Company Post

Tokyo-based Collective nor's Dyebirth Ponders "What is Life?"

It is our great pleasure to feature the project "dyebirth" from the playfully explorative and technically far-ranging creative label nor

Made up of Japanese artists of diverse backgrounds - architects, designers, musicians, engineers, and so on, nor create's installations and products using hardware and software integration with the purpose of "trying to understand undefined areas and to create new values through this approach." Their motivation is to create interesting things never seen before that also cross over each member's area of speciality.  

The prolific Shuhei Matsuyama who has been one of the driving forces behind TouchDesigner's adoption in Japan handles all things TouchDesigner for nor.

nor members, in image above, from left to right: Architect / Experience Designer: Kazuhiro Itagaki; Sound Designer: Yui Onodera; Planner / Conceptor: Makoto Fukuchi; Producer: Shigeyoshi Hayashi; Software Engineer: Shuhei Matsuyama; Designer: Satoshi Kawamata; Hardware Engineer: Satoshi Nakane

"nor" describes their work process as a "conversation that is very strange' compared to the way things typically work in project development. Shuhei Matsuyama expands: "We don't decide on the final image and plan before starting the work. We start by discussing many ideas (vs. one idea) and also start to make some prototypes. We approach this prototyping stage to confirm the core of what is most interesting, asking ourselves ""where is the interesting point?""

"Making prototypes early in the ideation process accelerates discussion and decision-making and for this we find TouchDesigner to be very effective. I can make original software for prototypes very quickly. It is also easy to add new functions and improve upon prototypes using with TouchDesigner."

"Our making style is just like "conversation". When someone suggests a new idea, I start to Implement it quickly and just a few minutes later we can review the new idea and its functions. This process is repeated until the design is close to complete."


Asking the question "what is life" the installation 'dyebirth continually creates organic patterns through digitally controlled physical phenomena produced by a mixture of water, ink and chemical substances. Systematic digital control driven by the unpredictable natural phenomenon of the Game of Life algorithm create various "dye cycles" ink patterns that transit from nascent and pure high chroma to the most sepid blackest blacks. It's intentional. nor's hypothesis here is that everything is born lives and dies... or dyes.

The hardware and software running the installation are relatively simple but also sublime systems in terms of functionality and efficiency. A plotter runs on a system of tracks controlled by 3 Arduinos getting instructions from TouchDesigner to deposit a colour of ink in a certain plotted coordinate determined by the Game of Life algorithm. One increment at a time, over and over again. The ink deposits are born in splotches of pure chroma that finger and dissipate into coagulations that inevitably lead to black... end of cycle.

System Configuration

The installation's appearance is designed to allude to "Birth, Dye, and Death". The ink tank and dropping unit express the metaphor of life-producing systems with the dynamical arrangement of ink tank and tubes coming from the tank. The pallet where the inks are intricately mixed and the liquid waste unit where the mixed inks turn black (dead) are central to dyebirth's expressing the beauty and fragility of life.

The dropping unit moves to the position determined by the Game of Life algorithm of the main computer, dropping inks onto the pallet filled with an aqueous solution of sodium polyacrylate. The Game of Life progresses gradually at every drop, and the next position is automatically calculated. This sequence is repeated continuously, autonomously dropping ink onto the pallet.

The ink mixture forms intricate patterns caused by various reactions like "fingering" and the "Marangoni Effect". When the dropping amount exceeds the allowable amount of pallet, the excesses flow out to the waste liquid unit. Waste liquids which produced by mixing the various inks are accumulated as a black liquid.

Image above: Ink tank and Solenoid Valve Unit: Each ink tank is filled with 11 kinds of liquids, 5 water- based inks, 4 oil-based inks, surfactant and lotion. Vinyl tubes from the ink tanks are connected to the solenoid valve unit. The dropping unit has rails with a range of 3m in length and 0.35m in height; it is possible to move the dropping unit separately to the 2 axes of x and y. The pallet consists of 2 elements, a screen (convex part) where the ink drops form "pictures" and a groove (concave part) where overflow waste liquid flows out of the system.

