From the Approach: "World of Plankton"

From the Approach: "World of Plankton"

Date posted: 2018-12-14 08:59:11

World of Plankton



(Please enjoy this guest post, written by Kathleen Ruiz, Rensselaer associate professor of Integrated Arts, on the “World of Plankton” interactive touch-pool exhibit, now on exhibit at an aquarium in Burlington, VT.)

The World of Plankton is an interactive ecological art game installation currently on exhibit at the ECHO, Leahy Center for Lake Champlain, running until Jan 6, 2019 that takes visitors into the hidden realm of these microscopic freshwater organisms. The installation has a virtual touch-pool aquarium with original art, animation, and composed music that allows up to four players to gather around a giant digital touch table to capture and explore zooplankton, phytoplankton and fish species. Also included are interactive plankton sculptures. The entire work is surrounded by a 32’ mural.

As a media artist who works with game simulation, virtual/mixed realities, photography, and sculpture, my long-running body of work highlights the importance and complexity of freshwater ecosystems, using art and science to build critical awareness about the environment. My scholarly and artistic research is centered on simulation, perspective and empathy. In my customary style, these works are manifested both digitally and in conjunction with physical interfaces and objects, and involve artistic and scientific “real world” fieldwork experiences.

Being the originator, lead artist, designer, director and producer of the World of Plankton, I have had the honor of creating and working with an amazing team of students and alumni in the arts and game design programs at Rensselaer. We are developing original game design, two-and three-dimensional art, animation, music, sound design, artificial intelligence, and programming. Together we are committed to demystifying, engaging, educating and activating people about the importance of plankton.  Especially in our current times where we see the annihilation of environmental protections and funding, we are “keepers” of the emerging environmental knowledge, giving tiny plankton a voice and a presence through virtual embodiment. Using the virtual is a radical act of preservation and transmission of this vital knowledge as we help build a critical awareness.

We are resonating creative artistic inquiry and practice with the evolving research of the Jefferson Project, a partnership between Rensselaer Polytechnic InstituteIBM, and The Fund for Lake George in revolutionary environmental monitoring and remediation that combines a network of sensors in and around Lake George in measuring physical, chemical, and biological parameters.

The World of Plankton seeks ways to expand this inquiry and connect into a broader cultural understanding by creating artworks and environments that will enable us to see and hear what the lake is telling us as a total entity, and lead us to a deeper wisdom about how and why we need to protect our waterways. Together we are asking the questions that no one discipline alone can ask.

What are Plankton?

“Plankton” may not be a household word, but these little-known beings are vital to all life on earth. What are they? Plankton are communities of algae (phytoplankton) and animals (zooplankton) that are suspended in the water and travel with the water currents. Phytoplankton give off oxygen when they use sunlight to turn carbon dioxide into sugars. Roughly half of the oxygen in our atmosphere was made by phytoplankton. Phytoplankton also form the base of aquatic food webs. All life in the ocean and in bodies of freshwater ultimately depends on algae for food. Phytoplankton provide a rich supply of food for zooplankton and other creatures that eat them in turn, such as larger zooplankton and fish. Small fish then, are eaten by birds and larger fish. Everyone ultimately depends on plankton to survive. However, if this delicate balance of phytoplankton and zooplankton is disrupted by nutrient pollutants such as chemical fertilizers or improper septic waste, nitrogen and phosphorus will abound. These very high nutrient conditions give rise to an overabundance of algae, resulting in algae blooms, which can create toxic conditions for fish and zooplankton. Road salts as well can make intolerant conditions that will upend the delicate balance of phytoplankton and zooplankton. When we learned about this through the research of our science colleagues on the Jefferson Project at the DFWI (Darren Freshwater Institute), we realized that there is a fragile delicacy to nature that must be deeply respected. Our World of Plankton project engages users to learn about long-term effects of nutrient pollution on lakes. Informing and educating the public about the importance of valuing and preserving fresh water is the key to enduring watershed protection.   We feel it is these personal, hands-on experiences that help people understand the causes of declines in lake health and how modifications of their personal behavior can help reverse human impacts on the watershed.

We also realized that our work is a whole world endeavor as harmful algal blooms are occurring at a greater rate globally. Our World of Plankton team consists of people from many areas of the United States, China, the Caribbean, Europe, Central and South America. We all have seen declining conditions in freshwater resources firsthand in our perspective countries.

