Using biofeedback to create large scale interactive art installations

Samuel Clay discusses the electronics and manufacturing issues on two Burning Man projects at HDDG23

Supplyframe’s mission is to create more access to information about electronics design and manufacturing. As such, we do a meetup in San Francisco called, Hardware Developers Didactic Galactic. These events include talks by industry experts in hardware and software. The speakers are often building hardware for recreation or as part of their employment. The common thread is that they want to give a view “under the hood”.

HDDG23 was held August 3rd, 2017 at the Supplyframe San Francisco office. We welcomed Samuel Clay (@samuelclay), creator of Newsblur and Turn Touch, a newly launched hardware product for controlling a range of devices in the home. Sam’s experience in software and movement into the hardware space provides an interesting look as someone coming to terms with a new set of design constraints.

The projects

This talk covered two projects that were showcased at Burning Man in 2014 and 2016.

The first was “Pulse and Bloom”, displayed in 2014. This interactive art measured user’s pulse on a hand pad and then transmitted a representation of their heartbeat up a “stalk” of a 12–16 foot tall lotus flower sculpture. The runs of LEDs were able to display a live visualization of the person back on the ground and also interact between the different versions of the flower; there were 20 in the final installation on the playa.

The second experience was “Grove”, displayed in 2016. The idea on this piece was to have a similar tree-based design with much more active user participation. The trees were controlled by the users’ breath. As they breath into a sensor flower, LED strips light up and the branches of the tree change color over time.

The implementation

In both of these installations, it was clear that the logistics of a large scale install was the most difficult task. Dealing with the alkaline dust of the desert meant that the electronics were subject to harsh conditions. The large temperature swings of the desert (100F + during the day and near freezing at night) also contributed to issues for these devices. Finally, the temporal nature of the projects meant that a fast install and a fast breakdown of the project required sophistication and heartiness in design and constant watchfulness over the project throughout the weekend. This resulted in on-site repairs using portable soldering irons and hot glue guns.

Working solo

Most impressive of all is that Sam was a Solo Engineer for both his own hardware development project (the Turn Touch) while also working part time on the Pulse and Bloom as the main EE. On Bloom, he was joined by a small team of other EEs, some of whom were found at previous HDDG events!

The art of Burning Man has provided past talk topics for HDDG and will continue to showcase innovation in the world of interactive design. If you know of other projects we should feature at future events or on the blog, please let us know below!

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