LED Light Displays Show The Ebb And Flow Of Boston’s Tides, Using Data Visualization

November 8, 2018 by Dave Haynes

This is one of those projects that treads the line between light and signage – though I’d probably argue it’s much more about lighting. But very smart lighting, that is visualizing data. So kinda signage. Which is why I am writing about it.

Tidal Light is a public data sculpture that uses addressable LED light strips to show the ebb and flow of the tides in Boston’s harbor.

The art piece was commissioned by National Development and located at Constitution Center in Charlestown, a historic district in the city. The project was pulled together and delivered by the experiential agency Sosolimited.

“If you look north from Boston, out across the water to Charlestown, you’ll see 10 glowing stripes of sparkling blue light rising up from the tip of Constitution Wharf,” says a press release about the project.

Data is updated in real time from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The movement and color of the lights are driven by the tide height and wave conditions for Buoy Station 44013, located 16 miles east of Boston in Massachusetts Bay.

The lighting simulates a scene of water and sky, showing the current tide level with the height of the horizon and the wave conditions through the movement of the water. The colors of the artwork shift throughout the day, moving from a warm orange glow at dawn to a vibrant purple at dusk.

National Development commissioned the artwork as part of the renovation of Constitution Center. Ten glowing pylons on the marina activate the public running path and form a beacon visible from all over the city. In addition to the pylons, an illuminated teak wall in the lobby—driven by the same tide data—greets visitors to the building with a dynamic surface of color.

“We thought about a lot of things, but I got really excited about this data driven design piece,” said Tucker Kelton, Director at National Development. “It brought a real connection to the environment.”

“The installation celebrates the rich nautical history of the Charlestown Navy Yard and brings public attention to the environment by transforming the ebb and flow of the tides into moving light,” says Eric Gunther, Creative Director at Sosolimited.

The outside pylons, set in grass, are placed in such a way that as you take a few steps back, the light of the ten pylons forms a single image of a horizon, with moving water against a colored sky.

The horizon line moves up and down with the tide, giving you an intuitive sense of the ebb and flow of the water in the harbor. The architectural height of the pylons—the tallest one is twelve feet—immerses you in the light, translating a distant data point into a visceral experience.

The tide data is also expressed through an illuminated wall in the lobby of Constitution Center. As you enter the building, you are greeted by with a two-story teak wall with a pixel-like flow of colored light panels.      

“We wanted to pull modern lighting into the system of nautical materials designed by the architects,” says Wade Aaron, Director of Production at Sosolimited, “We replaced selected boards in the teak feature wall with custom designed LED panels. The panels combine to display an image of moving seas against a colored sky.”

To make the thing all work, a software script retrieves data in real time from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) servers. The software software translates the data into light in three distinct ways: tide level, wave conditions and time of day. The colors above and below the horizon change to reflect the time of day, tracking nautical events through sunrise, dawn, twilight, dusk and sunset.

This could have been done with full direct view LED displays, but low rez color controllable LED lights are all that’s really needed, and way less cost. The lights appear to have some sort of diffusion layer over them to soften and bulk up the images.

Very cool.

Where these sorts of data driven things can fall down is offering up pretty visuals, but not letting any viewers know what is going on and influencing what they see. In this case, there’s a plaque in the Constitution Center that says:

The movement and color of the artwork are driven by the tide height and wave conditions for Buoy Station 44013, 16 miles east of Boston in Massachusetts Bay. Data is updated in real time from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Soso describes itself as being in business to create sensory spaces driven by design and technology. Based in Boston, the three founders are all MIT grads with backgrounds in physics, computer science, architecture, arts and music.

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