XVIII.1 January + February 2011
Page: 32
Digital Citation

From materials to materiality

Erica Robles, Mikael Wiberg

Two hundred kilometers north of the Arctic Circle, in a remote landscape dominated by the darkness of long winters, lies Sweden’s most popular tourist destination—the Icehotel. For more than 20 years, this frozen edifice has served as a nexus for convening international teams of artists, designers, engineers, and architects. Each year, they transform the mundane substances of the tundra—snow and ice—into remarkable contemporary designs. The result is a spectacular architecture more than 5,500 square meters (59,209 square feet) filled with ice suites, ice rooms, ice galleries, ice furniture, an ice church, and an ice bar. Every setting is composed almost exclusively of one material—frozen water. What this singular focus on material reformulation offers interaction design is an architectural allegory for examining the relationship of materiality to composition from within a computational moment.

Computation—Form Follows…?

Ten years ago, at the closing plenary address for CHI2000, themed “The Future is Here,” Kim Binsted asserted computers were ubiquitous [1]. Part of everyday life, everyday objects, and ordinary built environments, they already permeated our cultural atmosphere. Capable of crafting almost any form, designing any box, service, or input/output loop, interaction design had reached the stage at which grand technical challenge was no longer the question.

The past decade has shown it is not only ubiquity that transfers computing from the grand technical system to the conditions of the everyday. Concomitant developments in “smart” materials like thermochromic pigments, ferro-fluids, shape memory polymers, electro textiles, and photochromic materials have vastly expanded the repertoire of computational forms. Alongside open source initiatives like the Arduino platform, these substrates have made possible “computational composites” [2].

Design, then, becomes a question of digital-physical compositions. No longer a question of function following form, we have the opportunity to open new modes of inquiry and generate whole new languages for making sense of a world in which the computational and material increasingly blur.

We have spent the past several years in a cross-disciplinary design conversation about materiality in a computational moment. Ultimately we have come to regard aesthetics as a necessary part of moving forward with the task of interaction design. We have come to believe distinguishing between the digital and physical no longer makes sense. Instead, design can now proceed toward logics of composition.

Materiality: Rethinking Atoms and Bits at Icehotel X

In 2008 we joined a team charged with building Icehotel X. Erected in the center of Copenhagen, this permanent installation was designed to extend the experience of the Icehotel while possessing integrity as a stand-alone, independent work. Our particular interest was in exploring the potential for integrating digital elements. However, in a design context so deeply committed to material integrity, any departures from or additions to the composition were subjected to rigorous aesthetic evaluation and debate.

For example, a proposed collaboration between Icehotel and Swarovski was abandoned due to design differences in relation to materiality and time. Glacial ice resonates with clear, crystalline structures but gems are precious products of forever and Icehotel is an exploration of the possibilities in a frozen moment. Its walls melt. Each spring the whole edifice returns to its original source—the Torne River. It is architecture as annual migration, a reminder of cyclical, natural time.

In another more successful material romance, Icehotel repurposed industrial waste from local magnetite mines in Kiruna, a place with its own fascinating and understudied story of spatial production and informatics (the entire city is being moved to both accommodate the extension of mining operations underground and to re-invent as a launch site for Virgin Galactic). Extending industrial processes developed for compressing snow, Icehotel manufactures large, perfectly smooth slabs from magnetite dust. Wryly dubbed “heavy water”, the translucent ice and opaque magnetite slabs are integrated into sculptural and architectural formations to create ritual differences as ice melts and new designs reform.

Within the context of designing new material relations, we proposed working with very large digital displays. The scheme was fraught with aesthetic risk. Screens are a technology generally over-determined by technical capacities and cinematic conventions. High-resolution, high-speed networking and largesse generally command inordinate attention, pulling viewers away from their immediate surroundings and toward remote locales, or transforming spaces into technology showrooms rather than an immersive experience. In other words, screens were potential threats to the integrity of Arctic ice.

To substantiate merging a digital display into a physical architecture we looked to human-computer interaction. Seeking theoretical orientations appropriate for digital-physical compositions we found instead a prevailing concern for managing the differences between atoms and bits.

In the mid-1990s, MIT Media Lab founder Nicholas Negroponte rather dramatically declared bits would “irrevocably and unstoppably” replace atoms [3]. He predicted we would all be citizens of a world in which distinctions between the digital and physical blurred and the distance between these categories disappeared. Developing toward this future, however, has been no natural, evolutionary task. Rather, it has been an act of conscious design, debate, scrutiny, and craft.

