Functioning Unit

This week Mark was able to get one of the Solari units working, using basic keyboard commands. For obvious reasons this is a major step in terms of progress, not least because it’s probably the first time any of the Mirabel Solari units have actually run since the passenger terminal closed in 2004. And it’s certainly the first time any of the MSP’s units have worked since the initial acquisition in 2014.

In order to give us maximum flexibility in terms of display, Mark has figured out how to ensure that we can control the following parameters:

– Flapping speed
– Going directly to the next letter/number or to a blank first
– Setting one letter/number at a time, or the whole row at once
– Remaining stationary if the next letter/number is the same

This will have a direct effect on how expressive the displays can be. (In usability terms, it improves their affordances.)

Meanwhile, Danica and Matt are working on replacements for a few missing split-flaps. It’s amazing what you can find in a local stationery store in terms of raw materials. 🙂

Starting work on the control system

I’m delighted to announce that we’ve hired Mark Demers from Spikenzie Labs in Montreal to work on the control system for the two Solari units. Mark really ‘gets’ the project, and is full of ideas for how we might proceed. He’s also sensitive to the particular technical and creative constraints we’re facing. This includes our wish to avoid making any irreversible physical changes to the Solaris. For example, if at all possible we will use the existing cavities inside the signs to install the new electronics, while bypassing (rather than removing or destroying) the existing components. With proper documentation it should be possible to return the signs to the condition in which they were originally received from ADM, should we eventually want to do so.

In the spirit of openness that has come to characterize the best of the maker community, Mark and I will be sharing our process with the readers of this blog. This will include insights into R&D, prototyping models, and schematics.

Mark_1Right off the bat, then, here’s Mark’s first physical experiment. He says: “I made a mechanical model of the split-flap counter and zero sensor with our laser cutter and I’ve been using it to start working on the coding. It has a DC motor, micro-switches and rotation is controlled by the circuit. It is based on 40 transitions per zero trigger. (Similar to the ones in your sign which have 4 motor rotations with 10 transitions for a total of 40 transitions to sense per full set of flips.)”

What he’s tackling here is the technical specifications of the Solaris, in lieu of any documentation; historically, the Solari factory has not been particularly helpful to folks wanting to get their old signs working again. A major concern of mine is to try to reproduce the original behaviours of the Solari signs: how fast should they flip; in what sequence and direction; individually or all at once? (And what will our artist want them to do?)

Clues can be found online, since a few YouTube users have actually taken the trouble to record Solari boards in action around the world. I thought this video was interesting. The whole row starts changing, but they go straight to the next character without ‘zeroing out’ first (as we had initially thought – wrongly). For example, in the last (white) line, the word ‘KEYSTONE’ becomes ‘REGIONAL’ but the first E doesn’t move at all because it’s already at the right point in its cycle, ie KEYSTONE to REGIONAL. By contrast the ‘logic’ of this homemade one seems all wrong, and rather too fast. This one seems better but weirdly speeds up towards the end of its cycle. And to my mind this is absolutely, completely wrong.

Meanwhile, back to Mark: “I built a new model after seeing the actual display that you dropped off. The new one incorporates gearing and two different plains and rotational speeds for the counter and zero position sensor. I have also included diodes in the same arrangement, so that I could be sure that my counting circuits works with the actual displays….By adding the diodes I had to reverse the polarity of my de-bouncing circuit. There is also a bit more noise since part of the counting circuit is shared with the zero sensor, but I’m currently working though that. The code is at a point where I can type a character and the display updates to that character by first passing through blank.” (April 29, 2016)
“Here is the decoding of the Solari switches.”

Mark_3Finally, for this omnibus update, I’m delighted to welcome Danica Evering to the project. Danica is an artist, curator, and grad student in my department at Concordia. She will be primarily responsible for logistical issues relating to our artist collaborator and the galleries we’ll be working with on the installation.

More updates as they happen.

Initial Breakdown – February 2016


Both displays are extremely heavy: it takes four people and a dolly to move them comfortably. They were suspended from the ceiling at their respective gates in the airport; each one has a pair of vertical, tubular stanchions with threaded ends. Fortunately when we picked them up they all still had washers and nuts.

The fascias are comprised of many smaller sections of black paneling that clip into place, presumably for ease of access and servicing. When removed, these reveal several compartments: a small section, bottom left, with four bulbs to backlight the gate number, plus space for the wiring loom, 3-4 PCBs, and eight Solaris. Don’s initial assessment is that everything was based on contemporary telephone technology. The Solari units can easily be removed by hand, one by one; on the reverse they have one six-pin plug and a longer pin for safe alignment.

The fibreglass yellow ‘jackets’ are purely decorative, and can be removed in two halves (front and back) via screws at the sides. They both show signs of wear-and-tear, particularly some streaks of latex paint on the top edges.

Our current goals:

– confirm that the system is AC (seems some European models are DC);

– complete the inventory of flaps (on the units I’ve checked, a few flaps are missing);

– develop and install a control system for each set of Solaris;

– design a ‘front end’ to allow interaction with the Solaris from a remote device, using ethernet, wifi, and/or Bluetooth;

– figure out better stability, and options for shipping.

More soon….

All about Flight YMX

Mirabel_GateIn October 2014 and February 2016 I acquired two very large ‘Solari boards’ (aka ‘split-flap’ information displays) from the soon-to-be demolished Montréal-Mirabel International Airport passenger terminal (IATA code YMX), courtesy of Aéroports de Montréal. As part of the ongoing Montreal Signs Project at Concordia University, the signs will soon become operational again, using one or more microcontrollers (eg Arduinos).

Solari3I will be working with a Québecois/e poet or electronic literature artist to develop and perform a new work conceived specifically for the displays. The art installation will explore issues relating to migration, modernity, time, mass transit, and ‘liminality’, ie airport departure gates as ‘edge’ spaces that are neither ‘here’ nor ‘there’. By cueing up coded, allusive phrases, flight codes, and times, and having them run cyclically, the installation will thereby put users (‘travelers’) in direct ‘conversation’ with a residual sign technology that is generally associated with anonymous, hidden control centres. The signs will also be Internet-enabled, so we can text or Tweet to the displays remotely – thereby teasing apart the relationships between anonymity, authority, and authorship, via social media.