The Digital Facades Illuminating Cities After Dark

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Monday, March 16th, 2015
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A growing trend is seeing lights and screens installed in facades to bring them to digital life in the evenings.

The growing practice is known as digital or media facades, or as mediatecture.

It’s more than just about creating a marketing metropolis as is the case in Times Square, however. Instead, digital facades are offering a visual expression for their cities, whether through art or as a platform to communicate weather, traffic or city messages and even connect with global events.

Some facades can even be controlled by citizens linking to mobile networks and interacting directly with the lights on the facade.

Digital facades typically come in two forms:

  1. LEDs which illuminate the façade
  2. A graphic display (generally an advertising application) which may also interact with the internet – the media façade.

The Empire State Building in New York has been changing its colours as a tradition since 1976.

The colours near the top of the tower change to indicate seasonal events and occasions throughout the year. In 2012, the new owner’s installed a computer driven LED light system capable of displaying 16 million colours, which can change instantaneously. The colours can even be synchronised with music broadcasts.

On the subject of music, in 2013, Shenzhen based UNIT Studio completed the headquarters for A8 Music Group, a leading Chinese music download company.

The building features a “synaesthetic” LED façade that responds to music downloads on the company’s website.

According to the firm, the visually composes a light display that reflects songs being downloaded in real time.

A8's headquarters displays a digital display of music downloads

A8’s headquarters displays a digital display of music downloads

 

“Shaped like a series of sound waves, the coloured LED lighted façade is organised according to the Scriabin keyboard, a system of where music tones are associated to a colour,” the firm said.

Hollywood based StandardVision creates large scale media facades work to integrate LEDs into architecture and make façades attractive, rather than distracting.

Recognised as one of the world’s longest media facades (spanning approximately 1,200 feet), the studio’s installation at Taman Anggrek Mall in Jakarta features a façade of mixed high and low resolution screens.

The façade, which is transparent to allow outside views from inside the building, was a retrofit of the 15-year-old development. It features aluminium LED Blades that were preassembled in modules and hoisted into position on site.

“Banks of angled  LED blades to create maximum visibility and provide visual texture,” StandardVision’s website reads.

The studio also applied a lighting solution for four 22-storey office towers in Saudi Arabia. At night, the façade turns into a media display illuminated by 13,400 custom-made volumetric LED light fixtures.

While aesthetically striking and offering a media canvas to advertisers, energy consumption and the heat generated from these facades is being highlighted as a key concern as their popularity booms.

Kevin Dinh, a partner at Lightbox-Studio in Melbourne noted that “about 60 to 70 per cent of applied electrical power to LED is converted to heat.”

Dinh estimated that 150 watts per metre square is the average power consumption for LED display.

He added that the future could be OLED (organic LED) displays with reported lower energy consumption, and possibly less heat generation.

One of the key ways to remove the heat produced by LED displays on towers is through efficient thermal management of the building itself.

Arup has demonstrated sustainable possibilities with the façade itself in creating the largest LED display in the world at approximately 2,000 metre squares.

The GreenPix media wall lines the Xicui Entertainment Centre in West Beijing and, according to Arup, it is self sustaining.

“The unique glass curtain wall comprises an approximately 2,000m2 ‘interactive skin’ and integrates a photovoltaic system for the first time in China,” Arup said. “It performs as a self-sufficient organic system, storing solar energy by day and using it to illuminate the screen after dark.”

The photovoltaic arrays on the building capture twice as much energy from the sun as the lighting façade consumes.

A close up of The GreenPix facade photovoltaic system

A close up of the GreenPix photovoltaic system

 

Last year, new technology was announced by EDOOH that could transform ordinary glass panes into projection screens.

EDOOH chief information officer Crystal Fok detailed the energy efficient Video Glass technology to CCTV.

“LED light is quite concentrated, and if you were to look directly at it you would feel uncomfortable,” she explained. “But in the glass the light is diffused, so even if you are standing in front of the screen, you are able to watch it directly.”

“Video Glass is more environmentally-friendly as light intensity can be fine-tuned to reduce light pollution, and it is also more cost effective.”

Developed in South Korea, the glass features a plastic polymer film. An electrical current then runs through the pane, frosting the glass and enabling it to display images from a projector mounted approximately one metre away.

Sustainability concerns aside, these dynamic façades also pose the problem of driver distraction.

Façades might soon be in the same position as digital billboard companies across the globe that continue to battle with city councils including Los Angeles, Toronto and even Brisbane.

While studies have shown that driver distraction is real, information on collisions directed by digital media is less conclusive.

In 2013, Brisbane City Council introduced a ban prohibiting roadside billboards and signs that were digitally distracting to drivers.

“Like every other industry, advertising is rapidly going digital and we are making sure council’s laws keep pace and continue to protect the amenity of our city,” planning chairman Councillor Amanda Cooper told the Courier Mail at the time.

“This also poses potential issues on our roads as traditional billboards are replaced by high-tech digital signs that are basically de facto television sets and these changes put the safety of motorists and pedestrians first.”

Driver distraction research conducted by the US Department of Transportation, Federal Highway Administration showed that drivers who are distracted from keeping their eyes on the road for two seconds or more are at an elevated risk of causing accidents.

Further research showed, however, that regular billboards distracted drivers for a mere 335 milliseconds, a number that increased to 1.335 seconds for digital billboards, below the threshhold at which additional risk is posed.

With more people moving into cities and subjected to bright illumination on buildings, it would remove the need for digital billboards, though the effects of these dynamic buildings are not yet fully known. City councils will need to start considering guidelines that move beyond individual permits to consider the environment, citizen safety and the aesthetic effects on the city’s urban landscape.

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