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LEDs and gentlemen

technical & practice - Smartslab offers innovation in public-space displays - not that you'd have known it from the presentation

I recently attended the preview launch of Smartslab, an innovation from Tom Barker, ex-Mind Zone, ex-Arup, and bright not-quite-soyoung-as-I-once-was thing behind b consultants. Forty invited guests gathered in the swish surroundings of The Hospital in Covent Garden to witness the final stages of a product that I had first seen in prototype two years ago.

For a professional gathering of putative funders and buyers alike, there was something worryingly naff about the presentation. Tom Barker is a great technologist and innovator, but public speaker he ain't; and when a hippyish, Smartslab spokesman apologetically announced that parts of the presentation had been 'shit, ' it all lent a certain Gerald Ratner-esque quality to proceedings.

One of the problems was that nobody really saw fit to say what the product was, what its technological basis was, why it was important, what it did or how it did it. Elementary errors. It wasn't that everyone else in the room except me was in the know - as is so often the case - because two bemused BA personnel left at the same time as me and said they hadn't got a clue what they had just seen.

Funnily enough, once explained, Smartslab can be seen for the fascinating tool with imaginative potential that it really is. Given that few of AJ's readers were there - and even if you were, you would be none the wiser - allow me to explain.

Smartslab is a 600 x 600mm tile comprising two outer sheets - the front face being translucent - containing a honeycomb cross-wall centre that holds apart the two outer skins. Within this composite, each honeycomb compartment contains an array of three primary-colour LEDs, which can be adjusted to create almost any out-turn colour, intensity and hue.

The light emanating from each honeycomb compartment is diffused through the translucent face of the composite to further blend the individual light and ensure a true colour spread and fixity across each isolated compartment.

Smartslab suggests that by manipulating the red, green and blue LEDs in each honeycomb compartment, 16 million different colours can be produced. These independent adjacent colour pixels (or 'hexels' as they has been dubbed from their shape), enable pictures to be built up that can then be projected from the surface of the tile. With clever software development, manipulating the colour in each LED, moving images can be shown in each hexel, in rapid succession. Smartslab also boasts that the hexagonal design (modelled on a fly's eye) has 18 per cent finer resolution than standard square pixel designs of the same area.

As tile is laid upon tile - building up a wall of the intelligent light system - the picture can grow from poorresolution computer screen size to panoramic Technicolor vistas.

Fitting within most standard cladding and floor-grid systems, its inherent structural integrity enables it to be built up, laid flat or raked and withstand up to 5kN/m 2 loadbearing force. It can be used internally or externally (given that it is described as 'water and vandal resistant') and can even be configured as a three-dimensional object; for example, as a cube with different or flowing displays on each face.

As a wayfinding tool for large public spaces, Smartslab can be a directional wall sign with the potential for interactivity, or be a coloured walkway able to change colour depending on your chosen route.

At the moment, the more tiles, the simpler the graphic capability; and the further away from the surface, the better the resolution.

One tile will support basic logos;

one to three panels will support ticker-tape text; four to six panels will adequately display photo images;

and anything above that will handle moving images. Although it is only time before smaller and smaller hexels will be developed, this product is currently trying to find a home in the advertising, public display, entertainment and intelligent signage market, where it is usually seen from a distance.

At the launch event, each tile was distinct from its neighbour because, as someone said, the colour modelling between the tiles had not been fine-tuned (we were left to guess what the undue haste had been to set up this launch). This is now being rectified and we were told that, apparently, this is simply a software issue: cleaned up, the wall of tiles will display no colour discrepancy.

One of the better images is of a stained-glass window, where, even in its current stage of development, the banding between tiles can be accentuated to look like leadwork. The LED display can then be programmed to replicate the changing subtleties of sunlight or cloud passing behind the image as the light-picture changes its intensity - even though the image is actually being projected rather than illuminated from behind.

So what's the difference between this technology and bog-standard LED display signage or plasma-screen technology? After all, anyone standing in King's Cross station cannot help but be forced to view the gigantic BBC24 screens, and a visitor to Piccadilly Circus will recognise the simple moving LED images of Coke bottles and burger-chain adverts. Both seem perfectly adequate to the task.

In one of his lucid moments, Barker insisted convincingly that Smartslab is a major improvement on conventional LED displays and plasma screens in its affordability, potentially limitless size of application, adaptability, colour separation and resolution.

In fact, architect Jim Heverin - once again standing in for the perpetually absent Zaha Hadid - explained that Smartslab had been chosen for the blighted Guggenheim Museum in Tokyo for all of these reasons. Heverin said that he wished he had incorporated them across the entire elevation rather than just a 600m 2 portion of the front walls.

The next advance, already being developed, is with a 'heightened reality' sound system being developed by Illustrious, the proponents of surround-sound immersive acoustics. There is no reason why the tile itself could not become the speaker, offering highly targeted, directional sound direct from the image centre (see reference to FeONIC in AJ 12.8.04, page 39).

Bizarrely, given that the tiles are vandal-proof, there is also a potential 'finger-painting mode' in development that will allow people to activate the LED light source by simply touching the tile, thus bringing graffiti artists in touch with modernity and, presumably, doing a little bit to reduce ozone emissions from aerosols.

To be generous, most of the presentations at the launch had to be vague due to the newness of the technology and the fact that industrial espionage is a very real worry for young inventors. But suffice to say that, clear or not, Smartslab is an exciting product that can only get bigger and better.

It is one of the rare inventive British technologies for the 21st century. An impressive advance - however badly it is explained.

For more information on Smartslab, email info@smartslab. co. uk

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