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How we reverse engineered flip-dot displays from buses to help tell the story of the city of Manchester through poetry.

As part of a project to bring poetry into the daily lives of people, Future Everything and Manchester City Council needed a way to talk to the Hannover flip dot displays that they were looking to upcycle into a data art installation. They found out about the work DEV had done with our flip dot display in the Studio (keeping track of what songs are playing and what meetings coming up amongst other vital functions!) and reached out to see if we could help them unlock the potential of the hardware they had.

For our Studio, DEV had looked at existing open-source solutions and poured over as much technical documentation as we could find online about the displays. Once we had a more detailed understanding of how it worked (and looked at the circuitry to confirm our theory), we connected up a Raspberry Pi with a serial interface to the display. We then wrote software to send data in the same way the original bus driver controller would have worked but with our own content. It took a little trial and error but to be fair, this sort of thing is what we consider ‘fun’ — yes, we know that isn't totally normal!

When Future Everything reached out to us, we were happy to help, and gave them sample code and documentation so they could replicate our efforts with their displays. Since working on the project we’ve upgraded our displays, they’re now integrated with Slack and we’ve also replaced the old original circuit boards with IoT devices to help us manage the displays wirelessly. It’s a complete labour of love, but so rewarding to hear the whirr of the dots flipping when someone posts a fun message to the display.

And in Manchester, the displays show over 1000 lines of poetry a day, with the project and our displays featured heavily in national media.

Sample of the poetry produced:

the sun rises
the streets are empty
someone sneezes
the car park is almost empty
the traffic light turns green
the cleaning shift starts
the bus is on time
and it is colder than yesterday

If you have a technical challenge that’s outside the ordinary then we’d love to hear from you.

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Future everything photos