Straightforward projections? That’s so last year. Today’s artists and architects have graduated to the latest technological breakthrough: 3D mapping for impressive spatial effects
3D projection or video mapping explores a relatively novel technological field. The basic premise: Animations are projected onto a variety of surfaces and synchronised with the chosen substrates to create the illusion of spatial perception and tricky three-dimensionality. In theory, any object can become a suitable projection surface - from the ever-popular geometrical objects and architectural facades all the way down to the humble sneaker.
A brainchild of the burgeoning VJ culture, 3D projection mapping picks up on the popular concept of matching real-time sound to moving collages and animations. And thanks to the welcome emergence of brand new hard- and software technologies, 3D mapping has been going from strength to strengh - and prepares to cement its new status with a little help from the powerful Modul8 VJ software. Back in 2007, a Modul8 expansion pack pioneered the use of three-dimensional projections. Among its trailblazing early adopters: a duo of architects, Pierre Schneider and François Wunschel, who crafted an animated backdrop for the live shows of French dance producer Etienne de Crecy (as part of the Parisian EXYZT collective). On stage, their so-called Square Cube, a fabric-covered metal structure whose grid-like skeleton served as a template for projected animations, appeared to move and dissolve the object’s structure and frame in time to de Crecy’s musical performance.
After a professional spin-off and name change, the newly coined 1024 architecture decided to focus on pushing the boundaries of architecture with three-dimensional light projections - and their sound-sensitive installation Perspektive Lyrique, a commission for the 2010 Lyon Festival of Lights, remains a groundbreaking project in terms of implementation and interactivity accomplishments. Here, visitors were encouraged to sing or speak into a microphone - placed in front of a building - and the house itself, a former music theatre, would react to their input and come alive. Behind the scenes, or rather within the software, the team used an in-house algorithm to analyse the respective sound input and then translate it to a dynamic visual output. To this end, each note was assigned a unique “characteristic“ and “behaviour“, or so François Wunschel explains. “Using sound is a very direct means of interaction; there is no real need to explain it to the audience, it is very easy to understand. As an architect, the real challenge to projection mapping is to be able to move beyond the intial architecture (the canvas) while still retaining its characteristics.” A die-hard gamer, Wunschel likes nothing better than to incorporate gaming technologies into his projections, e. g. by using a joypad to control them like video games.
Others who dabble in 3D mapping prefer to hand the reins straight to the audience, allowing users to influence the projections via their own smartphones or tablets. Take the multi-player game EELS, for example, which invites up to eight users to join the fun on their devices while the game’s surface is projected into their midst and onto a range of geometric shapes. The result: an immersive spatial scope that encourages players to delve right into the three-dimensional game for a more intense experience. Riccardo Giraldi, creative director at London’s film production agency B-Reel, appreciates the technology’s sheer complexity and opportunity for visual augmentation to surround the user. “We are now all very used to playing digital games on flat surfaces, but missing out on the pleasure of playing games by moving around in space, by interacting with each other and the physical objects around us.“ According to him, interaction is key. “Nowadays, one of the few objects that you can expect people to carry around with them at all the times is their mobile device. So, we can invite them to use their own devices to interact with screens, smart objects and installations they might come across - without the need to download an application or buy an additional gadget.”
New York’s Dev Harlan is another proponent of the genre - and its interactive nature. In his opinion, future versions of smartphones and other mobile devices will be equipped with tiny projectors to allow for direct user interaction. His own projects, however, tend to focus on playing with light. In October 2011, his light sculpture Parmenides I was on show at his native city‘s Christopher Henry Gallery. Here, a life-size orb, assembled from angular surfaces, served as the projection surface for graphic animations that result in a wealth of caleidoscopic patterns. These patterns, in turn, transform the installation object into a multi-faceted luminous sculpture with extra depth and its own unique sense of perspective. “More than spatiality, though, I am interested in light and the creation of luminous objects. So, I use projection technologies to sculpt light in a way that allows objects to appear as if they have a light of their own“, Harlan describes his general premise. A more ironic visual outing sees the artist transform a bicycle into a shimmering spinning top by projecting bold and bright knitting patterns onto his Suffolk Deluxe Electric Bicyle I.
So what about the future scope of 3D mapping? Are there any avenues left to be explored? Dev Harlan takes a relatively pragmatic stance: “I almost feel as if projection itself is a transitional solution. Ultimately, it would be far simpler to have a surface that was in itself inherently light-emitting. I want pixels in a spray can“, he explains. Well, what about a smartphone capable of projecting visual objects that encourage real-time interaction? One thing is for certain - Dev Harlan’s next project is bound to sparkle and will be anything but boring.