As a sophisticated biological network, coral reefs are natural spies. Reefs consist of hundreds (or even hundreds of thousands) of polyps, which gather information about their environments and use it to shape their growth patterns and, consequently, the form of the reef itself. In a way, their structures are a product of their surveillance of the environment. So when the San Francisco–based BIOS Design Collective wanted to render Silicon Valley's invisible web of data—from overlapping wi-fi signals to the behavior trackers buried in web pages—as a physical expression of eyes and brains, they chose the coral reef as their ruling metaphor.
BIOS's new pavilion in San Jose, ColoniaTecne, throws off different colors and patterns based on the passage of visitors through the tunnel. Here's how it works: the piece's wood armature holds 53 plastic scales that each contain an LED light and a microprocessor, giving the installation a total of 53 computer-brains. The surveillance happens when the microprocessors receive input from any of seven sonar sensors (which serve as the eyes in this mixed metaphor).
Based on their location, the brains react to motion at different times and in different ways. "It's almost like an info web," says project lead Jess Austin, who designed and built the structure with BIOS-mates Charles Lee and Rip De Leon. "The program has [the microprocessors] talk to their closest neighbor, and then their closest and second-closest sonar. They process that information and reinterpret it, each one a little differently."
Austin and his colleagues are architects by day (Austin at Grimshaw Architects, Lee at HOK, and De Leon at Future Cities Lab), and they have been collaborating since their days in architecture school at the California College of Arts. San Franciscans may remember BIOS's canopy of upcycled Solo cups, which provided boozy shelter to an AIA booth during the 2009 Architecture and the City fest.
Despite ColoniaTecne's friendly light and color displays, Austin clarifies that he doesn't find surveillance itself a wholly playful enterprise. "The surveillance is really just captured for the fun of the participants," he says. "We're creating our own little world and using it to our own ends."
ColoniaTecne is on view at East San Carlos Street and First Street in San Jose through February 1.
Close-up of ColoniaTecne's wood armature and plastic scales.
Rendering courtesy of BIOS Design Collective
All photos: Peter Prato