encounters [2004]

A habtic table installation

click image for more impressions

"Encounters" connects the random encounters with people on the street during a survey and the encounters that happen while watching the work, resembling a board game. The installation invites to sit and to move the playpiece, little wooden houses with colored roofs, over a virtually developing citymap. One watches with fascination how the animations ajusts to the moving of the houses and listens carefully to the answers of invisible people on the question "what moves you?". Maybe another visitor joins and together one tries to figure out which rules the game might follow. Are the small colorfull squares maybe abstract representations of people? Their ways and destinies are influenced with a simple movement of a house. However, the played interviews wont let forget that it might be as well the players own.


"Encounters" is an interactive installation.

At the center of the room stands a knee hight table with square shape. On each side is a comfortable chair that allows the viewer comfortably to watch and influence the animation on the table. The room is filled with quiet citynoise from invisible speaker.

On the table are four little, wooden playhouses with colored roofs, that remind of playpieces from boardgames like "Monopoly ™“. A computer generated animation is displayed in realtime on the table, which is beeing influenced through the movement ot the physical playpieces.

The houses are framed by a clipping from a citymap that seems to represent the virtual neighbourhood of the real playpiece. Out of each house step virtual people in to the city, only represented in form of a digital tracking system, that moves smaller clippings of the citymap over the table, together with blinking squares showing the positions of the people. up to 20 virtual people can move over the playfield. Additionaly exists a (green) agent that wind one's way over the table without belonging to a hous. Meets this agent a virtuall person a interview is beeing played, recorded during a previous survey. The animation is freezed during this.

The survey was made in different swiss cities. The single question was "what moves you?". No selection was made, everybody that gave an answer can be heard.


game rules

To be precise, there are no game rules, because it is not a game. The moving of the houses leades to a reaction of the animation and so to an interaction. The developed feeling of beeing in control is only partially right, because neither the virtual people nor the agent can be directly influenced regarding their ways on the table. Because of the setup the game situation is only suggested.


technical description

A digital beamer projects the computeranimation on a table (picture of setup). Simultaniously a digital camera is beeing pointed at the table and the positions of the playpieces are beeing evaluated with the help of a coloranalysis (the reason why the houses have colored roofs). The animationsalgorithm of the software takes this info and reacts accordingly. Simultaniously many different virtual people and an agent are being simulated. Thus the feedback loop is closed again. All this tasks are beeing done by a program, that runs on a powerfull computer (Apple oder PC) . The audio output is being controlled by another computer. Both computers are connected through a network.


technical requirements

* room, mind. 4x4m, 3,5m hight with the possibility to fix 5kg equipment at the ceilling
* knee high table, square, 75cm side
* white cloth for table
* 4 small playpeices (wooden houses with colored roofs, 1,5x3x3 cm)
* 4 seats


* 2 powerfull computer (min. 1GHz Apple Powerbook or equivalent)
* 1 digital videokamera (Firewire 400 connection)
* 1 digital beamer (with 1024x768 resolution)
* 1 stiff device for ajustment of camera and beamer
* 1 audio amplifier or mixer
* 2 audio monitors
* 1 firewire hub

cabel (div. lengths depending on room situation)

* ethernetcable
* audiocable
* firewirecable
* VGA cable (Beamercabel)


* Processing (www.processing.org)
* Sonja, Processing Library (http://www.pitaru.com/sonia/)
* JSyn Java Synthesizer Plugin (http://www.softsynth.com/jsyn/)
* Selfdeveloped Processing-Programs


The initial idea for approaching the subject ‚the numeric principle‘ came to me during a drive through Basel. With the passing the zebra crossing, edgings, road signs and paving-stones I got reminded of a game which I played during my childhood in always new variations. On walks I created new rules I had to follow. For example with tiled floors I wasn’t allowed to touch the cracks in any case. If this rule turned out to be too simple, I adapted them to the circumstances: If I came to a zebra crossing, I was allowed to use it only at the left-hand side, and to step on each second strip. This way the walk became an obstacle run that made me pass the time.

