Active Ecosystem (SMF) Interactive Installation at Sacramento Airport

Last Sunday was the soft opening for a new art installation I’ve completed in collaboration with media artist Camille Utterback and animator Michelle HigaActive Ecosystem (SMF) is an interactive installation that uses themes of the natural world to bring an organic presence into the Sacramento Airport’s brand new Terminal B.

The installation consists of 14 LCD screens attached periodically to the outside of a glass encased three-story elevator shaft in the main open space of the airport. The system takes its cues from the operation of the elevator, current floor position and next locations are mapped onto events in screen space, externalizing the actions of elevator travelers and bringing the outside environment in based on those actions. The content is an internal environment viewed through the window of the screens, particles, fish, and a river span the length of the enclosure.

Animations controlled by the rise and fall of the elevator depict changes in different ecosystems, linking the human movement within the airport to the environment outside.

Conceptually, Active Ecosystem (SMF) continues the airport’s theme of “bringing the outside in,” while capitalizing on what interactive media and dynamic computer systems do best: visualizing time and movement in an open-ended, evolving way. The different scenes in the piece combine both pre-rendered and algorithmically generated animations. Leaves, seeds, fish and other natural elements are hand-drawn, but the movements of those elements are calculated dynamically to always create different behaviors as they grow or move.

Each of the different scenes in Active Ecosystem (SMF) contains multiple responses to the elevator. For example, in the “river” scene, passengers’ pushing a call button on any of the landings starts a series of ripples in the river. When the elevator moves to a new floor, a school of fish follow it. A large, curious fish investigates the elevator wherever it stops. If no one rides the elevator for an extended period of time, an abstract drawing of the river starts to flow. Similarly, in the “tree” scene, falling leaves are blown in different directions as the elevator rises and falls.

In each scene, the elements also change based on time of day and the seasons. The color palette changes from dawn to noon to dusk, mimicking the outside environment. Different local fish, such as king salmon or rainbow trout, swim in the river during the months when they are spawning. Falling autumn leaves are replaced by drifting pollen in the spring.

This project took a massive amount of work from all parties involved. We were aided immeasurably by using the Touch Designer platform as the development platform, a tool I’ve kept coming back to over my last several projects. All outputs are run out of a single server, a rack mount PC with GPU expantion boxes made by Cubix. Touch Designer allows all of the inter-screen drawing and windowing operations to be taken care of, drastically lowering the amount of effort needed to pull off a project of this scale. All content for this project was also developed in Touch, drastically speeding the amount of iteration and collaboration that could be accomplished in a relatively short time span.

The public opening for the new Terminal B is October 6th, with a party on October 7th. If you happen to be flying through, be on the lookout for our piece. It’s my first time speaking to an elevator.