“Where the Wind Blows” is an interactive installation, depicting a digital creation myth. The visitor breathes into micro scenes of fluid, particle, and branch. This initiates birth and growth of the macro virtual environment. Programmed algorithms are brought into action when human breath blows life into them. This digital world is dependent on the real world: ephemeral and unstable. As a result, the scene of a computer-generated, virtually-existing landscape becomes an image happening in real time. Responding to people’s breath, this digital image and the natural object are reborn as a hybrid organism. This project is an experiment to invite the visitors to actively be part of the connection between virtual and real, algorithm and randomness, the environment and the life within.
1. 1 Concept
“Where the Wind Blows” is an interactive installation, in which the visitor’s subtle breath invigorates a virtual world to thrive. The idea started from my imagination of building an artificial nature in virtual reality that is closely associated to our physical world. Here, the virtual world starts to develop from a small gestural change we make. Among all the possible human gestures, I focused on breath, since it is virtuous and influential; physically, spiritually, or even emotionally. Breath has been associated with life and soul/spirit.
In this project, the visitors take the role as a creator of the virtual environment. Digitizing human breath into three different elements initiates and drives the development of the virtual world. Programmed algorithms are brought into action when human breath blows life into them. The nature of this project is surreal and somewhat mythological. Rather than a realistic illustration, it is more like a symbolic and a metaphorical expression towards the imaginations and possibilities of the virtual world.
2.1 Creating Life
The origin of all life has always been a question to human beings. However, none of the theories has been proved or explainable by science or religion, and it is still left as a mystery. In a meantime while leaving this issue unanswered, other people have been trying to create and control life artificially. Artist Eduardo Kac has been using biotechnology and making transgenetic artworks. From his work “Genesis”, he takes a quote from the Bible and transfers it into Morse code and translates that into base pairs of genetics. After obtaining the genes from a laboratory, which creates genetic sequences on demand, he implanted the genes into an unspecified bacterium, which he then grew in a petri dish. Through this work, Kac questions the viewer about men’s power over nature.
Artist Haru Ji and Graham Wakefield together have created the immersive installation, Artificial Nature: Fluid Space, populated by vibrant, interactive organisms. Artificial Nature is not a recorded medium like video. Instead, it is a programmed, self-sustaining, digital ecosystem with organisms that consume, grow, metabolize, reproduce and respond to activities within a dark expansive environment.
Inspired by the idea of creating and modifying life artificially, “Where the Wind Blows” implements digital media as a tool to create life forms, and lets the audience be an active part by using wind to give life into this world. The project is my imaginative and surreal interpretation of the creative process.
2.2 Sensible Experience
The virtual world is not distinct from our real lives, since the technology of human-computer interaction enables us to physically connect to it. Char Davies is a pioneer artist to create an immersive interactive experience in the virtual-reality environment. “Osmose” (1995) is an installation with 3D computer graphics and interactive 3D sound, a head-mounted display and real-time motion tracking based on breathing and balance. The immersants use their own breath and balance to journey anywhere within these worlds as well as hover in the ambiguous transition areas in between.
Artists Chrisa Sommerer and Laurent Mignonneau have been developing natural and intuitive interfaces, often applying scientific principles such as artificial life, complexity and generative systems to their innovative interface designs. “Mobile Feelings II” lets people communicate with strangers through virtual touch and body sensations including smell and sweat using specially designed mobile phones.
These artists influenced me to plan an installation that provides an immersive and sensible experience.
2.3 Computational Beauty
The algorithmic, computational beauty of life found by mathematicians and scientists is the technical guide for artists to give forms and behaviors to visual drawings of nature in the digital world. Artist Casey Reas (Figure 4) , Jared Tarbell and Robert Hodgin have been writing codes and formulas to create organic forms and behaviors for their artwork. While the software structure is taking place of the artist’s brush, Casey Reas questions “Is the history of conceptual art relevant to the idea of software as art?”.
Cellular automation, flocking and steering behaviors, boids, L-system, super shapes, and spherical harmonics were what I had been exploring while working on this project. I have chosen and customized the algorithms that enable to visually express growth in a natural and organic way.
