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  • Writer's pictureMichael Horn

Refractions

Updated: Apr 24

This piece, created by MGA Sculpture Studios in St. Petersburg, Florida is on display in the 1st floor elevator lobby at the JW Marriot Residences at Clearwater Beach.




MGA came up with a brilliant plan involving a grid of waves that would include movement in the light behind which could create interesting changing angles and reflections, reminiscent of looking up at the surface of the water in a pristine beach.


They constructed 5 7x5 foot aluminum panels to mount the lights on, and I figured out what lights to use, what kind of program to run on them to achieve the effect they wanted, procured hardware, mounted strips, soldered my fingers down to the bone, and performed microcontroller troubleshooting tasks on a laptop in a hole in the ceiling.


Working with MGA on this project has been one of the most incredible experiences I have ever had, not only was I helping to install something 1200 pounds at ceiling level and debugging code with a hardhat on, which is really cool on it's own, I was also doing my very favorite activity in the world, which is working with a bunch of brilliant and talented artists together pouring their hearts out into the creation of one gigantic thing none of us could have created on our own.


Honestly, I think it was a bit of a surprise to us all how compelling the effect of bending, undulating metal can be when you stand under it and watch for a while. You can see hints of it in the early tests below and I definitely did a lot of algorithm work to enhance the effect, but it was a bit of a surprise I think how effective the illusion is when we saw my latest light program running under their actual sculpture.


This program is running on 5 separate Teensy 4s on their own power supplies that are linked together with a digital i/o to each neighbor to synch the pattern across them. I 3D printed small holders for them which were mounted to a large aluminum base along with the power supplies. Each teensy received its own 5V tap from a regulator attached to the 12v WS2815 line it effects.


The control panel is located in a hatch some distance away from the sculpture, very thick solid core wire and magnetoisolators pass data as far as 30 feet to the WS2815 strips. I had to use isolators because the giant leads are prone to picking up inductive spikes which killed a few expensive T4s with low voltage tolerances on the I/O pins before I figured out what was going on. The LEDs seem to have some protection built-in, perhaps as a precaution because they normally run on 12v.


These WS2815 strips have a built-in backup line. I actually sheered off one of the LEDs stacking one of these panels against another one, and didn't notice for some time because the panel tested out perfectly except for the one missing pixel. Yes, I did replace the one missing pixel.


The rippling is based on a video I recorded, however not having a super slow-mo camera, nor the memory space for that kind of video data, I came up with a clever algorithm to randomly apply only some of each frame, multiple times, to create a virtually much higher frame count with a lovely sparkle. Each teensy has 1/5 of the total video in its program storage space.


It is possible to alter this program, if desired, to customize the color of the piece to anything in the spectrum, but so far everyone seems to be happy with the teal blue it has been tuned to.


MGA has a very refined and professional video of the sculpture and some great behind-the-scenes of their side of the fabrication process here:



Here is my supremely inferior quality cell phone video compilation of my light design as it evolved through the development of the project, starting with a very crude home-made hardboard grid with aluminum tape so I could approximate the shadows in my tests:




Just before opening, the client wanted to make some adjustments to the intensity of the blue. My camera was unfortunately not able to get the color quite right, trying to balance it against the warm white LED lighting the rest of the room, but the undulating effect is very clear in this long shot. The color is better represented in MGA's professional video at the link shared above.




Around the corner, I also designed and installed the light for another sculpture, Seagrass, created by Carrie Jadus in collaboration with MGA Sculpture Studios. This is a much simpler program which consists of sine and cosine waves and a couple of sprites that drift back and forth randomly as they dance from side to side.







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