Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Light Collective: An Interview with the Creators of the Otis Under Sky Light Art Project

The Light Collective: Illuminating the World’s Connections

(Full Interview by Treetrunkwise)

Austin independent film, Otis Under Sky, has not only captured the attention of the SXSW Film festival, it also has the SXSW Interactive community buzzing. The film features a light sculpture that represents the collective consciousness and connections between people. 

The sculpture is made up of thousands of optical fibers and electroluminescent wire, whose light patterns are controlled in real-time by an Arduino connected to social networks. Sound like a mouthful? Otis Under Sky creator and director, Anlo Sepulveda, interactive designer, Per Nilsson, and custom software creator, Andrew Duhan, enlighten us.

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TTW: Where did the idea come from and does this thing have a name? A working title?

Anlo: It is an interactive light sculpture the people behind it are called the Light Collective. Originally Otis was going to film and post on the internet a fake act of self-emilation (setting yourself alight) to call attention to war and suffering. I decided to go with a less dramatic and a more peaceable way to reflect positive energy into the world. My friend Paul Collins is a conceptual designer so I discussed the Interactive light project with him. We decided it should reflect positive energy by having a website where users could physically click the page to effect the light project. Then I met Per Nilson, an interactive designer, and I had no idea how to make this concept, and Per was able to take the idea and make this reality of it. The more we worked with it, the more we learned to manipulate it. Now it is capable of having different data streams reflected in the sculpture.

TTW: Who were the main people in the think tank for this project?

Anlo: Paul and I birthed the idea and he developed a simple web-based design. I met Per Nilson and his wife Rachael at a music festival and Rachael said “Yeah you should talk to my husband and Per said, ”Yeah I know how to do that.” Andrew Duhan came on board as the technical designer to develop the functionality hardware, and all of them together will develop the algorithms and use their electronic wizardry to make the project glow. There were a lot of people instrumental in helping with the workload, like Johnny Villareal and Corey Sepulveda who helped assemble the physical project. Sean Gaulager from the Co-lab gave us some perspective on showing the installation and allowed us to use the Co-lab for our first art exhibition.

TTW: Without giving anything away, can you talk about the piece from the main character's point of view? Does Otis change the project from its original intent?

Anlo: Otis wants to build a reflection of the positive energy that lives in the digital realm in a way that it hasn’t been done. For Otis, this is an existential project that evolves as his ideas about the world around him evolve. The project is in part finished, and is in part, still happening. Since its inception the potential for it to evolve and be productive and interactive has grown. There are so many different potential data inputs on the internet and its still being developed. Who knows what it will look like in 5-10 years from now. That is what is exciting about it--it is a static and immediate reflection of the positive energy of our existence.

TTW: You didn't just make a movie prop--you made an entire living art project. What inspired you to take this prop to the next level?

Anlo: We came up with the concept for the film and had to make the prop but because it was such a beautiful idea we figured we might as well make it real. I like a film to be more than just a film. There’s the vlogs that can exist on the internet and be its own thing. Even the music can live outside the film. Instead of having a narrow self-focused thing I wanted to make multiple components live outside the film.

TTW: Will the installation live on after the festival?

Anlo: Yes. Definitely. I hope the film helps pique interest in the installation and it will continue to live and evolve and to connect to other users who will try to affect the data stream. You can watch the film, go home and find the art project on the internet, and know that your data stream is affecting the glow of the light collective. I hope it creates its own legacy and the two, the art project and the film, can sort of prop each other up, like if you go to the film you will hear about the art project, and if you discover the light collective, you will hear about the film. Everything all connected.

TTW: Anything you'd like to add?

Anlo: The most critial thing is that this is an extremly colloborative project. Without people contributing time and creativity this light project could not exist and becomes ineffective. Its a group of writers, actors, and interactive artists who have created this dynamic thing that helps other people to connect. The sum of parts is greater than the whole. There is no way to conceive something like this on my own, and it could not have happened with out everyone’s help, and the project itself is useless without the energy of all the people on the internet and this planet. This whole thing is about connecting people with other people and to reflect the beauty of that.

