It is an amazing system that has produced stunning results for a variety of installations both temporary and permanent while without fail catching people by surprise with its organic, mesmerizing movement.
In early 2013 TouchDesigner was brought into the Kinetic Lights ecosystem to provide an environment for show creation and to control movement and lights. We started a conversation with Christopher Bauder shortly thereafter which after almost 3 years to the day is at last ready to share! It’s a marathon of an interview which had to be put on hold several times due to Kinetic Lights’ success and the ensuing demand it ignited all over the world. We’d like to thank Mr. Bauder for spending so much time answering our questions and sharing his wealth of insight and experience and trust our readers will enjoy!
Derivative: Looking back through your succesion of work what stands out is a defiance of constraints - spatially, dimensionally, by medium, movement, forms, and certainly by scale and complexity! You don't like flat or 'box' anything! You design and produce complete systems that seem to live unhinged (well technically not quite!) in environments-at-large. (System defined as: (1.) a set of connected things or parts forming a complex whole, in particular; systems as (2.) a set of things working together as parts of a mechanism or an interconnecting network; and (3.) systems as a way of thinking that is based on a big idea?)
Christopher Bauder: Yes, I like that! Describes pretty well what I love and what I am after!
D: Can you tell us a bit about your background then, how you came to realize this and do what you do?
CB: I studied "Visual Communication" at the University of the Arts in Berlin, Germany. I was specialising in "media design" and the newly emerging "interaction design". It was all 2D screen design at the time and I always imagined that there should be something more to interact with than a screen, mouse and keyboard. Everything felt so flat and unemotional.
One semester we were given the task to use an everyday household item and extend it with a digital function. I chose an ordinary stepladder and used some sensors and midi connection to turn it into a musical instrument. When hardware and software finally came together and I triggered my samples on the computer, I was thrilled by the newly found option to hook up stuff to a computer as alternative input or output device. We even performed as a kind of band with several so called ToneLadders and toured extensively for two years all over Europe from media festival to media festival.
Since then I am always trying to question and reinvent the principles of how we interact with computers and how computer generated information can be displayed outside the computer in our physical world.
D: How did your interest in designing systems vs. singular objects develop? Movement, light, organization, tools that allow you to make noise and express yourself too...
CB: In the beginning I tried to do everything by myself. I programmed the software, soldered the circuit boards, built the hardware. For the first version of the "ATOM" installation/performance I worked alone in my model shop for 6 months --16 hours a day not knowing if I will ever finish drilling those thousands of holes, soldering those ten thousand connections. After this experience I realized I needed help from a team and that I wanted to design and build systems that are larger than what one person can handle.
I was always fascinated by arrays of things like swarms, herds, automated assembly lines, lots of small units working together as a unity. To design and build one module of a system seems doable and simple, but once you multiply the modules the workload, costs and complexity explode.
Apart from arrays I like hybrid structures that combine different aspects or crafts. For example building a physical structure and then overlaying a digital skin and implement some sensors to allow the arrangement to detect its surrounding. I am also not much of a talker so I try to express my thoughts, ideas and feelings through systems, structures and of course lots of light.
The Evoution of the Kinetic Lights System
D: Well Kinetic Lights is certainly a very eloquent expression of your ideas and feelings! Could you tell us how it came to be… the idea/concept and then the process, development, testing etc.
CB: I had the initial idea for the Kinetic Lights system in 2001 while studying a semester abroad at the School of the Arts Institute in Chicago. I was taking the virtual reality class of composer and VR artist Insook Choi and experimented with the displacement mapping principle in a realtime 3D environment. I used an array of virtual spheres attached to an invisible plane modulated by a displacement mapping. I wanted to transfer this principle into real space. My idea was to do this with a large array of evenly distributed suspended spheres.
When I returned home to Berlin I started working on various options to realize this dream. The first installation was using an 8x8 array of helium filled tethered balloons reeled in and out by a computer controlled winch system that I developed. I perfected this system over the years with new generations of improved winches ultimately resulting in the first version of the hanging "Kinetic Lights" winch system in 2007.
The modular Kinetic Lights System has since then been used to create a variety of installations including temporary and permanent projects. We used the system for a lot of events and trade fair installations mainly for large corporations or brands like Vodafone or Volkswagen. But we also created live performances with electronic music like the GRID show, that we performed at lighting festivals together with musician and composer Robert Henke aka Monolake. We also do more and more permanent Kinetic Lights installation for restaurants and shops, the latest ones just opened in Dubai and Milan.
The new "Kinetic Lights" product lifts up to 3kg at various speeds and features full color RGB LED control at the end of the lifting cable. Each winch is individually addressable via DMX for dynamically controlled cable acceleration and speed control. The latest winch generation is also equipped with an auto setup function with cable end position self-detection and real-time feedback communication. The winch technology has been patented internationally (in 2014).
The Vodafone stand at the CeBIT 2014 features a monumental light installation composed of 450 static Rod lights arranged with our new Space Frame system and powered by Driver LED controllers. The complex 3D structure was complimented by 80 kinetic Triangle rods.
