A strong urge to do things differently
Since its foundation about ten years ago, Rnul Interactive has helped many companies and institutions to create new media experiences. ‘Interaction is our main goal. It’s where technology and everything else we come up with merge.’
Two identical wooden desks. Arranged not opposite each other, but parallel. There is just as much paperwork and electrical wiring on both. Aart Muis (38) picks a Kinect from one of the piles. He regularly uses the hacked Xbox game console camera in projects he has concocted with his partner, Rob Donkers (41). ‘With the two built-in cameras, one having an in-depth view, we can easily record people’s body postures, where their view goes, where they stand. We have designed software to store all this in a database, so we can use the info later on in something new.’
Muis recalls a two-year-old project they conducted in Leiden, at the Rijksmuseum of Oudheden. With a grant from the Center for Visual Arts Rotterdam (CBK), the two men investigated how big data, machine learning and artificial intelligence could be used in their spatial installations. Self-perpetuating Story was intended to create awareness amongst visitors, Donkers explains. ‘If someone held a mobile phone, for example, we showed images of other people with phones in their hands. Responding in such a way, to communicate through recognition, is new.’ Muis adds: ‘In the end it would be interesting if we were to be superfluous. That our software can create a narrative on its own, by using people’s input.’
- Self-perpetuating Story -
It is a proven method for the two men: every one of their projects is in fact a prelude to the next. They always tend to begin where they stopped earlier and to make clever use of technology, like special software, already available online. In their workspace overlooking the Stadhuisplein several samples of their drafts can be seen. This morning they have been working on a new version of their drawing machine.
Applying for funds as outlined above turned out to be an exception. Virtually all the work Rnul carries out, is assigned by companies, museums, galleries, festivals and advertising agencies. Muis and Donkers are known for their spatial and interactive installations and have collaborated with Asics, International Film Festival Rotterdam, DASA Dortmund, de Bijenkorf and Zaans Museum. Although their projects have grown in size over the past decade, they are just as eager to do things for a small gallery in their hometown. Even if that means they themselves have to plug in the machine every rainy morning. ‘We certainly do not put in less hours, perhaps even more.’
Muis and Donkers met at Willem de Kooning Academy in Rotterdam. Both studied Interaction Design. They got to know each other well during an internship at Eboman, the audiovisual music project of Jeroen Hofs. Back then, the duo worked on a sensory suit by which Hofs was able to mix video clips live on stage. There they came to understand the importance of interacting with the audience. With every idea Rnul nowadays comes up with, interaction is the starting point. ‘When people participate, we can see how it truly works. Interaction makes our artwork playful and gives it a sense of humor’, Muis says. ‘We also get inspired to do things differently the next time.’
Another skill the designers quickly mastered, was to work independently. They still benefit from that, says Donkers. Their urge to make something new every time, ensures they have to do a lot of tinkering. Rnul programs software, designs the hardware and thinks about how all parts of an installation could communicate. ‘Most of the times we combine new techniques with something analogous or old. For the drawing machine we use sophisticated software to control the pen, but it still remains pen on paper.’
The drawing machine, which is popular in museums and at cultural festivals, is a project they have been working on throughout the years. It went through many iterations and has seen many forms. In 2017, the machine was transformed into a portrait robot. By using face tracking software and photography it could deliver a sketch in under five minutes. After an exposition in DASA Dortmund the machine was sold to a Spanish museum. Muis: ‘The occasional mistakes in the drawings are intentional. It’s what makes them authentic.’ At the moment, they are experimenting with smaller driving mechanisms.
- SpDi for V2_ Lab for the Unstable Media -
New design tool
A recent Rnul project is called SpDi (pronounce ‘speedy’), a collaboration with Rotterdam-based V2_Lab. It is a tool for spatial, visual installations and the further development of audio software previously made by V2. Media artists, designers and developers (i.e. of augmented reality) can use it to conceptualize, create prototypes and test their interactive ideas.
In November, Rnul held several workshops to launch the free tool into the creative community. A V2 space was equipped with a positioning system, sensors and floor projection to allow interactive experiments. ‘With SpDi you can digitally place items in a room. By programming the software a certain object can change color if someone comes closer’, Muis illustrates. ‘Or if two people stand shoulder to shoulder, it changes it into something else.’
The software is based on a thought Muis and Donkers had earlier on in their careers. In 2009 they created Urban Light Guide, a work of art displayed during the Rotterdam Museum Night. From a city square visitors could shine on the surrounding high-rise with four powerful searchlights. As soon as they hit the specially placed posters, sounds played. This allowed visitors to create their very own music composition.
Cool stuff rather than scale
Creating a scalable product is not something they intend to do fairly soon. Of course there are some ideas, but their drive to keep innovating is much stronger. Working on large commercial assignments gives Rnul the financial freedom to carry out personal experiments and some smaller, less profitable projects. Donkers: ‘We just want to continue with making cool stuff.’