Edge of Innovation

Let there be light and video mapping!

To what extent do video mapping and light installations rely on state-of-the-art computers and sophisticated digital technology? Find out in this article about the 2nd Signal Festival — the largest showcase of light art in the Czech Republic.

According to Moore’s Law, transistors that power computer processors double in number every two years. In practice, this growing power not only allows for faster calculations and enhanced game visuals — it also enables computers to become more heavily involved in our lifestyles and culture. This trend was clear to see for everyone attending the Signal Festival, which was held for the second time in Prague in mid-October. This light and art festival illuminated the streets of the capital, showcasing 21 installations — most of which were made possible thanks to computing technology.

Let’s take a look at how video mapping—the latest and most popular light art format used in public spaces—works. A specially designed image that emphasizes architectural features and creates the illusion that the building is being deformed or distorted is projected onto a facade. It is no coincidence that video mapping has had to wait until this century to experience a boom, since a range of graphics software and state-of-the-art hardware is required to create such images alongside ideas and talent. During the projection, a computer—known as a media server—performs a number of demanding and sophisticated operations. By means of a warping process, the computer ensures that the animation fits the building precisely. In most cases, one projector is not sufficient and the media server has to distribute the projection across multiple projectors and ensure that the divided image fits together exactly. Such tasks require so many mathematical operations that not even all the people on Earth would be able to calculate them.  Incidentally, The Macula, a Czech mapping group, recently participated in the world’s largest video mapping event, during which the Palace of Parliament in Bucharest was covered by an image from an unbelievable 104 projectors.

OUT OF PLACE, created by: The Electric Canvas; photo: Michal Ureš. Click to see the original.
OUT OF PLACE, created by: The Electric Canvas; photo: Michal Ureš. Click to see the original.

Another light art format is the light installation. At the most recent Signal Festival, a unique piece of art was installed — the Light Barrier project by artistic duo Kimchi and Chips. On Střelecký Island, the pair exhibited holographic 3D scenes created from thousands of light beams that penetrated through the mist. Rather admirably, Elliot Woods and Mimi Son—who make up the duo—also share the complete codes of many of their installations and tools for free. On further inspection of the codes, it becomes clear that the pair’s magic tricks are made possible in particular thanks to computer vision technology OpenCV.

Complex calculations were whirring away in other installations, too. Digital technology enables any input to be interactively transformed into data, and subsequently data into light and sound. Thanks to such technology, the works of art are able to tell stories using unexpected metaphors. On the Charles Bridge, the Murmur installation transformed voice into light by creating decorative shapes as soon as each sound hit the wall of the bridge tower. Elsewhere, a statue crafted by the Czech R/FRM studio and Jan Nálepa was created using the composition of a 3D scan. There was also an enormous amount of interest in American artist Jen Lewin’s installation The Pool, which consisted of more than one hundred discs, each containing a sensor, a light and a microprocessor. Flow—an installation created by the author of this article himself—simulated tens of thousands of particles flying through a wind tunnel in real time using a 5K resolution. The Cyclique installation by French artist Maxime Houot and the Nohista group featured 256 balloons combined in a single gigantic display.

MURMUR, created by: Chevalvert; photo: Alexander Dobrovodský. Click to see the original.
MURMUR, created by: Chevalvert; photo: Alexander Dobrovodský. Click to see the original.

The Festival also featured supporting events, such as workshops where participants were able to get hands-on experience of creating light art. Nicola Pavone presented the basics of video mapping, Martin Blažíček demonstrated algorithmic VJing, I explained the possibilities of the Kinect sensor, Mária Júdová and Jonáš Svatoš showed how to measure heart rates for the stage design of dance performances using a Wi-Fi-connected microcontroller, and Ondřej Chmel together with Intel illustrated how old light painting techniques can be enhanced using new tablet technology. Participants were given tablets containing specially designed videos of different spaces. The participants then used the tablets to create holographic images captured using long-exposure photography.

Art forms and motifs have always been influenced by technology, yet today’s changes are unprecedented. We can only imagine what light festivals will showcase in 12 years’ time…

Photos from the Light Painting with Intel workshop
Photos from the Light Painting with Intel workshop

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