Above: Control Circuit controls rails and drives solenoid valves. 

Above: 3 Arduinos drive the vertical and horizontal rails and the solenoid valves. Arduino are connected to a LAN router through Ethernet Shield, and receive instructions from the main computer via the network. All circuits are housed in one case and placed under the dropping unit.


Above: Solenoid Valve Unit and Dropping Unit. Ink dropping is controlled by the opening/closing of solenoid valves. Controlling the time of opening/closing solenoid valve controls the amount of ink dropped. The solenoid valve unit is designed so as to compactly integrate a total of 11 solenoid valves. Tubes from ink tanks connect to the solenoid valves. 

Above: Tubes from the solenoid valve unit are connected to the dropping unit on the rail. The dropping unit is designed to enhance the mobility and draw a beautiful parabola by bundling the tubes in a circular shape.

Software System

All processes such as the determination of dripping position, hardware control etc. are made with TouchDesigner running on the main computer. Instructions are sent to the control circuit via a network to control the dyebirth system. Each piece of equipment is controlled by OSC (OpenSound Control, communication protocol) via the network and dyebirth can be controlled either wireless or hard-wired.

Calibration function for auto-zero at startup and automatic recalibration function when the end sensor reacts are also implemented. The dyebith system is implemented with OSC and callback function. Indicated values are sent to each Arduino by OSC out CHOP, and then Arduino sends back the completion flag to TouchDesigner when it has completed the operation.

TouchDesigner processes the received value using an OSC In DAT with callback and moves to the next step operation when the completion of one sequence - the moving of the rail and ink dropping - is recognized. By repeating this sequence, inks are dropped autonomously.

The user interface for operating the system is able to operate various settings manually such as:

  • Switching between auto mode and manual mode
  • Adjustment of moving speed of rails
  • Recalibration of rails
  • Setting of dropping amount of each inks

In addition, the manual operation system for efficient experiments is enriched as follows:

  • Transfer to an arbitrary position using the X and Y sliders;
  • Optional dripping of each ink; and
  • Full opening function when discharging ink from the ink tank

Dropping Algorithm Uses the Game of Life

"The Game of Life, invented in 1970 by the British mathematician John Horton Conway, is a discrete mathematical model that reproduces processes such as the birth of life, evolution and selection by simple processes. This is also the most well-known example of cell automaton, and has the population ecological aspect in organism population as background from the pattern change with simple rules."

In this work, the Game of Life algorithm is implemented with TouchDesigner in accordance to the actual pallet size. The detection of population characteristics from the result of the Game of Life is expressed as "image" by the autonomous dropping of inks to the most activated area at every step.

Python and NumPy are implemented in the Game of Life. Dropping position and color are determined by advancing one step of the Game of Life with each ink drop and taking out the features from the output image as a top image.

Once the completion flag of ink dropping is received, CHOP Execute DAT drives, the script works, and the Game of Life advances one step. By repeating this sequence, inks are dropped autonomously.

The Game of Life is implemented by a Python script in the CHOP Execute DAT. Each time ink drops, the Game of Life also move forward one step.The Game of Life result is output as a TOP image. Analyzing this TOP image determines the drop position and ink color.

We would like to thank nor and Shuhei Matsuyama-san for talking to us about their work. To our readers, there is very much more to learn about these proliferant artists/technologist/scientists at and . Enjoy!

Team Info

Planner / Conceptor: Makoto Fukuchi

Hardware Engineer: Satoshi Nakane

Software Engineer: Shuhei Matsuyama

Sound Designer: Yui Onodera

Architect / Experience Designer: Kazuhiro Itagaki

Designer: Satoshi Kawamata

Scientist: Mafumi Hishida

Producer: Shigeyoshi Hayashi

Award / Exhibition

Roppongi Art Night 2017

dotfes 2017

Media Ambition Tokyo 2018