Coming up

There are many small outfits out there spreading the interaction message to clients which are increasingly willing to listen. Garrick Webster picks three up-and-coming consultancies who could well be the stars of future Design Week rankings

’At the moment, advertising has this above-the-line idea. You do the TV ads, you do the print ads, and then you have these little tag-ons around the outside – experience, the interactive, and the website. We’ve started to realise that there’s a really successful and far cheaper method that reverses that,’ says Pete Hellicar (pictured above right) of Hellicar & Lewis. ’It puts the experience and the punter at the centre.’

That, according to Hellicar and partner Joel Gethin Lewis (pictured above left), is what the interactive work they do can offer the world of commerce. It’s a powerful notion, and one they’ve been building up to over the past two-and-a-half years, with projects for everyone from B Store on London’s Savile Row to London’s Victoria & Albert Museum and NZ Telecom in New Zealand.

Not all the consultancy’s work is commercially driven. One of its latest projects was for The Roundhouse in Camden, which held a circus festival. ’We were quite definite about not making a virtual juggling game or something like that,’ explains Lewis. ’So we just started thinking about what it would mean if we were in the circus, what we would make if Hellicar & Lewis was in the circus. We decided to make this mirror that plays with a lot of ideas to do with time and movement, and then project the results of this mirror on the screen in the building.’

Moving around in front of the ’magic mirror’ would result in your image, animated in creative, distorted and fractured ways, appearing on the screen. Visitors felt for a few moments that they were at the centre of a circus attraction, their actions leading to all kinds of random visual outcomes.

From its earliest projects, Hellicar & Lewis has aimed to create systems it could release into the wild to see how people would respond. It is also very keen on the idea of users seeing themselves in its interactive installations. ’It’s putting people in the moment,’ says Lewis. ’If you can do that through a visceral experience, something in the real world, and it stops people thinking about their past and their future, and they’re in the now – that’s a really powerful place to be, artistically and commercially.’

The Roundhouse installation was snapped up by the Banff Arts Centre in Alberta, Canada, where Hellicar & Lewis also took up a week’s residency, using the time to explore new ideas. Its latest project is a collaboration with dancer Nina Umniakova, augmenting performances at Laban Contemporary Dance with projected variants of the on-stage motion.

Taking augmented reality from the computer screen to more tangible media is something the duo want to do more of in the future, using tools like projection and personalisation. ’When I interact with a website, when I walk down the street the next time, why aren’t I the star of the poster campaign that’s at the end of my street, and only on the end of my street?’ asks Lewis. ’We think there’s a lot of possibility for linking these worlds which aren’t linked at the moment.’
Hellicar & Lewis

The Green Eyl
Even today, when so much museum funding relies on engaging the public, most exhibits are behind Perspex. So when interactive design groups like The Green Eyl are called on, they’re instantly inspired by the idea of taking exhibition content and getting visitors to step beyond the role of spectator. The Green Eyl’s Whispering Table exhibit for the Jewish Museum in Berlin, for example, is all about participation, turning the ’don’t touch’ museum mantra on its head.

’Whispering Table is a round table covered with dishes such as plates, bowls and carafes. Empty stools around the table invite people to sit down,’ says consultancy co-founder Gunnar Green. ’The dishes are empty, but through a hole in the middle sound can be heard. These objects function as actors and narrators.’

With a speaker, equaliser, amplifier, battery, MP3 player and sensors in each dish, when you move them around they start talking. Traditional Jewish table rituals including Seder, Nauruz, Mimouna and the Hungry Ghost Festival are explained by the dishes themselves, according to where they’re placed. In addition to the clever technology, the table, text, crockery and room were all designed to be distinctive and appealing, which is just as much a trademark of The Green Eyl’s approach.

