In the last week, I got a chance to talk to one of Art Gallery presenters at SIGGRAPH 2019 — Ozge Samanci (an Associate Professor at Northwestern University) about her amazing project, “Fiber Optic Ocean”. This interview throws light on her entire process right from ideation to building and testing. She provides us with some great insights into her design pipeline and gives established pathways for anyone interested in building an art installation. Her diverse background and extensive education establish her as one of the subject experts in the field of Media Arts and it was an absolute pleasure talking to her about her work.
Here is the interview:
ABOUT THE PROJECT/CONCEPT:
1. Can you tell me in brief about your project “Fiber Optic Ocean”?
→ The idea for Fiber Optic Ocean came to me when I encountered an underwater video of a shark biting on a fiber optic cable. This attack seemed like a perfect abstraction for reflecting on the relationship between nature and culture. We have the web of submarine fiber optic cables to communicate with other human beings, but our technology disturbs the ecosystems of other beings.
Fiber Optic Ocean in VR portrays an ocean made of fiber optic threads. There are four shark skeletons trapped in the ocean. Two sets of live data create music and the blinking of fiber optic cables. Our data sets are “speed of live sharks tracked with GPS tags (ocearch.org)” and “the speed of human use of internet (tweets per second)”.
Fiber Optic Ocean was originally a physical installation consisting of actual fiber optic cables and the life-size shark skeletons created using 3D printing and mold making. In SIGGRAPH, we will show a Virtual Reality implementation of the physical piece. It has been a learning curve to build a large installation in the physical world then in Virtual Reality since both worlds have different limitations and affordances.
2. How did you come up with this idea of using VR instead of any other physical medium?
→ The piece generates music via live data. In VR we can surround the player with audio. Also, the piece presents a speculative future. The aspect of imagination fits well into 3D design and drawing available in VR.
3. When did you come across VR?
→ I am an Associate Professor at Northwestern University in the Radio TV Film Department. We wanted to include VR in our curriculum. Once the department acquired the VR equipment, I began working with VR.
4. Can you breakdown your design process, from ideation to building it?
→ Realization of interactive art installations can be a long process, at least for me. Initially I have a vague idea at first such as “sharks biting on fiber optic cables”, This initial concept develops and connects to a problem that I want to bring to the attention of the public such as “our selfish existence: humans placing themselves above all ecosystems”. I design a speculative version, a version that is not possible in our physical reality but a relatable scenario that propels the imagination of others. Concept determines the material. Anything and any process in the world can be material for arts. Once I decided to use fiber optic cables and shark bones, then I focused on live data, sound and blinking of lights.
5. Can thinking of the end user experience help in the design process?
Of course. When I build interactive art installations, I test it with players who don’t know about my piece and l learn from their reactions. Not only the user experience but the limitations of the medium and the material will have an impact on the design process.
BUILDING THE PROJECT/TECHNICAL ASPECT:
1. I have not experienced the demonstration yet except from the video. But from the description, I am curious to know: How are you converting data into musical sounds? i.e. what is the mapping between the input and the output?
→ The piece procedurally composes music made with trombone and choral voices generated by live data coming from the live sharks and human use of internet. To create a musical wholeness, we have a variety of rules and we use established chords that are known to go well together.
2. Also, if this is live data, how big is it and what is the computation power needed to process it?
→ The live data is just numbers. Speed of internet is also abstracted as the number of tweets per second. It is a simple flow of two numbers. In the VR version, we have the challenge of rendering visuals. There are two visual outputs. First rendering is for the player wearing the headset and viewing the scene and the second rendering is for an external monitor which shows a slow rotation of the entire scene for the visitors waiting for their turn. So the system is rendering two high quality images of the simulation.
3. What image processing techniques are you using, and can you explain the technological pipeline from an artist’s perspective?
→ Adam Snyder, my collaborator originally wrote the custom software in Java. My second collaborator Gabriel Caniglia is bringing all pieces together in Unity for the VR version. Michael Vila created the 3D models of the sharks for 3D printing for the initial physical piece, but it was highly detailed, so he had to redesign it for the VR version. The cables were drawn using Gravity Sketch, and we took this environment in Unity and used the custom software from the previous physical project.
4. Is everything being done in-house?
→ In the current version, everything is built in-house. But we may add underwater coral and fish taken as assets from the unity store.
5. What were some of the biggest challenges?
→ Main challenge was the space because the physical pieces are very large and require a certain ceiling type. For VR, the real time rendering is the biggest hurdle.
6. What background knowledge was needed to build this? What research did you do and what skills did you learn along the way?
→ I have an interdisciplinary background: I did my bachelor’s in mathematics, then first studied Radio, TV, Film then Communication Studies for my two masters degrees, and my PhD is in Digital Media. I completed my postdoc at Art Practice Department at University of California Berkeley. Now I work at Northwestern University’s Radio/Film/TV Department.
Researches in the Field Museum in Chicago were extremely helpful. We consulted with the fish division. We 3D scanned shark bones in the museum. I read a lot about sharks and their bones. Our sharks are a combination of several different type of sharks.
7. What does your team look like — members and their roles? Also, since it is a team project, how were you able to convince others to work with you on the project?
→ Most of the connections are from Northwestern University and the members include a lecturer, a graduate student, and my other collaborator is currently working at Electronic Arts. He was formerly a student at Northwestern University.
8. How much time did it take for you to build this?
→ Three months (one summer — full time work) for the physical installation. For the VR version we are spending another summer.
9. How much money did you need? Was this project funded by the university or an external agency?
→ I used research funds at Northwestern University, and we used the space and computers at school.
INFORMATION FOR UPCOMING STUDENTS:
1. Upcoming artists find it hard to have their projects funded. How should a beginner get started with this? Where can you apply and can you give some tips on building a convincing application?
→ Eyebeam, Rhizome.org, Laboral.
2. Which category of design/art does this piece fall into?
→ Media Arts.
3. Besides SIGGRAPH, where can people come check this out? For this VR app, can people download your app and experience it?
→ Depending on the response at SIGGRAPH, we may create an app and publish it.
FUTURE WORK AND CONTACT INFORMATION:
1. How can someone get in touch with you for collaboration, business or to ask more questions?
→ Email is the best way.
2. What are you working on now and what can we expect to see from you?
→ This VR implementation will keep evolving over time and I am also working on a long-term project — a graphic novel. I am also teaching a new course (Critical Making) in the fall.
I intend on conducting interviews with several other presenters at SIGGRAPH. If you have any specific questions or any presenter whose work you are interested in, feel free to reach out to me at : email@example.com
Associate Professor — Northwestern University
MS (CGT) — Purdue University