AIA National Convention 2016: "ION: Interactive Open Network"

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Project Status:

Completed 2016

ION, an ephemeral, interactive light installation suspended above Lenfest Plaza, is adjacent to the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Environmentally responsive, the installation is designed to react to the subtle play of wind across an array of sixty, three-foot-diameter balloons, below which is affixed an interactive network of fiber optic cables. LED light sources are suspended from the balloons to illuminate the cables and to create auxiliary light. The balloons are set to hover over the plaza at a height ranging from twelve to twenty five feet above the ground, creating a temporary light canopy.

The concept for the installation arose from a desire to experiment with distributed network systems whereby each component is capable of wireless communication between all other components within the system. “We wanted to create an experience that was fun, responsive to place and environmental conditions, and that embodied the spirit of our in-house experimental lab, Tech Studio,” said LMN Partner Stephen Van Dyck. “We are always dabbling in developing interactive technologies and always looking for excuses to try something fun and new. As in all of our research work, there’s always some breakthrough that we find and apply to our project work. And with this one we already have several ideas about where this might take us.”

The design process leading up to installation was also itself an experiment. Tech Studio founding member Scott Crawford described the process as “an idealized design approach where the governing forces of gravity, lift, weight and cost were all simulated and directly shaped the form of the project while leaving room for ION’s interaction with the environment to further enrich one’s experience.” Plamena Milusheva, Tech Studio member added, “The most exciting part of this experiment was the opportunity to engage with the rapid innovation in small-scale embedded wireless technology. ION was a chance to start exploring an idea about networked environments at the human scale with the intention of considering the implications for the building and urban scales.”

A subtle pattern of light constantly shifts across the entire installation and can be further altered by gently tugging on the system’s support strings. Accelerometers at select balloons sense movement and initiate range of pattern and color changes across the network based on the location of the movement. One of the baseline sequences is a ripple effect of lights turning off based on proximity to the originating node.

The active light sources are high-intensity LEDs, which illuminate the attached fiber-optic cable. The cable, aptly named Sparkle fiber-optic, is designed with breaks along the length of each of its seven strands, creating a sparkling effect as it carries the light from the LEDs. The LEDs shift color from white to a range of blues and magentas. The circuit boards that connect all of the electronics for each node were custom designed and fabricated by the Tech Studio team with help from others in the office. Approximately six hundred lineal feet of fiber optic cable is used, and power is supplied by a collection of 6V sealed lead acid batteries.

This isn’t the end of ION. Plans are in the works for future variants of the installation to appear in the Pacific Northwest this coming summer.