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'Sensory Meadow' adds whimsy to your walk

September 10, 2012

Interactive exhibit offers passersby light, sound show

Big Brother may not be watching you on ASU’s Tempe campus, but someone – or something – seems to sense your presence when you walk through the breezeway of the Stauffer building.

There’s a sound. Is it singing? A bird chirping? The murmuring of voices from the past?

There are lights, too – 45 futuristic lanterns of blue, orange, green. Are they watching, or listening, too?

The answer is yes. As you walk through the breezeway, the lights sense your presence and turn on, and your movement inspires various sounds.

You are in a “Sensory Meadow.”

“Sensory Meadow” is an art project created by Todd Ingalls, an associate research professor in the School of Arts, Media & Engineering, and Mary Bates Neubauer, a professor in the School of Art, both units in the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts, for the opening of the Digital Culture program in AME.

“Thanassis Rikakis, former director of AME, had asked Todd and me to create a suspended artwork for the Digital Culture Walkway next to Stauffer Building,” Neubauer said. “Thanassis had liked the Photo-luminescent Sound Garden, a temporary commission that had been installed in 2010 at the Scottsdale Civic Center Bell Tower. As first we looked into adapting components from the Sound Garden, but realized that we would need to create an entirely new piece, specific to the walkway site.

“The task was to activate the rather dark and featureless walkway. We needed to brighten this long, rectangular space with a field of lights, many more than were at the Bell Tower. We came up with the idea of the field as a Meadow, consisting of flower-like light-forms made of stacked laser cut contours on light tubes with magnifying lenses.

“We also developed a color palette and a sequence of five differing blossom-like- but retro-futuristic, light-forms of various sizes and proportions. Conceptually, we both liked the idea of the way a breeze blows through a meadow, coursing through the grasses and plants, to polling and dissipating, revealing the movement of the wind.”

“Sensory Meadow” is tied to several websites that monitor environmental data, such as temperature, humidity and water-flow data, and create sounds related to the changes in conditions.

One of the sounds emulates the first “singing” done by a computer and is “my homage to computer pioneer Max Mathews,” Ingalls said.

Mathews, an electrical engineering, worked at Bell Labs, where he wrote MUSIC, the first widely used program for sound generation. Mathews, in 1961, wrote an accompaniment to a computer-synthesized singing voice that was used in “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

Even though “Sensory Meadow” is an experiment in expressing streaming numerical data through sound and light, it also is an experience of pleasure and surprise.

“Some people walk through it every day,” Ingalls said. “People try to figure out how it works and interact with it,” Ingalls said.

“The more people and movement that the motion detectors sense, the more active the artwork becomes,” Neubauer said. “The concept explores the idea of creating artworks that have their own sensory capacity, and can offer a response back to the viewer.

“We like that the artwork seems to make people happy, and we often see people moving or dancing under the lights.”

Ingalls said the original intention was to have “Sensory Meadow” up for six months, but it’s still there keeping its watch on passers-by.

It’s a low-power installation that uses LED lights, so perhaps it will get to stay.

“Sensory Meadow” adds a sense of play to the campus by day, and drama in the dark. Ingalls said it’s “much more interesting at night.”