Post from Long Term Projects 1 - Spring 2016

Long Term Projects 1 - Spring 2016 | Projects | Grove (Burning Man) | Portfolio

  • Overview

    Our group has been working on Grove, an interactive art piece that will be installed at Burning Man 2016. The project is based off of Pulse and Bloom, a past Burning Man installation created by artists from around the world. The goal of this project is to create a quiet meditation space that people will be able to interact with.

    Our project is divided up into three main components, the tree base, the leaves, and the breath mask. The base of the tree is designed to give people a place to sit and meditate near the tree, and the roots of the tree will for seating between the trees for socializing. The leaves will give the forest of trees some shade, and will cast beautiful colored shadows on the ground to draw people to The Grove. Lastly, the breath mask will be a flower that people breathe into to change the colors of the trees.

    Experience and Brainstorming

    Early in the process we started thinking about The Grove as an oasis. We focused on the leaves of the trees first, and how we could get them to provide shade. We thought that if we used two layers of laser cut material, that they would leave enough room in between the layers to defuse the sun. What if there could be a kinetic aspect to the leaves, a part that would move with the wind? We started thinking about a way the leaves could have sub holes in them, which would have little spinners on them, and as the wind blows, the spinners spin. Some of the spinners would be prisms, to create rainbows, others would be mirrors, and some would be a solid material. As the spinners spun around, they could possibly bump into each other, which would give the leaf like sound of a forest, triggering another sensory experience. 

    We also started thinking about how can a viewer connect to a tree even if they aren’t the ones directly breathing into it. What is the second hand interaction with the space around them? What if there were organic laser cut chair blobs that someone could sit down in, and put their feet on a sensor that would read their heart beat being pulsed through the fiber optic grass around them? Lots to think about.

    As the group continued to brainstorm, we thought a lot about the human interactivity with the tree. What if the user didn’t have to pick up something to breath with the tree, but rather breathed directly into the tree? We explored having the user go into a prostrated pose, which is a bowing down pose often used in meditation. We ended up turning away from this idea because it would be a little weird to breath with the tree, but not actually be able to see the interaction happening.

    We like to think about The Grove as a conversation between the humans and the trees. There is a cool project at the MIT museum that is a fake tree but when you put your ear to it, you can hear crickets. It would be very powerful if when you put your ear to the tree you could hear it hum.

    Base design

    One base design we considered was similar to a nest. Under and entangled in the tree roots would be organic wooden structures that the user could lounge and perch on. This one was better than the first design in the sense that it could fit more than one person. The downside of this design is that it uses a lot more material and is a lot more work to design. It also loses that open feel, it's more clumpy and rocky.

    The last structure design we worked on was a very minimal design. Each of the roots would still crawl outward from the tree, but two or three per tree would curl up in a circle on the ground, to create a separate space. In each root circle would be a cushion. This idea is my favorite out of the three because the human and tree are in a symbiotic relationship. It is like a tree hug. This design creates a very flexible space; it can be a personal space, or also a group space. The downside of this design is that the metal would get hot in the sun, and we wouldn’t want the users to burn themselves.


    Our studio started out with brainstorming.  Our first ideas for the leaves were mostly pattern- and shadow-oriented.  We thought we could make the leaves similar to the pattern of a real leaf.  Real leaves are too small for people to clearly see all of their veins, but the leaves on our trees would be big enough for people to appreciate them.  Etching the pattern would give us the shade that we want, but there would be no holes in the wood to see through, so there would be no shadow-patterns on the ground.

    After considering a layered design, which would give the leaf depth, we also started thinking about how we could make each leaf a hollow structure.  Our first idea was to have little rods of wood connected to one flexible wood spine.  Because this takes hours to design for each leaf, we thought that maybe we could use pieces of extremely thin wood to curve and structure the spine.

    While we were thinking about how we could get the leaves to cast beautiful shadows, we also considered coloration. You could make the leaves cast colored shadows on the ground.  You could put a layer of transparent acrylic over the plywood design.  The acrylic would have to be tinted very lightly so that you could still see the wood design.  Our other idea was to laminate two layers of acrylic with oil in between.  The oil would be different colors, so you would see it “swimming around” on the ground all day.

    When we started building, we made a scale model of one tree.  Two of us formed the tree trunk and base while the other two of us worked on the leaves.  We traced two biological leaves in rhino and illustrator and proceeded to cut them.  It took a while, but they matched the aesthetic language we were aiming for when they were done.

    After experimenting with an etched wood leaf, we cut a couple pieces of leaf-shaped felt for the end of the branches.  This helped give us a sense of ideal leaf size and placement.  When we finished that, we cut out our first wooden leaf.  With that iteration, we started figuring out how it might attach to the tree.  We realized that for our final Grove we would want to have a much more physically flexible material.  The wood just didn't look very much like an organic leaf because it was so rigid.  From there, we spent some time making paper leaves.  We used that same pattern on each, but made very different shapes.  When these were finished, we draped them over the felt leaves that were already on the tree.

    After trying paper, we started working with it a lot more.  We decided to make a structure that had many little leaves connected to make it. We focused on making each of the segments first.  The easiest way to do this was to make a net.  While making the net, we had a lot of trouble envisioning what shape the net would actually make, so we ended up making many different nets and seeing what I could make out of them after they printed.

    The next concept we tried was a flexible palm-inspired leaf made of wood.  This iteration used two pieces of wood locked into each other with dozens of thin slits for flexibility.  These leaves would provide the right amount of shade.  We cut it out of wood and it flexed as we intended, so we decided to try cutting it out of rowlux to overcome the appearance of wood.  The rowlux looked better then all of the other materials we had tried.  It was very flexible, while maintaining structural strength.


    In order to change the brightness and color of the trees in the grove, we will measure the breathing patterns of people sitting near the trees. A flower shaped breath mask will measure user’s breath, and then the trees in the grove will recreate the breathing pattern using colored lights on the trees. The flower will open when picked up, and close again when put down. We have been working on making a sturdy flower frame that will be able to withstand the high wind speeds at Burning Man, while still looking like a delicate flower. The first flower was made out of paper. This did not work very well since the flower would not close after opening, so we moved on to using a more rigid material. The second flower was made of wire that was hot glued together. It looked really cool and would open and close well, but since it was glued together the pieces fell apart easily.

    After that we decided to work more on the petals than the flower itself because the opening mechanism would work with any flower we made. We created 3d printed petals, as well as laser cut ones. Each of the frames retained the same basic design, but some were not curved, some had a Rowlux shell, and others had mounts for a hinge. After making all of these petals, we chose to continue working with the 3d printed petals that could later be made by welding wires. The current flower has a 3d printed base and petals. The pieces are attached by small hinges, and springs make sure that the flower closes when the user lets go of it. Each petal has a piece of Rowlux one the back to give the flower a more realistic look, and the base has channels for routing strings through that open and close the flower.