Floating Data Landscape




Posted in TechnologyArt

Introduction: Floating Data Landscape

About: I am an artist and maker living in Illinois. I make sculpture based on self-recorded personal data using digital and traditional fabrication techniques.

This sculpture uses edge-glow plexiglass to create a floating landscape based on how much I walked, ran, and bicycled in 2015. It is essentially a 3D graph displaying this information. One edge marks the beginning of the year. Summer is in the middle where the piece rises to a peak. The topography tapers off toward the other edge as winter closes in and I get outside less due to the weather.

Check out more works from this series on my website:


Step 1: Background

This project starts way back with the data collection. I have been collecting all kinds of information for more than 25 years. I have 25 years of cycling data, 15 years of running distance, and 8 years of walking mileage. I update my logbooks everyday to record my activity. I originally started recording my bicycling distance in light-years to remind myself how big the universe was. Around that time I rode my bike cross-country and realized the power in persistence and how incremental progress could compound into remarkable achievements. Large daunting tasks that seem impossible to complete become possible with this mindset.

I gather the information I collect in various ways and catalog the data in a spreadsheet program like Excel. from there I can sort and compare the data. I can also create graphs to look at forms and patterns.

Step 2: Planning and Design

From Excel I export information into a 3D drawing program like RhinoCAD. This creates a graph within the drawing program. I can then pull the graph lines apart into three dimensions. With the lines spread out in space I can use them to create a drape or a patch surface. This smoothed out undulating surface serves as the base for the geometry of the sculpture. With this work I prefer a faceted look so I need to define the facet vertices. I create points that correspond to a grid of 2D equilateral triangles on a flat surface and project those points onto the undulating surface. From those points I can draw my 3D mesh of triangles.

In this piece I decided to use multiple colors of plexiglass to emphasize the topography.

Step 3: Planning and Design 2

Once the piece is drawn in 3D I need to turn my attention to specific fabrication issues. The next step has been made easier by my friend who is a wizard with code. I sent him the X,Y,Z coordinates of all the triangle mesh vertices and he is able to output some really helpful information. The first thing he can do is virtually rotate those points into a flat plane that retains the geometry of each triangle. This is possible without his programming, but involves rotating each triangle manually in Rhino. Time consuming but possible. His code outputs new points that can then be used to draw all the triangles separated out on to a flat plane. From there I can number the triangles to keep them organized for construction and add circles that mark out where holes will be. After all that I arrange the triangles into groups that will fit in the laser cutter. Numbers will be etched, holes and triangles will be through cuts.

Step 4: Laser Cut

With all that planning done, it is time to cut.

Step 5: Dying Tests

Edge glow plexiglass only comes in a few colors, but I wanted to have more variation in this piece. I had dyed plexiglass years ago with a super toxic solvent based dye called Rez-n-dye. I haven't been able to find that for a long time. I have experimented with a few other dyes, but hadn't had very good results. My friend Melissa https://knittingthestash.wordpress.com/ suggested a dye for synthetic fibers and acrylic yarn. I did some tests at home and it worked well. The dye was: Rit DyeMore Advanced Liquid Dye for Synthetics. I could take yellow and orange plex and tint them to create a lighter orange and an orange-red that maintained the edge glow properties. The key for the dye to set was to work on the stove top with water that was close to boiling.

I made some prints to identify the pieces by color.

Step 6: Dying Plexiglass

I borrowed a big gas burner and a huge pot from my friend Spencer https://www.youtube.com/user/metaspencer and got to work. Christmas ornament hangers through the holes in the triangles were a handy way to hold the plex for dipping. In the end the process was much easier and faster than I expected. I could dip 3-4 pieces at a time and it only took 30-60 seconds for the dye to set to the desired color. Batches took progressively longer as the dye weakened, but it was still fast. I rinsed each triangle in cold running water to stop the dying process. There were a few blotchy triangles, but for the most part the dye was even. A little variation turned out to be fine when spread out across such a big piece. I was happy to have a well ventilated place to work that could withstand the drips.

Step 7: Connectors

In this piece the triangles are held together with custom bent connecting pieces, screws, and nuts. I cut all of the connectors on the laser cutter out of clear 1/8in. plex. On a previous piece I used a CNC router, but the laser cutter is a better option. The laser cutter polishes the edges and there are no tabs to deal with.

My friend who helped with flattening out the triangles also wrote some code to export the angles between the triangles. I had done this in a more manual fashion before, but this was much faster. He provided me with a spreadsheet showing all the angles I needed.

Bending the connectors isn't something I can't automate...

To manage the process I created a jig. The jig is basically a printed protractor with some guide blocks. I use an acrylic strip bender to heat the connectors. Once they are soft enough I place them in the jig, using the blocks to make a tight precise bend. The protractor ensures that I am bending to the right angle. I exported a list and bent all the angles I needed ahead of assembly. The connectors all look pretty similar so I bagged them up with labels to keep them sorted.

