Cinema Snowglobe: A Magical 21st-Century Handheld Device Designed by CCA Faculty

Scott Minneman and JD Beltran demonstrate their Cinema SnowglobeScott Minneman and JD Beltran demonstrate the Cinema SnowglobeView slideshow 

Everyone relies on highly portable technology to stay in touch, find a restaurant or a parking space, and grab images on the go. But a few lucky folks have seen or held the Cinema Snowglobe, a marriage of art and technology that is an object of pure delight.

Designed and created by CCA Graduate Program in Design faculty members JD Beltran and Scott Minneman, this new snowglobe updates the old-fashioned little scene in glass that you shake to see the snow fly and settle. When you shake this palm-sized marvel, you see video or animated images that are looped to play repeatedly.

The several early editions of the Cinema Snowglobe feature a trip across the Golden Gate Bridge, a fireworks display, or a walk through the Rose Garden in Golden Gate Park.

Another snowglobe is a collaboration with the artist Leo Villareal and displays his marvelous Bay Lights installation that illuminates the west span of the San Francisco­–Oakland Bay Bridge.

Why Snowglobes?

Beltran and Minneman share a long-held fascination with snowglobes. “I was unhappy with the versions in most souvenir shops, so I began making my own custom snowglobes with personal quirky elements to mark my travels and road trips, and to give to friends,” Minneman says.

Beltran made a snowglobe as the art exhibition for her MFA degree from San Francisco Art Institute. “I created a tiny, made-to-scale version of the classroom for my final critique, along with miniature full-body portraits of everyone in my critique. In the middle of the snowglobe classroom, I glued a pedestal with a micro-snowglobe on it.”

She also created a whole set of snowglobes containing landscapes of the SFAI surroundings and “the people who inhabited those spaces, past and present.”

Baltan is a conceptual artist, filmmaker, writer, and curator who teaches graduate design at CCA and also teaches in several disciplines at SFAI. She is currently president of the San Francisco Arts Commission and author-curator for the city’s downtown Art Master Plan.

Minneman is an engineer and architect with degrees from MIT and Stanford who cofounded Onomy Labs, which creates interactive experiences that combine art, science, design, and engineering; he also teaches interaction design in the graduate design program at CCA.

Collaboration & Creativity

Beltran and Minneman have collaborated since 2007 on a variety of projects. They began the snowglobe effort in 2012 when invited to work at the Workshop Residence, a San Francisco creative lab that brings together artists, technologists, and manufacturers.

As Minneman says, “The idea was to bring the traditional snowglobe into the 21st century by replacing the cheesy plastic diorama with a tiny virtual world of embedded video.”

Over many months, the two partners designed and tested multiple versions of the snowglobe’s components, working with colleagues and seed funding at the Workshop Residence.

Their creative endeavor had some obstacles, as Minneman notes: “Perfecting the technology and winning myriad behind-the-scenes battles with physics and materials science has been a trying quest, involving testing dozens of adhesives, fluids, and snows; debugging circuitry (with great help from electrical engineer Jonathan Foote); locating odd components; and deciphering reams of data sheets and notes.”

Exhibitions & Sales

The end product is a hand-built glass sphere filled with a water-based solution and a plastic base containing a purpose-designed circuit board, rechargeable battery pack, and video display. The Cinema Snowglobe debuted at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and was offered for sale at the Workshop Residence store last year; the edition has sold out, and Beltran reports that they still have more than 200 orders to fill.

This unusual interactive device was recently exhibited as one of 21 artworks for the New Technological Art Award (NTAA) show in Ghent, Belgium, featuring the top international art and technology artworks of 2014. 

Four new short art films viewed on four different Cinema Snowglobes also were featured in the “Signals: 24/7” program of the International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR) in January 2015.

A Natural Fit with CCA Teaching

This complex project is a natural fit with Beltran and Minneman's teaching in CCA's Graduate Design Program, Beltran observes. “We emphasize the potential and power of engaging audiences through thoughtful blending of form, interaction, and storytelling, and the Cinema Snowglobe has provided a terrific example of how this can work.”

And the project will continue to fuel their teaching and collaboration. With help from a short residency and grant from a new incubator in Berkeley, Stochastic Labs, Beltran and Minneman prototyped the next generation of snowglobes that they premiered at both NTAA and IFFR.

“We’ve brought our vision to fruition (and we’ve been somewhat overwhelmed by the positive response),” Minneman says. “After building hundreds of the labor-intensive first-generation globes for early adopters and initial commissions, we’re gearing up for the next spin.”