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Digital Water Wall

The technology of the digital Water Wall provides a way of creating precisely controllable, dynamically reconfigurable, visually spectacular cascades that use very little water.

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A Water Wall consists of an array of fine-gauge, computer-controlled solenoid valves arranged along a water supply pipe running through the air. Typically the valves are about 4cm apart, and they operate at a frequency of at least 100 hertz. Opening and closing a valve creates corresponding solids and voids – that is, one-bit-deep pixels –in the narrow vertical jet that the valve controls.

By programming a line of valves, it is possible to create openings and complex patterns in a sheet of falling water. When it has completed its descent, the water is captured in a gutter at the base of the wall and recycled. From an artist or programmer’s perspective, a Water Wall is a specialized type of large computer graphics display. Graphic content to be displayed can be specified either in the form of a raster image or a procedure that generates shapes and patterns. A graphics device driver converts this content into commands for the solenoid valves.

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The simplest form of Water Wall is a single rectangular sheet. But Water Walls may also be curved, they may be arranged in layers, they may become cylinders and other closed loops, and they may be configured to create rooms and architectural sequences of spaces.

Wall segments can “slide” horizontally along the lines of their supply pipes, like sliding doors on overhead tracks – but at any speed. And vertical slot openings can be introduced at any location, at any time.

Essentially, the infrastructure of overhead pipes and solenoid valves defines a shape, composed of walls, that appears when all the valves switched on. By selectively switching valves off, and thereby erasing wall segments, any subshape can be produced. These subshapes can remain stable for extended periods, or they can be programmed to morph into other subshapes. Animated sequences of subshapes can be produced by a technique analogous to that of key-frame animation.

In the vertical dimension, the simplest kind of Water Wall is created by a horizontal pipe fixed at a particular height. The pipes generating Water Walls need not be static and through the introduction of suitable actuators, they can move. They can translate horizontally, like gantry cranes, to sweep out rectangular volumes. And they can even move along non-parallel tracks at either end to sweep out volumes bounded by ruled surfaces. Unlike walls made from solid materials, they can expand and contract freely in both vertical and horizontal directions.

The patterns exhibited by a Water Wall are always defined by solenoid valve actions along a line at the top of the wall area. Once a horizontal array of solids and voids has been created at this line, it begins to fall downwards, and thereafter it does not change (apart from fairly minor effects of wind, gravity, and so on) until it reaches the gutter at the bottom. The effect is like that of a computer line printer that is fed by a roll of paper above the wall area, repeatedly prints lines of pixels on the paper as it crosses the line at the top of the wall area, and thus produces a picture that becomes visible as it scrolls down across the wall area and eventually disappears into the gutter at the bottom.

Water Wall programs can include both texts and graphic images. That is why they should not be treated merely as spectacle, but as large-scale interactive devices.

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