Blurring the Physical And Digital: 6 Takeaways for Arts Mangers from the Insight of Two Microsoft HoloLens Designers

Earlier this Fall, James Tichenor and Joshua Walton, Design Architects for Microsoft HoloLens and Windows Holographic, lectured on “Blurring the Physical and Digital” as part of Carnegie Mellon University’s Design the Future Lecture Series. The lecture focused on a very close future where our physical world is as transmutable as our digital world thanks to the latest achievements in mixed reality. Designing projects based on mixed reality means being able to work across architecture, hardware and software to create interactive spaces in which individuals can experience virtual reality as a material element of the real environment.  These innovations may affect the arts directly, since expanding the physical space and fostering human interaction with the environment around us increase the ways artists can express ideas and organizations can widen artistic experiences and support active learning. Below, we are going to dive into the key takeaways arts managers should know about embracing the relationship between physical space and VR.

1. Virtual elements can empower the interaction between art and event attendees

During the lecture, the speakers presented several projects of interdisciplinary design developed while working in teams at the LAB, an interactive design studio within the Rockwell Group. Common ground to all collaborators were both the belief that space is extremely socially valuable and the desire to use technology as an effective medium between people and space by adding play components to the experience. The innovative approach of these young designers was turning technological elements into material elements in the physical space by giving them the appearance of bearing physical attributes. In so doing, virtual elements could really contribute to the quality of the space fostering communication between visitors and architecture.

2. Technology and computer interaction can provoke emotional reactions in the most surprising ways

One project that Joshua and James discussed was “Luminaries”, a public interactive lighting display which was located in the Winter Garden at Brookfield Place in Lower Manhattan shortly before Christmas 2015. Commissioned by Arts Brookfield, a series of 650 connected lanterns were displayed above the Winter Garden following its topography. Every hour lanterns inaugurated the coming holiday performing a choreographic light show inspired by natural phenomena. In addition, touch-sensitive square light stations invited visitors to play with them by making a wish for the new year. The lights would respond pulsing to the touch and all other connected lights of the canopy would also change colors in response to the touch, but with different intensities. The initiative successfully engaged visitors in the interaction with a public space through a highly emotional form of collaborative artistic creation. In the arts, everyone loves a good “element of surprise.” Incorporating the type of human-computer interaction displayed by “Luminaries” is a great way to do so.

3. Virtual reality can be leveraged to exhibit art in non-traditional spaces, such as a hotel lobby.

Is your arts organization looking for creative ways to market your exhibits or performances? Or maybe you are trying to find ways to make your inaccessible spaces or heavily sold-out performances available to a larger public? The Brookfield LAB’s project for the Cosmopolitan Hotel of Las Vegas  is a good example of using virtual reality to bring the art to the people, no matter where they may be. Around 400 medium-sized screens were installed in the west lobby of the hotel over walls and columns covering the entire hall. Software then generated images to make physical barriers disappear and create varying space in landscapes and dimensions. Falling leafs and snowflakes, blooming flowers and wandering soap bubbles, woods and lakes surrounded guests in an always changing, immersive environment. One video projection by choreographer Jerry Mitchell broadcasted  dancers designed to respond to customers’ movements. In this case, virtual reality allowed for the enjoyment of visual and performing arts in an unexpected venue, literally transforming guests’ experience from being hotel customers to being art attendees.

4. Arts Managers should look to their Education departments for unique virtual reality applications

The Rockwell Group has also collaborated with municipalities and museums for the creation of children’s playgrounds. In partnership with The National Building Museum of Washington D.C. the LAB recently designed “Play Work Build, an exhibition combining a presentation of the Museum's architectural toys collection, a hands-on block play area and an original interactive screen that allows visitors to fill an entire wall with virtual blocks. The projection is able to trace the shape of bodies on the walls and fill them in with virtual blocks, so that any movement causes the blocks to topple. This virtual implementation has thus sensibly enhanced visitors’ experiences, allowing children and their families to please their imaginations and unleash their excitement by building and destroying large-scale structures in the safest way. How can this apply to the arts at large? Museums can use virtual reality to transport guests to different time periods and theaters can use it to assimilate audiences in the “world of the play.” The possibilities are endless.

 5. Arts managers should be aware of HoloLens, which is going to open up new ways of planning, curating and administering through a more effective interaction among collaborators

 A great part of James and Joshua’s talk focused on HoloLens, a recent announcement by Microsoft. The HoloLens is basically a pair of glasses with a screen based on interactive holograms featuring 3D objects that can be manipulated with gestures such as pointing, waving and pinching, as well as voice commands. The system relies on a headset that can also read head and eye movements, blending real objects with virtual ones within the display. The device allows complete freedom of movement while projecting holograms in physical locations.  As members of the team responsible for making HoloLens a reality, James and Joshua described the innovation as a great communication facilitator that will enable us to hear and interact with people and digital objects at the same time. This idea can be groundbreaking for arts management. Arts organizations can use HoloLens to incorporate technology into their planning process, facilitating cooperation and enhancing productivity. For example, while setting of a performing show, the artistic director and the scenographer could examine the scenic design directly in the physical space of the theater by wearing the lens. Moreover, setting art exhibitions may be easier with the use of an interface allowing curators to discuss projects by having art vividly displayed on the gallery’s walls in digital form.

 6. We must work towards a future where technology supports socialization, not isolation, in the arts

James and Joshua were both very optimistic about the future possibilities virtual technology is going to afford not only for creative purposes, but also for the world at large. Such developments will likely enable artists to experiment new forms of artistic creation, but they may also empower audiences to interact with art personally but not permanently. The process of learning will become more engaging: we may soon live in a world where live animations jump out from a painting’s frame, and holograms will provide live reenactments at historical sites. Hopefully, as Joshua pointed out at the end of the talk, society will choose to avoid scenarios where everyone is isolated in his/her favorite virtual reality with imaginary creatures, and instead prefer a blend of technology with real human interaction. When this day comes, arts managers around the world will better able to support virtual technology and live, in-person art experiences living together in harmony.

About The Lecturers

James Tichenor graduated from NJIT with a Bachelor of Architecture in 1999. He is an alumni of the Institute of Interaction Design Ivrea and MIT, where he got two Masters in Design. Before transitioning to Microsoft to work on the team developing HoloLens, James co-founded the LAB at the Rockwell Group. The LAB created a number of custom interactive spaces for clients such as Google, Intel and The Cosmopolitan Casino.  

Joshua Walton, with an academic background at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design and at the Cranbrook Academy of Art , was co-founder of LAB. His early works focused on design and computation, culminating in the entry installation for the 2008 Venice Biennale. He is now employed at Microsoft for the development of HoloLens. Both James and Joshua are young sharing lovers highly engaged in teaching and workshops.