In the first three individual assignments, you learned how to get data from the Internet and visualize it, how to interact with the online world via hardware, and how to box it up and make it interesting. In this first group assignment, you’ll use all of these skills to develop a synthesis of these topics: an ambient display.


Your goal is to make an attractive ambient display that gives you useful information about something relevant to your life. I’d like to decorate the lab with these, so it should be something that could be nice to display somewhere in the room (I’ll replace your Photon if I decide I want to keep your project up and running). Consider previous work that researchers in the area have done (see Papers about ambient displays below).


This is a group project! You will work in groups of two. I will assign groups based on your input (see Slack message).

Each person in the group must do both technical and design work.

What to do

Here’s what to do and how much of the total score for this assignment each item will be worth. The first thing is a reporting requirement, worth 4% of your grade for this project. Each week by the end of class on Thursday (with one exception, see dates below), you will individually send me a brief summary of:

  • What you personally have done on the project during the preceding week
  • What your team mate has done on the project during the preceding week
  • Any problems you are having
    • with your team mate;
    • with your project;
    • technology;
    • anything else.

The dates these are due are:

  • Thursday, Nov 17
  • Tuesday, Nov 22
  • Thursday, Dec 1
  • Thursday, Dec 8

Here are the grading criteria for the rest of the assignment:

  • Build an attractive ambient display that visualizes a source of online information that is relevant to your life. (50%)
    • Is a working ambient display: 25%
    • Is attractive: 10%
      • Note: attractive is subjective, but I’m going to judge it. Consider using extra materials beyond 3D printing and laser cutting; using “finishing” techniques such as sanding and painting; using fabric; or encasing your project in a manufactured object.
    • Uses online information: 10%
    • Is relevant to your (or my) life: 5%
  • There should be a clear mapping from the information to the visualization, such that you could explain the display to someone and they could understand it. (10%)
  • The display should provide some way to catch the user’s attention for notable events, preferably using the same visualization mechanism. (5%)
  • You should be able to simulate a notable event for demonstration purposes. (2%)
  • The display should be nice looking/sounding/feeling and not obviously technological in nature. Ideally the output will happen in a creative, non-obvious way. For example, if it’s based on light, showing a graph with LEDs is obvious (see Inspirations below). (13%)
    • Note this is different from “attractive” above.
  • Your documentation (15%) should include:
    • A description of the display, including pictures,
    • what choices you made for the information to display and the way you displayed it,
    • justification for your design based on previous research,
    • source code and 3D/2D model files,
    • a short (~30s) video showing your display in operation
      • please ensure that you shoot your video in landscape orientation
      • please edit your video so it is interesting to watch


As usual, submit your deliverables via Github. Place your documentation in a Readme file. Include the pictures inline in your Readme file. Host your video on YouTube and embed it in your Readme.

Have a look at last year’s assignments for some examples of what has been done; in particular, the Am-bee-nt Display and Self-reporting Dice are excellent examples of what a good project look like.


  • You can put your display into another object if it makes sense. The 1979 Bang & Olufsen Raspberry Pi Internet Radio Instructable project is a great example of this idea taken to an extreme.
  • You can also use random objects for your display output. Be creative!
  • Consider using servo motors and string or fishing wire to move things around; hang your project from the ceiling!


Here are some examples of projects I found on Instructables, with some comments. Note that most of them are not ambient displays, but contain parts that I think would be suitable for an ambient display, or otherwise illustrate something I think is cool.

  • Ambient temperature tapestry: This is a pretty good example of what I would like to see out of a class project. It’s nice looking and it shows useful information. It doesn’t connect to the net, and I would like it better with some less-obvious lights.
  • Mechanical music box: It’s not an ambient display but could be one. I particularly like the warm appearance and how it uses mechanical parts to make sound rather than a speaker.
  • Vibrating mirror: This mirror has nine little circles that can vibrate independently, distorting the image. This very neatly falls into the enchanted object paradigm.
  • NeoWeather: This project uses a ring of RGB LEDs to indicate various things, including the weather or package delivery status. I like its ability, but it would lose points for this assignment because it’s very technological-looking and the output is pretty obvious—just LED lights.
  • Lego Mets home run indicator: When the Mets have a home run announced on Twitter, the apple pops up! This is only semi-ambient, as it’s really a binary display. I’d like to see a version that somehow includes a subtle indication of current score.
  • Twitter mood light: Indicates the current overall mood of Twitter via light. I’d like it even better if the display was less LED-ish looking.
  • Tweiger counter: A “Twitter Geiger counter” which searches Twitter for particular words and makes a clicking sound, so you have an idea of the “density” of tweets on a particular subject. It also has a meter. This project would get an A.

Extra credit

For 2 points of extra credit towards your final grade, make and publish an Instructable on how to build your ambient display (credit will be allocated based on the quality of the work). Here’s what to do:

  • Visit the Instructables website, select “Sign Up” in the upper-right-hand corner, and make a free account.
  • After you’ve registered and logged in, click the “Publish” button at the top of the home page.
  • Check out the “How it works” video, then make a new Instructable.

Here are some useful tips on making high-quality Instructables. Two examples of well-done Instructables from the list of inspirations above are:


Examples of ambient displays

  • Ambient Orb: a one-“pixel” display orb that changes color to indicate various changing values.
  • Forecast: an umbrella with a handle that glows brighter with a greater chance of rain.
  • Cryoscope: a block of metal that changes its temperature based on the weather forecast.
  • GlowCap: a pill bottle top that glows to remind people to take their pills.
  • Proverbial Wallets: wallets that behave differently based on the amount of money in one’s account.
  • Ringly, CUFF, Kovert: fashion wearables designed to unobtrusively provide notifications. Do these actually qualify as ambient displays?
  • Discreet Window: a computer-controlled blind that shows how much you’ve been working.
  • #Flock: “A set of four houses, three contain colourful birds which react to Twitter triggers, the fourth is a simple clock. A new follower, a retweet or an @message will trigger one of the birds to pop out of its house, each with a different movement. Optional birdsong can accompany each action, the volume controlled with a small dial.”
  • Tempescope, a box that “performs” the weather, with clouds and rain!

Papers about ambient displays


Many of the links to existing ambient displays, as well as some of the specifics of the assignment, came from Assignment III of Intel/CMU’s Designing for the Internet of Things course.