Design and Development of the KL_Control 2.0 Application with TouchDesigner
Markus Heckmann: The Kinetic Lights application is an ongoing development for WHITEvoid with the goal of creating a tool that is dynamic enough to adapt to the ever-changing deployments of the Kinetic Lights winch system at trade shows, art exhibits and cultural events.
Included in the system is a Layout Creator, a Show Creator and a Show Player. Starting with the Layout section, the user creates new shows and layouts choosing from a range of available Kinetic Lights attachments. These attachments can be single winch lights but also include dual winch rods, triple winch triangles and also triple winch Philips OLED Kites. Depending on what attachment or combination of attachments is chosen, the software adapts how the winches are controlled and monitored.
With the layout set up and tested the designer can proceed to program the show by utilizing an array of preconfigured but adjustable light and motion patterns. Custom settings of these can be saved in presets and arranged in playlists. While the collection of default patterns fit the needs of many purposes, the system is designed to enable any TouchDesigner operator to create show-specific components that conform with certain requirements or particular layouts. Each pattern is created of the same base template and can be developed without full understanding of the complete surrounding system.
Motion and Light modules alike are built on similar image-based systems using animated textures and complete rendered scenes as sources. Additionally a custom module lets the user define groups and assign specific light patterns or movement to the groups separately.
With a full realtime preview of the installation, the designer can create and playback shows offline before deploying them also giving interested parties the chance to influence the design process before first seeing it on-site.
A lot of work has been put towards the user interface and perhaps this is also the main point of further development. Surely the backend of Kinetic Lights has a certain complexity but a real challenge is to create a user interface that can be operated and adjusted to customer needs by non-TouchDesigner natives - which is the reality of such touring systems.
Early on the design choice was made to strictly differentiate between the Kinetic Lights backend, motion and light modules as well as the frontend. The encapsulated design makes it easier to keep evolving the application using newly introduced TouchDesigner features such as Extensions and Custom Parameters.
The modularity of the system also proved beneficial when being faced with the demand to not only control moving elements but also choreograph complex physical light structures which had to be animated in full synchronicity with the winches, as seen in the Space Frame installation for Vodafone.
While a range of shows work on playlists and only require to be monitored, the system includes the possibility to hand over control to outside sources via OSC enabling Kinetic Light installations to be entirely driven in a live performance setting such as Christopher Bauder and Robert Henke's GRID performance in Basel and Lyon.
Benefits of Visual Development Environments, Intuitive Design and Human Behavior
D: How did you come to know of TouchDesigner?
CB: I followed the development of TouchDesigner from a very early stage on since I was always interested in real-time 3D especially to VJ live visuals alongside electronic music. Some years later Markus Heckmann of Derivative visited us in Berlin to present the latest version of TouchDesigner and I was thrilled to see how much it had evolved in terms of usability, performance and also the whole look and feel of the graphical user interface.
D: Where do you see the main benefits of using a visual development environment in comparison to building your projects in a programming language?
CB: TouchDesigner is initially easy to learn as a prototyping environment with intuitive graphical user interface and stunning real-time 3D capabilities. But once you get into it you realize the endless possibilities to not just prototype but also finalize applications within the framework. The limit is just PC processing power and the will to learn and understand the features in depth.
The complete realtime approach gives 100% control over every bit of the application at any time in the process of creation. From the actual user interface elements with previews of every component executed in the framework up to the final output. This is very unique as other software prototyping environments are either not realtime (you need to compile before seeing any results) or have a very minimalistic or even geeky GUI approach. The support of the various 2D, 3D, video, graphics and generative approaches inside TouchDesigner allows you to use it as a universal tool to create any imaginable kind of application.
D: You've produced a lot of interactive and location/environment-based work - what has that told you about human behavior and how we learn, interact, adapt?
CB: I learned that for all our installations, software and systems to be controlled by strangers one common thing applies: They have to work without any explanation! This means that people generally like to try, explore, fail, learn, try again... but do rather not want to read instructions first. So we are always trying to keep our menu structures and hierarchies as flat as possible and design the graphical user interface minimalistic and simple.
This does not mean that we are not constantly thinking about design and style improvements, but never at the cost of intuitive understandability of the final application. People are only open to new interaction principles if they appear to be more simple and better understandable than the ones they already know. This drives us to always push the boundaries and try out new things to solve a common problem. The existing solutions that everyone uses are not necessarily the best ones.
Speaking of ... I am typing this with 2.5 fingers on a 10 finger keyboard. I never took the time and effort to learn to use it right and intuitively used it just does not work as it is supposed to.
DigiStage, Polygon Playground and Video Objects
D: 'digiStage – digital theater stage lighting system' was quite ahead of its time! How did you go about designing, testing and implementing? What was the experience and how was TouchDesigner used in this project?
CB: The digiStage system was initially commissioned for the theater play "Fanny and Alexander". The piece inspired by Ingmar Bergman's movie premiered at the Central Theater in Leipzig, Germany. We designed a projector based digital lighting system with integrated depth camera tracking to pixel map the whole stage area of about 120m2. This included a large scale Neo Rauch painting as a backdrop.
