Head-Turning Burning Man Tech

Kristin Houser Writer & Editor, LA Music Blog

From a disembodied 12-headed programmable choir to a 27-foot tall flaming video game, tech keeps pushing the limits at Burning Man.

Many attendees to the Burning Man festival in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert come for the music, but a 50-foot-wide light sculpture activated by electro magnetism and hundreds of other large-scale art installations are turning the playa into a virtual gallery of epic proportions.

Artists, creators and makers from all around the world build awe-inspiring, interactive art installations to share with their fellow Burners each year. Many use technology to bring those creations from concept to reality.

“Large-scale installations at Burning Man really blur the lines separating ‘art’ from ‘engineering,'” said Seth Hardy of Site 3 Fire Arts, a community group that creates large-scale art, development and engineering projects using fire.

Photo Credit: Nicola Bailey
Photo Credit: Nicola Bailey

“Technology is causing entirely new mediums to be considered and recognized as art. There are no museums for these things (yet), so events like Burning Man serve as everything from inspiration, to gallery and historical record.”

Several artists have used everything from sensors to flammable pixel panels to create the Burning Man tech installations that will debut at the festival this August. And if these examples are any indication, attendees are in for some seriously impressive surprises.

Fire Tetris

Longtime Burner Jody “Firetiger” McIntyre turned to the world of gaming for inspiration for his 2015 Burning Man art installation, Fire Tetris. He and his team at MIAOU Labs used fire and a whole lot of technology to bring a 27-foot tall reimagining of the decades-old video game Tetris to the playa.

“Technology was a central part of the Fire Tetris project, in all of its aspects,” said Alaric Bergeron, Design Engineer at MIAOU Labs. “You could also argue that it is in itself an engineered technical machine and, thus, technology.”

Bergeron said he planned the project using a multitude of graphical software tools, computer-aided design (CAD) software and circuit design software, while many of the physical parts were machined on a CNC laser cutter directly from the group’s CAD files.

“Using CAD to design both the structure and the propane plumbing allowed us to keep an up-to-date bill of materials and to foresee alignment and interference fit issues early in the design process,” explained Bergeron.

A laptop running MIAOU’s own Tetris software controlled the 5-by-5 flame pixel panels at the core of the game and allowed Burning Man attendees to play the massive game-turned-work of art.

Losing players could literally feel the heat as the flaming pixels climbed the steel structure, but no one seemed to mind the added pressure. Bergeron said many people enjoyed the heat on chilly nights in the desert.


Sculpture artist and 2015 World Technology Award nominee Kate Raudenbush will be returning to Black Rock City for her sixteenth Burning Man this year, and she’s bringing with her a brand-new, tech-powered art installation, Helios.

To activate this massive sculpture, attendees write a statement of what they would like to ignite within themselves on a scroll. They then climb a staircase to one of Helios’ six activation platforms, which are 12-feet off the ground and face inward, creating a 50-foot courtyard.

The next step in the installation was inspired by Burning Man 2016’s art theme of Da Vinci’s Workshop. Raudenbush said the sculpture is activated by electro magnetism, and attendees can turn it on by striking a pose that imitates the Vitruvian Man in Leonardo Da Vinci’s famous drawing.

Photo Credit: Kate Raudenbush
Photo Credit: Kate Raudenbush

In keeping with the installation’s symbolic meaning, attendees cannot activate the sculpture by themselves. Fellow Burners on other platforms must light up Helios.

“One of the central ideas of the sculpture is that we need our community to work together if we want to succeed in manifesting a brighter world,” said Raudenbush, who has her own community of tech-savvy creators helping her ready Helios for Burning Man 2016.

“There is so much technological collaboration in this artwork,” she explained. “We are using Rhinoceros, Illustrator and OnShape software programs; CNC laser cutting and routing; welding; sound and LED lighting design technology.”

Image Rendering: Kate Raudenbush
Helios Rendering: Kate Raudenbush

Even the final moments of Helios will be tech-powered, said Raudenbush.

“We are running the whole thing with solar power and finally using pyrotechnic engineering to blow it up!”

Lumiphonic Creature Choir

Last year, Burning Man attendees had a chance to express their musical sides in a completely unique way: using sensors to trigger audio from Synarcade Audio-Visuals’ multi-faced Lumiphonic Creature Choir.

“I spent three years programming hundreds of different states and emotional behaviors onto the 12 disembodied heads so that they could sing, beatbox and tell moving stories according to what the audience decided,” explained Mark Bolotin, Artist Director at Synarcade.

Photo Credit: Nicola Bailey
Photo Credit: Nicola Bailey

The Synarcade team created a tactile interface using an Intel Arduino module. By applying pressure to the custom sensors, users can trigger and remix the audio coming from each head.

With all of the effort that went into the audio components of the Choir, Bolotin wanted to ensure that the visuals were just as impressive.

“To give a further sense of life to the 12-headed Creatures, our engineer Chris Anderson also ‘mechanized’ the physical sculpture with specifically-designed servomotors so that the giant heads were programmable to move either as a group or independently,” he explained.

While The Lumiphonic Creature Choir won’t be making an appearance at Burning Man 2016, Bolotin and his team are working to bring it to 2017’s fest at a grander scale.

“One of the main things we’re focusing on is to have the real-time capturing of attendees’ faces and voices,” shared Bolotin. “People will literally be able to approach the work, have themselves sampled and see themselves instantly as one of the Creatures on the giant interactive sculpture.”

Image Rendering: Kate Raudenbush
Helios Rendering: Kate Raudenbush

The Lumiphonic Creature Choir, Fire Tetris and Helios are just a few examples of the tech-powered art found at Burning Man, and Raudenbush no doubt speaks for many of her fellow creators when she said she couldn’t be more grateful for the artistic opportunities tech affords her.

“Technology has totally changed the way I envision what is possible,” she said. “It helps me model ideas, share them, collaborate and build them. It gets me excited to try new ways of expression.”


The feature image depicting the Fire Tetris is from Jody “Firetiger” McIntyre.

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