This is the story of yesteryears’ bookstores.
Team members (from left to right): Jayvan Leong Ghit (EPD), Natalie Tsang Yan Ting (ASD), Kiang Ching (ASD), May Thinzar Lin (ASD), Lim Xin Yan (ASD), Nicholas Goh Wei Jie (EPD), Tay Yee Xuan (EPD)
Stepping into the Retold interactive light installation is like stepping into a dream-like memory of the old Bras Basah bookstores. A pale, ethereal light emanates softly from the many shelves of books, turning into a brilliant kaleidoscope of colours as you approach. As you venture deeper into the installation, more book titles flare into colourful life in your presence, only to fade to a dull white glow as you leave.
“The interactivity of this project is such that when more people visit the ‘bookshop’, the lights of the book modules will become more colourful and vibrant,” explains Xin Yan, the group leader. “This represents how people are the lives of the bookshop, and how they bring vibrancy to it. That’s the main gist of the project.”
For those of us not familiar with Bras Basah’s history, bookshops from shophouses used to populate the area around the Bras Basah Complex, “so for our project we’ve decided to use materials to display this faded, ghostly but elegant effect to represent the faded memories of the past bookshops that used to line Bras Basah Road,” Yee Xuan continues.
This is the inspiration behind the aptly-named Retold light installation. And just as the project retells a visual story of yesteryears’ bookstores, it too, has a story of its own.
The Singapore Night Festival
Organised by the National Heritage Board (the project’s industry partner), the Singapore Night Festival is an annual event that features the display of various light installations and street performances. In line with the theme of exploring innovation in the space of tradition, taking reference from the context of the Bras Basah and Bugis district, the Retold project team decided to focus on the historical past of Bras Basah Road.
“We wanted to capture this historical past of Bras Basah Road by reproducing the frame of the installation which matches the dimensions of the bookshops in the past,” says Natalie. “By placing this (light installation) in the centre of Bras Basah Complex, we want to juxtapose, using modern technology, this installation against the historic past/backdrop of the complex, where students used to go to buy books.”
And then came the plot twist of the year.
The pandemic pandemonium
In what was to become the new normal, the Singapore Night Festival was changed into an online event. Instead of having to create a physical installation to showcase, the team now had to take their project to the virtual platform.
“This wasn’t the plan from the start. It was something we had to take up halfway into the project, so we had to work on this quite a bit,” May laughs. “With the virtual installation, viewers can still take part in the experience. We focused a lot on the interactivity of the (physical) installation, so we replicated that interactivity in the virtual realm.”
“Another challenge was getting the visual effects of the virtual installation to look like the one for the physical project,” Jayvan chips in. “The way virtual sensors work in the Unreal Engine is different from the way physical sensors work. So getting the sensitivity and the responsiveness of the visual effects to match – for example, how fast the light pulses, and how smoothly it responds to people walking towards it – it was a lot of trial-and-error.”
Although the Singapore Night Festival became a virtual event, the team still had to create and submit a working prototype as proof of concept for their Capstone project, to show that their project was physically viable.
Amongst the various ideas they explored, the team eventually settled on “taking one corner (one metre by one metre) of the original full-scale installation. It’s not scaled down, but is actually full-sized.”
Getting the light (installation) right
As expected from having to create both a physical and virtual installation, the team faced a diverse range of challenges. What was unexpected, though, was the obstacles themselves.
Yee Xuan elaborates: “We didn’t foresee a lot of the challenges that we faced; they surfaced only when we were building the prototype, so we had to solve them on the spot.”
For the virtual installation, for example, the team would Google for help whenever an obstacle surfaced. While each team member was assigned a particular section to work on, they often had to brainstorm solutions together.
The physical project came with its own set of challenges too, of which “the biggest issue was waterproofing,” laughs Nicholas. “Because we planned for our installation to be placed outdoors, we had to make sure there were no exposed wires or connections. We also had to conceal the wires to maintain the elegance of the installation.”
Getting the light right also took a fair share of experimentation. “We bought clear acrylic tubes and frosted tubes, but when we tested them we realized that the lights were not diffused properly, so we could still see the light pixels from the outside, “says Kiang Ching. “We eventually discovered that if we pasted diffuser paper on the outside, it would diffuse the pixel lights enough to produce the pure white light effect that we were going for.”
When asked about fond memories of their Capstone journey, the team broke into a laugh.
“There was this time Yee Xuan was testing the electrical cable, and she tripped the whole power in the Fab(rication) Lab,” Nicholas chuckles. “Actually, it happened twice. We’ll like to credit the Fab Lab staff for being very helpful.”
Jokes aside though, the team has more to add on about the lab.
“The school has provided a very good Fab Lab, where we learnt how to operate the machines. The staff there also have very practical and time-efficient know-hows in getting things done, which is very useful in our design process because their solutions are usually very fast, and they tend to be solutions that we may not have thought of,” says Xin Yan.
“Learning how to operate these machines is also a very useful thing to learn, such as the specs of the machines and what kind of things we can fabricate from them.”
The Retold virtual installation is viewable on a public domain as part of the virtual Night Festival, but that’s not to say that we’ll never get to see the full physical structure. The National Heritage Board has the design files needed to build it, if they wish to. What’s for sure though, is that the heritage of these old bookstores will never fade away.
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