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Wo ist der Esel? – Creating Interactive Surfaces with the Touch Board

Whether your project requires capacitive or distance sensing, the Touch Board is a great tool to bring ideas to life. One way to use the sensors is to detect whether an object has been placed on a sensor or not and this function was used in this installation. Multimedia artist Riccardo Castagnola specialises in sound art, in his latest piece “Wo ist der Esel”, he used the Touch Board and electric paint to create an interactive surface artwork that tells the story of “the Town Musicians of Bremen”. We caught up with Riccardo to learn more about the piece.

Riccardo told us more about the creative process behind ”Wo ist der Esel?”, his latest interactive sound installation, inspired by the Grimms’ fairy tale ”The Town Musicians of Bremen”. It was commissioned for an exhibition by the Kindermuseum für Bremen e.V. to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the fairy tale. The process of realising the art piece took over 3 months through conception, prototyping and installation.

The concept of the interactive art was to express the mood of the four animals in the different moments of their story. So he created the work around 6 elements including: six soundscapes corresponding to six scenes, which could be heard separately one by one. Then he recorded the calls of the animals (donkey, dog, cat and hen) performed with his own voice, in order to add some irony and ambiguity.

Riccardo then defined the kind of interaction he wanted the audience to have with the artwork and the design of the installation. He chose to use a table as the main structure in order to allow many people to interact with the piece at once. The principle of the art consists of triggering samples by putting metal objects (in the form of animals) on specific touch-sensitive areas, searching for the four animals in the tale.

He created hidden layers of sounds (the animal samples) that could only be heard in combination with a louder sound (the soundscape samples), in order to enrich the interaction possibilities.

For the technology behind the installation, Riccardo used Electric Paint on cardboard to create the sensors. Avoiding working directly on the wooden plate gave him a bigger margin of error and the possibility to repair the surface without damaging it. He placed screws throughout the surface in order to hide the cables leading to the Touch Board (1.5mm single-core wires with lugs).

The Touch Board scales the input values and sends it to the computer via USB as MIDI CC messages. MAX 8 (Cycling 74) running on a MacBook Pro interprets the messages as triggers and handles the whole logical switch structure and the audio samples. The audio signals are then outputted via 6 channel audio interface (M-Audio Audiophile Firewire), placed directly on the surface of the table with six contact loudspeakers (Dayton Audio DAEX30HESF-4 Exciter) around the corners (for the animals) and in the centre of the table (for the soundscapes).

The research and test of the best conductive materials to work with the Electric Paint and Touch Board was the biggest challenge. When he created the collection of figurines, it took many attempts to understand that it was necessary to use galvanised iron wire for each sculpture (made by Harm Wicke) and 1.5mm copper wires in order to maximise the conductivity and have a larger range of values to interpret.

Bare Conductive gave him very useful advice on creating a special shape for the sensor (with one part for the signal and another for the ground), which also works with metal objects without human contact. However, the drawing and cutting of that shape on 2mm cardboard were very energy and time-consuming.

From August 2019 Riccardo has been gathering a lot of feedback directly from the Weserburg museum personnel. The main users of the installation are children, their parents and teachers but also other adults who visit the Kindermuseum. They’re all inspired by the experience in a wide range of ways depending on their age.

The little ones are more fascinated by the animal sounds and the metal figures, which they try to imitate with their voice and body. The elder ones are curious about understanding the way the installation reacts to their actions and then to discover all the possibilities of the technology.

The complexity of the structure induces an evolving behaviour when members of the public explore it. At first, most of the users are very active, placing their hand on the sensors, embracing the interactive experience and ignoring the actions of the other people around. But this quickly leads to a funny chaotic mixture of sounds. When they get tired of it they spontaneously change approach: they reduce their actions and pay more attention to the other players.

This corresponds to the pedagogical aim of the installation: activating the imagination through aural and haptic stimulation, promoting cooperation instead of individualism in order to make discoveries.

Images & Video: Riccardo Castagnola, in cooperation with Tempo Reale, in the context of the European Erasmus + project ”The soundscape we’re living in”

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