Architects, designers, and AV customers are often boxed into thinking of digital displays only within the framework of the traditional rectangle but direct view LED (dvLED) displays do not have to be fixed objects of a rigidly defined shape. Research and development advances in diode packaging, substrate flexibility, mounting topology, and systems efficiency have opened exciting new possibilities in large-format display design. As the director of the NanoLumens Special Project Group, I come across a wide variety of ambitious (and often bizarre) display designs that never would have been achievable a few years ago but now are well within reach. To give you a better idea of what I mean, let’s look at the design process for an especially intrepid display project and explain why dvLED was the only material for the job.

The Install Doesn’t Make Sense – But that’s the Point

Walk into Nestlé’s North American headquarters in Arlington, Virginia and you’ll be met with a shape that looks straight out of a Dr. Seuss book. Six separate LED displays spiral around and through a central lobby space in a uniquely compelling arrangement. Despite this mesmerizing shape, however, every design element of this installation was 100% intentional – and 100% custom. “It’s not meant to be understood,” said Alex Simionescu of the display, “it’s about getting a reaction.” Simionescu is the founder of Float4, the firm that handled the content for the install on behalf of Gensler. Alongside these groups, AVI-SPL tackled the integration of the install while Miller, Beam & Paganelli were responsible for the building’s interior design. From the very start of the project, the design team stressed the importance of creating something that would spark conversations. The install had to generate reactions without seeming like a marketing ploy and it had to engage audiences without distracting them. So how’d that play out in practice? Well, it meant taking advantage of every degree of freedom dvLED offers.

LED Displays Allows Unparalleled Design Freedom

The design team desired an install that seemed splintered yet fluid – that meant separate curved displays with seamless surfaces. This ask can only be answered by dvLED, the sole bezel-free display technology with which you can create true curves and non-standard shapes. Any alternative solution would’ve either limited the achievable shapes or forced the introduction of bezels, or cross-hatch lines. The freeform design methodology offered by flexible LED boards also allowed for management of runout, which is the systematic buildup of gaps, overlaps, and misalignments that happen between adjacent modules as you build a display. The human eye is sensitive enough to perceive these inconsistencies even if they are small, but the frame-and-skin topology offered by the best-dvLED display systems achieved a tolerance ratio of 5% across the install. This essentially means that the flexible modules align so accurately that their margin of error is a distance measuring only 5% of pixel pitch, a minuscule ratio.

A further goal was for a three-dimensional presence that both blended behind and intruded into the environment, a trait requiring separate styles of lightweight mounting and a display technology slim enough to avoid being overly intrusive. This led to the introduction of bespoke offset wall mounts for some displays and hanging mounts for others, with dvLED again matching as the only solution light enough for these sleek mounts. Each of the panels for the six distinct displays “float” on their mounting rack thanks to the aforementioned frame-and-skin topography of the system, allowing for a display surface with essentially perfect alignment. No need to drill these boards into place – if it’s off, just give it a nudge. The tiles or boards of other display technologies (and more rigid LED manufacturers for that matter) must be registered directly to their respective cabinets, a process that leaves gaps between cabinets that must be managed to hide seams. These seams can allow for debris ingress but the boards used in this installation boards flex along their curved frames, eliminating the visible seams and more effectively locking out dust, debris, moisture, and other contaminants that can negatively affect performance.

Filling the space from a variety of viewing distances was another interest and this resulted in the deployment of several separate pixel pitches. The use of varied pitches delivers the audience a different pixilation point depending on where they stand and where they look, intentionally disrupting the uniformity of the experience in a positive way, kind of like how a shot of creamer disrupts a cup of coffee. Varying pixel pitches is something LED is uniquely capable of because, unlike a backlit LCD solution, the pixels in an LED display produce light all on their own, allowing manufacturers to space them out as much or as little as a client wants.

With LED being interpreted now more as a creative material rather than a commoditized product, designers are free to create displays that complement their vision and artistry, no matter if the shape required is a cylinder, sphere, free-form wave, or even a traditional rectangle. In any case, the whole point of working with technology as fluid as LED rather than more limited, generic alternatives is that nothing is predetermined. You are free to create whatever you want, no matter what you want to achieve. For this installation, the end goal was a conversation piece that was impossible to ignore, and even harder to forget. As Simionescu later said, “the worst case was someone not caring at all.” Thanks to dvLED, I’d say Nestlé found what they were looking for.

~Dan Rossborough