Technologist and artist Greg Dutcher has created a 17-foot canvas of LEDs which anyone can modify by uploading code. The work, titled Range 3, debuted at a function for speakers at an O’Reilly Software Architecture conference in April 2016, and is a permanent installation on the 12th floor of the ThoughtWorks NYC office.
There are instructions next to the piece on how to upload code that will modify the pattern of light on the installation. Anyone can attach a USB cord to it and upload a “sketch.” The hardware of the installation itself can also be modified - all of Range 3’s wiring is exposed, so hackers can attach sensors to the installation and have the lights respond to different inputs.
Range 3 is intended to encourage people of varied skill levels to experiment with hardware and creative technology.
“I want everyone to participate in this,” says Dutcher. “There are so many people who are intimidated by creative technology because they think they need to be experts in order to accomplish anything. Range 3 is an opportunity for people to get exposed to electronics, and I think they’ll see it’s not so scary, and that it’s also fun.”
Dutcher has long been interested in LEDs as a medium, and Range 3, as the title implies, is the third iteration of artworks he’s been working on that involve programmable LEDs. Each of the previous iterations involved some sort of audience participation, and he wanted to take this idea further with his latest installation.
The LEDs, also referred to as “pixels,” are arranged in a grid 150 wide by 50 tall. They are represented in code as one long line of LEDs snaking its way back and forth across the canvas, left to right, starting from the topmost LED on the left.
A “sketch” consists of instructions (in C++) denoting the color of each LED in the array. A microcontroller processes these instructions around 60 times per second, so would-be hackers can make animated patterns of movement with the pixels. Since each of the LEDs is individually addressable and full-color, the possibilities for these sketches are endless.
Dutcher has been running workshops on soldering, how to use Arduino, and other fundamental skills for doing work with creative technology, and plans to use Range 3 as a tool for teaching in future workshops. “I’d love to get groups of artists and technologists in here to see what we can do with it… It would be a shame not to use it for some sort of performance, or maybe a virtual reality visualization.”
The installation is controlled by two Teensy boards (an Arduino competitor) paired with OctoWS2811 adaptors, which are additional pieces of hardware designed for working with large numbers of LEDs. The Teensy boards send data to the LEDs via Cat 6 cables, the same kind that deliver Ethernet to homes and offices. The animation itself was programmed in C++, which is also used in programming Arduinos.
Before starting this series of artworks, Dutcher knew little about electronics or C++ and was intimidated by the thought of learning so much in so little time. His first artwork in the series, titled Range, was completed in two weeks under a tight deadline, and he found that not only had he been mistaken about the amount of expertise he needed, but learning the skills he needed was easy and fun.
“Incremental improvements made my learning process so much easier. My early installations were on a much smaller scale. The different versions require very different approaches, and I was only able to learn how to power Range 3 because I was building off knowledge I had from my earlier work.”
Range 3 is intended as a democratic artwork and a potentially engaging teaching tool. Going forward, Dutcher intends to use it in workshops on creative technology. Also, as one of the organizers of the Hardware Hack Lab, and you can find him in the public lab events on many Wednesdays.