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Innovation in the Making:

an Interview with Valentin Spiess about the MegaFaces Facade

While gathering information for a press release announcing the kinetic facade in Sochi, a conversation arose that was not just about the key features of the project, but also provided fascinating insights into its design and development process. We have decided to share it with you here and to publish the conversation in the form of a short interview.

Questions: Bettina Schär, Communications iart
Answers: Valentin Spiess, CEO at iart and Chief Engineer of the kinetic facade

How did this project come about?

In December 2012 Asif Khan called to tell me about an architectural competition for the Russian telecom operator MegaFon for the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi. Asif had the idea of a facade capable of displaying human faces and asked if I would help. It sounded like an exciting challenge, so of course I agreed. Only afterwards it became clear that the facade was supposed to show faces in the third dimension, thus had to be able to change shape and to do so approximately every fifteen seconds! A real challenge.

Because a facade of this kind has never been realised before, the technologies implemented had to be custom-developed. How did you proceed?

The project was developed simultaneously on two separate levels, but which constantly influenced one another. On a design level, we needed to solve the question of the resolution and to define a set of requirements needed to make a face visible on a facade. On a technical level, we developed the structure behind, how a facade can be built to achieve the resolution needed.

The data for the 3D portraits is generated in 3D photo booths developed specifically for this purpose. How did you evaluate the system for these booths?

The digitalisation of three-dimensional objects is a popular topic at the moment, in particular with regards to 3D printing. The difficulty in our case was the development of a system that would meet all the requirements of the project in relation to speed, usability and image quality. We couldn't ask people to sit still for a whole minute and have themselves 3D laser scanned. The process needed to be as fast and simple as using a commercial photo booth.

The system we built in the end offers the ideal combination of a fast scanning process and a good enough 3D model for display on the facade. It is based on a photographic approach, that is, you hear a ‘click' and the photos are made. All the rest happens in the background. At the moment it takes approximately one minute render time to calculate a three-dimensional face model from the five individual pictures taken.

How did you verify your approach?

We have evaluated and tested four different technologies. Major challenges were for example the digitisation of hair, including beards, or the scanning of different skin types. For several months we conducted a number of elaborate series of tests and evaluated them statistically in order to develop a system that would meet our requirements.

I have to add that in the beginning we acted on the assumption that we would buy the entire scanning system, since we had more than enough challenges ahead of us with regards to the realisation of the facade. However, the system that we needed was not available on the market, and so we ended up building it ourselves after all.

How does the facade work?

The facade consists of more than 10,000 telescopic cylinders, so called actuators, which can be extended and retracted with the help of an engine and a cable system. The maximum length of two meters can be achieved in less than fifteen seconds. Every actuator carries on its tip a sphere, which contains a RGB-LED light. They are connected in a bidirectional system, which makes it possible to control each pixel, but at the same time also reports back the position of the actuator.

The rendered 3D face models are first sent to a scheduler, which places them into a timeline and then plays them sequentially. Hence, we can let visitors know the exact time the facade displays their face. They have enough time to leave the pavilion (where the photo booths are located), go outside into the arena and watch their face being shown on the facade. Should they miss the moment, they can re-watch it later in their personal video clip.

The facade is built in a modular way so that it can be dismantled and set up again at a new location with relatively little effort. Thus, a possible reuse after the Winter Olympic Games is guaranteed.

The actuators are arranged in a trigonal pattern. Why?

We have examined how organic forms – in our case the human face – can best be displayed with only a reduced amount of pixels. An orthogonal system would be obvious, as it is used for monitors or computer screens. This is advantageous in particular for displaying geometric forms such as lines or fonts. However, in the area of a three-dimensional modelling of organic forms a trigonal structure is more suitable, because it makes three-dimensional forms appear natural and flowing even with only a small amount of pixels.

After winning the competition, you only had one year to finish the façade. How were you able to realise the project in such a short amount of time?

Time was a challenge from the very beginning. We had a tough time management and were lucky that our customer shared an understanding of the complexity of such a project and was prepared to go along with all the necessary steps.

In addition, we implemented our agile work method that minimised risks with short work steps, yet at the same time fostered creative and innovative processes and interdisciplinary collaboration. It allowed us to anticipate problems and risks more easily, but also to include new ideas at any point in time. This approach made it possible for us to cope with the complexity of the project and to realise it in the available time.

How important was iart's internal engineering expertise for the project?

For this project the internal engineering expertise was extremely important. Only by having the decisive expert knowledge in all relevant areas available in-house, one can handle the risks of such an innovative and time-critical project. During the entire development process, we relied on internal expertise when it came to the feasibility of the technical solutions, to clarify open questions and solve them with an interdisciplinary approach. Had we worked with external experts, the paths would have been far too long.

How did you respond to the difficulty that the client could not imagine how the finished project would look like?

There was a regular exchange between the architect Asif Khan, the client and us to advance the design process together. Moreover, based on our design drafts we generated good, accurate and physically correct simulations and mock-ups to make sure that our ideas could be realised. Very early in the process we built 3D models that simulated faces and the changing display in real time, for example to solve the question of the resolution. We also built a 1:1 mock-up of a face, which was static, but demonstrated the original size of a face. It was a very elaborate model, yet it gave the client the necessary feeling of security that we were going in the right direction.

How does the project position itself with regards of other projects by iart?

The facade of the MegaFon pavilion is part of a series of projects by iart that deal with the dynamic revitalisation of places in empathy with the surrounding areas. A special feature in this case is the participative aspect: Visitors can to some extent be involved in the design process and leave traces on the medium facade. In this way they become co-creators in shaping the space.

Further projects in this series are the facade of the Swiss pavilion at the Expo 2010 in Shanghai, the Coca-Cola Beatbox pavilion at the Summer Olympic Games 2012 in London and the LED frieze of the forthcoming new building of the Kunstmuseum Basel. In the case of the latter, the idea is to penetrate deep into the architectural structure and to create images, which are displayed by the facade, through the interplay of light and shadow. The result is a medial membrane of the architecture, which can take on an ornamental function and can also be used as a visual information flow from inside to outside.