ISSUES OF CONTENT
3. 1. Wind
Wind, as referred to in “the butterfly effect,” is a metaphor for sensitive dependence on initial conditions in chaos theory; a small change at one place in a complex system can have large effects elsewhere. Among all the other winds, I would call breath the most subtle, yet virtuous. Breath has been associated with life and soul/spirit. Breath has been used in ancient creation myths to represent a super-natural existence transcending life and soul to another life form. The Egyptian mystery of Kneph, the religion of Christianity, and the Eastern myth “Journey to the West” tell stories about life and soul being created by the blowing of one’s breath.
“Where the Wind Blows” sets up a virtual environment, deriving its life from the visitors, and the visitors become part of a supernatural being. To communicate this idea, ambient sound of wind mixed up with human breath is played during the exhibition. The participant’s subtle breath triggers the small life forms in the micro scene to move and grow, and then is amplified to cause the lively environment in the macro scene to thrive and make a huge change, such as a wave or a fission or a chaotic scene (Figure 8).
3. 2. Bridging the Digital and Natural
This installation is controlled by a fluid interface: wind. Rather than putting the project under full controllability, I am making it dependent on chance and leaving it partly undetermined and unexpected. Wind has the flow and noise of randomness and is never stable in nature, and my virtual world depends on this. It is my way to more closely bridge the gap between the digital and natural. Even though I remove the noises to make the animation run smoother, it still has the organic pattern of wave, and this is what drives the animation of the project.
Digital worlds never age in time. However, to make the digital world more natural and become temporary, I made it dependent on the real world: ephemeral and unstable. It is impossible for someone to blow forever with the same strength. As a result, the scene of a computer-generated, virtually-existing landscape becomes an image happening in real time, and not a temporal misrepresentation. It does not loop or repeat, but it just happens to be.
The experience is augmented when the digital image appears to be happening in the same physical space and time where we are living. Digital animations of what would possibly happen from the three elements are projected on top of natural objects. Responding to people’s breath, this digital image and the natural object are reborn as a hybrid organism. They grow, respond and wane in time, as lives in nature would do. Our logic tells us that the images are just an illusion, but our senses cannot deny perceiving them to be real. People touch the objects in the micro scene and make sure what they are seeing is not actually what is happening to the real objects. Digital media bridges our imaginative fantasies to be drawn within our real lives.
3. 3. Three Elements
“With your breath, we thrive.” Blow gently on any of the three elements.
1. Fluid : We stir and surge.
2. Particle : We cluster and aggregate.
3. Branch : We divide and grow.
Above is the script of a written instruction provided during the exhibition. I have chosen three different elements as a symbolic representation of the natural environment. This is what is shown within the three petri dishes, and drives the growth of the virtual world. As the visitors blow into the petri dishes, each element gets invigorated, and its environment thrives. Each element has different behavioral rules that become a guideline for the development and the decay of the micro and the macro scene.
“We are all transistors, in the literal sense. People always think they are in the world, but they never realize that they are the world.” -Karlheinz Stockhausen
We send, receive, and organize, and when no longer capable of sustaining these three functions, we disintegrate and die. This is what inspired me when planning the way these three elements would function.
Element 1. Fluid
Fluid can be associated with water, milk, nectar, lava, or blood. Fluid, when activated starts to surge in the micro scene and makes a wave ripple over the surface plane in the macro scene. When it loses energy, a gust of a wind swoops over the macro scene, and a trace of the stirring movement is left in the micro scene.
Element 2. Particle
Particles represent aggregation and interaction, and connect to earth, minerals, and pollen. Particle, when activated, looses balance and clusters in the micro scene, and makes the shimmering cloud bloom in the macro scene. When deactivated, the particles go back to balance.
Element 3. Branch
Branch implies expansion by division, which can be easily seen in the growth of plants or cells. Branch, when activated, starts to branch out in the micro scene and makes a ribbon swath over the macro scene, which crinkles the surface plane.
Three is a number that can create harmony. The way to build a lively environment is to collaborate. When two or more are active, they influence each other, and boost up the activity in the macro scene. Even though the three elements within the petri dishes would not influence each other; they are connected as an interconnected flow within the large screen. As a result, an organic scene is born in response to combinations of the visitors’ breaths.
4. 1. Micro Scenes
The projection on top of the material of the petri dish augments reality and displays my imaginative virtual image. The elements in the three screens are drawn white and the large screen is drawn with vivid colors. Within nature, the color white implies purity, newly born, and nutritious. The three screens are made out of white natural materials. Fluid is projected on milk. Particle is projected on a mixture of salt and flour. Branch is projected on rice paper. Each material transforms the projection under its own texture and enriches the animation.
