Altar Ego

Altar Ego was on display at the annual Day of the Dead show in San Francisco. The installation is an interactive computer-driven altar in which the viewer himself becomes the person being memorialized. The theme of the show “Calling on the spirits to face the future” points to the past as well as the future, and it inspired me to make something that is both traditional and high-tech which draws from the past and shows the future. To this end, my installation is a hybrid of a traditional altar (multiple levels with an arch on top, skeletons, salt, tissue paper, candles, flowers, etc.), and projected images and text gleaned from the internet. The images and text are projected on the walls and on white objects placed throughout the altar — primarily in empty picture frames, but also onto “blank” objects such as a white-painted books, CD, DVD, political button, newspaper, stone, etc. There is also a kiddie record player that plays the song that was #1 on your birthday, complete with a spinning label (title/artist) at 45 r.p.m. I also have a crystal ball that shows a heavily distorted image of you when you get closed to it. For this, there is a webcam hidden in the eye of a skull.

The personalization of the altar is made possible by software which prompts the user to log into their Facebook account. Once logged in, the software uses the Facebook Developer API’s to load images and other personal data (birthday, favorite quotes, books, movies, music, religion, political views, family members, friends, etc.).  It then gets additional data from several other sources (google, flickr,, a mayan horoscope site, a quote generator site, and a flag hosting site). It then generates a web page that, when projected, will place images into frames and onto the blank objects. The projections display for a couple of minutes before going back to the welcome “screen” which projects a demo mode.

To make this possible, I project the image off a 25 mirror array, each mirror pointed at a different angle. Each image is scaled, rotated,  and skewed as needed so that after bouncing off the mirrors and hidden obliquely angled objects, the proportions of the original image are preserved.

Here is a video of it working


  • In large frame on left wall is an image by an artist that you like
  • The flag shows your nationality (or, if you’re gay on Facebook and didn’t specify a nationality, you get a rainbow flag)
  • The map shows the city/state you live in as well as a map centered on that city
  • 3 framed portrait images in freestanding frames
  • 1 portrait of your significant other on back wall (if none, then another portrait)
  • 2 landscape images
  • 2 animated candle flames projected above wicks (no real flames were allowed)
  • Your birthdate in Mayan glyphs projected onto the stone
  • Webcam image using underwater effect on crystal ball
  • Cover of a book (or author) you like projected onto a blank book
  • CD of music you like
  • DVD of movie you like
  • Politician or cause projected onto political button
  • Generated obituary (showing family members, last words (from bio or quotes or online generator), and specifically listing the name of a friend. If any of your friends has tried out the exhibit already, one of their names will show up (which freaks people out)
  • Favorite sports team (or other liked group) projected on baseball cap
  • In large frame front and center is your current profile picture
  • Your Mayan Horoscope is projected onto a blank wall calendar
  • On top of the vase is projected a bouquet of your birth-month flowers
  • On the back wall is your name and birth/death dates in Roman numerals
  • Up high is a framed symbol of your religion
  • On the spinning 45 single record is the title and artist of the song that was number one on the day your were born. This projection spins at 45rpm to match the record.

In cases where the user had little available images or information, I used default images taken from Facebook, or ones that I “canned”, such as a peace sign on the political button or a smiley face for the religion.


The computer sends its audio to the record player’s speaker which plays the song.


Papel Picado (perforated paper) symbolizing the wind is very traditional. Typically it shows cutesy images of skulls and skeletons. I cut my own papel picado (admittedly, I used or modified some existing skull designs) a laser cutter. I integrated the logos of Google, Twitter, Facebook, and Apple into the designs. I also made two papel picado that show the first paragraph of the Facebook terms of service in both English and Spanish.

An arch is also traditional, symbolizing a bridge to the afterlife. In this case, I use the Facebook f logo (and its mirror image) to form the arch. I use garlands of autumn leaves (artificial) for this purpose.

I also laser cut and etched a Mayan calendar into a piece of plywood. I cut a whole in the center and have the projection beam coming out of it.

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