Since the theatre play used a flexible scene order, we enabled the lighting designer to select or deselect actors on the fly via a touchscreen-based remote control interface with a simple graphical user interface. This allows to make the actors active or inactive as triggers or actuators for digital light and shadow effects and generative visuals while the play was running. Multiple effects could be assigned to individual actors in almost infinite combinations.
Additionally virtual "light agents" were autonomously interacting with the real actors on stage. The main challenge was the spontaneous nature of this particular theatre play. It did not follow a written script and the order of scenes and the dialogues changed and evolved every evening.
TouchDesigner gave us the possibility to react quite fast to general changes during rehearsals and adapt individual effects on the fly depending on the directors input. Later on we transferred this flexibility to the GUI for the lighting designer, so variables for the effects could still be changed and refined with every new instalment of the play within a defined range.
Polygon Playground (2008)
CB: With the Polygon Playground we tried to push the idea of transfer from digital to physical even further. We created a 3D polygon model and then built it as a large scale solid physical object. Then we projected the virtual 3D model back onto its physical representation with 3 video projectors. We used an identical twin setup of object, camera and projector in virtual and real space to match the surfaces almost automatically with just a few clicks to realign both worlds in the end. An IR camera tracking system detects human interaction with both the physical and virtual object surface at the same time. This allows us to modify the projection mapping in realtime and with natural movements and gestures. We exhibited the Polygon Playground in various shows in different sizes and shapes. We also installed a permanent incarnation at the Daegu Science Center in Korea.
Video Objects (2005)
CB: VideoObjects was the result of further investigating the options to liberate video from the flat rectangular projection it was trapped in. I wanted to bring video and 3D content into physical space and onto any kind of surface like a real-life mapping. I was again inspired by the capabilities of 3D softwares and tried to transfer their digital properties to the real world. We programmed a simple software that allowed us to perspectively pre-distort and mask videos and images to map them onto any spacial arrangement or objects. Other functions allowed us to use a photo of the environment that was taken from the projector’s perspective to match the virtual to the real world with just a couple of clicks. This whole process is now known as projection-mapping and is commonplace in today’s media installations. Our software never made it out of prototype state but helped us to develop a good understanding for our following reactive real-time 3D mapping projects and experiments like the Polygon Playground or the DigiStage. TouchDesigner’s KantanMapper or MadMapper are now beautiful examples of thoughtfully created and easy to use yet powerful 2,5D mapping applications.
The Future: It's Already Here!
D: Where are we heading? What future do you envision and the role you'd like to play?
CB: I think actually we are not heading towards the future any more, it's already here! All things I have dreamt of doing as a student in terms of interactivity and integration of real and virtual world are possible and happening right now. The integration of software and our physical environment feels completely natural. Self driving cars are starting to roam the streets. Display resolutions are surpassing the resolution of our eyes, finally providing compelling virtual reality experiences. No need to complain about processing power any more, it's more than enough to achieve whatever I can dream of.
I feel free and limitless to design and develop as much and as far as I can imagine. I am just waiting for the one machine to stretch time, so I can realize all those ideas before I have to check out in the end anyhow ;-)
D: Any thoughts on open or evolving systems - one example being that upgrading software embedded in any product or system can give that system 'new legs'... new capabilities/extended life-cycle.
CB: I know it was always a human dream to create modular, adapting, evolving and ever growing systems. Similar to our own development in life and as a species. But so far in my own experience it is only possible to upgrade, modify and adjust a system for a certain amount of time until it is finally outdated. Every system has a core, mainframe, brain, leader... If this central unit grows old, deteriorates, stops evolving, the complete system becomes weak and unstable.
Technology in general and especially software applications become more flexible and extendable. But later developments will always need more power, more throughput, more connections, more of everything, making them at some point incompatible with older hardware components.
Software at the core of a system is also not always a blessing. Take my car as an example, I can chip tune it to go faster without changing or modifying the actual drive unit. But at the same time most of the break-downs and repair costs are generated by its failing sensors, electronics and data processing units not the motor itself. Also the built-in adapter for a cellphone that was state of the art when my car was produced is now a sad reminder of how fast technology is evolving.
I believe in constant change and evolution for the greater good of mankind. But so far this was achieved in steps and radical changes or additions from time to time. Nevertheless the connectivity of the internet and cloud based services already give a glimpse of what will be possible in terms of growing and evolving software based systems in the very near future.
D: As a designer, a person, a teacher-- do you have any advice for the youth of today embarking on the course of their education and lives?
CB: Go out there and realize your ideas. Ideas you can have a million, but what counts is the few you make really work and last. As a job find out what you truly like and only do that, this will be most successful. I know, this is easy said and unbelievably hard to do. But it is worth trying even if it takes years to get there. I am still trying and still not there, but getting closer every day ;-)
D: Again, a huge thank you to Christopher for sharing such meaningful insights, we hope our readers are as inspired as we are! We'd like to mention that Christopher's new show with Robert Henke Deep Web will be premiering at CTM Festival in Berlin and run from the 2nd to the 7th of February at Kraftwerk. There will be winches, movement, orbs of light and lasers... and of course beautiful sound! Check it out!
Last note: WHITEvoid is hiring a TouchDesigner Developer and this is a superb oportunity!