Device of the Week #4 – Four Letter Words

The Four Letter Words
is an installation by interactive artist Rob Seward, consisting of a robotic collection of fluorescent lights. The setup is separated into four units, each capable of displaying any of the 26 alphabets by shifting the placement of lights. Hence, any four-lettered word can be displayed at one time.

The word sequence displayed is continuously generated by an algorithm derived from a linguistic database developed by the University of South Florida. The meaning of each word, the letter sequencing, rhyming and association are all taken into account with each generated word. For example, the following word will always have only one difference in alphabets compared to the previous word: RATE – RAKE – LAKE – WAKE – WAGE – WARE – DARE – DARN



What is needed

4 Arduinos
20 servos
8 step motors
24 3.9 inch cold cathode lights

How it works

The positions of the lights are stored in an XML file, while a mac mini runs a Processing code comprising of data alignment to the four Arduino boards. The application reads the list of words generated, and send the data over. The position and angle of each light bulb responds to any of the alphabets from A-Z, moving in a fairly quick manner. Rob Seward mentioned that there were certain alphabet transitions that the device could not carry out, due to the arrangement of the light bulbs. For example, if ‘S’ switches to ‘D’, two of the bulbs would collide. The Processing code ensures that none of these transitions would happen, to avoid collisions and destruction.

Image result for four letter word rob sewardImage result for four letter word rob seward


As a functional piece, I feel that this device would add an exciting touch to existing neon signs, in place of restaurant or bar signs, or other places of entertainment. It could display names, or short meaning words pertaining to its surroundings, or simply move around forming an interesting design.
It could also be installed as an art piece in museums or hotel lobbies where visitors can sit and admire.


The length of each word displayed is restricted to the number of Arduino setups, and only appears one at a time. While point of the work revolves around word association and rhyming, the same device would be unable to display other types of textual content, unless produced in a large-scale setting.



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