Company Post

USC Students Drive Interactive Installation Psithaura with Breath and Cooperation

"The natural world is burning. Psithaura is a ritualized experience inspiring reflection on our relationship to nature. It asks how we frame nature in the current geological age where human activity has been the dominant influence on the environment. Through collaborative gestural participation the installation awakens, transforming the gallery into a communal meditative space. Breath and C02 manipulate the visuals in real-time, producing direct feedback about the current state of this relationship."
- Evan Tedlock

Psithaura (sith-ora) is a sophisticated and impactful interactive installation directed by Evan Tedlock for his graduate exhibition at The University of Southern California (USC). Tedlock was joined by Keshav Prasad, who handled the Interaction Design and Engineering, to realize Psithaura as their first project with TouchDesigner.

Using a Kinect, wind speed sensors, a CO2 sensor and LED rings, the installation adroitly uses human breath as the basis and "data" of an interactive system in which people can feel their effect on an environment in a visceral way. Evan Tedlock and Keshav Prasad tell us more about their incentives and the making of the work below.

Pictured above, each of the 4 movements have dedicated containers that switch to 2x2 resolution when not active for optimal framerates.


How it Works

Psithaura requires from three to seven participants at a time, no more and more importantly no less. From the very beginning, viewers are faced with a challenge that they can only overcome by working together. A mounted Kinect can detect when this goal is achieved and initializes the twelve-minute show to start.

Participants then move into the center of the circle of trees and are instructed to 'breathe into pods' which house small wind speed sensors and LED rings. The primary mode of viewer interaction is breathing, symbolizing the symbiotic relationship we have with our floral friends. Our CO2 becomes a resource for the plants which they process into the oxygen that fills our lungs.

Each of the three pods controls different visual elements, their own discrete LEDs, and specific scored sound effects. The highest pod effects image distortion like twisting, turbulence, and noise. The middle pod generates the emanating rings. The lowest pod controls the various rotation effects. Additionally, when the viewers breathe together, these effects are amplified.

There is also a CO2 sensor hidden in the central plant which monitors parts per million and controls the color of the animated visuals with the logic, baseline equals blue, equilibrium equals green, and oversaturation equals red. All of these sensors are connected to a single OSC board which communicates with our two computers via a wireless ad-hoc network. From there it was a simple matter of using the OSC in CHOP and parsing out the data.

Cool temperatures, dark lighting, a scented oil diffuser, and an arrangement of 35 plants (as per the image above) creates a space within a space to complete the immersive effect. The content is rendered as a 1920x1920 square with a circular vignette, divided down the middle, and output to two projectors.

Derivative: The entire concept and realization of Psithaura is quite intimate. Can you tell us a bit about the development - how you came to Psithaura as a way of addressing CO2 and human impact on the environment and nature (though technically we are part of nature and not removed from it! so I don't mean in this phrasing to make that separation!)

Evan Tedlock: Initially I knew I wanted the project to approach the subject of humans and nature but we quickly realized that the current narratives surrounding this subject often result in echo chambers and are not effective at reaching new audiences. So instead of relying on statistics and factoids to dominate the narrative we created an interactive system in which people can feel their effect on an environment. Your final comment there is exactly what we are attempting to instill in the viewer, a kinship to nature. Without getting into all of our philosophy, we see our current ecological crisis as a result of a skewed perspective of nature. One that views it as a resource as opposed to a coexistent entity.

D: Is it possible to explain a bit further how the wonderful interaction was developed and how it works?

Kesha Prasad: Beginning with the concept of the carbon cycle ("they breathe out / we breathe in") we believed breathing into the trees would not only be a novel interaction paradigm, but also one metaphorically consistent with the themes of interdependence between society and nature. Moreover, the latin word "anima" means soul or breath of life. We felt it would be fitting for an animation thesis to be driven by the animus of the audience. Finally, the audience's breathing, while bringing the installation to life, also fills the space with increasing amounts of CO2. Although they bring the trees to life with their breathing, they also can overwhelm the space if they breath too often, forcing the audience to reflect on how much to breathe, how much to engage in a technological relationship with the natural, and how often to stop and contemplate.

Pictured above, 3 Rev. C wind sensors, 3 NeoPixel rings, and 1 K30 10,000ppm Sensor Module run off of a single x-OSC board.


D: How does the system measuring the CO2 levels work? / how can the system tell if there are people around or not?

ET: The CO2 levels are monitored by an analog K30 10,000ppm Sensor Module which takes measurements about every 3 seconds. Before the show opens, we test the air without people in the space to find a baseline value. From there we filter the data and assign it to color values. As people enter the space and begin to interact with the piece, the CO2 levels move around and create a subtle shift in color. With low levels of CO2 the colors are cold and blue, with balanced levels of CO2 the colors are lush and green, and with high levels of CO2 the colors are warm and red. This represents the atmospheric effect of CO2 levels.

D: The connection between living trees as well is very interesting. Have you thought of recreating the experience in an actual forest?

ET: While a natural landscape would be an great location for this project it would fundamentally change the symbolic impact. Putting live trees in a gallery space provokes a response. By utilizing the gallery context, a tree means something different than in a natural forest. Our goal is to recontextualize the way that people view nature and so we have altered the context in which they traditionally encounter trees.

D: Have you been able to use TouchDesigner in any of your other courses at USC?

KP: We both had an opportunity to work on small projects for Kathy Smith's Contemporary Animation Topics Class focusing on Animation, Dreams and Consciousness. This class allowed us to use any software platform we desired to convey weekly "dream postcards". This was a great opportunity to use TouchDesigner to explore non-traditional modes of animation art, play with experimental time structures, and manipulate data in order to generate innovative new audiovisual aesthetics.

ET: As a teaching assistant, I had the opportunity to introduce TouchDesigner in Lisa Mann's Master Class, Media Based Installation. The final projects were made in conjunction with the Asia Pacific Museum in Pasadena. There was also a phenomenal workshop, setup by Michael Patterson, with Jarrett Smith on the basics of TouchDesigner.

D: Was this your first project using TouchDesigner? What has the experience of working with the software been for you? Does it enable anything new or make things easier or more 'achievable' on any level? Does it give you new ideas?

KP: This was my first project using TouchDesigner, but I have worked with AfterEffects, Unity, and Max/MSP beforehand, so compositing, procedural art, and node-based programming were not new to me. On the other hand, I had never worked with a program in which each stage of the data-flow process could be visualized in an individual node. Seeing how the flow of data modified the image in real-time in a development environment that was always compiling afforded me opportunities to conceive of data through new visual metaphors, and to iterate and experiment in ways I had never considered before. I had also never been able to move from analog, to digital, to openGL, to post-processing so seamlessly in a single development environment.

ET: This was my first project using TouchDesigner as well, though I have had extensive experience with other software packages that allowed me to enter at a capable level. Working with TouchDesigner was like a breath of fresh air. The ability to quickly iterate and problem solve opened up a whole new way of working for me. The flexibility of data and the ability to see each step of the chain is a game changer for my process.

D: What next?!

ET: Psithaura still has a long road to travel as we are looking to exhibit it and share its message around the world. TouchDesigner is now a part of my digital art tool kit and I look forward to exploring more hidden narratives of data and its effect on the human condition.

KP: Love the ease of integrating data from all sorts of sensors combined with the ability to work with display systems as varied as VR and projection mapping on complex surfaces. This will be a wonderful tool for exploring mixed reality, speculative futures of ubiquitous computing, and interactive art about jellyfish.


Director: Evan Tedlock

Interactive Designer and Engineer: Keshav Prasad

Composer: Jaco Wong

Sound Designers: NoctVRnal