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Lightening Your Load

Photonics Spectra
Aug 2015

Stop. Take a breath. You’re upset, and emotions are getting the best of you. You’ll probably regret sending that wild, crazed text message you just typed into your phone, but it needs to go somewhere, and it’s just so tempting to hit the send button. The problem is that we often just need to be heard. So, what do you do to release the pressure of a crowded mind stewing with the good, the bad and the ugly, without facing repercussions? Some turn to pen and paper; others might transform a friend into a makeshift therapist. But there now exists an outlet where the spectacle of light gives our innermost thoughts a remote spotlight, an audience and, perhaps most importantly, sacred anonymity.

The pods are the portion of the artwork that reveal the textual basis behind each individual light beam. Photo courtesy of Peter Tao Photography (left) and Future Cities Lab (right).

“Murmur Wall,” an artwork that combines light, sculpture and data, is on display at San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA). Consisting of LEDs, galvanized steel, acrylic tubing, 3D-printed components and custom electronics, the large interactive installation harvests local Internet activity and user-submitted text through its website,, broadcasting the content into public space. LEDs embedded in the acrylic tubes transform the words into bright streams of light, illuminating the structure’s lattice as they travel along the length of the piece. When the real-time light stream meets the 3D-printed pods embedded within the piece, a small screen reveals the beam’s original text — a secret, a thought or even the latest Internet search — and displays the message briefly before it continues as light down the structure of the piece. The messages appear only once and are not collected, reused or shared.

Designed by Nataly Gattegno and Jason Kelly Johnson of Future Cities Lab, a San Francisco-based experimental architecture firm, Murmur Wall explores how data can become tangible by providing it with a sense of place and exhibition in the midst of a bustling city.

“We’re scraping social media data that’s publicly accessible,” Johnson said. “It’s expressing to you, telling you what people are thinking about, what they’re nervous about — what they’re searching for.”

And when it comes time to let your feelings, troubles or secrets air out, there couldn’t be a cooler (or, shall we say, brighter) way to do so. But the release isn’t just for San Franciscans; YBCA CEO Deborah Cullinan notes that you can divulge your secrets, frustrations or activities from any location.

“Murmur Wall is specifically about what’s happening in the world.”

Lighter Side

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