Invented in 1959, the extremely elastic synthetic fiber spandex can be found in cycling shorts and other figure-hugging sportswear. It's also made its way into home furnishings and served as a leave-nothing-to-the-imagination 70s rock god favorite. Now, it has well-and-truly entered the digital age with the creation of Firewall, an interactive performance wall that alters the speed, volume or intensity of music in response to a user pressing into its membrane, while also showing off some eye-popping, user-reactive visuals.
"I wanted to create some sort of interactive wall for a performance with dancers, and I saw Mike [Pallison] working on an interactive latex sheet," said Firewall's co-creator Sherwood. "I had been wanting to work with Mike already so I suggested we team up. We went through many iterations of it before we hit on something we really loved. In fact, we struggled for quite a while and our interest in the project was waning, but there was a magical moment when it all came together."
The latex was abandoned quite early on in the project in favor of a sheet of spandex that's stretched across, and stapled to, a wooden frame. About three feet behind the frame is a vertically-mounted Microsoft Kinect motion sensing camera system that captures the average depth of the spandex, and this data is routed to custom code created using Max/MSP via a UDP port.
The wooden frame is itself suspended from a metal pole frame, on which an Arduino Uno microcontroller connected to a toggle switch is attached, that allows the user to choose between two operating modes. All sounds are pumped out through two studio monitors.
"The music for the first setting (the piano) is a piece I wrote and is stored in Max as midi notes," Sherwood told us. "As a user presses into the spandex the midi starts to be triggered and increases in speed and velocity the farther the spandex is pressed in."
The piano sounds are accompanied by fire-like visuals designed by Pallison in the Processing open source programming environment, which are thrown onto the stretchy material by an Epson projector and react to the user's touch and press. Users can be seen activating this mode in the following video.
The second mode is another custom-created Max patch that plays a more aggressive sample and features more appropriate visuals designed by Sherwood.
"It plays back a sample and adds delay to it at such a high rate that the sample starts to resonate," Sherwood told us. "Specific audible notes are chosen as target gradations in those resonances as the spandex is pushed in. This allows people to effect the pitch."
The current version of Firewall does not allow for locating specific tones or phrasing, but this is something that the designers intend to add later on.
The interactive media concept was installed at New York's Tisch School of the Arts ITP Winter Show last month. A multiple Firewall performance piece entitled Mizalu (with Kiori Kawai) will premiere at the Tribeca Performing Arts Center in New York this coming June.