Professor Keefe Helps Create Data-Driven Sculpture for Northern Spark

June 9, 2017

The collaborative design and technology project Orbacles by MINN_LAB debuted on The Commons public green in Minneapolis on June 10 as part of the Northern Spark festival.

The theme of this year’s Northern Spark festival is Climate Chaos | Climate Rising, so MINN_LAB created the award-winning installation to display the challenges of climate change through the story of birds and the language of senses.  Orbacles is a trio of spherical sculptures that are intended to communicate the change in bird populations due to species loss and migration related to climate change and its effects on the environment.

“The most compelling message of the piece to me is that the data and science behind climate change are real,” said Professor Dan Keefe who is part of the MINN_LAB group that and directs the Interactive Visualization Lab (IV/Lab) here at the University of Minnesota.  “In fact, they are so real that we can build a set of metal sculptures whose form and color are determined precisely by the data.”

The orbs represent time snapshots from 2017 to 2080, presenting species loss over those periods. The challenge for the team was creating an art project that can translate scientific data in a physical form, while also being compelling enough to be appreciated by a general audience.

Orbacles can be appreciated simply due to the visual aesthetic,” said Professor Keefe, “but I hope that as people understand that it is driven by climate data they will get an intuitive sense of the solid, physical reality of climate change, and for those who are really interested, they can even read actual quantitative data off of the sculptures using the color codes, physical labels, and accompanying websites.”

Each Orbacle represents different scenarios according to the possible impact of climage change. For example, one orb shows a low emission scenario, while another shows a high emission scenario. The change in species prevalence caused by fluctuations in emissions is represented by colored lights, where orange indicates that a species is expected to become less prevalent, while blue means the species is expected to become more prevalent. To accomplish this sensory experience, Professor Keefe provided his computer science insight and data visualization expertise to emulate flocking birds, essentially bringing data visualization to a “data physicalization” realm in the public space.

“The night of Northern Spark, we will be using the well-known Boids algorithm to project a bird flocking simulation onto the ground surrounding the data-driven sculptures to create a magical environment within the park.”

MINN_LAB brings together architects, landscape architects, and educators, including U of M collaborators from CS&E and the School of Architecture and Landscaping, to engage in the architectural design community in city-wide events and initiatives.

More information on the Orbacle project and the many other art installations, projects, and events happening during the free all-night festival can be found on the Northern Spark website.

Photo contributed by Chris Savage, who is a current U of M graduate student in the College of Design.

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