Snell Atrium Installation Design + VFX
August - December 2014

Katie Hadgis: Exhibition design, prototype video & compositing
Allison Montroy: Kinect & Processing programming
Christian Ashley: 3D design & animation
Sarah Selby: 2D design & animation
Brad Messer: Backend development

The philanthropy department at Clarkson University asked myself and four other students to develop a prototype for a permanent, interactive digital installation in the New Snell building that recognizes those who funded the construction of the building. In addition, we aimed to use new technology and interactivity, such as the Xbox Kinect, to entice users and to promote digital arts, both as a program at the university, and as a medium itself. The team met on a weekly basis, and prototypes for this project were completed in December 2014.

My primary role was to develop the relationship between users, the installation, and its environment. The structure acts a bridge between the physical world and the digital world, so any considerations must be made with respect to both worlds. For example, the physical construction of the installation must be planned around the space of the atrium itself. The atrium in New Snell has numerous, multi-planar surfaces that would serve as great projection surfaces, such as the columns, back wall, and balcony walls. For each area, other variables can also be considered, such as how much traffic flow each area gets, visibility of the area, and potential for interactivity. On top of this, I aimed to further develop the digital space that the installation exists in to bridge the gap between the digital world and the physical world in an elegant, yet coherent way.

The initial idea posed to us by the philanthropy department was a small booth with a table-high touchscreen where the user would navigate a simple webpage. One of these booths already exist in another building on campus, but hardly anyone knows it even exists, and those who do have no interest or motivation in using it. Why would someone be intrigued by a stationary monitor tucked away in the corner of a bustling corridor? Recognizing Clarkson’s donors is the primary goal of this project, but if the audience ignores the display, or does not even know it exists, this goal cannot be fulfilled. For this reason, I knew the display itself needed to be particularly noticeable. If viewers would not go out of their way to learn about the subject matter, perhaps they would be interested in the installation itself. So it became clear that if the goal was to attract and maintain user attention first, the user would learn with the installation automatically, and reading donor’s names would not seem to be so much of a chore for the passerby.

The first space we considered were the walls formed by the balconies on the second and third levels. These surfaces are very large and can be seen from almost anywhere in the atrium. Banners are often hung from these balconies to promote special events at Clarkson, so we considered making digitally animated banners to display donor information. This way, the projection would fit seamlessly into the environment, all the donor information could be displayed over time, and the animations could be interesting to viewers as a form of trompe l’oeil. After developing this idea, we considered even expanding this idea into the columns, connecting the ground, first, and second floors. In addition to a simple clothesline animation, we considered shooting the banners up and down the columns at different speeds, to make the banners appear as if they were being pulled around the atrium at will. In terms of interactivity, users would be able to change the order and frequency of donor names using a small screen application on the ground floor.

The atrium of Clarkson’s Snell Hall offers a wide variety of surfaces aside from a rectangular wall that could potentially form the basis of the installation. Perhaps the largest, most accessible area is the wall formed by the side of the main staircase. Not only is this space clearly visible throughout the entire atrium, the surface also has irregular geometry that could be used to create interesting results.

Being on the ground, this surface offers a new and inviting level of user interactivity. A newcomer could be intrigued by the installation simply from walking past it, and seeing that it reacts to their movements through the Kinect. The banner concept could easily be applied to this space and then modified to work with the user, as opposed to simply being a part of the distant environment. I also introduced the idea of having the cloth of the banners flow and billow in reaction to the user’s movements; as well as considering merging two perpendicular planes. The floor and wall are bridged with a curved wedge, and the floor perimeter has a curved contour that contrasts the rigid geometry of the rest of the atrium. Allowing a user to stand in the installation further increases user interactivity. We also considered including fun “bonus features” to entice the user, like a dancing knight that follows the user’s motions; or more practical applications, like a faculty directory to help lost students.

Ultimately, we wanted to give our clients as many options to choose from as possible. We compiled all these ideas into a comprehensible presentation that included interactive coding samples to show at a meeting to our clients. Throughout the meeting we all discussed our opinions and ideas for each concept. It was clear the philanthropy department gravitated towards more conservative ideas, their favorite being the simple projected banners. I then created a final video prototype for the philanthropy department reflecting our mutual decision. The video, created in Adobe After Effects, superimposes 3D banner animations over video footage of the atrium.