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Patterned by Nature Is A Floating Ribbon Of 3,600 Animated LCD Tiles

Sosolimited teams up with Plebian Design and Hypersonic to create a new data-powered installation for the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences.
April 27, 2012, 3:50pm

You may know Sosolimited as the prolific data warpers from Cambridge, Massachusetts who like to take live television broadcasts and de-code the transmissions, surfacing patterns embedded within the images and speech to give the content new context. At our San Francisco event this March, they presented Overscan, a work that deconstructed real-time feeds of March Madness games across four hi-res screens. [See our behind-the-scenes video here.] They’re also gearing up to re-stage their notorious ReConstitution performances around the upcoming election debates later this year.

But last week, after close to three years of development, they unveiled a new project that’s a bit of a departure from the work we’ve come to expect from the group. For starters, it’s a massive 10 ft by 90 ft sculpture composed of 3,600 pieces of LCD glass that hangs suspended in the five-story atrium of the newly opened North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh. The piece, called Patterned by Nature, is a collaboration between Sosolimited and Plebian Design and Hypersonic Design & Engineering, and in true Soso style, takes its inspiration from the patterns that exist in the world around us.


Working with grayscale liquid crystal diode (LCD) glass, which changes colors when an electric current runs through it, the team animated the sculpture with animations drawn from patterns in nature on both the macro and micro scale—ranging from flocking birds to bacteria to cuttlefish skin to rain on a pond. “In the course of thinking through the form of the display and what it would look like or what it would feel like, we arrived at this very simple idea of patterns in nature and quickly realized that we could embody a lot of the ideas that were being presented didactically in the museum in a way more visceral, organic kind of way,” explained Sosolimited’s Eric Gunther, who developed the motion graphics animations and the accompanying eight-channel sound component. “And then we just started developing—just really playing with ideas, and doing motion studies, and developing the content to try to work with what the museum’s trying to do.”

Shots of the installation in process courtesy of Sosolimited:

Thanks to some ingenious mechanical and structural engineering from their good friends and collaborators Jeff Lieberman and Bill Washabaugh, the 4,000 pound structure looks weightless as it bends and twists through the sun-filled atrium, looking like a ribbon blowing in the wind. The monolith may be imposing in scale, but it runs on a measly 75 watts of power—less power than your average laptop computer.

The roughly 20 different scenes currently in the animation cycle last anywhere between two to four minutes and were created using a variety of techniques including software modeling and video sampling and compositing. “Our goal is to capture the kinetic essence of each pattern while staying as true as possible to the science. Add in the eight-channel soundtrack and we hope to transport visitors to the sun-filled atrium deep into the patterns of our universe,” says John Rothenberg of Sosolimited.

Since the structure is essentially a giant grid of pixels (20 × 180, to be exact), up close the animations can often look like a flickering flock of black and gray squares, but from far away, and with the accompanying score, visitors can start to decipher movements and shapes. “Your brain works in a really funny way where it tends to see a bunch of separate parts of something as one unified whole—we do this with perception all the time,” explains Jeff Lieberman. “There’s kind of two layers of the piece that are doing that same kind of thing. We have a purposefully very low resolution display of patterns that your brain almost instantly recognizes. By making it extremely low resolution, sometimes you are seeing a bird that is actually just four squares blinking on and off and when you’re close to the ribbon, it’s almost maybe impossible to detect that pattern. And so you notice the kind of atoms that are blinking on and off, but only when you back up do you see how those things coalesce in behavior.”