schüchterne lichter (2006)

timid lights

Shivering light points that react to movement are projected on the floor.
When "touched", they escape in the opposite direction. Vehement movement will upset the whole swarm.

The projection is controlled by a computer-camera-system that tracks colour changes in the installation space. The project was programmed in Processing, using the motion detection code by .mattias.

Fusion Festival is an alternative festival for music, theatre and performance taking place on an old military airport in Northeast Germany every year. In 2006 - its tenth year - the festival had 30,000 visitors in its four days. Andor Rothämel from ortvision has designed and organized the "Outback Hangar" since a couple of years. He knows some of my previous work and asked me if I could develop and produce an interactive installation for the hangar.


schüchterne lichter at Fusion Festival
Photo: Jan Totzek

What if one could influence the light points reflected by a mirror ball that fly across walls and floor? What if they hid like little creatures, and then, after a while, if you did not move, come back and dance around you?

first prototype (screen): Points react to mouse.
second prototype (screen): Points react to movement (i.e. changes in the image of a connected webcam, using the motion detection code by Mattias Ljungström). This program was already running quite nice, one could e.g. sweep away the points with a broom, when the webcam was mounted at the ceiling.

technical challenges
Since the projection itself is filmed, strong feedback loops occur. In a first testing with a projection on the floor the light points didn't react at all due to the feedbacks. After some changes in the code an inverted version (black dots on white background, resp. green dots on red background) showed at least some reactions to vigorous movement. Too bad they weren't lights any more now, as the background was well lit.

test run with projection on floor
Photo: Jan Totzek

After some research on the net I found the solution to my problem: A hack that described how to modify a normal camera to give it infrared functionality (also used for iPunkt by Oliver Ellger and Jeffrey Gold).
Since I was using a videocam with night shot mode, I didn't need to remove the IR filter. A piece of fully exposed colour film negative (an absolutely black one) would do as a daylight filter. Thus the projection became invisible for the camera.

camera-projector setup

Now the problem had changed to a lighting one. Strong IR emitters are rather expensive, and the weak ones just wouldn't do. I tried it with 4 clusters of 15 IR-LEDs, which was barely enough to lighten one quarter of the projection surface. Funnily a so-called heat-lamp (basically a tungsten bulb covered in red colour, used for medical pupose) was what worked best, but wouldn't satisfy my needs because it emitted a bright red light which I found quite disturbing.

schüchterne lichter at Fusion Festival schüchterne lichter at Fusion Festival

Finally the surveillance company MEBOtec in Berlin was kind enough to sponsor us in the rental of three IR floodlights.

Since mounting was rather extensive I wasn't able to test the final setup (projection on the floor from 6m height and infrared lighting) in advance. Thus, I was surprised what a difference it makes to have the projection on the floor instead of a wall, how the ways of interaction increase - and how nicely the concept worked out.

Caught a light point
Photo: Jan Totzek


When nobody is playing with the installation, the lights slowly calm down. It was important for me that the installation merges with the space and doesn't become obtrusive, even when not used. The lights do indeed resemble those emitted by a mirror ball, if seen from a distance, and those visitors who uninitiatedly just stepped onto the projection surface, were surprised to see the light reacting to their movements.

kicking lights

the different versions
The Fusion Festival lasts for four days, and during these days the vibes heat up until day three, finally erupting in a big party. On the last day, the festival fades out in a hung-over end times spirit. The hangar's time concept was aligned to this cycle:
Day 1: Arrival. Awakening. Hesitation
Day 2: Contact. Communication. Motion.
Day 3: Eruption. Excess. Frenzy.
Day 4: End times. Echo. Hangover. Last call.
Thus I decided to adapt the installation to the festival's chronological sequence:
In the first two days, the lights still behave "normal". They are shy and pale orange. On the third day, Saturday, the big party where also most visitors come, the lights come to full cry: They flash in red and blue to the beat of the visitors' moves. The lights are in dancing mood. video
On Sunday, the last day, the lights are as tired, droopy and drained as the visitors. Like them, they slowly leave the scenario. The installation starts with 365 lights in the evening of the last day, that do not bounce back from the sides of the projection surface as before, but slide out. Maybe until next year... In the course of the night, less and less lights could be seen on the projection surface, till they all were gone. video

The lights' behaviour as a swarm is more complex than the code that controls them (this effect is referred to as emergence).
Objects could be offered as a part of the installation, like a broom, a goal ... (in black colour, since the installation reacts best to it). On the other hand what I find especially interesting is the universality of the lights. They offer more than only one way of interacting with them. I believe that the more ways of interaction one provides in the form of game rules and pre-programmed animations, the less creative the visitors are.

Many thanks to everybody who contributed to the realisation of the project.
Special thanks go to Mattias Ljungström for supervising the project and for his motion detection code, Jan Totzek for technical assistance, Andor Rothämel for commissioning the project, Rico Tscharntke for the video footage and as technical manager, and MEBOtec for kindly sponsoring us in the rental of three IR floodlights.

2008 Digital Sparks Award, Honorary Mention

Nov 04-06, 2010 lab30 Media Art Festival, Augsburg, de
Nov 17-20, 2011 Fusion Festival, Lärz, de