A series of interaction design paradigms have posed strategies for “being digital.” Ironically, each successive approach is undergirded by a tendency to make distinctions between atoms and bits, a fundamental assumption that inhibits bringing atoms and bits into formal aesthetic relation. Graphical User Interfaces (GUIs) propose mapping the structures of the physical world onto information architectures. By conservatively borrowing the logics of the non-computational world, GUIs suggest that when it comes to computation, materiality is, at best, a metaphor. Akin to cinematic models of representation, this paradigm underscores a kind of fundamental difference between the digital and physical, even as it proposes to serve as the interface. Dissatisfied with this aesthetic proposition, we rejected any representational strategies for our display.

Even the more radical aesthetic aim established by ubiquitous computing extends the categorical separation between atoms and bits. By advocating the “disappearance” [4] of the processor into everyday non-computational life, the order of the physical world is repeatedly privileged. It is as though the digital offers no qualitative contribution to the aesthetic forms of the material world. More recent shifts toward tangible bits promise to bridge atoms and bits, thus reproducing an assumption about their fundamental difference [5]. Despite growing interest in smart materials and increasing capacity to treat computers materially, we have yet to transform our thinking about the ontology of atoms and bits [6].

Working with a team so committed to rethinking mundane materials, however, we were forced to make a shift in our thinking. In conversation with a diverse design team with expertise ranging from sculpture, to lighting, interior design, food, and architecture, we began to reimagine screens as a set of properties. From this vantage the questions of ontology—atoms or bits—receded. In its stead emerged a conversation about formal aesthetic relations, about composition.

To integrate digital displays within Icehotel X, we decomposed the screen into its constitutive functions and then reformed it as a composition. We broke the connection between luminosity and resolution by crafting large (8m x 2.4m, 26.25ft x 7.87ft), extremely low-res displays (160 x 48 pixels). Made from grids of LED bulbs mounted 5cm apart, they were technically incapable of creating high-fidelity graphical representations. Instead digital displays became a luminous dynamic material capable of operating at an architectural scale. The large, heatemitting, electronic surfaces were integrated with the pristine blocks of frozen glacial water by introducing a third material, 4mm-thick plastic film. The film served as insulation, preventing temperature loss and fluid exchange. Its opacity smoothed the underlying pixels into a more continuous display. Millimeter by millimeter, we sculpted Icehotel X. Together, the dynamic and luminous properties of the screen and the static, transparent clarity of frozen water created an architecture of singular texture—a materiality through which light flows.

Icehotel X offers no windows, portholes, or continuities to the Far North. It does not obey cinematic conventions. There are no data links. Instead, slow-moving, abstract, animated sequences highlight the dynamic properties of our architecture. Evoking rushing water, snowstorms, bonfires, and the northern lights (typical elements of a visit to the far north), the final composition communicates the feel of a remote geography while never replacing the real experience of travel. Ice carvings and ice “screens” depicting fish, reindeer, and northern landscapes, reimagined frozen water as a medium akin to the pixel walls. Through this process we upgraded the perceived status of the digital technology to a design material. This complex of strategies blurred the distinction between medium and representation, substrate and surface. Viewers are not cinematic spectators. Instead, they interact by feeling the ice or ignore the composition altogether in favor of the social interaction taking place within the room.

In the words of Sherry Turkle, Icehotel X was our “object to think with” [7] about materiality and its designed conditions. We’ve used the site to generate aesthetic vocabulary catholic in its regard for atoms and bits [6]. In the process, we’ve come to regard composition as a strategy for moving forward with interaction design.

Icehotel X opened to the public in April 2009.

From New Materials to New Materiality: Future Directions for Design

We are facing a remarkable moment within the field of interaction design. With the development of rapid prototyping processes, inexpensive chips, processors, and sensors, and increasingly computational ways of interacting with manufacturing and craft processes, our relationships to materials are rapidly transforming. The mediating infrastructure of everyday life is increasingly “smart.” The computational is increasingly mundane. As the rate of expansion into dialogue with neighboring (and not so neighboring) fields and from the nano to the urban scale occurs, we are reopening questions of materiality, experience, and form. Interaction design is executing a “material turn” [8]. Open for examination is how the discipline of interaction design might move forward alongside architecture, product design, textile design, and materials science as part of a joint area for inquiry.