Step 8: Assembly

For assembly I create a master diagram that has every triangle numbered and includes the angles between the triangles. I also indicate if the angle is a peak or a valley.

I use screws and nuts to fasten the connectors and triangles. This gives me a little play in the connections so I can make slight shifts to fit it all together. I prop it up as I go along. In this case the piece was so big I assembled several rows at a time and was unable to the whole thing in the studio.

Step 9: Installation

Time lapse of the Installation at Harper College Art Gallery.

I was lucky to have a good crew to help me install this piece at Harper College Art Gallery. The installation process involves assembling the entire piece on tables. We used foam and bubble wrap to prop up the piece where needed and even raised one of the tables on paint cans. In this instance we needed a lift to get up to the ceiling for hanging. The piece is suspended from four eye-bolts in the ceiling using 1/32in stainless wire rope and crimps. It is hung from about 20 points. The construction of the piece makes it easy to hang, I simply take out any screw that holds the piece together and replace it with an eye-bolt. That way I can add a little support to anywhere on the piece that needs it. Once all the cables are secured at the ceiling they can be cinched up at the eye-bolts on the piece. When they are all secure - a bit of magic happens when you pull the tables out and the piece floats in space.

The cables are very thin so they do not distract too much visually. In previous pieces like this I have dropped cables vertically to hang the piece. This was tidy, but required many anchoring points in the ceiling and often-times meant leaning way out over the piece on a ladder. For this piece I used fewer ceiling points off to the sides of the piece. The cables splay out from the piece to the points on the ceiling and it creates a really dynamic effect.

Step 10: Finished Piece Hanging at Harper College Art Gallery



    • Make it Move Contest

      Make it Move Contest
    • Microcontroller Contest

      Microcontroller Contest
    • Casting Contest

      Casting Contest

    We have a be nice policy.
    Please be positive and constructive.

    2 Tips

    Put UV absorbing film on the windows or the piece will fade over time.

    It would be cool if it is real-time ...

    1 Questions

    When you "arrange the triangles into groups that will fit in the laser cutter" did you use a Nesting Software Program or tackle this manually?

    I arranged the triangles manually. I have tried nesting software in my ShopBot software but always return to nesting stuff myself. When I nest it by hand I can keep certain parts together, that makes it less confusing later on.


    Wow, wow, wow!!! Amazing! I love the dyed plexiglass! Thanks for sharing!


    I saw the thumbnail and expected this to be "turn on your Hololens and fire up some 3d graphing software". It's all made of acrylic triangles and hand-bent angle connectors? That is some serious work!

    1 reply

    Thanks. It is hard for the photographs to do it justice, but yes all made of acrylic.

    I live right down the street from Harper College,literally 3 minutes away. Maybe I should stop by and check out that gallery in person.

    1 reply

    You should! I am taking it down on Friday so it won't be up for long. Thanks

    Beautiful results. Thanks for sharing how to dye plexiglass. Very useful.

    absolutely mind boggling. Definitively NOT a project for the average joe. This piece should be at the MOMA or something. Would be super cool if you had Obama's data so you could have done one of his walks, or any celeb. IDK how complicated it would be but adding a color for the GPS location would be super cool (say like Obama walked more in Washington that Geneva for example). OR if you pick a celeb, say Beyonce, the peaks would be when she's on tour. Maybe some of them would pay big bucks as a fun piece to display in their humongous houses

    1 reply

    Nice idea. Stay tuned for an upcoming project I am working on that might do some of what you are talking about.

    I have work on the whole spectrum from: breaks down all the time to utterly reliable pen on paper. Art is complicated, it takes resources to create. But the intangible benefits are hard to quantify and I wouldn't want to live in a world without it.

    This is very visually striking. I really appreciate being able to follow the entire process. The finished product reminds me a little of Janet Echelman installation based on wave height during the 2011 Japanese earthquake and tsunami: http://www.echelman.com/project/smithsonian/ - always really cool to see data interpreted artistically!

    1 reply

    Thanks for your comment. I love Janet Echelman's work, but hadn't seen that piece.

    The result, as well as the process to get there, are mind-blowing. Thanks for sharing the whole thing!!

    This is a spectacular way to visualize data! Good job clearly documenting each step of your process. I didn't realize acrylic dye exists.
    It's also great to see you use Rhino.

    1 reply

    What made you choose 1/32 steel cable instead of something like heavy duty fishing line, or what amazon sells as chinese macrame cord (0.8 mm 40 kg test)

    How did you attach the cable to the eyebolts

    1 reply

    I tried using fishing line on another project, but found it stretched differently under different weight, making that project uneven. This cable doesn't stretch at all so it works great for this. Also I think the matte silver gray finish is even more invisible than shiny clear mono-filament.

    To attach the cables to the eye bolts I use crimps like these:

    another beautiful visualization, great stuff

    I think a dynamic version of such a model could be created if the joints were replaced by hinges and the strings attached were motorized. Would be awesome to see such a model in motion!