Physical Computing

Physical Computing - Week 11 to 14: Final Project Alaska








TITLE: Alaska Glaciers Dynamic Sculpture

CATEGORY: Physical Computing



Time: Nov, 2016 - Dec, 2016

Toolkits: Arduino, Laser Cutter, illustrator






  • First Round

My partner Shivanku and I found a very interesting data set on Bloomberg website. It was about the truth what's really cause global warming. Based on this data set, we decided to make an interactive data sculpture.

What's really warming the world? by Eric Roston and Blacki Migliozzi

What's really warming the world? by Eric Roston and Blacki Migliozzi

In the project, Shivanku was very interested in the user flow which would correct people's misunderstanding of the prime criminal causing global warming. What I am most excited about was creating an interactive experience to connect understanding the knowledge with an intuitive feeling that we human beings were deeply involved in global warming. Soon the problem raised, what we wanted our audiences to know and experience may have an ideal model in our mind, which was not perfect to fit the data set in.

This problem kept bothering us for a long time. To solve it, we either changed the data set, which we really like, or changed our ideal model in mind, which we were very interested in. We have a long discussion like, what's the difference between designing a project that client want an agency to make and a project artist want to make to express themselves. Our instructor Tom Igoe gave us some advice. One of them is to make the data to tell a story, by comparing different dimensions of data. It's useful, and we really can generate a story from our Bloomberg data set. The data set removed different factors from the environment system and compare the computational model with the real temperature change data, which would tell audiences what is the main factors raising temperature.

Therefore, we made our first demo, using 4 switches, 1 gas sensor and 1 sliders as input. And it also had a digital screen and sculpture to show the change of temperature. 

Demo - Version One

Demo - Version One

  • Second Round

After playtest, we received some precious advice to improve our design.

We also realized that, even for the same data set, people with different interests may give contrary feedback. Some of them treated our sculpture as an educational project, telling us we should do some restrictions to the parameter which can be changed by audiences and map it to the real data. The others treated it as a physical Minecraft, would like it to be an open world, and they wanted unlimited power to change the parameters and see what would happen. 

And we also noticed that for those who had similar thoughts they may give contrary feedback about how to interact with the sculpture. Some of them hope to see changes happen at the sculpture whatever the decision they made. We also got the feedback like they wanted to be taught how to set a perfect setting for the sculpture. That reminded us of the design philosophy of data sculpture is still under discussing.

To avoid the confusing interactions, we cut some input method and only keep the blow interaction part.

When I looked back to this chapter I after our winter show, I felt like I missed some important problems at that time. Why people gave us contrary feedback? I think the reason is, our project is not that much intuitive, audiences need to be told how to interact with it. It left too much space for audiences to image how it will works. - Eric
Demo - Version Two

Demo - Version Two

  • Third Round

The third round discussion is about if we should keep the data part. Based on our data set, we successfully calculated a formula, the relationship between how height the glaciers will melt and the volume of greenhouse gas(carbon dioxide) emission. At first, we decided to keep the data part, the next step is to map this formula into the small size world we made. At the other hand, Tom gave us a very strong feedback, that cannot be ignored. Our blowing interaction and data mapping will make audience misunderstand our concept, so if we kill ourselves, we can save the iceberg?

We do want to keep the blowing interaction. It's simple for audiences and has strong intuitive connection with gas input. So we cancel the data part and turned to emotional metaphor to build a new concept. The new concept is to create a feeling that destroying a beautiful things is as easy as blowing down a house of cards. But if we want to rebuild it, it takes time to recover and reconstruct. Our environment, especially the glaciers are fragile. We destroyed it without noticing what we have done. It may take thousand of years to reform them after eliminating the unbalanced emission of carbon dioxide.

Demo - Version Three

Demo - Version Three



The user need to blow the sensor. The speed of airflow is connected to the speed of glaciers sinking down and color changing of projection mapping.
if the user stops, the glaciers will start to go back to the original height very slowly.
if the user successfully destroys and sinks all the glaciers, the projections mapping will show some video footage, that the real glaciers are melting.



