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A Network of LED Antennas Brings a Neighborhood Together

Umbrellium's 'VoiceOver' converts people's voices into an interactive channel of light and sound, connecting up a neighborhood.
Photo: Lee Dobson

A network of light and sound let people engage with their neighbors in the town of East Durham last weekend, a symbol of connection in a place increasingly deprived and isolated due to pit closures in the mining industry in the 1980s and 1990s. The residents of a couple of streets in England's north east were able to communicate thanks to a public art installation called VoiceOver, commissioned by Forma Arts and created by Umbrellium for East Durham Creates.


Participants readily admitted they don't often talk to their neighbors. After talking with the locals, Umbrellium, who specialize in working with urban communities, created VoiceOver to bridge the distances between the people who live there. "We were very much inspired by the Hands Across America project from the late 80s, that achieved the seemingly impossible task of getting millions of people to hold hands across the USA at the same time," artist and co-founder of Umbrellium, and also the Wifi-Camera, Usman Haque tells The Creators Project.

Photo: Richard Kenworthy

Haque calls the installation a "participatory cultural infrastructure" and says residents were interested in sharing stories of the old mining days, singing, speaking on political or religious matters, and reading bedtime stories.

To build the piece, the group designed a "mesh network" which involved connecting up custom built "light antennas" and "radio boxes." The antennas were made using frosted acrylic tubes and LED strips connected to suction cups, the radio boxes each had a Raspberry Pi and speaker, enabling a signal conversion and bridge to the antenna. These were placed on various houses. "It means that each device is a node in a shared network carrying data for other nodes," Haque explains. "Such technologies are sometimes used to help deliver internet or phone coverage to areas that have very little signal/coverage."


Photo: Richard Kenworthy

The result was an interactive channel of people's voices transformed into light and sound that lit up the neighborhoods and got people out of their homes and into the streets to wander and wonder through the night.

"The project has been very much about using technology to connect people together in ways they may never have been connected before, and using the 'visual spectacle' as both a call to action and as an excuse to talk with each other," Haque notes. "Rather than simply being an ‘efficient’ communication tool, the aim has been to get as many people as possible together at the same time communicating with others they might not even know, and meaningfully involved in creating, installing, supporting and bringing to life a cultural infrastructure, one that actively encourages performance, sharing, and storytelling."

Photo: Richard Kenworthy

Photo: Richard Kenworthy

Click here to learn more about VoiceOver.


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