Intravox: an interactive musical exhibition from Fred Deakin

Fred Deakin’s interactive installation at Central Saint Martins’ Lethaby Gallery lets visitors control a choir of singing heads using hand gestures. We spoke to Deakin about the project and the importance of collaboration in interaction design

Intravox is a collaboration between Deakin, now chair of interactive digital arts at UAL, production company Artists & Engineers, James Bulley and Nat Hunter. The installation works using Intel RealSense machines (3D cameras which can sense depth and movement, much like the camera designed for Microsoft’s X Box One).

Visitors are greeted by a series of heads which, when dormant, are rendered in an Op Art style black-and-white pattern. To wake the heads, visitors move their hand over the pillar in front of it (which contains the RealSense machine) until each segment of the face is illuminated. It will then change colour and emit sound.

Each head has a different voice – bass, tenor, alto, beatbox and soprano, and an additional sound can be activated by moving a hand over the mouth or eyes. Visitors can only operate one head at a time, meaning the installation relies on social interaction. Bowers and Wilkins speakers are suspended from the ceiling at various points around the room to ensure that the sound fills the space.

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“I’m a big vinyl fan and I think in pre-internet age, the engagement you could have with a piece of music and the visuals that went with it was much more profound,” says Deakin. “Theres a lot of convenience to what we’ve got now, but it doesn’t have much depth, yet there’s all this amazing tech around, so I wanted to experiment with new ways to bring music and visuals to an audience,” he explains.

The piece follows an interactive project for Paris digital arts gallery La Gaite Lyrique, which Deakin worked on with Hunter and Bulley in 2012. Titled Electricity Comes From Other Planets, it featured eight sculptures which each represented a different instrument.

“That was more about dance music. For this, we thought we’d go for something a bit more contemplative and meditative and use voices instead of instruments,” says Deakin. “Each sculpture has its own voice and the idea is that you can only really experience the whole piece when there’s more than one person there. You can get an idea of it on your own, but you’ll only really get the full flavour of it when there’s four or five of you, so it’s a way of bringing people together. It’s not a gig, it’s not an art piece, it’s not an app, but it’s like a little bit of all of them,” he adds.

The process works by capturing users’ hand movements and mapping those on the corresponding face. There are some additional functions – for example, clenching your fist above the camera will muffle sound, and stretching your palm out will release it again – and the more people move their hands, the more notes they release. Heads change colour from purple to yellow and orange, indicating different phases of the track.

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Interactive musical projects can often result in some ear-splitting sounds but with Intravox, Deakin has exerted some quality control by restricting interaction to a few basic functions. Users can effectively remix tracks, changing the order at which different voices come in, and add the odd additional sound, but the end result is always congruent.

“I think you have to be careful about how much control you give the user because otherwise it generates a cacophony,” says Deakin. “You have some authorship in that you can re-arrange and re-think what we’ve created, but you cant make a complete mess of it. It’s more like being a conductor, conducting this choir of alien heads…”

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Deakin describes the process of making the installation as a collaborative (and democratic) one. “Creating profound digital work requires a multiplicity of disciplines. We all bring our specialisms and what I’ve really enjoyed about this project is that we’ve all got together regularly – from the very beginning to the very last moment – to talk about it and say, ‘change this’ or ‘change that’. That’s how you make great work, in an equal conversation where everyone’s skills and opinions are respected. If you get too dictatorial about it, it doesn’t work,” he says.

This notion of collaborative working is something Deakin is keen to instil in students in his role at UAL. He was brought into the university to work across its six colleges, encouraging students from different courses to team up on projects and learn to work with others. Some UAL students have helped with the making of Intravox and others will be attending events in the space during the exhibition.

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“It’s very easy not to collaborate as a student – to keep your head down and get on with your degree – but then you go out into the real world and you’ve got to do it. It’s really important to collaborate as an interaction designer, because you can’t do everything yourself.”

Deakin also says he is keen to see more interactive work which moves away from screens – something he set out to do from the outset with Intravox. “If this was an app it would be boring. The functionality is really simple, but because you’re in this space, and hearing the sound all around you, it becomes quite magical. Almost any time I ask students what they’re going to make they say an app and I’ll always ask them ‘Why? What’s the point?’

“There’s a rush to do things on screens because we’re on them all the time, but I think we need to move away from the screen [when it comes to making interactive experiences]. Screens are great – I love my phone, I love my iPad, but surely we can take this technology and move beyond that.”

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While interaction is incredibly simple, it’s easy to lose yourself in trying out different sounds, watching faces light up and change colour as voices fill the room. It’s intuitive, fun and oddly soothing – and the kind of experience that would could work brilliantly as an educational tool as well as just a new way of experiencing music.

“It will be interesting to see what happens over the next two weeks. Hopefully students will come back to it more than once, to create something different each time and engage with it on an ongoing basis,” he adds.

Deakin says there will soon be a film about the project, but for now, you can get a sense for how it sounds in the film below (uploaded by UAL’s Rachael Daniels):

Intravox is on display at the Lethaby Gallery, 1 Granary Square, London N1C 4AA until November 12. Opening times and info is available here.

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