Perception III - Burning Man 2023 Art Project

What is this thing?

Perception is an interactive light sculpture for Burning Man 2023. Multiple transparent windows are spread out over several meters in a spiral-circular pattern, forming spaces around and between them. The windows shift colors, inviting people to look through windows at each other. As they engage, the colors respond, interacting with the windows around in light reverberations. As more people interact with windows, these reverberations overlap to produce new colors and patterns that can reach out to the entire space. 

Our perception of reality is colored and shaped by our interactions with the environment and with each other. This piece reminds us to acknowledge this, and to play and enjoy how we see each other, how things look different based on who we are and where we are at in our lives. 

The Project

A collection of 14 2' x 4' transparent windows spread out on deep playa. The spaces between and around the panels invites more exploration within and around the space, allowing people to look through at each other and other windows. Each window detects whether there's a person in front of it which triggers an animation of color and brightness, light reverberating out from the panel in front of the person to nearby panels. As more people interact with different windows, the reverberations overlap and bring out new colors. The more people that engage, the more panels become active and reverberate, generating whole new coherent patterns of light and color that span the entire space rather than individual windows.

The stretch goal is to bring musicality to the interactions. Similar to the light patterns, individual windows with one person creates some basic musical ambiance. When others join, the musical complexity grows, adding voices, sounds, and chords. Rather than build towards a chaotic cacophony, the audio unifies into coherent full-voiced music: drums, strings, bass, rhythmic patterns and chord progressions.

Base and Stands

The windows are held up ~36" on stands. The stands also hold the PIR sensor(s) and electronics & wiring for the LEDs. 

The stands attach to base bars drilled into the ground to stabilize the stand and window assembly. A section of square tube is welded to the base bars. The stand square tube slides into the larger base bar square tube and bolted in. This (hopefully) balances the ease of assembly on playa while minimizing storage and transport bulk.


At the core, there's a Raspberry Pi or Atmega-style (Arduino-type) processor. The 20 (or 40) PIRs are connected to digital input pins and read by the process. The processor then writes out the LED levels (0 to 255) for all panels to the chained TLC594x breakouts. The TLC594x breakouts themselves generate the PWM based on the input level from the processor. Each TLC594x can support up to 24 individual channels. Each channel is a single color (red, green, or blue) - thus for 20 panels, 60 channels are required.

Each TLC594x channel sends the PWM to a MOSFET gate, which controls the power between the LED strip and GND. The LED strips red, green, and blue wires connect to a MOSFET's GND/negative side. LED strip positive is wired directly to the +24v from the battery. The whole system shares a GND back to battery, thus the GND/negative connections between the LED strip, MOSFET, and TLC594x aren't required (TBD if the TLC594x wants the ground pin connected to the MOSFET's negative) 

It's a lot of pins on the processor, but all digital. The TLC594x handle the PWM çlock via the SPI protocol, so the processor only requires 4 wires: the 3 SPI and the +5v. GND can be wired directly to the battery or the processor. 


LED Window Prototype

This special type of acrylic emits color when lit from the edge with LEDs. This can create cool transparent color effects while providing colorful illumination of the space.


PIR sensors are stupid but robust. Other sorts of distance/motion sensors require clean power and can get noisy with dust buildup. I also learned that while other sensors can provide more data, that doesn't always translate to better interactivity: the sensor input needs to be scaled to fit the sensory response in a meaningful way. Given enough chaotic input from people wandering about, the sensory response is indistinguishable from noise. Matching sensor input data with meaningful response requires some artistic and practical design.


Power is always a challenge. Driving several 2' x 4' windows with LED strips can consume several amps.

12v deep cycle batteries can provide enough power to run through the night. Recharging them during the day with solar is the preferred, but the formulas are only estimates until real measurements can be made with the LED strips. Because of this unknown, the LED strips need to be set up early in the project to accurately measure the power needs.

Audio presents another challenge, drawing a significant amount of battery. The speaker system must be powerful enough to be heard around and throughout the sculpture, likely requiring its own battery power source.


Getting to Burning Man is also a consistent challenge.

The structure must be built from components that can be compacted down in transit and storage with minimal space. This often becomes difficult when designing the structure to withstand the winds and harsh desert environment, as awkward bulk tends to come with strength.

Our current design looks to minimize bulk while being secured to the ground.

The current plan is to rent a box truck. An alternative, however, would be to buy a used box truck for use by the Seattle artist and burner community. Whether that'd be financially viable seems unknown, but would make a great resource for the local group.

History of the Project

Perception III is built on the idea of my 2012 project. It is a series of transparent windows that light up different colors and produce sounds based on interaction. Interactivity can be a single person exploring the space or a group of people collectively interacting with multiple panels.

About the Artist

Dave Clay is an artist, musician, and engineer from Seattle, WA. While these days his focus is figure painting, he has always worked across multiple mediums and genres beyond traditional painting to explore new ways of interacting with people. His figure paintings focus on empathy and emotional connections rather than realism and symbolism. His interest in interactive sculpture encourages physical exploration of an unknown space, to be comfortable learning, and to accept the breadth and depth of the world through our limited experiences.

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