Tony Reinhart and I are super-happy with the turnout, interest, and participation in our show, DISCONNECT over the weekend at the Communitech Hub at The Tannery. I’ll tell you a few things that went into this Culture Days gig, but first I have to give big thanks to Communitech for the space, Christie Digital for the amazing MicroTiles loan. As this endeavour was self-funded, that kind of support was critical. Thanks also to our volunteers, and family and friends who covered for us while we were cranking away on the project.
The piece consists of an array of 12 MicroTile displays showing stills and videos shot by me and Tony. The theme was intended to pose some questions around the pervasiveness of surveillance in our community and the social disconnection that can occur when we complement human relationships with so-called social network technology.
There are cameras everywhere: traffic lights, ATM, gas station, grocery store, workplace, library, bus station,… you name it. The question I’m asking for my part is: Are we ok with this surveillance as a community? Who can access that image data? How long does it hang around? Under what terms would it be shared? Can I ask to have images of me deleted? Do the cameras make us safer? Reduce property crimes?
To pose those questions, I designed and built my polecam (left) for about $150 and took it around the region shooting down from 20 feet in the air what I thought typical surveillance images look like. I’ve had some interesting conversations with a few passers-by, but mostly I got apathy.
Tony and I also decided to incorporate surveillance into the actual event. I mounted several webcams around the venue and relayed those…
back to the Hub over wifi for display. So the audience actually became part of the show.
Kind of makes you…
So where did this all start? Tony said we had an opportunity to put something together for Culture Days and that Christie Digital was willing to loan us MicroTiles. I’ve been loving these modular displays ever since I first saw them.
He also mentioned that Communitech was willing to let us use some space in the Hub for the event. Awesome! Let me say that visiting the Hub to work out logistics proved very interesting. It appears that Tony knows everyone. I was happy to meet Iain Klugman, President and CEO of Communitech. I met Bob Rushby who co-invented MicroTiles and he came to the show with his wife Jane. I met Steve Woods, Engineering Director for Google Canada, and we talked with him about the show. There are a dozen more. It’s just a river of interesting people there working on cool projects. Great energy.
With a venue…
and a vision…
all the was left to do was figure out how the heck to tackle the technical challenges, promote the hell out of the show, figure out a ton of logistics, and get it all done for September 29th. Challenge accepted!
We met with Jordan and Tony Stevens from Christie to understand more about MicroTiles. Effectively, they hook to our PC as a secondary display via DVI. Each tile is 720×540 native resolution. The bridge between your PC and the tiles is a box Christie calls the External Control Unit (ECU). So it was up to me to figure out how to present the still photos and video source material. Hmmm…
To be completely honest, I had no clue. I’m a *still* photographer. So, what tools did I need? Lightroom is where I live, and occasionally delve into Photoshop for more complex edits. I’m reasonably competent in Premiere, but that didn’t seem exactly suited to this. Going down the Adobe Creative Suite list, I tried Encore, but that was a bust. Then I got into After Effects (above) and it all started to click. I gave myself a 3-day crash self-study course in After Effects to learn enough to be dangerous.
I brought all the still photo sets into AE after cutting them down to 720×540 and rendered them into videos with 15 second transitions. I stretched Tony’s four videos to that resolution and that gave me 12 tiles worth of content at native resolution. Next I composited these 12 videos into a 3×4 matrix, learning later how important it is to place the videos pixel-perfectly. Then I ran some footage interpretation to loop shorter content. When it was time to render this big 2160×2160 movie I hit lots of crazy options and all kinds of codec errors. Much googling later, I finally had a working setup for the render. Only problem was: the render was going to take 29 hours to complete. Well, there was *that*, and the question of whether the PC hardware we had available could drive such a massive movie through its video card. Some testing confirmed that we were probably ok.
With that underway, I decided to build some stands for the MicroTiles so they would be angled toward the viewers and we could put them at different levels. So off to Home Depot, and several 2”x10”’s, much glue and screws and cutting later, I had some prototypes. I made these from looking at the very handy engineering drawings to the tiles from Christie’s web site. I brought them down to the Hub to test drive before building 10 more.
Tony and Jordan from Christie were pretty satisfied with the stands. Slight modification required on the 45-degree floor stands as the centre of gravity with a tile on the stand was causing tip-back. So I installed a “wheelie bar” on the floor stands before I…
painted them all flat black.
I used a primer-paint mix that gave good coverage with 2 coats and minimal cost. I *always* forget how much paint costs and *always* get sticker shock when told that it’s $40/gallon.
But when I brought all 12 stands down to the Hub, I was glad to have sweat over these.
The tiles looked great on the stands, and I was relieved that the angles that I had eyeballed were working out. Meanwhile, Tony had been wrangling promotion of the show and sorting out all the logistics from getting us tables, tablecloths, curtains, doors unlocked for Saturday afternoon, lining up volunteers, and the list goes on. Total team effort. Awesome partnership.
Tony Stevens (above) from Christie helped us wire up all the tiles, and then…
configure the ECU to understand how to interpret the video signal from the laptop.
By noon on Friday…
Tony had it…
All working! High five! We were *very* happy to see this running.
Now that we’ve figured out the tool chain, we have lots of ideas for expanding on the content and scaling up the show. What we need is some cash and interested venues. If this looks cool to you, please hit me on email.
That was what we call a “stretch assignment”, which is a management euphemism for starting with no clue how to hit the goals. This gig was my *ideal* mix of hardware, software, design, fabrication, and some artistic vision. Ideal.