The Balls are the winning project of Arup's annual No.8@Arup competition

Arup's 'smart balls' bring built environment into digital age

Engineering consultancy group Arup has unveiled a new installation, the winner of its annual No.8@Arup Competition, aiming to pave the way for the built environment to take advantage of digital technology.

For three weeks in June, the spacious four-storey atrium of Arup’s building in Fitzroy Street will be decorated with 42 backlit spheres each hanging on a winch and moving up and down while changing colour according to what’s happening around.

“This project is called Balls and it’s a collaboration between architects from Alma-nac, interactive designer Ruiri Glynn and Arup,” said Alma-nac architect Chris Bryant who created the winning design together with his colleague Caspar Rodgers.

“We wanted to create an installation that would really bring people together and look into the interaction between a user and a building.”

The spheres’ movement and changing of colour reflects the levels of noise in the atrium. In the next weeks, Arup wants to experiment and make the spheres respond to a whole range of different variables.

“The spheres are controlled with an open source software so next week, we are going to invite other Arup staff to hack into the software and to control the spheres based on some completely different data set,” said Arup director Nigel Tonk.

“They can control it on the time of the day, they can control it on the movement of the Sun, they can control it based on energy consumption, they can control it based on the number of visitors that we have to our office in Hong Kong and many others.”

Currently, a sensitive microphone placed in the ground floor area of the atrium is the main sensor feeding data into the software. However, the team wants to test other sensors, including those reacting to movement and vibrations.

“We might not tell people about it and we will just wait for people to explore it and they will realise fairly quickly that if they clap or make a sharp noise, the balls will flash out,” said project manager Craig Irvine.

Irvine, who has been responsible for the project’s delivery believes the installation has a potential to pave the way for more widespread deployment of digital technology in the built environment.

“For me, this is where we are going when we talk about the future of the built environment. It’s the user that has an instant control over what is essentially a piece of art but it could be anything in terms how the building works,” he said.

The installation, unveiled on 3 June, is only temporary and will be taken down after three or four weeks.

Watch the Balls and our interviews with their creators in the video below: 

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