The cellular automates as simple simulations of biological cells fascinated me during the input meetings that were held for introduction into to the topic of ‚the numeric principle‘. Thus I combined the cellular automates with the above game principle. I was to move around the city as a cellular automate to collect data. In order to do this I had to create my own algorithm, that was to be a applied as a decision making tool which direction at crossings to take.

First I analyzed different crossings to find measurable criteria for the algorithm, which should function in each possible situation. From this I developed an algorithm. Then I took the city map of Basel and set over the already existing grid a further one. This second grid was so fine, only one crossing came to lie in each square. I wanted to document with the help of this gird where the algorithm would lead me. Additionally I wanted to bring the human factor into the game. I decided to ask at each crossing the next person that crossed my way for a number between 0 and 14. Subsequently, I asked for permission to take a photo.

Several issues were of interest. The collected data, which should become the basis for my further working, were most important. Then a curiosity had to be satisfied to see where the algorithm would lead. I did not see myself as lonely cellular automate, but all other fellow people in the city were for me also cellular automates, which functioned after another set of rules. It was a need for me to have a meeting with my fellow automates. The social aspect was a concern to me, and the coincidence was of special fascination. With the question I wanted to underline the artificial and senseless nature of this meetings that under normal social circumstances would not happen. However I was also interested in the reactions.
The exact observance of the rules of the algorithm became a mental bulwark against negative reactions on the part of the responding. I did not have to take these things any longer seriously, because not I but the algorithm told me what I had to do.

In Director I developed an application that made the collected data recallable in an interactive way. But with my first functioning prototype I already began to doubt this approach. The application showed obvious weaknesses:

- It was not really interesting to investigate the collected data
- It was visually boring.

Thus I began to question the approach:

- Why do I have to go with an algorithm through the city?
- Don’t I want to stroll spontaneously through the city?
- Where does the deeper sense for this question lie?
- Is there a better question?
- Where does that lead to exactly?

I decided to reject the approach and start from the beginning again.

During this time I played a computer game, "Cossacks – art of war". It is a simulation and strategy game. It plays in the 17. Century and the player can build up a civilization with the help of a few farmers at his disposal: a small city develops with a smith, mill, university, city hall, barracks, cannon factory, market etc.. During this process one must provide constant supply of 6 different resources (wheat, wood, stone, coal, iron and gold). With rising population armies can be built up and (most importantly!) the neighbors can be conquered. Each individual character can be selected and can receive orders. Organized in larger units the player can operate with companies or battalions, with about 10 different branches of arms, which possess its own pro and cons.

This kind of game originate actually from the first life simulations, as the cellular automates are, and were developed during the last 30 years into ever more complex simulations. The individual play characters (once a cell) have now different values (not as only with the cellular Automata on or off) like strength, resistance, impact force, order and can change the party or die of starvation. They can operate autonomously or take direct instructions from the player. Once the civilization achieved a certain size, the playing field is filled with live and reminds much of the pictures from our cities: Everywhere people following a purpose or order, avoiding collision while hurrying on their ways.

The next idea developed within only one minute before my mental eye. It was an installation, which I called in the further process "hand of God": A projector attached at the ceiling projects the simulation of a cellular automates on to the floor. With the help of a colored glove, the viewers can throw a shade into the projection with their hand. At the position of the hand shade new cells are switched off or are "born". A video camera takes up these hand movements in real time and software can recognize which side of the glove looks upwards. This way the viewer can interact in intuitive ways with the cellular environment.

This idea was not developed in the absolute vacuum, nevertheless it was suddenly here, like as if I had received an "order".

Through further reflection I discovered a content wise connection between the idea of me as a cellular automates and the "hand of God": Both are concerned with decisions. With the first idea these are made following a set of rules, for which I am responsible. With the second idea the hand of the fate or perhaps through Gods intuition makes the decision for me. This was the first step to combine the two ideas.

