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2011 ScotiaBank Nuit Blanche Toronto

SMILE at Fort York Historic Site
SMILE @ Fort York Historic Site, Toronto.

Lighting Up Fort York

From sun down to sun rise on October 1, 2011, Dashing Collective and Aesthetec presented a field of light at the Fort York Historic site as part of the popular annual art event ScotiaBank Nuit Blanche in Toronto.

SMILE, short for Socially Motivated Immersive Light Environment, is an interactive light installation consisting of cubes of lights positioned in a hexagonal grid to form a lightscape in the park. Light patterns change as the audience move small control nodes around the field, and evolve organically as the nodes come together.

Kid with a SMILE control node

Customized Wireless Electronics

Designed specifically with outdoor spaces in mind, the light cubes and control nodes are all battery-powered and communicate to each other wirelessly using a mesh network. Aesthetec created all customized circuits for both lighting control and communication. Circuits were assembled and programmed in-house. Dashing designed the enclosures so that our circuits are protected from the elements come rain, wind, or even snow (and thankfully it didn't snow that night).

Each light unit consists of a main controller circuit board, which is equipped with an Xbee radio for communication, a high-brightness RGB LED driver board, and a high-brightness star configuration red, green, blue LED.

SMILE Main Board
SMILE main circuit board, roughly 1" square, with room for a microcontroller and XBee.
Customized high-brightness LED driver
Complete light circuit
Individual light circuit

Programming Intelligence

The lights communicate to each other wirelessly over their Xbee radio to synchronize their pattern. As the control node travels around in the field of light cubes, the node broadcasts a message that contains its color pattern. Cubes that are close to this control node will hear that message and change their light pattern accordingly. When several control nodes detect each other's presence, they evolve to a new color pattern. This creates the emergent social interaction experience.

To allow us to update the system on-the-fly, we added the ability to wirelessly program the firmware of each device using its Xbee radio.

programming the lights
Programming the lights

At the time of this installation, our lightscape had 47 light cubes and 10 control nodes.

stacked light cubes
Light cubes, ready to be installed
setting up outside
Setting up for installation


Over the course of the summer of 2011, we went through several design solutions for the enclosures until we settled on pre-manufactured light cubes. To our delightful surprise, by the end of the night the audience started playing with the cubes in an unexpected manner by moving them around and stacking them together. Even though this was something we never intended, it became clear that both kids and adults have the same instinctual reaction to cubes: you stack them on top of each other!

Green wall
Pink wall

A few more photos are on flickr here.