diamond geezer

 Monday, July 18, 2011

I've long considered the 425 to be a rubbish bus route. It's indirect, it's slow, and the buses are never ever full. People travelled from Stratford to Clapton before the 425 was introduced, and will do again after someone sees sense and scraps it. At the very least, I've always thought, it should be downgraded to a single decker to save some of TfL's hard earned cash. But I've changed my mind all of a sudden, because the top deck of the 425 now offers a sight unique in London. The very first Bus-Top.

Bus-Tops, you may or may not remember, are the capital's artistic contribution to the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad. Scotland's promised a timber football pitch, the West Midlands get a 10m-high Lady Godiva, and London's getting LED displays on bus shelters. That's LED displays on top of bus shelters, facing the sky, hence the name Bus-Tops. Each screen will be about the same size as a front door, maybe slightly longer, surrounded by a sturdy wooden frame of London plane. Thousands of points of electronic light comprise each array, in monochromatic red, capable of displaying anything from a single word to a panoramic landscape. Temperature and rain sensors help the screens to adapt to their surrounding environment. And, in a dongle-tastic twist, each display is 3G-connected allowing fresh artwork to be beamed in whenever the organisers deem fit. All very modern, all very clever, but if you're not on the top deck of a passing bus you're not going to see a thing.

The entire project kicks off for real on January 1st, with one Bus-Top scheduled to be installed in each London borough. But a prototype was needed to ensure that the entire set-up actually works, so the team hired an engineering facility to tweak one complete set of framed electronics and internal gizmos. Then earlier this month, as part of initial field trials, the entire structure was hoisted into place on top of a bus shelter in deepest Hackney. The organisers aren't admitting precisely where, but they've left enough clues if you know where to look. And there the panel sits, playing out its visual artwork to anyone who cares to look out of the left-hand window as a double decker goes by. [photo]

It's an interesting choice of bus stop. Seven different bus routes go this way, which you'd think would maximise the chances of this artwork being seen. Not so. Five of the passing buses are single deckers, so passengers in these won't have spotted anything unusual. One double decker starts only at the previous bus stop, so the number of upper deck passengers by this point will be minimal. The remaining bus is the 425, which we've already determined is a bit of a Marie Celeste, so is unlikely to bring many spectators to the party. And the entire street is one-way only for bus traffic, so there's not even the possibility of catching sight out of the right-hand window in the opposite direction. It's almost as if Alfie & Co really didn't want people to see this one. But I've seen it, and it works.

You don't get long to interact with a Bus-Top. The animation screens in a long loop, of which you'll only get to see a tiny portion as the bus draws alongside. If you're lucky the bus will stop, maybe even with your seat alongside the slanted display, but if passenger numbers are light it may speed straight past taking any viewing opportunity with it. So I can only base my opinions on what I saw during two brief drivepasts, and the mundane graphics may or may not be representative of the complete lightshow. First time past: a swirling red figure, could have been a human hand, perhaps a spinning fish, I genuinely couldn't tell [photo]. Second time past: flashing text, "Hello", then "Hi", then some foreign word beginning with "7". Except the foreign word definitely ought to have started with "Z", but it seemed there was a problem with malfunctioning LEDs across the entire bottom left corner of the screen. Prototype, to be expected, not a problem.

The graphics might have gripped me more if they'd been brighter. The display looks pinpoint-sharp in the studio, a genuine eyecatcher, proper wow. But stick that display on top of a bus shelter, in full daylight, and everything fades. The red light also has to shine through a protective plastic sheet which shields the electronic gubbins from raindrops, bird poo and lobbed bricks, and this extra layer dims the light a little further. After dark this is going to look great, no question, like having Christmas decorations up all year round. But mid-afternoon in light drizzle, not quite the attention-seeker I'd been hoping to see. Prototype, to be expected, not (yet) a problem.

There are 32 more Bus Tops to come, in locations yet to be revealed, starting in approximately six months time. Will they brighten your daily commute, as you strain to peer out of the window each morning to see what fresh animated treat awaits? Will you be tempted to catch a double decker you never normally use, purely to see what all the fuss is about? Will you submit your artistic ideas to the website and watch them become part of the Bus-Tops phenomenon? Or will the entire project be nothing more than a minor sideshow, experienced by the select few, overlooked by the majority of Londoners. Whatever, Hackney's Bus-Top is already there for you to enjoy [photo]. Best hurry, before somebody decides the 425 really would be better off as a single decker after all.

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