  • First Round
  1. Shelly + Lola: Using coral reefs instead of icebergs would be more symbolic of "climate change" rather than "global warming". Also visually we will be able to see something die instead of just something that obviously melts
  2. Manning: More visual feedback when parameter changes
  3. Miao: The flow is confusing, when do I have to press button, when do I have to blow, when do I have to change year, this is confusing
  4. Ying: When the ice melts, the water should become bigger. Too many buttons
  5. Rozin: Maybe the controls can be like equilizer. Instead of acrylic we can use fabric.
  6. Ben: Not on the wall but on the table. Changing year is confusing. Real data is important if we are doing data viz, if it is a game it is not  important
  • Second Round
  1. Shelly: Yellow projection is a nice catch, but you may need to explain to your users why you choose this color
  2. Nouf: I didn't get the mirror part why I have to myself reflect on the iceberg
  3. Rozin: I can see myself was choped into pieces. But I don't know why it has to be myself
  4. Roi: I know it is glaciers and iceberg cause you explained to me before. Can it be more like a three dimensions thing?  
  5. Ben: The mechanical system is not right, I won't paint the layers it will increase the thickness. Too much frication

After the last playtest, we decided to change the content of projection, using the video captures of iceberg melting instead of reflections of audiences themselves. Also, we tried to add more layers and shorten the gap between each layers to make it more like three-dimension shape. In my opinion, the video part works well, but the attempt to make it more three-dimensions failed. We used servos to drive each layers, and the pinion and rack mechanical system we used made it impossible for the width of the gaps shorter than the height of servos.



At first, we wanted to use glass acrylic to make glaciers, but we had a hard time to use servo to drive them when we test the demo. We did a lot of research how to make glaciers out of other materials, and for the budget reason, we chose plywood as the main materials to make our glacier at the end.


Dancing with a ball and chain, we use a vertical stack of wooden layers to make glacier layers. Though it worked well at the end, we had to admit that it didn't look like real glaciers and more like a compromise on budget and mechanical limitation. 







Climate change has been accepted as the greatest threat to the existence of humans on planet earth. While there are some deniers of this extensively proven fact whats more concerning is the apathy of the ones who do accept it. The attitude is clear, unless a violent storm comes to my doorstep, I will not care and by then it will already be too late. This attitude is present in all of us and is fatal for all of us.

Many science authors, scientists, film makers, politicians, journalists have tried to beat this attitude by making powerful appeals to people. Nothing seems to have a lasting impact. Our project makes no such attempt. Our idea is not to try another way of making people understand. Instead, our project is an attempt at cynicism and mockery of the short sighted attitude described above. 

"How obvious and directly related to human action does the impact of climate change have to be, for people to finally understand the gravity of the situation"

For our project, we decided to focus on Alaska’s Glacier Bay. It is home to over 100,000 glaciers, 95% of which are currently thinning. We created a sculpture that mimics the peaks at Alaska Glaciers and destroys itself instantaneously, and almost comically, in response to any user interaction with it. Here is a video of how it works:







During the winter show, I experienced both happy and frustrated feelings!

The frustrated thing was that I felt our sculpture was not as intuitive as we thought it to be. I had to explain how to interact with it. If I was not there telling them to blow or speak to the microphone box we made, they seemed to treat it as a static one.

But some things interesting happened too! After I told audiences to talk or blow to the sculpture, they gave their comments or feedback or ask questions immediately to the microphone!

I collected most of those feedback:

1. About the projection, "Why yellow?", "Sunshine?", "What is the content of the texture?”, "Beautiful and sensitive"

2. About the mechanism, "Can I open the lids?", "They are pretty responsive"

3. About the concept,"You should know that the carbon dioxide is not only a bad thing, the plant live on it. The balance is the most important thing", "Why alaska?"

4. About the interaction, some feedback like I have to kill myself to save the world still exist. And people want to know how to make the glaciers rise up, they didn't notice that the glaciers were raising automatically.

Please feel free to contact me( if you need to delete your footage from the documentation. This documentation video won't be published to public platforms and already set as privacy on Vimeo.

I think winter show audiences felt a little confused about Alaska, but they also thought it was beautiful, interesting and pretty responsive, which could be predicted at the last playtest, Tom and our classmates gave us very similar feedback.

But there still were some insights I gained during this winter show:

  • The balance is the most important thing. And try your best to minimize the possibilities of misunderstanding your concept.
  • A good project for show should allow the author leave for dinner! Just a joke, I mean, a good project should not make people think how to interact with it. In fact, Tom remind us of this a couple of times, I felt disappointed about myself for not digging it deeper. 
  • Create some thing that can build relationship with your audiences. The No.1 fan of our sculpture was a film producer who have been Alaska to shoot film for 2 months. He even called his friend from Alaska to see our work. He was the only one during the show got the idea that the yellow projection was sunshine on glaciers.


Hi my dear readers, if you have shot some photos or footages of our dynamic sculpture during the ITP winter show, please send it to, thanks!