Dazzling future on display

Written by: Tom Shelley | Published:

Tom Shelley reports on how walls, ceilings and floors are being transformed into giant full-colour, real-time displays



Massively large displays have been developed that are strong enough to mount on the sides of buildings – or even form the floors of virtual reality environments. They are based on hexagonal LED cells in a honeycomb, which are optically more efficient than square cells and are addressed using a form of Ethernet.
Derived from totally British technology and originally spun out of work on the Millennium Dome, they are being greeted enthusiastically in Italy and about to go on sale in Japan – a country more accustomed to selling displays in this direction.
The SmartSlab is the brainchild of Professor Tom Barker, head of the Industrial Design Engineering Department at London’s Royal College of Art, and emerged from work he undertook in the construction of six of the zones in the original Millennium Dome exhibition. This involved making constructions out of aluminium honeycomb, with fibreglass skins for floors and walls, based on technology used for aircraft floors.
“I was using a scanner to scan in a piece of the honeycomb for a report,” he explains. “But because there was not enough light, I came up with the idea of taking some fairy lights I had to hand, putting one light in each cell. I then realised we could have the world’s most efficient display system, because hexagons give an 18% better picture quality than a display based on square pixels. All the adjacent moves are the same, so you get a better image.”
Once it was decided to turn it into a display, the problem came up of how best to get the data to all the cells. The team worked with Joshua Portway – who has created various 2D and 3D animation tools, used internally and licensed for other productions, including ‘Jurassic Park’ and the television series ‘Lost’.
“Our system takes image data and breaks it up into Ethernet packets,” says Barker. “Ethernet is normally an asynchronous system, but we have some very clever stuff to overlay timing signals, while still allow it to remain compatible with Ethernet. The key components are the injection-moulded polycarbonate honeycomb and the polycarbonate skins, which are thermally bonded on with LED lamps inside. The resulting structure can be used to make walls, floors and ceilings to create a complete immersive environment.”
While it is an obvious way of constructing a complete, 3D immersive virtual environment, Barker would like to use it not only for representing CAD designs from the inside, but also for theme parks, recreational facilities and night clubs. He even suggested using it to create a totally programmable office environment. However, the first licensees seem to have rather different applications in mind.
One is the Italian lighting company Targetti, which is currently funding the R&D. The other is Feel Design in Japan, which wants to have displays large enough to cover the sides of buildings. One application already demonstrated in Japan is the construction of 3.6m display cubes that by day are used to display advertising and, in the evening, made available for people to upload/download pictures and film clips. Displays have been experimentally deployed in retail outlets in the UK and at an exhibition in Venice.
Complementary technologies developed at the Royal College of Art that could also be deployed include eyeball tracking, gesture recognition and head counting.
“Advertisers want to know how many people are looking at their screens, as opposed to just walking past them – rather like pay per click on the Internet,” Barker says. “We didn’t want it just to be a video display. One of the things I find alarming is the amount of people spend in front of screens. Can’t we find some better ways of integrating images into our personal places?”
The actual displays are now commercially available – such as a 2.4m x 4.8m display made up of eight 600m panels, each with 20mm wide pixel cells under test in the Mechanical Engineering Department of Imperial College. Light output is up to 3,000 candelas per square metre. The selling price would be in the region of £75,000.
Units are available with 10mm wide cells, viewable from 4m away; or 20mm cells, best viewed from more than 8m distance. A Chinese developer has apparently requested units with 82mm wide cells, which CTL Manufacturing in Stonehouse, Gloucestershire, is assembling. Video applications have all been developed on Apple Macs running Unix.

Pointers

* SmartSlabs are large, multi-element LED based displays using a hexagonal honeycomb matrix

* Displays are currently available with 10mm and 20mm wide cells.

* One on test at Imperial College has 20mm cells and was 4.8m wide x 2.4m high

* The displays are CE and UL approved, and can be made weatherproof, waterproof and capable or being walked on, if necessary.


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