualization for the architects and clients. Having a tool like VR was fundamental to not only understanding the sense of the scale of the piece within the lobby but also to preview ambient and interactive motions of the motors and lights. We had all the geometry and position data built-in Houdini. Sending out the data with attributes to drive various elements in VR was seamless. TouchDesigner was perfect for creating a virtual representation of a real environment.

Derivative: And finally how is Tetra controlled?

VVOX: The entire sculpture can be controlled via a TouchDesigner UI living on a Surface tablet. The tablet gives users control over ambient and interactive modes as well as the ability to easily disable all animations in the sculpture. The tablet UI also serves as a visualization interface of the inner workings of the system.

Volvox Labs Members: 

Kamil Nawratil, Creative Director 
Javier Cruz, Technologist 
Mark McCallum, Digital Designer 
Pasakorn Nontananandh, Digital Designer 
Zhongyuan Zhang Project Role: Physical Experience Designer
Ben Johnson, Fabrication Project Manager 
Scott Chriss, Architectural Design and Fabrication
Ben Mosca, Fabricator 
Stefan Skripak, Physical Computing 
Nate Boyce, Fabrication Assistant 
Nicolas Arranz, Fabrication Assistant

Gensler Team Members:
Weston Bingham,  Digital Experience Design (DXD) Director
Priscilla Gomez , Design Lead
Roman Shishalov, Digital Project Manager 
Michael Schneider, Director, Media Architecture