Interactive Installation 101: Concepts, Hardware and Software

Many of people who are interested in what I'm doing with installations are also interested in how to do it themselves. I'm against the idea of withholding knowledge and even more of not starting something because you don't know where to start so I'm making a quick post on my basic necessities for interactive installation.

Concepts

Concepts are the easiest part of the process, although you never really get a full idea of the project until later. The concept relies on what senses you want the user to focus and interact with and how. You can easily think of this as a way of creating a communication between the user and the installation: the user says, does, or presses something(data in), then the installation processes it into a usable form like audio low frequency, motion tracking, button pressed(processing) and then the installation replies back in a distorted voice, echo, light changes, or gears begin to turn(Data out).

 Data in-->Processing—>Data out

You can do this with any and all data and change what is heard into what is seen or what is felt into what is moving. This is the basic concept and does not need a machine to be applied (this can be done naturally with light, sound or space). You are simply creating a lens to view the environment and therefore, creating it. You are also creating a communion with an idea through physicality and physiology.  

 What is most important about the concept is the way you choose to convey it technically.  The coolest ideas, without budget or complexity in mind, can end up to be the least effective and most troublesome. This will also disrupt the ability for criticism/feedback reflection because of excessive time or stress that will weigh in emotionally. .

In my experience, utilizing ways we already participate in the world tend to be the most entertaining design resources for interactive installations and the easiest to approach by the everyday person. Imitating gravity or balance or water dynamics are just a few of the things we naturally admire in nature that are simple yet complex. There are many other easy natural ways to implement nature into your concept to make it more natural for the user (rather then just a thing that flashes when you hear a thing). A good place to start may be to investigate the non-traditional senses and how they can  be interacted with. Using this familiarity allows an easier learning curve through mixing something familiar to our senses with something abstract and unique in form.

 

Hardware

Hardware is the second easiest step because it does not take time once you have it and understand it. The most important thing thing about hardware is to not buy something outrageously expensive if you aren't going to use it for more then a year or make money back to afford in less. If you aren't then it’s either best to buy the alternative or be assured you can sell it after you use it.

The second important aspect is that the best use of a piece of technology is learning to push it to its limits to know what it is capable of. This is an investment in knowing how the current overall technology’s cost compares to its ability so that you may make a better purchase next time and know how the value of your product is decreasing(in cost and in ability) over its span of use.

This will also allow for a better understanding of the budget (time and costs) for your future concepts. When forming a concept you must know both how it will run on your computer or device and how long it will take to make on your device. You will not know these things until you have the concept and the hardware and are almost done with the software part so it seems much like a catch 22. Unfortunately, this is how the world works so it pays to put in the time to understand how the machine works. Like a car, if you don't know how it works you are probably wasting money on things you're not using to their fullest potential. So if you do put in the research you will be able to buy a car that does the job perfectly and usable in the future without the strenuous costs for the bleeding edge.

When it comes to specifics, there is a big difference in using PC or Apple. Unfortunately, Apple has not made itself versatile for installation work. I may be saying that because I own a PC but since Apple computers are limited  in their customization they also lack easy ways to attach devices to them for installations. It is also difficult to talk to an apple representative about developing software for Apple computers because it is not something apple provides as a service and with each operating system there seems to be many new ways to do things and many old ways that don’t apply.

PCs have this ability to be much more flexible and it is easier to find an answer from a developer for whatever you are trying to do. Also, much more of PC operating systems are backwards compatible with certain techniques or ways of doing things. The catch is PCs are much more complicated if you are more use to using Apple. PC has a steeper learning curve (especially if you've never programmed or trouble shot your way through Windows Operating system) but a greater flexibility/latitude. 

Another alternative is the micro-controllers like Arduino's and Raspberry pi's. With these, if you put in the time, you can create really cool things very simply without the full investment of a computer. The only catch is that they are very hands-on and have also have a steeper learning curve then the PC or Apple. But, with one device and the right knowledge, you can create a very complex computer system for around $50. The budget then goes much to you and your time for learning and building.

Accessories are the last bit of cool things you can use. Things like the extrasensory devices I've previously posted in my  earlier post or things like people's phones that they already own. Some devices you can purchase and some you can easily make with what you already have(Cameras, LED lights, speakers, microphones). They are typically something fun to keep in mind when getting creative with concepts

 

Software

Software is both the most short term unforgiving yet long term most forgiving aspect of the installation process. I mean this because the first steps are always amazingly complicated but later, the lessons you learn when dealing with software can be applied to most other software somehow(even when it comes to just learning software quickly).

Typically, the #1 question I’m asked is:  “What applications do you use?"

This is often followed with: "What application should I use?"

These answers all vary for your technique and goal. Some important software relevant right now for video installation: VVVV, Touchdesigner, OpenFrameworks, Processing, Max MSP, and Quartz Composer. Several of these only work on PC while some are only used on Apple. Some of them are both of course but it is important to find the software of choice before purchasing a machine so that you don't get into a problem of having to use a bad software to do something easier on another. 

I use several programs typically. I use one for the data processing, one for the post-processing of the video and sometimes a third for controlling it with my phone or something else. There are plenty of things that can be used and this is why software is the first and last question you will always ask yourself. "What should I use?" turns into " Now ,is there a better way to run this?".

If you do have a concept and the hardware without knowing the software then you will need to find software that is compatible and then look on the forums for the different components of what you want to do to figure out how it is done. This is the difficult part so don't be discouraged. Sometimes you need to just jump in software and figure it out yourself (DIY punk style).

Forums are your friend for this because if you dive deep enough you will almost always find an answer to your question that someone else asked already(or maybe just a clue). If not, then you can certainly ask and hope someone gets back soon.

Often times, you find on forums some plug-ins and patches to help you create what you want because someone had a similar idea in the past. It's always important to check to make sure these are okay to use for anything commercial. Many times they are okay to use because the community likes helping each other. Just make sure to mention the person or company that helped you.

The SDK for accessory hardware is often extremely helpful as well but often leads to getting your hands dirty with some coding. It can be awesome because it gives you open access pass to the data of hardware that may be unused by the company's consumer software. This is often made free to the public these days for people who would like to make their own apps for their purchased hardware because it allows the company to let people tell them what they would like by creating it themselves rather than spending money on R&D themselves. Because of this, the developers of the companies are also very open to help on the forums (which is extremely helpful).

There are a lot of things that will not work when using software and you often won't know what the problem until later when you have time to step away. This will make it difficult to troubleshoot the day or week of your installation so it is most important that the possible problems are expected and tested for with the software you intend on using before you form a concept.

Experimenting

You must be able to feel comfortable in the experiments with the software and hardware so that what you want to do is both confirmed possible and within the budget(of time and money). This will aid in your concept from the beginning to be closer to the reality of the end product.  Be advised that you should not ignore a weird bug or faulty hardware but find an answer and fix it or an alternative in the concept that avoids the bug.

The best installations are those that stand freely and operate without the person behind the curtain scene. It allows a pure discourse between the user and the installation and furthermore, allows for you to retrieve the best honest feedback on the experience minus any unexpected hiccups so that you may walk away with viable concepts that can be applied to your future projects. Once you do this you begin to create theoretical narrative that may then become your technique. This leads me to my ending quote:

 “Technique is the result of saying something, not vice versa.”-Jackson Pollock