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  May.14.13 Volvox Lab's Dynamical Systems and the Perception of Consequence

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"Perception of Consequence" is an installation by Kamil Nawratil that places a custom-fabricated wave-like structure within the space as a 3D surface for the stereoscopic projection of fluid form animations (pictured above). Surround-sound and control-activated fans strategically placed around the installation coupled to the movement of virtual cameras control wind direction and intensity working to immerse the viewer in the system. TouchDesigner is used as the playback platform for sound, stereoscopic imagery and to sync and control physical environment elements via Arduino. "It is like the central executive processor, similar to the part of the system like the human brain that controls, plans and coordinates all other parts." Kamil adds.

The project represents the consequence and constraints of motion set by the rules of physics. Two fluid-evolving forms are placed in a reversible entropic system and simulated to resemble evolving human states and emotions. The system itself evolves from organic form into chaos while its cyclical nature guides it towards rebirth.

Starts here: "I'm a MFA Computer Art student at the School of Visual Arts NYC. We are looking for a TouchDesigner teacher for an Independent Study program for the fall 2012 semester. Can you recommend someone?" was our initial email introduction to Kamil Nawratil, art director at VolvoxLabs.

The request was intriguing and as luck would have it, Alex Czetwertynski (a Houdini and TouchDesigner artist specializing in content creation and technical design) was in the process of relocating to New York from LA and keen to teach TouchDesigner. Kamil and fellow student Rodrigo had been inspired by Amon Tobin's ISAM and were curious about its workings. In the caliber of ISAM's visual control they saw a future for their own projection and visual projects. A little research led them to organizing for Barry Threw of Obscura Digital to give a talk at SVA about his work with TouchDesigner. "After that we were hooked and convinced to secure the 4 month independent study." says Kamil "The rest is all love!"

Reality shifts: Following the SVA program, VolvoxLabs quickly and fluently integrated TouchDesigner into a number of projects. Then a couple of weeks ago Kamil's Perception of Consequence came into the world and it was one of these rare moments that felt like reality was knocked fractionally off its axis. It is a visceral work that succeeds in channelling and manipulating primal forces inherent to natural systems - like entropy and chaos - through orchestrated technologies and elements designed to draw viewers into active participation in a physical, multi-sensorial experience.

Kamil describes: This piece puts forth the question of how we perceive the world around us. It is an attempt to realize the connection between systems like that of nature and humans, using frameworks such as Jungian and Freudian analysis and the law of thermodynamics. The vision is to integrate the viewer into the environment and toy with the balance between organic and artificial, chaos and equilibrium. The result I hope, is technology that touches upon something innately human.

What impresses me most about TouchDesigner is the seamless role that it plays in this piece by coordinating all aspects of playback and control over the environment and sound. I am able to create a more overwhelming and immersive experience for the viewer by wirelessly controlling fans placed strategically around the installation. An animation curve synced with the virtual world is assigned to each fan. Connection with Arduino and servos was also a breeze using the serial node. I am also super happy with the control over the stereoscopic projection. TouchDesigner allows me to readjust the convergence and color in real-time. All these features significantly eliminate going back and forth between multiple packages.

This project was developed in completion for Kamil's MFA graduate degree at the School of Visual Arts in NYC and the installation will be on view at the SVA gallery in NYC between May 18 - June 1

VolvoxLabs (VL) is a new media and projection design studio founded by Kamil Nawratil, a visual artist born in Poland and currently based in Brooklyn, New York. In 2010, after completing a BFA in Graphic Design in Washington DC Kamil moved to NYC where he also finished a MFA Computer Art degree at the School of Visual Arts and co-founded VL with his partner, Pa Her. With her doctorate in psychology, Pa focuses her energy on helping to apply psychological insight to the creative process. Together the duo takes theory-driven research and interprets it into projects at VL that are not only aesthetically pleasing, but also have intended and desired outcomes.

Intrigued by VL's work, their approach to dynamic systems, the virtual, the physical, connecting things together and the ways in which we could see TouchDesigner integrated into their pipeline we had some questions. It was time to become acquainted with Kamil and Pa and to learn more about VolvoxLabs - their motivating influences, future plans and of course, if and how TouchDesigner might be shaping their work. Here is what they had to say...