The World of Plankton submerges players in a virtual touch-pool aquarium, offering a hands-on exploration of the importance of fresh-water ecosystems. My idea was to shrink the human game players to a size so small that we could almost snorkel with the plankton and get to know them more personally. What are these tiny sea creatures trying to tell us? What is each body of water as a whole trying to tell us?

Can a game at the juncture of Art, Science and Education make a difference?

At the confluence of game design, art, and science, the World of Plankton touch pool installation includes an interactive virtual aquarium that helps to explain the role of plankton in freshwater ecology. The World of Plankton exhibit is comprised of a large touchscreen computer table that allows up to four people to view a lake food web—selecting animated algae, zooplankton, and fish—and learn about the role that each species plays in the lake ecosystem. The user can navigate at multiple scales, from microscopic algae to macroscopic fish. The exhibit also includes 3D printed sculptures of algae and zooplankton in resin (4-6” in size) so that visitors can see the magnificent detail of these fascinating organisms.  Visitors can bring the plankton sculptures to life on their mobile devices by scanning QR codes found in the sculptures. This activates original animation and composed music enabling both an aesthetic experience as well as stealth learning about their biology. To create further immersion, the entire installation is surrounded by an original 32-foot digitally painted mural on canvas that inverts the size of fish and plankton. You essentially see, hear and touch plankton in new ways through art, music and sculpture, and learn about them all at the same time. We feel this is a potent way to become more informed and activated about the very urgent issues of environmental ecology.

In its first month, the exhibit has received tremendous interest from the public. Especially exciting for me was to learn that, not only are 5 year olds seamlessly learning and interacting with the work, but the added layer of more in-depth information I designed into the project is being utilized by University of Vermont faculty and student researchers before they go out on Lake Champlain for their fieldwork expeditions.

Although this work was originally conceived as a 4-month exhibit, public interest has been so positive that we have been asked by ECHO to convert the temporary exhibit into a permanent exhibit that would inspire and educate the ECHO’s more than 150,000 annual visitors! It is through the dedication of our Rensselaer team of students, alumni and faculty artists, programmers, and scientists that we were able to achieve this goal.


We are currently developing a second game for the public, known as The Aquatic Messenger. Using virtual-reality goggles, this work takes users back in time where they are immersed in a three-dimensional, underwater world of lakes in our region. Users can explore a wide span of time, from the Cambrian Epoch 490 million years ago when the sea covered the lake, to the receding glaciers 10,000 years ago, through the arrival of Native Americans, the arrival of European colonists, the present day, and what the future could be in 2100. When completed, this game will allow users to experience historic human impacts, including the impacts of logging watersheds in the 1700s and the gradual increase in algal growth over the past three centuries due to increased nutrient inputs. This work will offer a long temporal view of how humans have been contributing nutrient pollution. We are also beginning a new mixed reality game-art simulation focused on eco-resiliency and the dynamics of harmful algal blooms (HABs).

Yes we are:

As a co-founder of the GSAS Game Simulation Arts & Sciences program in the School of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences, this project is the kind of work I envisioned we could do at Rensselaer where transdisciplinary thinking is not only permitted, but encouraged. What we are learning is that all of us working on the project, (whether we are from game design, the visual arts, music, computer science, biology, environmental science, micropaleontology, etc.), are looking at the same thing, but from different points of view and when we come together, we ask questions and propose solutions in ways that none of us could do alone. For instance, we have realized that invasive species from other countries come here, while other countries face invasive species coming from the United States. We are not outside of nature, but each a part of it globally. As we face the climate realities of today, it is critical to come together in profound new ways to understand each other in non-colonizing ways. Yes, we can give voice to tiny, unseen plankton and learn about their plight through game simulation. Yes, we can use this technology creatively to empathize and discover other people, different cultures, and huge ranges of complexities that will enable us to think in terms of openings of systems, contingencies, and new potentials of expression.


We gratefully acknowledge the on-going support of the  Jefferson Project, the support of the NVIDIA Corporation’s Academic Research Grant that enabled the GPU used for this research and 1st Playable Productions for supporting development. Support is also provided by a grant from NYSCA (The New York State Council on the Arts) in partnership with Wave Farm: Media Arts Assistance Fund (MAAF)