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Air traffic control goes technicolour at Vivid Sydney

Art is getting technical at this year's Vivid Sydney festival, with a lighting installation that maps real-time flight data across 1,600 LEDs for an ever-changing light and sound display.

Space Folding depicts raw flight data in changing LED patterns. Holly Sydney

As Vivid lights up Sydney's skies this month, one artwork is looking to the sky for inspiration, transforming complex aeroplane flight data into an immersive walk-in light installation known as Space Folding.

Now in its seventh year, Vivid Sydney packs the parks and walkways of Sydney with a huge range of eye-catching light installations, from massive colourful projections beamed onto the side of the Opera House and across the city skyline, down to small-scale works down hidden back alleys.

Fresh off the back of an appearance at the International Symposium of Electronic Art in Dubai, Space Folding uses data on aircraft in Sydney's air space and maps it on a cylindrical grid of 1,600 LED lights.

The flight data is pulled from the worldwide aircraft tracking service FlightAware, before customised software sends the raw information to a lighting controller, generating LED light patterns based on what's happening in the skies overhead.

According to Space Folding's Creator Zina Kaye all of this complex data work is happening in real-time, and while the bright lights might look impressive, "the real technical innovation is in the software translating the data."

"We narrow down to the data we want and then use custom built software to translate it and send the information required to the lighting controller," said Kaye. "So as a plane flies over, the API [application programming interface] tells us the path is crossing the space we are watching and...the lighting controller then switches patterns and displays the flyover event on the rig."

But it's not just a light show -- visitors can also have their own silent disco with a "live data soundtrack" that interprets the same flight data into music and sound, created in collaboration with gaming composer Peret von Sturmer.

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Space Folding designer Zina Kaye. Rebecca Birch

With plenty going on behind the scenes to keep planespotters and tech-heads happy, the artwork is also an immersive and colourful experience for those who are less familiar with complex flight tracking APIs.

Kaye, who has been working with data visualisation and large data sets for a number of years, says the Space Folding project was really "an experiment is visualising complex data in a way that resonates with the physical body".

"I'm posing the question, 'Can we sense a data set through our body?'" she said. "And I've purposely used a data set that is quite transformational -- flight data. We're invested when we travel: whether we're going on holiday or if it's to see a family member or do business.

"Transport data is also a key indicator of underlying social, cultural, political and economic change. I find the data fascinating and I love making it accessible to a broad audience."

Space Folding will light up First Fleet Park at Sydney's Circular Quay every night from 6pm. Vivid Sydney runs from May 22 until June 8.