Theo Watson likes to use design and technology as tools to create wonder and delight. WIth Design I/O, a studio he runs together with his girlfriend, he has created a number of (interactive) installations for brands and museums all over the world. He also co-found openFrameworks, which is an important part of his work, much of which is open sourced.
The first project he showed was Funky Forest, which is an interactive digital ecosystem where children can learn about nature. They can use their bodies to create trees and redirect water from a waterfall to keep the ecosystem thriving. The technologies used to create this experience were not overly complex. The forest is projected on the walls and floor, and cameras are used to gather input. This simplicity adds a great deal to the level of immersion, as it allows users to interact with the experience rather than a technology. This was a recurring theme in the projects Theo showcased during this session.
More so than his projects, Theo’s talk was about the way he uses technology as a research tool, and how this process leads him to both commercial and non-commercial work.
Back when the Kinect was released a few years ago, Theo and creative coders like him got very excited for this new piece of technology, because it offered advanced detection features at a very accessible price. This excitement led to Kinect being hacked very soon after release; a process Theo took part in as well, helping make drivers so more developers could make use of it. After he saw what others were making, he wanted to put out an experiment of his own. This became Puppet Theater, a prototype where you control a bird puppet using your arm. This prototype garnered a lot of attention, and in turn lead to Puppet Parade: a large scale interactive installation which was part of the Cinekid festival in Amsterdam in 2011.
This experience put Theo in a prototyping mindset. Instead of dull and extensive project proposal documents, he decided to use prototypes to convey the essence of the experience he wanted to create.
Some time later, he was playing around with an algorithm to turn photos into sketches. Around this time, he was asked to make an installation for a cafe in Cambridge, where Design I/O is based. Theo was able to use his sketching algorithm as a basis to turn Google Street View images into novel and interesting artworks, being drawn line by line. This same technology later lead to Painted Mirror, an installation which renders a camera image in different artistic styles, transporting the viewer into a painting in a very convincing way.
Theo’s most recent project is SkataViz. This is an open source tool which can gather data from a skater doing tricks, and overlay this data on top of a video feed. It uses a cutting-edge combination of a smartphone and duct tape as a sensor, so anyone with a skateboard (and some skill) can play around with it. The tool was just released in early beta, but already produces fairly accurate results. It can generate some good looking visuals, which can be exported and used freely. You could, for instance, print the data from your very first kickflip on a custom deck.
Theo’s final piece of advice to the audience was to just make things, and put them out there. In the connected world we live in, being open can lead to great and unexpected results. He himself is currently trying to use a rapidly spinning iPad to create a hologram. Considering his track record, this too may lead to a new and exciting (if perhaps a bit dangerous) experience.
Written by: Szenia Zadvornykh