History/Behind the name: Much of the design style at VL is inspired by Kamil's background in graffiti and graphic design as well as his family history of architects and painters. Gradually these interests led to the creation of VL to examine and play with new fields such as projection, installation, design, and mapping. The name VolvoxLabs was chosen because on one hand, VL is experimenting with fields such as architecture, motion design, and technology within an organic framework. Then there's the Lab itself which acts as an incubator allowing us to create experiences or installations that are very uniquely integrating these disciplines. Volvox came about because it is the name given to the first multicellular organism where working for the good of the colony was better than working alone. Because we truly believe in that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts—like a Volvox, VL executes projects connecting dynamic systems, hopefully evolving and transforming the creative space. Ideally, we want the audience to be engaged and to start thinking about our interconnectedness.

Making connections: Our work is aimed at satisfying a basic human and biological need: to connect. In doing so VL embraces projects from a range of ideas as we focus on re-imagining the creative space for individuals to experience art. This space can be found in any object and all around us. Whether we are depicting bugs in an extraordinary form, creating interactive, entropic projections or mapping peculiar architectural installations, our design process is united around the connection between nature, humans and technology. The outcome draws on multiple sensory systems for festivals and companies interested in cultivating a platform between nature, art and technology.

What do we do: Our goal is to create installations that feel alive and interact with real space. Whether it's interactive and/or immersive experiences, audiovisual/tactile environments, or motion design, we create pieces that draw on multiple sensory systems for festivals and companies interested in cultivating a platform between nature, art and technology. We achieve and carry out our projects through 2D/3D animation, dynamic simulations, architectural fabrication, and design. We're extremely excited to have added TouchDesigner to our roster - it has pushed us to create visceral, real-time, interactive projects.

Organization: It is difficult to represent our studio in a single project, but one that identifies our core values and capacities is Kamil's recent personal project Perception of Consequence. Kamil uses TouchDesigner as the organizing platform for the project. 

The result is a very conceptual graphic piece geared towards provoking and putting forth the question of how we perceive the world around systems, their interconnectedness, and ourselves. It borders on abstraction and the tangible. It also has a very powerful soundtrack created by Kamil. With this piece and the number of designs/projects we've accomplised to date we are continually experimenting with the ever-evolving technologies. What we've found most important is knowing when and how to combine the tools and technologies to engage audiences.

Were you working in real-time prior to TouchDesigner? It's interesting in context of your focus on dynamic and connected systems. Working in the flow, working 'live' and with interactivity. Can you expand on this?

VL: We've always been interested in how systems cooperate for the greater good, and in the same way for our projects, how connectivity of systems creates a more immersive and visceral experience. Before TouchDesigner, our performances and installations typically used multiple applications with Syphon connecting them together but ultimately bogging the system down. We flirted a little with Quartz Composer and Processing but just didn't have the patience. The results were also limiting in what we really wanted to get into, real-time 3D content that's organized by various types of inputs.

VL's pipeline for creating content includes the standard 3D packages like Maya, Cinema 4D and Realflow, with After Effects and Nuke for compositing. We're used to one output render at the end of the process. After incorporating TouchDesigner we now can play with geometry in real-time using different sources of manipulation and control to create infinite possibilities and outcomes - super cool! There's so much creative freedom now because we can easily implement new devices, physical components and inputs from virtually anywhere to a project.

VL: In one of our first TouchDesigner projects, Illusion of Transparency - which was exhibited in Brooklyn at the 2012-2013 The Wander New Years Eve's party - we fed live input of the audience into TouchDesigner. We then converted it into real-time anaglyphic 3D images and projected onto walls of a fabricated cube. Because this all happened simultaneously and seamlessly the audience was surprised to realized that it was indeed themselves (or their friends) being projected on the cube rather than a rendered 3D image. This unexpected, introspective and delighted surprise displayed by the audience really opened our eyes to the possibilities of TouchDesigner. 

Can you explain, or expand on how TouchDesigner brings new capabilities or opportunities to your work and how these might influence future work?

