Memory Cloud Taps Tradition At Texas A&M

Memory Cloud Texas A&M tradition with an active constellation of animated LEDs.

Memory Cloud embodies Texas A&M tradition with an active matrix of animated LEDs. (Courtesy Metalab)

Re:site and Metalab’s site-specific installation for Texas A&M’s 12th Man Memorial Student Center uses 4,000 networked LEDs to create an animated display that speaks to tradition as well as to the future.

The Corps of Cadets. Kyle Field. The 12th Man. Reveille. Texas A&M has more than a few strong traditions, most of which are centered around and given expression by the university’s football games and its alumni’s illustrious history of military service. At the same time, the school is well known for its robust and forward thinking science and engineering departments. Both of these characteristics factored into the conception for a permanent sculpture to inhabit A&M’s new Memorial Student Center (MSC). Created by art collaborative RE:site and design and fabrication studio Metalab (both located in Houston) the sculpture, titled Memory Cloud, is a chandelier of 4,000 white LEDs that are animated by two distinct feeds: one derived from archival footage of the Fightin’ Texas Aggie Band, the other from live infrared cameras that monitor people passing through the center’s atrium.

“To interpret tradition visually we thought of moving patterns of people,” said Norman Lee of RE:site. “A&M has a strong marching band. If you remove the specifics of what the band is wearing and focus on the movements, they’re the same from 1900 to now. Once you reduce the figures from archival footage to silhouette patterns, you can’t identify the different points in time. Time and space collapse and bring together the school’s tradition in visual terms.”

Moving images from archival film are combined with a live feed from an infrared camera to create the cloud's animation.

Moving images from archival film are combined with a live feed from an infrared camera to create the cloud’s animation. (Courtesy Metalab)

The archival silhouettes interlace with silhouettes from the live feed, generating ambiguous patterns that take time to sink in. “We envisioned incoming freshmen seeing the shadows and after three or four weeks realizing what the figures are in a powerful ‘ah ha’ moment,” said Lee.

Memory Cloud is composed of a 14-foot-wide by 21-foot-long diagrid 1/8-inch powder-coated carbon steel frame and 220 LED arrays housed in clear acrylic tubes that hang in 21 rows from 16 gauge aluminum raceways carrying the data cables and electronics. The arrays are between 9 and 13 feet long and end in acrylic disks that are angled to give a billowing profile to the bottom of the sculpture. The disks also act as luminaires, picking up and diffusing the light of the lowest LED node via fiber optic effect. The piece is suspended from one point on the ceiling with a cable rigging. A winch can raise or lower it for maintenance.

The LEDs are housed in acrylic tubes, which hang from a diagrid steel structure. (Courtesy Metalab)

The LEDs are housed in acrylic tubes, which hang from aluminum raceways supported by a diagrid steel structure. (Courtesy Metalab)

RE:site and Metalab used Rhino and Grasshopper to model Memory Cloud’s geometry as well as to develop quantitative data sets for the lighting purchase orders and assembly inventories. The diagrid structure was developed by Houston-based structural engineering firm Insight Structures using finite element analysis (FEA) software that determined a varying depth of profile to deliver the necessary support within the weight requirement.

“We had a weight limit of 3,000 pounds,” said Andrew Vrana of Metalab. “At first we wanted to use 3/16 aluminum, which is light weight, but it deformed too much under welding. So we went with carbon steel and by optimizing the profile wound up with a final weight of 2,400 pounds.” The team also used the Lunchbox plugin for Grasshopper, which was developed by Nathan Miller of CASE, which helped to create clean data structures that retained their organization as the geometry of the cloud was refined.

The acrylic disks at the bottom of each array act as luminaires, diffusing the light of the bottom-most LEDs. (Courtesy Metalab)

The acrylic disks at the bottom of each array act as luminaires, diffusing the light of the bottom-most LEDs and creating the billowing profile of a cloud. (Courtesy Metalab)

To create and program the LED matrix, RE:site and Metalab worked with Digital Media Designs (DMD), which did the digital lighting display for the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. The company worked with a Chinese manufacturer to develop a custom LED product capable of meeting the sculpture’s size requirements while functioning within a broad range of daylight conditions. It also had to create a DMX control system that would take RE:site’s 2D silhouettes and replicate them in Memory Cloud’s 3D LED matrix, an unprecedented task from a software point of view. DMD worked with UK company Avolites Media to customize their AI software to this purpose. “With that software we were able to utilize a method called pixel mapping and find a way to interpret RGB values into black and white and also to transpose that into XYZ coordinates, creating a 3D virtual cloud,” said Scott Chmielewski of DMD.

Memory Cloud was prototyped and fabricated in Houston, then trucked the 100 miles to College Station. The on-site assembly and erection process took 10 days to complete. Gig ‘em Aggies!

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