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An Interactive Exhibit for the Fall 2018 Orientation Week at Pitt

The transition from high school to college can be a challenging one, full of rapid changes, plenty of stress, and feelings of isolation. While reflecting on our own experiences during Orientation Week at Pitt, we thought: how could we help students along in their personal journeys of leaving the nest?

From this original question, Dear You was born. The interactive exhibit was installed in a main thruway on Pitt's campus in the last week of August 2018. Visitors were drawn in by the flock of flying paper birds to approach and interact with the piece. With a mirror in the back of the display to place each person as part of the flock, users pressed arcade buttons to control lighting effects, the flight of 48 paper birds, and a takeaway - the final button printed out a piece of advice, one of dozens curated from people of all ages from across the country, on how to cope and grow through this tough transition.


I was the Mechanical Design Lead on a team of three Pitt students who worked to create the piece, from concept to installation. We coordinated with various levels of university administration, professional designers both internal and external to the university, and strangers who had some advice to share. In an intense seven weeks, we designed and fabricated an interactive exhibit that welcomed a new class of Pitt students home.


So how do you make paper birds fly? A whole lot of behind the scenes engineering magic went into the 48 animated birds that were the centerpiece of the exhibit. I designed eight unique camshafts along with an electronic control system to coordinate the motion  and lighting effects, allowing button presses from a passerby to change speed and light factors.



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As mechanical lead, I designed the magic of flight through eight unique camshafts, giving every column of birds a unique flight pattern. The motor, camshaft, and spring systems were incorporated into the electronic system I designed to transfer button pushes into changes in flight speed and lighting effects. One of the exciting challenges of the system was selecting for motor torque, spring stiffness, and shaft strength to balance perfectly for all 48 birds.


I designed the birds for both ease of fabrication and impact of aesthetic. The minimalist paper outline mimics the profile of a swallow, a bird traditionally symbolic of the beginning of a journey. I designed the birds to be rapidly laser cut and folded together. They were assembled together using fishing line to give a true flying appearance.


Digital fabrication was a large part of many components of this project. The cams and bearings were made on CNC Routers, while the birds, shaft and motor supports, and spring and camshaft bases were made using a laser cutter.

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