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TED2007

Nick Sears: Demo: The Orb

March 3, 2007

Inventor Nick Sears demos the first generation of the Orb, a rotating persistence-of-vision display that creates glowing 3D images. A short, cool tale of invention.

Nick Sears - Inventor
Working with his father, Ron Sears, Nick Sears is designing and building the Orb, a rotating LED display that uses persistence of vision to produce moving images in 3D space. Full bio

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Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
In 1962, Buckminster Fuller
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presented the particularly audacious proposal for the Geoscope.
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It was a 200-foot diameter geodesic sphere
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to be suspended over the East River in New York City, in full view of the United Nations.
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It was a big idea, for sure, and it was one that he felt could truly inform
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and deeply affect the decision making of this body
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through animations of global data, trends
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and other information regarding the globe, on this sphere.
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And today, 45 years later,
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we clearly have no less need for this kind of clarity and perspective,
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but what we do have is improved technology.
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Today we don't need one million light bulbs to create a spherical display.
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We can use LEDs.
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LEDs are smaller, they're cheaper, they're longer lasting, they're more efficient.
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Most importantly for this, they're faster.
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And this speed, combined with today's high-performance micro-controllers,
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allows us to actually simulate, in this piece,
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over 17,000 LEDs -- using just 64.
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And the way this happens is through the phenomenon of persistence of vision.
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But as this ring rotates at about 1,700 rpm -- that's 28 times per second.
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The equator's speed is actually about 60 miles per hour.
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There are four on-board micro-controllers
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that, each time this ring rotates
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it, as it passes the rear of the display,
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it picks up a position signal.
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And from that, the on-board micro-controllers
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can extrapolate the position of the ring at all points around the revolution
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and display arbitrary bitmap images and animations.
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But this is really just the beginning.
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In addition to higher resolution versions of this display,
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my father and I are working on a new patent-pending design
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for a fully volumetric display using the same phenomenon.
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It achieves this by rotating LEDs about two axes.
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So as you can see here, this is a, eleven-inch diameter circuit board.
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These blocks represent LEDs.
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And so you could see that as this disc rotates about this axis,
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it will create a disc of light that we can control.
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That's nothing new: that's a propeller clock;
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that's the rims that you can buy for your car.
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But what is new is that, when we rotate this disc about this axis,
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this disc of light actually becomes a sphere of light.
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And so we can control that with micro-controllers
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and create a fully volumetric, three-dimensional display with just 256 LEDs.
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Now this piece is currently in process --
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due out in May -- but what we've done is we've put together a small demo,
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just to show the geometric translation of points into a sphere.
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I've got a little video to show you,
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but keep in mind that this is with no electronic control,
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and this is also with only four LEDs.
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This is actually only about 1.5 percent of what the final display will be in May.
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So, take a look.
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And here you can see it's rotating about the vertical axis only, creating circles.
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And then, as the other axis kicks in,
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those actually blur into a volume.
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And the shutter speed of the camera
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actually makes it slightly less effective in this case.
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But this piece is due out in May.
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It'll be on display at the Interactive Telecommunications Spring Show
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in Greenwich Village in New York City -- that's open to the public,
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definitely invite you all to come and attend -- it's a fantastic show.
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There are hundreds of student innovators with fantastic projects.
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This piece, actually, will be on display
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down in the Sierra Simulcast Lounge
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in the breaks between now and the end of the show.
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So I'd love to talk to you all, and invite you
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to come down and take a closer look.
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It's an honor to be here. Thanks very much.
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(Applause)
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Nick Sears - Inventor
Working with his father, Ron Sears, Nick Sears is designing and building the Orb, a rotating LED display that uses persistence of vision to produce moving images in 3D space.

Why you should listen

Nick Sears is a classic tinkerer -- his resume  lists jobs that run the gamut from writing a mobile messaging framework to building a DC-DC switching voltage regulator. Along with his dad, Ron Sears, he's got a pretty neat father-son project going on: the Orb.

It's inspired by Buckminster Fuller's 1962 proposal for the Geoscope, which called for "a 200-foot-diameter sphere covered with 10 million computer-controlled light sources to be suspended over the East River in full view of the United Nations." But by making the sphere spin, the Sears realized, they could use persistence of vision and LEDs to create a bright display with a three-dimensional effect using far fewer light sources.

Sears is now a student in the Interactive Telecommunications Program at NYU. He and his father presented the Orb version 2 at Coachella in 2008 and continue to tinker with it.

The original video is available on TED.com
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