Unnumbered sparks fly through the sky, created by cellphone signals

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Outside the Vancouver Convention Centre, people gather to interact with Skies Painted with Unnumbered Sparks. Photo: Ema Peter

Outside the Vancouver Convention Centre, people gather to interact with Skies Painted with Unnumbered Sparks. Photo: Ema Peter

“It looks like it’s holding up the clouds.” “It’s like a sky jellyfish.” “I love how the light moves across it along with the sound.”

Janet Echelman: Taking imagination seriously Janet Echelman: Taking imagination seriously These were some of the comments heard at TED2014 about Skies Painted with Unnumbered Sparks, a collaboration between sculptor Janet Echelman and data artist Aaron Koblin. This monumental sculpture stretched 745 feet, from the Vancouver Convention Centre where TED was held, over an open-air plaza on the edge of Vancouver Harbor and up to the top of the Fairmont Waterfront hotel. Every night while the temporary sculpture was installed, from March 15-22, 2014, dozens of people could be seen across the street setting up cameras and tripods to capture the glowing spectacle. Meanwhile, underneath the sculpture, even greater numbers of people gathered, most of them with their phones out. Using a phone, they could draw lines, squiggles, webs, and water drop rings onto the sculpture’s lush purples, blues, pinks and oranges.

Aaron Koblin: Visualizing ourselves ... with crowd-sourced data Aaron Koblin: Visualizing ourselves ... with crowd-sourced data Koblin, of Google’s Data Arts Team, told us a little about how it worked.

“The lighting on the sculpture is actually a giant website,” Koblin says. “It’s one huge Google Chrome window spread across five HD projectors. The content is being rendered in WebGL. It uses Javascript and shaders to render particles and sprites based on user motion, which is transmitted from mobile browser to our rendering browser via websockets. There are a lot of moving pieces here, from the local area network to the server (written in Go), to the sound system (also running in Chrome with Web Audio API) all the way through the LED light control system, which pulls pixel data directly from the browser.”

The end result: Viewers of the art were also a part of its creation, swiping and tapping on their screen to change the piece overhead. (You at home can get a taste of what the experience was like using this interactive WebGL model of the sculpture.)

“It’s exciting to see so many people engaging with the sculpture,” Koblin told the TED Blog. “I’ve been particularly pleased with the conversations that have started between complete strangers standing beneath. It’s had the effect of bringing people together.”

Echelman sensed the same thing. “I’ve been surprised at how many people come up to tell me how much the sculpture has meant to them. One woman whose husband is undergoing cancer treatment told me the sculpture made her feel protected,” she said. “I’ve been surprised at the photographic response. So many people are sharing their phone photos, which are beautiful and ethereal, and dozens of people have been lining up each night with their tripods to photograph. I love that the sculpture could be a catalyst for all these people engaging in their own creative act.”

In a short talk at TED2014 about the sculpture, Echelman thanked the team of hundreds who helped. She especially thanked Autodesk, who designed custom 3D software to allow her ambitious vision to be manifested in reality and who were the principal sponsors of the work. She also thanked Koblin and Google for designing and powering the interactive artwork, enabling people to “choreograph light on the sculpture, to play with the sky.”

Below, a video from Google that describes “The Making of Unnumbered Sparks.”


And a video from Autodesk about how art and engineering came together in Skies Painted with Unnumbered Sparks:


Another video from Google about “The Technology Behind Unnumbered Sparks.


Attendees add visual flair to Skies Painted with Unnumbered Sparks. Photo: Bret Hartman


Another beautiful image of the sculpture glowing at night. Photo: Bret Hartman