VL: Absolutely and in multiple ways:

  • TouchDesigner helps foster new procedural possibilities for creating content - allowing us to skip extra steps in preproduction like rendering imagery to be mapped on a model, motion graphics techniques, or particle generation.
  • With real-time compositing we can now skip going through After Effects and composite multiple elements procedurally saving time and increasing efficiency in our pipeline. Kamil is using some of these techniques in PoC to overlay extra elements on the main movie.
  • Pre-visualization of environments: this feature allows us to interactively see projector positioning and fabrication elements set up in the actual environment. Also great for commercial use and client briefs.
  • Connecting to external devices like Arduino - servo motors and lights. This is really exciting because we'd like to continue expanding our projects more and more into the physical world allowing viewers to physically interact with the program.
  • With great support of devices like Kinect and other personal interfaces for human computer interaction, possibilities increase for interactivity at both the physical and kinetic level.
  • The Sync between multiple machines offers greater control over performance. This has always been an issue but with TouchDesigner's Touch In and Out we can now combine great GPU power to run shows and installations.

FEED us: We recently finished Geometric Remix at SXSW Interactive for FEED (a Learned Evolution project) in Austin, TX where we strived to show connectivity in social media, art, design, and technology. It was another fun project that allowed us to draw on our architectural and fabrication side including interactive mapping. Remix essentially used the SXSW twitter hash tag and filtered the 20 most tweeted words, then projected the data visualization onto a custom-fabricated sculpture. You could rearrange the data and change the 3D lighting using the iPad. The audience was able to add back to the conversation by taking screenshots and pushing them out through Flickr. Using TouchDesigner allowed for a rich and multi-dimensional experience.

We were commissioned by FEED to create a site-specific, interactive social media installation based on the theme of "FEED". Geometric Remix was an 8'h x14'w geometrical sculpture with protrusions built to resemble the symmetrical geometry found in nature mirroring the myriad ways a feed can produce growth. The sculpture was designed in 3ds Max and prepared for CNC in Rhino.

The project was complex because of the interconnectedness of many elements or systems, including the continuous sorting through twitter #, interactive geometry with real-time shadows and textures, an interactive user input via OSC and output to stereoscopy. Without TouchDesigner this type of project would have to be spread across multiple software and computers, but we were able to streamline the whole process from one PC during the duration of the SXSW show.

The first step was to develop an XML feed with the most commonly used words at #SXSW for TouchDesigner to sort through. The top 20 were then fed into the network and assigned to specific parts of the sculpture. Based on the popularity of the words, specific parts of the geometry would react by protruding towards the viewer or vice versa. This was a really cool effect that enhanced the depth when viewed with the Real-D glasses.

Materials were designed and mapped onto Remix's geometry in TouchDesigner providing greater flexibility in manipulating textural movement. We were concerned that mapping two different images onto the sculpture might cause unwanted overlap effects but Kamil was able to align the structural mapping and stereoscopy by tweaking the virtual cameras. Using the Control OSC app on the iPad, visitors were also able to play with geometry and lighting. The app gave visitors the multi-touch flexibility of controlling the Geometric Remix. From a distance of 20ft visitors could rearrange words on the structure to create their own poetic compositions and then post their Remix to Flickr. Another awesome functionality was using the iPad's gyroscope to control virtual light on the Remix making the project an interactive, stereoscopic, social media mapping system! 

We think of TouchDesigner as a tool that promotes and fosters interoperability and ecosystems. TouchDesigner can do a lot but not everything so we specialize in certain areas and make it possible to easily connect with everything else. It seems you're using the software in that manner too - as a hub, controller... organizer.

VL: The philosophy of TouchDesigner is really aligned with VL's own connected values. We try to make more engaging projects using multiple disciplines and systems. TouchDesigner allows us to combine existing systems to create something very new and fun every time. For us, it is like the central executive processor, similar in the way the human brain controls, plans, coordinates all other parts. TouchDesigner fosters this ability to integrate and add content/inputs easily and on the fly--allowing us to create in a sense, a very organic feeling of surprise both for us during creation process, and then for the viewers.

We're looking forward to further exploiting TouchDesigner's capabilities. It's definitely staying for good with us! Whether used for mapping, data visualization or cinematic experiences, any project will be much more advanced and executed more efficiently with the implementation of TouchDesigner.

And we really look forward to seeing what you do next and thank you for taking thee time to talk to us!

A reminder to our readers: Perception of Consequence will be installed and on view at the SVA Gallery NYC from May 18th to June 1st, see it if you can! And, it should be added that Perception of Consequence has been featured by the CreatorsProject and Creative Applications (no small feat) as well as being selected as a Vimeo Staff Pick!

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