TTW: Hi, guys. Per, you were the first part of the team brought on by the film’s director, Anlo Sepulveda. How did that come about?

Per: I met Anlo at a music + art festival called Art Outside in 2008. He was running this amazing stop-motion animation station in the middle of a field, where anyone could come up and make claymation shorts. My wife and I struck up a conversation with him, and told us he was working on a movie and needed someone to build him a light installation. We started planning the work right away!

TTW: And how did you become involved with the project, Andrew?

Andrew: I'd seen the first version when it hung in Co-Lab (an East Austin Art Space where it was on display to the public) and immediately started dreaming of the possibilities. It actually inspired me to learn quite a bit more about microprocessors and higher-power circuits. A short time later, Anlo contacted me and asked if I could help bring the piece closer to the final vision and of course I jumped at the idea.

TTW: Can you describe the installation physically- what it looks like, what it’s made of?

Per: It’s made of over 2000 strands of optic fibers- yes, I counted. They’re cut at different lengths, distributed throughout a large space, and then suspended from the ceiling. It kinda looks like stars- or underwater fluorescent plankton. From a central light are hanging a couple hundred feet of electroluminescent wire, which is a phosphorous-coated wire that glows when you apply a high-frequency AC current through it.

TTW: How does it actually work?

Andrew: The installation is driven by a circuit built around a microcontroller using the open-source Arduino platform. Bundles of fiber optic cable are lit by super-bright LED and spread throughout the space. The LEDs and Electroluminescent wire are controlled and dimmed individually within a matrix. The system interprets the data it receives and translates the values into a visual experience.

TTW: From a technological or programming standpoint, can you tell us why this is an original or relevant idea?

Per: I don’t know that you can say that anything in programming is original, but the combination of using software PWM (Pulse Width Modulation) and light effect algorithms across a massive amount of light points is one example of the Arduino’s versatility. The idea that the collective consciousness, or the "health" of people's thoughts, can be represented as points of lights in a three-dimensional space is relevant from an information visualization perspective. First and foremost, though, it's an art piece, and should be regarded as such.

TTW: The light sculpture in the film was originally built in an art space in East Austin (Co-Lab) where it was on view to the public. How did people react to it?

Per: Very positively! You could see people "swimming" through the lights, laying underneath the installation gazing up, and walking through it with their eyes closed, feeling the optic fibers brushing against their faces. The interaction was purely visual and tactile back then- the light patterns were manually controlled, rather than data-controlled.

TTW: How has the technology changed since you began working on this project back in 2008?

Per: The availability and robustness of real-time APIs, like Twitter's search API, makes it possible to let the installation reflect the "pulse" of certain parts of the online community. The concept of the installation is to represent people's thoughts and prayers around the world. The challenge, then, is how to make this connection obvious to the audience. We are experimenting with different inputs, including sensors in the installation space itself, providing direct feedback to the audience interacting with the lights. To me, the most important thing is to provide our audience with a dazzling and immersive display of lights.

TTW: How will the installation change for the SXSW festival. Is it bigger? Does it represent something different?

Per: From a technical standpoint, we are adding more channels. More channels means more fine-grained control of the lights, and we'll be able to create more interesting effects within the space of the installation. We will customize the layout depending on the space, so the installation will look different every time it’s set up. The effects in the first version were driven by a light sequencer written in Pure Data. This time around, the effects will be natively coded on the Arduino board for better performance. Also, for the new version, we want to make the installation react to people's presence. We'll be adding either ultrasonic rangefinders, or implementing some sort of blob detection.

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The Otis Under Sky light sculpture will be on display at the film's premiere party during SXSW.

Anlo Sepulveda is the writer and director of the feature-length film, Otis Under Sky, which is an official selection of the 2011 SXSW Film Festival. Anlo has created several short films and documentaries, and has been recognized for his film work in numerous projects such as The Force for Change Award for Wear the Sun, and the CASE Award for Hip-hop Congress. Anlo currently works at Texas State University as a Digital Media Specialist

Per Nilsson has a BSc in Interaction Design from Malmö School of Art, Culture and Communication, where he studied under David Cuartielles, one of the inventors of Arduino. Per has taught physical interaction design at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, BC, and at 911 Media Arts Center in Seattle. He now lives in Austin, TX, and is having a blast making social games as a software engineer at Zynga.