4. 2. Macro Scene
In this project, wind implies the passage of time. When the environment is dormant, wind constantly blows out the past traces and reforms the geometry. The dominant hue changes gradually along the spectrum within time. The scene starts from a barren image, but the saturation and brightness levels increase when visitors blow into and becomes a lively image.
To give an immersive view, the screen is horizontally long, filling up the gallery space. The surface plane is slightly arched to resemble a horizon. In this dreamlike and surreal scenery, the sky is an inverted mirror image of the 3D mesh plane. The relationship between the sky and the sea here resembles my idea of the relationship between the real and the virtual world. The scene does not have any shadows, which is to project my idea of objects in the virtual world as having a lack of presence.
4. 3. Interface
The interface of this installation with small petri dishes lit by pico-projectors resembles a microscope, and a large projection as a telescope. This setting gives a scientific mood as an imaginative experiment where the visitors can control and engage within this virtual world. Three small petris dishes become an interface to create and control the virtual world, and one large screen in the middle becomes a canvas to draw the imagined results of the virtual world. The wind sensors are hidden inside of a custom made ball with holes and attached beside the pole of the projector. This custom-made sensor enclosure functions as an antenna or microphone, and generates information from the visitor’s breath.
When people blow into the ball, it echoes the sound and makes it louder. This suggests that the ball works as an instrument, which animates the growth of the lives, following the rhythm of the visitor’s breath.
5. 1. System Requirements
Mac Computers (2)
Pico Projector (3)
Wide Angle Projector (1)
Matrox TripleHead2Go (1)
Arduino Board (1)
Wind Sensor (3)
Stereo Speaker (1)
Firewire Cable (1)
USB Cable (2)
VGA Cable (5)
Extension Cords (4)
Mac OS X 10.6
Cinder v. 0.82
5. 2. Hardware
I used two Mac Mini computers for my installation, and an Arduino board as a microcontroller. I used three wind sensors made by Modern Device. Each gives a value of 0-1024 depending on the strength of the wind. The sensor is sensitive enough and it detects small puff of air being sensed at a distance of 18-24”. The two computers were connected through a network and communicate using OSC (Open Sound Control) messages. The computer that receives the data sends OSC message to itself and to another computer. From those OSC messages, the computer starts to generate images to be projected.
I used three small pico projectors for my small screen, with 640×480 displays each. I generated a 1920×480 screen from my computer and using Matrox TripleHead2Go, which split the screen into three. For the large screen projection, a projector with wide angle lens was used with 1600×1200 display.
5. 3. Software
The Arduino contains a program for the microcontroller to receive the data from the wind sensor and enables the computer to read it. A Processing program reads that data and sends OSC messages to computers on the network. Then, Cinder receives OSC messages of the value of the wind sensor as a floating point number, and then draws the animation.
Cinder has rich built-in libraries and frameworks for graphics programming, such as FBO(Frame Buffer Object), VBO(Vertex Buffer Object), camera. FBO provided a handy environment to adjust the view and also to generate interactive textures in real time. VBO made a mesh and did the calculation of the face normals and textures. VBO mesh was used for the drawings of the surface plane. It was efficient if the geometry was not changed. Even when I was running over hundreds of points for drawing meshes, it did not slow down as much as what happened from other programs.
The library I heavily relied on for the entire fluid image was MSA Fluid. MSA Fluid Library is a 2D library, which simulates the physics of fluid. By slightly tweaking it, such as converting the fluid pixel speed into the y-height, a 3D mesh was made. When the plane was textured with the original 2D image that the fluid library provided, it gave an interesting look. It looked as if it were an organic form that somehow resembles the real world, but only existed in fantasies. By connecting the plane with the particles, and have them apply forces and colors as they move, it gave a more interesting look. It looked as if the particles were leaving a trail and driving the development of the surface plane into a complicated form.
GLSL shaders were used for lighting and rendering. For the surface fluid plane and the sky, I used a GLSL phong shader and customized it to give a shiny rendering and texture. Because the fluid library provided was too generic, I overlaid it with my custom made gradient shade in the FBO, which was drawn and changed its color interactively.
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