TeamLab’s vision of Christmas future: A 2-ton, 4D animated tree in Japan

TeamLab’s vision of Christmas future: A 2-ton, 4D animated tree in Japan

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Few companies in the world are as creative, collectively, as Tokyo-based teamLab. Their recent digital creations cover an incredible range, including an interactive TV game played by over a million people simultaneously. Their exhibitions (you can browse them here) combine cutting-edge technology and awe-inspiring aesthetics, and the results are invariably jaw-dropping.

TeamLab’s most recent project is a Christmas tree installation at Canal City in Fukuoka, Japan, called The Crystal Tree of Wishes. But in typical teamLab fashion, this would not be just any Christmas tree. I spoke to teamLab’s Takashi Kudo, who explained how his company erected a two-ton, nine-meter tall LED tree, capable of being controlled by spectators using mobile devices.

The Bridge: Where did the Christmas tree idea first come from?

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Interact with the tree using an iPad or smartphone

Takashi: It all started about a year ago when Canal City Hakata came to us wanting to create an installation that would attract people. So we thought, why not create an installation that would get people talking around the world? We came up with the idea of the world’s first 3D visual display with a user-directed, interactive animation.

We looked for ideas that could only be done using digital technology, but in contrast to the existing concept of a tree as “physical material,” we thought of making one with light. By making it digital, we could also make it interactive, or have it display dynamic 3D visuals. This mindset, of making things digital, is shared by all of us team members at the Lab, and our process of finding a way, or method, to make it work, took us through an extensive process of experimentation, which saw us through this project.

The Bridge: So how does it work exactly?

teamLabVisualSculpting are physical sculptures that you can animate, just like in a projection, using teamLab’s own Interactive 4D Vision display technology. It incorporates a 3D projection system that you can control even from a smartphone. Interactive 4D Vision makes use of commonly used control systems to project a simple recreation of real objects that move in three dimensions. It is also compatible with smartphones, Kinect, music and other inputs, allowing for interactive creations.

Comprised of numerous lines, Interactive 4D Vision projects do not have to be cylindrical displays, but can also be rectangular prisms or long, complex curved surfaces. For now, we have decided to depict a Christmas tree with Interactive 4D Vision, so until December that is what you will see. But after the Christmas season, we have plans to use it as a 3D image display.

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teamLab’s 4D animated LED Christmas Tree in Fukuoka, Japan

The Bridge: What was the most difficult part about this Christmas tree project?

Takashi: It’s probably the fact that nobody had actually seen or even imagined anything like this before. The client seemed uncertain so it was hard for them to give us the OK. And a lot of it was new territory for us anyway, so we had to figure everything out as we went along.

In the planning stage, in order for the 3D holographic image to display properly, we created a layout for 4D Vision LED lights, and conducted over 20 simulations of the display. There were two things to address at this stage:

  1. We wanted to make the 4D Vision effect look as dynamic as possible. For the visuals to be as sharp as possible, and to make it work structurally, we had to carefully calibrate to show the inside as a structural object, which was an extremely difficult task. Once we finished with those simulations, we then did the layout for the flat, 2D layer of lights wrapped around the central 3D cylinder and on the outside of the structure.
  2. Second, we had to make the tree function as a structural object. It had to be large and heavy in order to appear imposing to viewers, but as it was going to be hung from above, there were size and weight limitations we had to take into consideration. So we had to keep safety in mind and keep the tree’s weight down to two tons. We worked under the assumption that people would be walking under the tree, and that it would have to withstand the wind. We made the appropriate blueprints and structural calculations, including where the wires would attach it to the ceiling.

When it came to the development stage, even constructing the initial nine-meter long core was a huge task in itself. But in addition to that, to make the visuals project proper three-dimensional images we had to pay attention to the overall function of the whole structure – including waterproofing, dampening electromagnetic noise, and ensuring it didn’t flicker when being photographed.

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The strings of LEDs that make up the structure are 9 meters long

We also developed our own software for the projection of three-dimensional images in 4D Vision. In order to translate the 3D object data into a physically three-dimensional visual, we had to split up the data across the array of LED lights and control its coordinated display. We managed to achieve with 4D Vision. And as long as we had our 3D animation in FBX format, we had the means to display it as-is [1].

The 4D Vision structure itself is made up of 413 nine-meter long strips of LED lights. Its construction involved carefully removing each nine-meter strand from the 413 boxes they came in, and hanging it in place without getting it tangled or caught in anything else. After hanging them all up, we then had to measure their alignment, to ensure they displayed correctly. Amazingly our workmen got together and completed this monumental task in just four days! When the whole thing was put together and some of the LED strips were malfunctioning, the workers climbed up 14 meters and replaced one of the strips. This was, of course, another extremely difficult job, not possible without great teamwork.

But most challenging part was the fact that almost all the final adjustments had to be made on-site at Canal City Hakata. We had to work within a tight schedule to install the tree there for the very first time, and then calibrate it so that the visuals displayed correctly.

The Bridge: How was the visitors reaction on the first day?

Takashi: As you can see from our video (above), it was very inspiring. The installation had attracted a lot of attention beforehand, with over 20 media outlets sending reporters out to our preview event. On the day of the lighting ceremony, we had an estimated turnout of about 7500 people, with 500 people (according to our app logs) actually downloading the LinkedCandle application to take part in the candle relay.

Our special guest on that evening was Chara, a famous singer, who gave a live performance to intensify the mood. The Christmas Decor event that followed saw, over just a few hours, approximately 500 people decorating the Crystal Tree of Wishes with about 800 ornaments. Everyone who took part, young and old, seems to be having great fun.

We think we managed to change the concept of a Christmas tree from something you just look at, into something you can interact with. The 2D objects (decorations) on people’s phones became, with a simple swipe, a physical, three-dimensional thing before their own eyes. That experience proved to be a lot more interesting than we thought.

The Bridge: TeamLab does many innovative projects. Do you have some method to spark creativity within a company, as a team? Or are your projects more individual creations?

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TeamLab’s ever-thoughtful Takashi Kudo

Takashi: We craft things as a team. New ideas tend to arise from the cross-pollination of technical insights from all kinds of different areas. One person can’t possibly do all the thinking, and is unlikely to come up with anything.

You also can’t have non-technical people coming up with the ideas — because without an understanding of existing technology, you won’t know what’s currently possible with it.

That’s why at teamLab, we encourage constant communication between members, and it’s through our process of contributing ideas, taking action, and making prototypes together, as well as brainstorming together, that we provide our products and services. We also have common mindsets and values.

Of course, each of our members has their own field of expertise, spanning a truly wide range from mathematics to architecture. And by taking these professionals from different fields and mashing their specialties together, we hope to keep putting out things that can only arise from their collaboration and co-creation, one piece at a time.

The Bridge: Thanks!

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  1. Editor’s note: This is a file format for storing motion data. More information on Wikipedia.  ↩