Multiple screens come to life each morning in the lobby of the London Stock Exchange's headquarters in Paternoster Square, but instead of showing symbols and tickers, they present cosmic visualizations of the financial markets. Conceived and designed by Robin Carlisle and Jonny Dixon of Guardians of the Galaxy VFX studio, Framestore, the installation known as Stellar Atrium Project takes over a location that might be the last place you'd expect to see new media art—but that's exactly what makes it a prime location.
Although the visuals themselves are simple to understand, there's a lot that brings them into existence. Custom software processes databases, Intranet pages, RSS feeds, breaking news—seven high performance PCs churn out pixels, servers synchronize the visuals and collect data, and there are two networks inside the system keeping it all ticking.
Not only did Carlisle and Dixon have to come up with a simple visual that could represent, in real-time, the fastest exchange in the world—and the vast amounts of data that run through it—in a compelling and easy-to-understand manner, they also wanted to include a nod to the history of the place. The stellar explosion that starts the piece references space age tropes, but also the so-called Big Bang that happened in the UK financial market in the 1980s.
This event brought with it deregulation and reforms, one of which was changing the common image we have of stock exchanges: the open outcry method of people shouting and waving their arms in the air, which has since become a primarily electronic trading system. These changes have resulted in the globalized marketplace that we see today, the same that strengthened London into an international financial center.
"We went down the real-time route because they [the LSE] were very keen to show the fast-paced innovation.” explains Carlisle. “We could've just provided a series of videos or semi-interactive content, but we felt that we should probably just take a risk and see how far we could push it. See what they'd accept."
When trading starts each day around 8 AM, the information is represented as a galaxy. Individual stock tickers become stars that orbit around a lens-flared central light, rising or falling based on happenings in the markets. This drama takes place on 500 individual screens that form a single, 200-million-pixel canvas.
This means that, as a piece of data viz, rather than just being pretty to look at or an afterthought to events that have already occurred, it’s driven by real world activities. "It uses the low level finance APIs so we can see when everything is happening in real-time,” explains Carlisle. “If there's an interest in the stock or it goes up or goes down, you see a lot of movement in the galaxy. We don't actually do much animation, we move the camera around it, the rest of the excitement is from the trading data itself.”
It's an interesting convergence between new media creativity and a financial institution that dates back over 200 years. Both come from different backgrounds, standpoints and philosophies, but have forged a union nonetheless.
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