World’s Largest 3D-Printed Lens Debuts at Times Square

The installation, titled Window to the Heart, was a collaboration between design studio Aranda/Lasch and 3D printer manufacturer Formlabs.
times square 3D printed lens

Window to the Heart’s 4,000-pound lens warps the light of Times Square, focusing it on whoever is standing in front of it. “You sort of see the lens but it’s colored from the lights around [it],” says Joaquin Bonifaz, designer at Aranda\Lasch. “But you can also you can also see through the lens and see things behind it, sort of coming together toward you. It’s almost like a photo in some ways.” Courtesy Formlabs

Times Square is surely one of the most photographed spots on Earth, but a new installation unveiled today aims to give tourists and New Yorkers an unprecedented vision of the glitzy, cacophonous crossroads. Standing 12 feet tall and eight feet wide, the latest Times Square Valentine Heart Design installation combines centuries-old lens technology with the latest in 3D printing to produce unique (and selfie-friendly) visual effects.

The project was a collaboration between design studio Aranda/Lasch and 3D printer designer and manufacturer Formlabs. Ben Aranda, co-founder of the design studio, had known Marcelo Coelho, Formlabs’ head of design for many years. The duo had recently collaborated on a light design for a Museum of the City of New York exhibition. After deciding to enter the Times Square Valentine Heart Design competition together, Aranda and Coelho “went to Times Square and sat there for about an hour, observing how people behaved and how they acted when they were in Times Square,” says Coelho. That’s when they hit upon the idea: a massive lens that revisits the fundamental optical technologies that make Times Square’s photographic extravaganza possible.

The decision to design a lens was also rooted in Formlabs’ 3D printing experiments: the manufacturer had already experimented with printing lenses using clear resin, though never at this scale. The Aranda/Lasch and Formlabs team began researching lenses and came across a unique type of lens, one best known for its use in lighthouses: the Fresnel lens. “[It] seemed like the perfect choice for a couple of reasons,” says Coelho. Chiefly, Fresnel lenses aren’t a single large, smooth lens (such as you’d find on a camera) but rather a series of concentric ridges that each independently captures and direct light toward a single point. Consequently, “if you have this giant lens, you can sort of flatten it into a Fresnel lens and still get the same optical properties” without worrying about the complex geometries and potential imperfections of a smooth lens.

times square 3D printed lens

The installation is located on 46th Street between Broadway and 7th Avenue. Courtesy Formlabs

This didn’t mean producing the Fresnel lens wasn’t without its challenges.“This is a completely unprecedented scale for 3D printing, [especially] something that has this kind of optical clarity to it,” says to Coelho. The team knew the basic material properties of the clear resin, but “we were also designing and testing it [from] two weeks up to the last minute, basically.” Fifty 3D printers churned out hundreds of mock-ups. They initially considered using a massive belt to hold the hundreds of tiles together, but instead landed on another approach: the lens’s 910 3D-printed resin pieces would be adhered to two massive, clear acrylic slabs using silicone. The entire installation weighs 4,000 pounds and is anchored by a steel shoe and tripod.

The visual results are striking, but does Window to the Heart have broader implications for designers, especially when it comes to manufacturing?“Even though people talk about automation and labor, we arrived at an awesome solution where you’re putting the geometry and the iteration of the design onto the 3D printer itself,” says Coelho. Due to improvements in 3D printing materials and technologies, “it’s the kind of thing that simply wouldn’t have been possible a couple of years ago.” J

Bonifaz, a designer at Aranda\Lasch, sees a blending of human and machine in this project that will become more common. “We’re excited about this very high-tech process of developing the tiles and testing the optics, but there’s also still a manual kind of craft in fabricating the steel and laying the tiles.”

Coelho adds, “In many ways, that’s what craft is going to be moving forward into the future: This combination of humans and machines working collaboratively, harnessing the skills of each for what they’re good at.”

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Categories: Design, Industrial Design