Mirage is an interactive installation that encourages visitors to the Tempe Art Center to reflect on their relationship to water in the desert. An 8 x 12 foot computer generated image of water is projected onto the floor of the gallery. When a viewer steps into this virtual pool of water, their presence is registered by a computer-controlled sensing system. The longer they stand in one position, the more the pool in that area “dries up.” If they remain stationary, the area beneath their feet transforms from a rippling watery surface into a muddy lake bed, and finally into a cracked and dusty quadrangle. Viewers with less patience will find that simply walking across the pond will register a series of liquid footprints that quickly disappear as the disturbed pond regains its equilibrium.
What inspired this project? Life in our desert metropolis centers around the availability, use, and conservation of water. The City of Tempe and Maricopa County are uniquely situated to benefit from not only large volumes of surface runoff from higher elevations to the north and east, but have added reserves in the form of huge underground aquifers and canals connecting the region to distant sources such as the Colorado River through the Central Arizona Project (CAP). Despite appearances, water is a finite resource. An exploding population with an insatiable thirst is running ahead of our ability to sustain constant levels of supply. The more we insist on literally soaking in this limited resource, the quicker it will disappear. The project focuses attention on a simple, somewhat paradoxical, equation: the availability of water is truly a mirage—an illusion at a distance that cannot be sustained the closer we get.
This interactive system utilizes a number of hardware and software tools. First, the interactive system is controlled by a graphical programming environment called MaxMSP. Max is an application that allows you to create your own software, using a toolkit of readymade user interface objects and basic processing objects that take care of timing, decision-making, reading and writing files, and the like. MSP adds to Max the ability to capture, synthesize, and manipulate audio and video. Through the use of additional hardware, like sensors and actuators, Max can be made to interact with the physical world. This project uses MaxMSP to control the nature of the interaction between a viewer and the digital video projection. Viewer position is tracked by an infrared camera that inputs pure black and white pixel state information back to MaxMSP. For example, if a particular pixel changes color from black to white, this can be used to initiate any digital event. In the case of Mirage, this “switching” of pixels causes the blue water to be gradually replaced by the underlying video sequence of cracking earth.
The artist wishes to thank fellow artist/technologists Byron Lahey and Tim Garner for their help in realizing this project.