Touch Feely

Installations you can smell, hear and feel are at the forefront of interaction design. They create environments that enhance mood by engaging all five senses – and often seem to distort them as well. Scott Billings talks to the designers merrily working o

IT IS ALL starting to get a bit trippy. Delving into the world of experiential and sensory design at its most experimental is, frankly, a bit like taking drugs. In a range of projects that slip elusively through the spheres of art, design and education, we have such things as ‘distorted lamp posts’ writhing around and illuminating trees when people pass by, an ‘orchestra’ modelled on the human brain, aromas scientifically composed for a museum exhibition and a game of armflapping with chickens.

What links these projects with arguably more ‘corporate’ experiential design work – such as Imagination’s exhibition stand for Ford Europe which allows users to generate content via a ‘visual jockey’ system and project it on to a huge LED screen – is a desire to draw in the audience, often making people participants in their environment. Not surprisingly, technology frequently has a big role to play, but, thanks to an array of available sensors and wireless communications systems, it can often be rendered largely invisible, rather than intrusive.

Across museums, retail, public buildings and art installations, experience, feedback and interaction have become watchwords. ‘It’s getting easier to sell these kinds of ideas, as there’s a greater understanding of this mixed discipline,’ says Jason Bruges, founder of interactive environments and installations consultancy Jason Bruges Studio. The group is behind the tree installations at Normand Park in Fulham, London, which use light columns each bespoke-designed for its host tree. As people move past the trees, LEDs are triggered causing light to ‘grow’ up the trunk and into the canopy. Because the colour and speed of this ‘growth’ are dependent on the location and proximity of the movement, the person becomes an interactive element in the display.

Even more intriguing is a forthcoming sonic/musical work from sound designer and composer Nick Ryan, visual artist Jane Grant and composer and physicist John Matthias. The Fragmented Orchestra is modelled on the firing of the brain’s neurons and will connect 24 public sites across the UK – including a football stadium, cathedral, dairy farm, school playground, motorway crash barrier and a field – to form a ‘tiny networked cortex’. Human and environmental sounds gathered from the sites will be relayed to 24 speakers at a primary installation at the Foundation for Art and Creative Technology in Liverpool from December. The designers say the Fragmented Orchestra will adapt, evolve and trigger site-specific sounds at Fact whenever a ‘neuron’ fires.

The combined sound of the installation is in turn fed back to the individual sites and the project’s website. The results are hard to anticipate but, once again, the installation, people and environments become interactive, all feeding back to one another.

Experiential design is clearly important to museums keen to get the highest levels of engagement from audiences, and exhibition designers can provide immersive, sensory environments to achieve this. But there’s one sense that is seldom on the design brief, and that’s the sense of smell. Not so for Berlin-based smell artist/scientist Sissel Tolaas, who has spent almost 20 years investigating the properties of smell as language and communication.

For the Victoria & Albert Museum’s Fashion V Sport exhibition, which opened in August, Tolaas’ IFF research lab in Berlin has sampled and recreated the smells of human bodies undergoing sports activity, using different aromas to connect the different sections of the show. Triggering these smells, visitors will have a sensory experience which tells them that the human body is in the exhibition space.

Other museum installations are experiential without necessarily being sensory. Berlin-based Art&Com’s recent designs for the BMW Museum in Munich include the mesmerising Kinetic Sculpture, in which 714 digitally controlled metal spheres configure to form shapes, patterns and three-dimensional car outlines, seemingly floating in the air and synchronised with text and audio quotes from BMW senior staff. According to consultancy creative director Joachim Sauter, the installation illustrates, ‘the waves of thought and disorganisation’ of the design process.

Less cerebral, but equally involving, is Ico Design Consultancy’s Chicken Run game, designed for the V&A’s Village Fete, which took place in July. Players have to flap their arms to make their chickens ‘flap to freedom’. Video camera motion tracking, modified motorised chickens and radio control circuits were invisibly built into the game stall. When the amount of movement hits a predetermined threshold a radio signal instructs the chicken’s motor to start: more flapping equals more motoring.

‘The V&A wanted something with physical interaction and a lot of people thought this was quite magical, because you can’t see how it works; it’s all wireless and concealed,’ explains Ico creative director Benjamin Tomlinson.

In many ways, here lies the key to effective experiential and interactive design: the technology must not get in the way. Much of the delight and success of Nintendo’s Wii game controller – and its myriad modified uses – is that it is free and physical, not wired and restrictive. As wireless communications become omnipresent and hardware continues to shrink, we can expect more and more environments to come alive around us, seamlessly responding and reacting to input from their users.

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