Inside the Design: Uebersee and AirFIELD

Can interactive design bring glamour back to air travel? Maybe if you’re lucky enough to find yourself standing underneath Uebersee’s AirFIELD installation at the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.

The airFIELD sculpture from Uebersee at the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.

Look up in the right spot, and you’ll notice countless of discs suspended from the ceiling in two giant swooping shapes. This dynamic sculpture pulls you in with its beauty first—from the side, it looks like a bird in flight. But if you stick around a little longer, you’ll notice motion rippling through the sculpture as these liquid crystal discs change from opaque to transparent as prompted by an electric charge.

“We’re creating experiences that evoke a sense of wonder—make magic,” says Nik Hafermaas, founder and chief creative officer at Uebersee and chair of the graphic design department at Art Center College of Design. “We do that in any way that’s needed to get to that goal.”

The sculpture’s 1,500 discs are connected to 81 circuit boards—all linked back to one server.

And “by any way” he means that Uebersee, which he describes as an artist platform, fosters creative collaboration across a range of disciplines: art, design, software and hardware engineering, architecture and more. The group’s growing project list straddles virtual and digital space in a practice that’s becoming known as “mediatecture.”

The airFIELD installation, for instance, harnesses the power of big data to create an art piece that’s constantly changing. Those swooping shapes mimic the flight patterns of planes, and the motion within them activates up to 2,500 times a day as flights land and take off at the world’s busiest airport. Real-time data drives the whole experience: Shorter flights trigger smaller motions in the sculpture while longer flights trigger bigger ripples.

The flight patterns of planes arriving and departing from Hartsfield Airport inspired the sculpture’s shape.

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“I firmly believe that these pieces have to work in the blink of an eye,” Hafermaas says. “There needs to be a first visceral level where people say, ‘Wow this is awesome. What is it?'”  Then some of those viewers can dig into the next level and find out about the data and technology behind the art. It’s about turning the abstract into something people can relate to emotionally and intellectually.

Creating all this wonder required some serious technical chops. A number of factors affect the rippling through the sculpture, including the size of the airplane, the distance it’s going to travel and the number of people on board. This data, from a commercial provider called FlightAware, animates the sculpture through a fluid dynamics engine—a 3D program that simulates the behavior of particles.

Water or dust particles, for instance, behave in certain swarm-like behaviors. They bounce back and have a certain level of viscosity. Uebersee uses this knowledge to pair flight data with certain behaviors in the sculpture. “We’re not showing movies on the sculpture,” he says. “What you see here is calculated and generated in real time. You can say that the sculpture never repeats itself. It’s always slightly different.”

The discs are about 12-inches in diameter, just like the round lights on an airport landing strip.

So what’s next for Uebersee? A digital ceiling in a leading hotel in Qatar, a data-driven sculpture for the new Aeroville airport mall in Paris, and a media-augmented exhibition design on the architect William Pereira for the Nevada Museum of Art.

We’re already saving up our frequent flier miles and planning a nice long layover in Atlanta.

AirFIELD credits:

  • Artists: Jamie Barlow, Dan Goods, Nik Hafermaas
  • Programming: Daniel Massey
  • Fabrication and installation: Jim Hetherington
  • Technical direction: Gustavo Huber
  • Engineering: Simon Franklyn with Andersen and Associates
  • Project management: Jamie Barlow


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