Reply To: The Cloud: Back in Action at T5

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There is some terrific artwork in T5.

My favourite is the shimmering flip-dot installation by Troika called “The Cloud”. It’s been poorly lately (largely due to a squabble over who will maintain it) but that’s all been resolved now.

It’s situated in between the escalators to the First Galleries at T5, and is now back to normal running:

Well worth taking a look at this, and the other museum-grade installations, when you’re next in the lounge complex at T5

Here is the background:


Troika was commissioned by Artwise Curators to create a signature piece for the entrance of the new British Airways luxury lounges in Heathrow Terminal 5.

In response, we created ‘Cloud’, a five meter long digital sculpture whose surface is covered with 4638 flip-dots that can be individually addressed by a computer to animate the entire skin of the sculpture. Flip-dots were conventionally used in the 70s and 80s to create signs in train-stations and airports. By audibly flipping between black and silver, the flip-dots create mesmerizing waves as they chase across the surface of ‘Cloud’. Reflecting its surrounding colours, the mechanical mass is transformed into an organic form that appears to come alive, shimmering and flirting with the onlookers that pass by.

The sculpture is located in Terminal 5 in the atrium hall that leads to the British Airways First Class Lounges. The brief from British Airways was open and simple: create a signature piece that marks the entrance to the First Class Lounges and signifies the transition between the busy shopping floor and the calm and serenity of the lounges. Working from the idea of clouds and the contrast between the busy, hectic airport experience and the calm, luminous and ethereal world that we discover as we fly through this dense layer we came up with the basic metaphor, atmosphere and form of the installation. Another one of our inspirations came from the old electromagnetic flip-dots that were used in railway and airport signs from the mid 70s. Those signs, with their characteristic flicking noise that instantly invokes the idea of travel, represent to us a golden age of technology when analogue and digital started to merge. The indicators, dots that flip from one side to the other with an electric impulse have a fantastic materiality, a physical and tactile quality that more modern technologies often lack, being de-materialised into the virtual.

We dreamt of applying this redundant technology to our sculpture, to create a sort of living organism, a cloud that we could animate, exploring the aesthetic potential of the flip-dots. As the flip-dots flick we are instantly reminded of rippling water, of the mesmerizing movements of snakes and school of fish. For to accentuate this feeling we chose to create one side of the dots as silver mirrors emulating the organic movements of

Design and Development
After the first concept phase we started to design the shape of ‘Cloud’. Many possible designs emerged yet we settled for this organic, yet rational shape, as it was best suited to express our concept while being rational enough to create a regular tilling of the dots on its surface. The tilling of the dots was quite a complex task, for which we devised several software applications in order to help us. Furthermore we needed to take into consideration the nature and possibilities of the animations that we would put on this atypical, 3-dimensional screen also designing specific software that could handle and illustrate the ever-changing patterns and shapes.

Once we found the ‘perfect’ shape, with the placement of 4638 individual dots, we needed to imagine a way to build it – accurately and cost efficiently. After many different trials we settled on a technique inspired by the way boats and early airplanes were built albeit upgraded to the 21st century. ‘Cloud’ is built on a number of different physical layers: the first layer of flip-dots rests upon the cloud skin, itself supported by an internal sub-structure, its skeleton.

The skins are made out of aluminium strips cut flat with a CNC laser and formed onto the skeleton to retrieve the correct surface geometry. Special care was needed when calculating the flat outlines of the strips to ensure the successive folding onto the skeleton would create the correct shape. To enable us to conceal and access the various electronic parts, cables and computer needed to control the dots ‘Cloud’ was built as 2 separate pieces, top and bottom. Over 300 different skin strips, each of them coded and with a unique position on the skeleton, was needed to create the supporting shape for the flip-dots. Each skin strip was also pierced with all the necessary holes in order to affix the dots and pass the different cables needed for electrical supply. At this stage, we also designed the locations for the electronic drivers, distribution boards and cable passes. ‘Cloud’ needs a main solid-state controller, which acts as the brain of the system, two different electronic drivers (top and bottom – acting as distribution for the electric current), 134 smaller distribution boards and over 5,000 meters of cable.

At the same time we needed to modify the flip-dot components to enable them to work in any positions. Usually, flip-dots are used to create vertical screens, and trying to make them work horizontally will invalidated their lifetime. We needed to modify the injection moulds and integrate additional bearing to insure correct functioning in any positions. ??We also worked on the control of the flip-dots. Usually, flip-dots displays are refreshed with a slow scan-line, which means they would have to slow to create fast and complex animations with changes occurring all over the sculpture at any one point in time. To do this, we changed several important control parameters and rewrote firmware on the drivers to increase the refresh speed. This stage was particularly successful and we can now flip all the dots on the sculpture in less than half a second enabling us to create the awesome animations we wanted to display. Part of this work has been carried out by Pharos Architectural Controls, a company who develops amazing electronic controllers, usually for lighting applications. The manufacturing and assembly of ‘Cloud’ was entrusted to Art fabricator Mike Smith Studio, one of the best and certainly most resourceful fabrication studios in this part of Europe.

While ‘Cloud’ was being assembled, we went on to create the animations. Since the shape is complex and the distribution of the dots is somewhat atypical, we needed to create visualization software to help us imagine what they would look like. The visualization software was programmed in-house in Processing, while the team at Pharos Controls developed the main control software.

While the ‘Cloud’ was ready on time and on budget, at the time of installation, the only way to bring it to its final destination was through the air. ‘Cloud’ was brought to its location suspended on the main roof beams of the terminal, flying across from the east to west of Terminal 5. Check the installation video. We wish to thank to Alternative Access for carrying the work of the installation.

‘Cloud’ is now working and in place, ready to greet the first passengers of the new Heathrow terminal 5 on the 27th of March 2008.

Credits and acknowledgements
The project took 8 months in development, manufacturing and installation. Troika was responsible for the concept, design, executive design and engineering, project, production and installation management, and over-viewing all the operations from start to finish. We would like to thank British Airways and Artwise Curators for giving us the opportunity to create our most ambitious work to date, Mike Smith Studio for the manufacturing of the sculpture, Pharos Architectural Controls, and Alternative Access for the installation.

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