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Skipping through the field of virtual daisies

I completely fell in love with these two pieces of work a while back. They were on show at a trendy event in Manhattan and somehow inspired even the most uppity of hipsters to run around and make fools of themselves. The projected lights in both pieces react to the presence of a human being ?so the flowers “disappear” or “grow back”, while the audio of the Daft Punk record — and the “spinning” of the record — is controlled by a person’s movement. In other words, you could destroy a field of flowers (for a moment) or act as your own DJ, slowing down the music or speeding it up simply by running around in a circle. A version whereby users can scratch records is on its way, though I can’t even imagine how that’s possible.

I caught up with the creator of these two pieces, Theo Watson, who’s a creative based in Amsterdam in order to grill him about how the hell these installations work.

So. Huh? What on earth is going on? How have you done this?

Basically they both use a similar technique. A camera attached to the ceiling is sending video of the installation area below to a computer.

This gives the computer a bird's eye view of the installation. The computer then processes the image to see where people are standing and then uses that to effect the installation. In the case of Daisies it simply 'kills' the flowers where the person is standing, but with Vinyl Workout it actually tracks the movement of each person and then adds it all together to create a net speed at which the record should turn. This means for example that if someone was running in one direction and then another person ran in the opposite direction they could cancel out each other and bring the record to a stop.

Let's take the projects separately. What was the design process and thinking behind Daisies?Daisies was originally a small project for a computer vision class run by Zachary Lieberman at Parsons School of Design. Our department was on the 10th floor and so that made for a lot of waiting for the elevator. I thought it would be nice to make an interactive patch of flowers to go by the entrance to the elevator that people could play with while they were waiting. It also meant that people getting off the elevator would have to walk through the flowers. It ended up being very successful, people would get off the elevator just to play with it and then get back on and go to their floor.

And Vinyl Workout?Vinyl Workout was a project I designed specifically for the Rotterdam Electronic Music Festival (REMF). Rotterdam has a strong heritage for electronic and dance music and I thought for this festival it would be nice to emphasise this connection between movement and music that is slowly being lost as DJs move away from records to more digital media. It actually works with any song (you just need the image of the vinyl and the music) but considering the way you play with it, Daft Punk's 'Around the world' seemed like the perfect song to debut this project with. Scratching should come soon. It is actually much harder than it seems but it is definitely possible. I am also excited about the idea of a record installation where people have to work together to mix the records with their movement.

What future applications do you see for projects like this?

I would like to see pieces like Daisies as permanent installations in large buildings. I think it is important to integrate dynamic systems into architecture to remind people to have fun and stay curious. I also think it is important that people feel like they can have an effect on the space around them and it is not just blocks of looming, static, concrete.

Having worked on installations for the likes of genius director, Michel Gondry, Watson's currently working with his former Parsons tutor, Zachary Lieberman, and they're shortly to release a free opensource toolkit for writing creative code. Given how undeniably effective and powerful these two projects are, Watson's optimism -- "it is definitely something we think others will find useful too!" seems to be well-placed.

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