Besides this my slowly developing installation software showed similarities with the representation of my prototype for the first idea. Could I use the interaction schema of „hand of God“ as an interface for the inquiry of my collected data? Was the hand still an appropriate element in this case? Or could other objects be used in place of the hand? Perhaps some those are connected to the city?

I did not want to refrain from the meeting with humans in the city. It should still a question be placed. But with „more“ content.

The process described here was not a smooth affair, in the opposite, it was interrupted by strong self doubts, in which I asked myself seriously which purpose this agony might have. All together a very unpleasant affair.

Those self doubts together with some playful thoughts regarding the characters of the computer game and the cells in my emerging installation software led me to the next set of questions: How might they perceive their environment? What does move them? This last question caught on, especially because I couldn’t answer it to my self in a satisfying way.

But with this I had a question I could go into the cities. Instead to follow a prescribed algorithm I decided to follow my nose and to make the decision at the crossings spontaneously. I would anyway make these decisions according to a set of rules unconsciously running in my mind and I did not want to replace them with some consciously created one’s. The same should apply to responding humans. Since I would approach persons with expectations, there was the rule to address people I would not expect any answers, too.

Strong doubts existed whether my fellow men would answer on a very personal question from someone completely unknown. And my only useful concept was based on the success of this survey. I needed to motivate myself one week to take the microphone and to go into the city and test my approach.

To my surprise I was plentifully rewarded. In chapter survey can a selection of the answers taken be found. I went three times several hours on the road and found 40 people to answer my question; it’s interesting how different the reactions and interpretations of the question.

During the process of realization decisions were made to lead to the final solution:

The projection was lifted from the floor on a table, since with first tests showed that the distance between beamer and camera lens led to inaccuracies in the reaction of the projection to the hand shade. The only practical solution was bringing the hand and the screen as close together as possible.
When the decision was made to apply the interaction pattern to the first idea and the problem of the “question” was solved, the interaction with the hand made not much sense any longer: The cellular automate became now virtual fellow men who I met during the survey made. The idea to create those by a simple hand movement was too extreme to me, so I decided to take the hand out of the concept all together and replace it with more significant objects.
During the program-technical realization I sought to find solutions that would depict the virtual persons moving in a city. The tracking system was thus developed, where only their position would be indicated without a detailed visual representation: anonymous characters, which only got a “face” (or better: “voice”) when playing the interview.

With progressive development the game situation slowly emerged. This pleased me and I continued to follow this up. The toy houses as interaction objects and a low (child-) table were the result. The houses should serve as a source for the virtual persons. In order that the viewer understands that the shifting of the houses is an intervention sufficient feedback information had to be supplied: In addition I had to make the position of the houses visible also over the beamer. I decided a virtual front garden around the houses to be projected.
Despite the obvious game situation I wanted to limit the interaction possibilities, since I was not concerned creating a game.


The answers listed here are a selection of 40 interviews, which I took during three surveys in the context of this project. The question read: what moves you?

Much, actually. For the moment the beautiful weather moves me.

What moves me today? That is a good question. The problem is I don’t feels so moved for the moment, because I am tired and go sleeping. And perhaps because of that I am not emotionally sensitive enough to be moved

Today? - longer break - nothing special. I cannot say more. Really. Please excuse.

And, my only concern is for the moment my illness. Which really moves or disturbs me. Nothing else. Why?

It moves me that I don’t know how my future will look like because I just have finish my studies and moved to this city and everything is still very uncertain.

Today I have started at a new office. That moves me.

To be honest, I can’t make much out of this question. You have to ask this question a bit more precise.

Live. The life in its whole complexity moves. Each day is different, each day offers opportunities that have to be taken, which have to be set in relation to the perspective. Reacting, moving. That is living that moves. Answer finished.

What moves me today? The weather, because one does not know, does it turn nice or bad. ... The effect of the Methadone. I am in the Methadone program. And, because of this I am also tired. A little bit tired. That occupies me to some degree. I do not like it particularly to sit on the bench like this. Therefore I am glad now you woke me. Yes and then my girlfriend died two months ago, and that moves me naturally, too. Yes, it’s like that.


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