Tech: The convention center's one-of-a-kind selfie machine

Jillian Span Hofbauer
Columbus Monthly

The new interactive sculpture is turning heads at the Greater Columbus Convention Center. “As We Are”—a computer-designed, 3-D head that displays portraits taken inside the structure's photo booth—merges art, communication and technology into one experience. We delve into the mechanics of this one-of-a-kind feat, envisioned by artist and Columbus College of Art & Design professor Matthew Mohr and engineered by Design Communications Ltd. in Boston.

An Ideal Head

Designers determined the shape of the nearly 7,000-pound structure using research compiled in an Occupational Safety and Health Administration study. By averaging thousands of head measurements, Mohr and his collaborators created a universally-shaped, androgynous, 14-foot-tall head that's a cross representation of a wide variety of ethnicities.

Face Time

The display screen is composed of nearly 3,000 custom-engineered modules holding 850,000 LED lights. The modules were assembled into contoured cabinets that correspond with the shape of the head, says technology lead Jeff Grantz of Design Communications Ltd. “Then each cabinet was slid into the aluminum shelving system that constituted the structure for the piece.” This enables clear projection over a 3-D surface.

Thinking Power

The sculpture essentially has several “brains,” says Mohr. One computer system controls the touch interface inside the photo booth, while another handles the processing necessary to scan and model the head in 3-D. A third server maps the final image onto the contoured LED display.

The Right Fit

Thirty-two cameras positioned inside the photo booth work simultaneously to scan the user's head and create a 270-degree, 3-D model within a minute. “The image of the head is flattened and analyzed through facial recognition,” Grantz says. The process slightly moves the eyes, nose, ears and mouth to align with the form of the sculpture. Each portrait joins a database with a capacity for 10,000 images, all displayed randomly based on an equal distribution of skin tones.

180-Degree Rotation

The structure—positioned within the newly redesigned north atrium of the convention center—rotates 180 degrees toward the street each night, making the piece visible to both convention center visitors and those outside the building. “There would be no way to drive up High Street and not see it,” Mohr says.

What's Next?

This is just the beginning of the sculpture's capabilities, Mohr says. “Like any good magic trick, you want to start off simple and then introduce things as you evolve. It's a platform; it's not just an art piece.”