As the field moves closer to materials, the necessity for a philosophy of materiality develops. Inching toward the recombination of atoms and bits, however, may mean revising our approach. At present, we have little to say about modes of composition and thus not enough to say about working across a wide range of digital and physical materials. The untapped possibility is that of new aesthetic languages, new compositional techniques, and new materialities. Composition can take just about any form and manifest at any scale. The full-blown reimagination of frozen water at the Icehotel exemplifies this matter. It is by no means alone. Already there are signs of work that does not “bridge” atoms to bits but evokes a need for new sets of descriptors to account for compositional techniques.

Projects like Bitfall use a system of synchronized magnetic valves attached to a Web interface to reorganize already present properties of falling water—surface tension, gravity, discretization into drops—into a screen for rendering digital images into tangible, if momentary, displays. Water always could have been a substrate for creating images, but somehow it takes a computational moment to see what was always there. Evocative projects like Qi and Buechley’s computational pop-up book gesture toward the potentials for developing aesthetic sensibilities from the management of materiality, computation, interaction, and text [9]. Their book blurs the relationship between structure and representation, forming the stems and leaves of mechanized paper flowers from the brushstroke application of conductive paints. The thickness and length of stroke drive electronic function, thus marrying the forms of circuit design, brush painting, and paper craft.

Perhaps it is best to view the potentials in this sort of work by drawing analogies to the importance of past aesthetic reformulations in a medium. Collage, for example (an artistic technique dually credited to Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso), enlarged the reach of painting by demonstrating the power of composition to integrate new materials into aesthetic wholes. The newspaper fragments embedded in Compotier avec fruits, violin et verre, or Composition with Fruit, Guitar and Glass (1912), demonstrate a shift in which a potential substrate for image making can become part of the image itself. Computational pop-up books, digital ice-walls, and water screens may be less self-consciously innovative than a Picasso collage, but somehow these pieces seem kindred voices in a longer conversation about the relationship between materiality, technology, and design. The development of new modes for interaction design and the organization of novel materials may very well involve as much history, formal analysis, and aesthetic theory as technological development, entrepreneurial innovation, and social scientific evaluation.

Sometimes the best way to move forward is not to build new bridges but rather to see with new eyes.


1. Binsted, K. Sufficiently advanced technology: Using magic to control the world. CHI 2000 Extended Abstracts on Human Factors in Computing Systems. (The Hague, The Netherlands, Apr. 1–6). ACM, New York, 2000.

2. Vallgarda, A., and Redstrom, J. Computational composites. Proc. of the SIGCHI Conference on uman Factors in Computing Systems. (San Jose, CA, Apr. 30–May 3). ACM, New York, 2007, 513–522.

3. Negroponte, N. Being Digital. Vintage Books, NY, 1995.

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6. Wiberg, M. and Robles, E. Computational compositions: Aesthetics, materials, and interaction design. International Journal of Design 4, 2 (2010), 65–76.

7. Turkle, S. Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet. Simon & Schuster, New York, 1995

8. Robles, E., and Wiberg, M. Texturing the ‘material turn’ in interaction design. Proc. of the Fourth International Conference on Tangible, Embedded, and Embodied Interaction. (Cambridge, MA, Jan. 2–27). ACM, New York, 2010, 137–144.

9. Qi, J. and Buechley, L. Electronic Popables: Exploring paper-based computing through an interactive pop-up book. Proc. of the Fourth International Conference on Tangible, Embedded, and Embodied Interaction. (Cambridge, MA, Jan. 2–27). ACM, New York, 2010, 121–128.


Erica Reyna Robles is an assistant professor in the Department of Media, Culture, and Communication at NYU. Her research focuses on the role technologies play in the formation of visual culture, spatial production, and collective experiences. She is currently completing a book about the 20th-century transformation of Protestant architecture via automobiles, cinema, television, and Internet. Robles holds a Ph.D. in communication from Stanford University.

Mikael Wiberg is a chaired professor in human-computer interaction at the Department of Informatics and Media at Uppsala University, and research director for UID, Umeå University, Sweden. His research focuses on interaction design, especially the fundamentals of computational material design. He received his Ph.D. from Umeå University in 2001.


DOI: http://doi.acm.org/10.1145/1897239.1897248


UF1Figure. Icehotel 2009 Entrance. For more than 20 years international teams of designers, artists, and engineers have converged in the far north of Sweden to erect the largest ice edifice in the world.

UF2Figure. Icehotel X, a computational composition at the scale of indoor architecture.

UF3Figure. Dynamic optical properties of the Icehotel X architecture.

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