For its creatives, things must fit together well, not just technologically or as an installation, but also in terms of look and feel. ’As a group we share a passion for technology and design,’ says co-founder Willy Sengewald. ’Thus our proposals often involve both aspects. In the process of developing ideas, we’ve realised that certain questions are recurring. The first and foremost, as a designer, is scrutinising the aesthetic potential of technology.’

So when the consultancy developed an installation for an exhibition about Charles Darwin last year at the Natural History Museum in Berlin, the pixelated touch consoles and fake artefacts tied to the counters were out of the question. Instead, it developed an exhibit where an authentic 1830s world map appears on a heavy oak table in the centre of a recreation of Darwin’s cabin on his ship, the Beagle. When visitors touch the map at any point on Darwin’s journey, they read an excerpt from his diary. Reducing it to something that feels real and Darwin’s actual words seemed a much more elegant solution.

’Being fed-up with unnecessary touch-screens and touch tables in exhibitions, we wanted the technology to be invisible and almost unrecognisable. So at first glance, all you could see is a table with an old world map, printed on paper. There was no projector above and no pixels the size of your fingernail,’ explains Sengewald.

Aside from Green and Sengewald, The Green Eyl’s other founders were Richard The and Frederic Eyl. The first commission came just two years ago, and the founders, each of whom previously studied an area of design or interactivity, began as a collective. Earlier this year they were joined by Dominik Schumacher.

With honorary mentions at Ars Electronica and a nomination for last year’s Brit Insurance Design of the Year awards, organised by London’s Design Museum, The Green Eyl’s ambition is to do more self-initiated work, and also to expand – The, for example, is currently setting up its New York studio.

Theo & Emily
When the Tate opened its Eadweard Muybridge exhibition not only did it invite people to see the influential photographer’s work – everything from cityscapes to observations of motion and anatomy – it also had a treat for iPhone users. An app was developed for the exhibition by interactive design duo Theo & Emily enabling users to create their own Muybridge-style animation. But instead of grainy, black and white images of a horse galloping, you can use pictures of your friends.

’The app starts off capturing a sequence of images of, say, your friend walking down the street, and lets you align the person in each frame and treat the images so it has a similar style to Muybridge’s work, like his famous horse sequence. Once you’ve made your sequence you can share it with your friends via e-mail or Flickr,’ explains Emily Gobeille, one half of Theo & Emily.

After working in design houses like Loyal Kaspar and Frog in New York, Gobeille teamed up with programming and audiovisual expert Theo Watson. The pair then moved to Amsterdam, and were signed as directors by Nexus Interactive Arts in London. ’The Netherlands is a pretty amazing place to be doing this sort of work,’ says Watson. ’They’re fluent in new media and there are quite a few arts organisations that are keen to sponsor new interactive experiences. One of the projects we were commissioned to create there was Funky Forest, an immersive interactive eco-system for children that allowed them to create trees with their body and then move water flowing across the floor to the trees to keep them alive.’

The pair are well known for their augmented reality cover for Boards Magazine, entitled Rise & Fall. Gobeille designed the front and back of the magazine and when readers went to a website and held the cover up to their webcams, they could manipulate characters and discover a world and navigate through a story, mainly by rising or falling. The back cover revealed a behind-the-scenes area about the creation of Rise & Fall – just what would interest the target reader.

Despite iPhone and augmented reality expertise, Theo & Emily sees the digital arena as just one facet of interactivity. ’A lot of the installation work we do is very driven by technology, but you never see the computer, you are never using a mouse. Instead, you are stomping with your feet, making trees with your arms or driving a giant vinyl record by running around in circles,’ says Gobeille.

Both the artists find inspiration in nature and the work of Charles and Ray Eames, but at the moment their ambition is to take interactivity to an architectural level. They want to create immersive, city-wide environments. ’We feel like we’ve only just begun with what is possible, so we’ll be doing a lot of experiments over the next year to prototype new types of interaction and experiences. Mainly we want to keep having fun and keep trying to bring the crazy ideas in our heads to life,’ concludes Watson.

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