Is it a bird, or a plane? No, but it is digital. Technology is blurring definitions and dividing lines in so many fields, that the blending of performance, art and visual media with data was only a matter of time. Meet a new project named ‘TILO’, a digital display system that is not only responsive to its audience, but can genuinely interact with it.
You might assume that the term TILO is an acronym. Yet a quick look on ‘Godchecker.com’ reveals that ‘Tilo’ is an African god. He represents the art of creativity. This creative spirit hails originally from Zambia and Malawi – but it is way across the world, in Liverpool and Lancaster, that the spirit is currently taking on new form.
Alastair Eilbeck and Jimi Bailey are part of a new breed of digital artists, almost as immersed in innovative technology as they are in art. Before you ask them what TILO is, you have to take a deep breath, because in many ways it is developing as we speak. The duo’s inspiration was the idea of digital animism, allowing TILO to become almost the digital soul, or personality, of a building.
Commissioned during the second phase of the Digital R&D Fund for the Arts, TILO is a true hybrid. It is not just a video wall, although that’s exactly what it looks like. It is also a computer system, an information tool, and a database that can record and respond to sensory and open data. Using a combination of video wall, digital processors, intelligent sensors and a lot of enthusiasm, Eilbeck and Bailey are pushing towards creating a display system that knows what you are thinking – almost.
TILO’s screens are ‘aware’ of their surroundings. They can interact with people near them. TILO’s screens might be used to relay news, or the weather, but its intelligent, eye-tracking cameras can also record where visitors are looking. TILO can report back on an individual’s gender, rough age and whether an audience is smiling or frowning.
‘Many visitors are ‘screen blind’:’ points out Hannah Stewart, part of the research team from the Creative Exchange at Lancaster University. ‘We are bombarded with screen-based advertising all the time. Increasingly, people are also blind to directly-targeted text messages. But what happens if they are directly engaged – if they themselves feature on the screen? That changes the equation.’
The commercial potential is obvious. Advocates of relationship marketing should be twitching by now. This kind of real-time audience profiling could be really useful – for showing age and gender-specific film trailers, for instance, at precisely the right time. The intelligent nature of the system means that you can grab people’s immediate attention by showing their silhouette. In one early experiment, researchers were able to engage with people directly. TILO could message them: ‘I like your hat’, or ‘is that a new jacket?’ The visitor would appear on the screen…and people loved it.
But even more exciting would be the potential for artists’ interactive work: to use the system’s responsive nature to engage audiences directly with artists. On trial at FACT in Liverpool, TILO has now been installed at the Phoenix in Leicester, both independent arts venues with a cinema attached. At FACT, the duo’s creative partnership – MeYouandUs – produced an artwork they named ‘The Photo Emoticon’. Audiences scanned their handprints. On screen, the hands appeared in real-time, in flat bright colours, occasionally re-interpreting the person’s mood by overlaying the handprint with crowd-sourced and emotion-tagged images.
‘It’s really exciting from a curatorial perspective. We have created what we call an ‘agile’ space,’ says Eilbeck. ‘It frees everything up. Whereas an exhibition is typically put together 18 months in advance, and takes a lot of painstaking work and preparation, a media artist could be scheduled in, turn up at FACT and within minutes their artwork could be online. And while a gallery normally closes at 6pm, TILO basically runs itself. It doesn’t shut down until the venue does.’
At a simple level TILO can process useful data, and tell you which film trailers people at FACT enjoyed the most. You can also imagine it being used to sell them a cup of coffee, or a late-night snack. Gareth Harvey of Glyndwr University will be studying the project from the perspective of consumer psychology, and all the research results will be made publicly available. Still, isn’t the most exciting thing about TILO the way it extends the ability of audiences to work directly with artists – and perhaps even ‘make’ the art?
The show goes on.
Creative Exchange at Lancaster University
Image courtesy of the TILO blog