“Brain, wider than the sky” — Neuron Sculpture

We had been quite busy in the last months, due to the deployment of 13 interactive installations for the Brain exhibition in Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian in Lisbon, and also the construction of a massive neuron sculpture. This project occupied all of our team members, and we had to change the configuration of all the rooms in our headquarters to be able to develop, test and assemble everything.

This video shows only a tiny part of the efforts that were made to materialize “The Neuron”.

video author: João Ribeiro

Eric da Costa, the mastermind behind this “the Neuron”, did a lot of research around many types of neurons, their behaviour and characteristics. This sculpture should have controllable inside-light, we also wanted it to be reactive to visitors. For the lights, there were different demands, through the different parts of the neuron.

I will try to describe the neuron anatomy. Bear in mind that I am not a neuroscientist, so if any information does not match scientific facts, sorry about that.

Let’s start with the dendrites, they are the branches that connect to other neurons.

These branches “charge” the neuron nucleus, we call it “the core”. It gathers energy until a certain point, when this point is reached it triggers a spike that fires up the axon.

This spike goes through the axon until the terminals.

These terminals connect to the next neuron.

Eric designed the whole piece in 3D, planned how each section should be sculpted, assembled, illuminated, transported and deployed.

Eric also sculpted the whole piece, while João Ribeiro and José Pedro aka ‘Coias’, did a masterwork with fibreglass, assembly, transportation and deployment.

The neuron has 4 different types of light.

The dendrites are filled with optical fibres and are driven by these DMX controllers, on total we have 6 of these controllers.

The core has a 3D printed sphere, filled with addressable LED strips.

Soldering the strips.

Tarquinio Mota developed these PCBs to drive LED strips through DMX.

The large dendrites are filled with large optical fibres. For this type of fibres, Tarquinio Mota developed another set of PCBs to handle high current LEDs.

Large optical fibres.

The terminals are meant to flicker. For this, we are using Adafruit LED matrix open source PCB, but we asked our supplier to use cold, warm, amber LEDS, instead of the normal red, green and blue.

Each of these fibres went through one by one. In total, we are using two sets of 6 LED matrices.

Testing randomness and different patterns.

Overall, the neuron is filled with optical fibres, adding up to a total of 32 kilometres.

Transportation was another challenge, it was separated in several different branches and parts, and carried through Gulbenkian’s garden by hand.

Every optical fibre had a specific role, here Tarquinio is programming the whole piece. There is also an interaction side, where we are detecting persons near the dendrites, and each person movement triggers nearby dendrite spikes. The detection is made in the Bonsai Framework, using 5 cameras for motion detection. Big thanks to Gonçalo Lopes and João Frazão for the great help!

Beside this interactive sculpture, we deployed 13 interactive installations, some more complex than others. Filipe Barbosa, Ricardo Imperial, Tarquínio Mota and André Almeida were the guys that made all these applications possible.

We need to give other big thanks to our friend David Palma, he helped us rigging computers, routing cables, setting up computer settings, troubleshooting electronics and so much more. I don’t have enough words to thank you David!!

In the end, everything is working in full, but we couldn’t end this post without mentioning one major mistake we have made. The credits are all messed up, and with so many installations and details to manage, we totally missed this non-less important thing.

Let me walk through every task each team member has made:

André Almeida
Project leader
Interaction design
Software development
Neuron Sculpture detection and interaction

David Palma
Computer Rigging
General Setup

Eric da Costa
Neuron Sculpture project leader
Neuron Sculpture vision, concept, sculpture

Filipe Barbosa
Interactive applications art direction
3D Models
UI design
Brain Orchestra Sound design
Neuron Sculpture Sound design

Gonçalo Lopes (NeuroGears)
Time to Action Author Software development
Project Advisor

Guilherme Martins
Light equipment design and assembly
Neuron sculpture interactive sound software
Brain orchestra software developer

João Ribeiro
Neuron Sculpture fibreglass
Neuron Sculpture assembly

João FrazãoNeuroGears
Neuron Sculpture detection software
Project Advisor

José Pedro Sousa
Neuron Sculpture fibreglass
Neuron Sculpture assembly

Ricardo Imperial
Interactive applications Software developer

Tarquínio Mota
Neuron Sculpture software development
Neuron Sculpture light/electronics development
Interactive applications software development

Leonel Caldeira
David Palma
João Frazão (NeuroGears)