Andrew Duhan is a software developer and sound engineer with a penchant for shiny things. He currently lives and works in Austin, TX.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Otis Under Sky Connects with its Audience, and now with the SXSW Film Festival.

You may remember this post from a while back when I did some screen printing for a friends' fundraiser. The fundraiser was for the film Otis Under Sky, an independent movie shot in and around Austin and San Marcos, Texas. The friends were Anlo Sepulveda, the writer and director, and his wife Mandi, the producer and all-powerful-organizer.

Since then, Anlo and Mandi have had a baby, built an eco-apartment under their house, and generally had a crazy amount of stuff going on- and their friends have since had a baby who carries the moniker Otis! Also since then, Otis Under Sky has finished filming, started the final editing process, and been selected as one of only nine Texas films to be featured at the 2011 South by Southwest (SXSW) Film Festival here in Austin. Wow, what a ride!

The film follows a "socially inept video artist", Otis, through his enlightening and painful one-way love affair with Ursula. Otis is played with beautiful awkwardness by renowned slam poet Anis Mojgani. Google Mojgani and you'll find a multi-award winning, multi-talented artist- with plenty of live videos and rave reviews to back it up.

There is a little bit of Otis in all of us, especially those who've grown up with the internet. On one hand, it allows the painfully shy to reach out and connect with some level of anonymity to protect their fragility. On the other hand, it can simultaneously errode the real connections we have by turning them into disjointed and superficial digi-relationships.

One of the film's features is a light installation which is created as Otis's opus. It is a warm, pulsating, and glowing sea of thousands of tiny points of light and color, which responds to people's interactions with it. Hopefully in time for the movie premiere, the installation will be set up at some location in or around Austin, and the movie website will allow people all over the world to manipulate with the installation by interacting with it online. This is the part of the project that my husband Per has been helping with, so I'm sure it's going to be a busy few weeks for him before the SXSW film festival starts! (Check out his crew credit on the crew page! So proud.) :)

There are two trailers for Otis Under Sky available to watch on Vimeo:

How can you support Anlo and Otis Under Sky?
*Create some internet buzz for distributors to notice of by tweeting, blogging, or Facebooking about Otis. Comment on the video trailers and articles on the web.
*Like Otis Under Sky on Facebook and tell your friends to check it out, too!
*Donate: Anlo and crew are also accepting donations to help them along in the final push to make Otis festival-ready. Every little dollar helps! Plus, they are offering some cool rewards as a thanks for donations!

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

New Year Brings Winds of Change

It's been a year since I last posted anything here. That seems reasonable as I think over the last year. I was kind of a hermit in 2010, but I can't think of many crafts or creative things I did while holing myself up. I hope that is about to change.

I have a list of new projects I'd like to get started on- many of them have to do with a camera. It's been years since I took pictures as an artistic outlet, but I have a lot of ideas rolling around in my head.

I also hope to start up a craft night again. I feel starved for the company of my friends, and women in general. Not sure if these will still be centered around knitting, or maybe something a little more visceral, like painting!

I did make some nice holiday cards this year (see picture), but I was a little lazy about actually sending them out. All that really means is that I still have a couple of my favorites to send out whenever I like. And I like that. This was my first time to buy these somewhat pricey sets of stickers, but it was worth the cost! I used the stickers sparingly among my own designs and cut-outs. Fun!

It's been a strange couple of weeks. I've had a building feeling in my core of the desperate need to create and to share company with friends and family. I'll take this as that gut feeling one is always supposed to trust. I have broken away some of the earth to allow more space for the water and the fire.

It has felt like spring for the last few day, and today it feels like winter has completely taken over. Wild winds whipped through last night; they blew down a tree limb that cracked the wooden fence. And they blew away some parts of me that were in doubt. It feels like autumn in my heart, and that means I need to create: words, images, sounds, relationships...

I'm really looking forward to it.