Disney’s scientific genius on making the virtual palpable
Interview taken from the February issue of Dazed & Confused:
A mathematician’s son, Ivan Poupyrev left his homeland following the collapse of the Soviet Union and divided his time between Washington and Japan, where he earned a doctorate from Hiroshima University. After an eight-year stint with Sony’s Tokyo labs he moved to Pittsburgh to take up a senior post with Disney Research, where he dreams up the interfaces of the future. Poupyrev works in physical computing, making responsive interfaces out of unexpected objects. His Botanicus Interacticus transforms ordinary house plants into touch-sensitive musical instruments through the magic of Touché sensing technology. Mathematical wizardry enables Touché to add gesture control to any object that conducts electricity – so secret gestures can unlock doorknobs too. Revel was a similarly lo-fi stroke of genius; by manipulating our bodies’ electrostatic fields, it lets our hands feel computer-generated textures. An image of a ball can feel rubbery, sand gritty and pebbles smooth.
What drew you to touch-based technology?
Ivan Poupyrev: We can completely control data and conjure any image or sound we want from it; there are no limitations to what we can create visually. But the sense of touch is really lacking from these creations. You can’t really feel it, touch its texture, wrap your hands around it. That’s a huge lack – touch is an important part of how we experience life. So my idea is to bring the virtual into the palpable realm. Maybe you can shape soundwaves with your hands, feel light falling on your hands, or grasp objects you can’t normally see with your eyes.
What’s the difference between physical computing and ‘the internet of things’?
Ivan Poupyrev: They all refer to the same vision of the future but come at it from different angles. The internet of things is focused on objects talking to each other over wi-fi, for example. Whereas I approach this vision of the future by making the world an interface. I did my PhD in virtual reality – I was fascinated by creating completely artificial environments you become immersed in, where anything is possible. Physical computing brings qualities of the computer into physical reality.
If you could only use storytelling or technology to enhance reality, which would you choose?
Ivan Poupyrev: The original storytelling pretty much used narrative alone. A narrator takes you through the story step-by-step and you are essentially passive. But computer games opened storytelling right up. With video games you are an actor in the story unfolding in front of you. A compelling story will remain really important but technology gives you a greater sense of immersion. Your actions have consequences, and that fosters a far stronger emotional connection.
What other things extend the technology of storytelling?
Ivan Poupyrev: If you imagine what the ultimate game could be – with no limitations on your imagination – then it would be your own life. If you could live your life, then load it from level one (i.e. your birth), that would be awesome! We can approximate elements of this ultimate game with wearable technology: as you go through your day, it changes your experiences according to a certain narrative, and this narrative becomes part of your real life. This idea of thinking about the ultimate experience first, then stepping back and approximating it with what we have to hand, is how I work.
So what’s the future of entertainment?
Ivan Poupyrev: Entertainment used to be a confined experience, one-on-one with a book or sat in front of a TV. It was bound to one particular place: the theatre or cinema. Mobile devices changed the game, so the next step is to connect to the real-world environment, and the next step after that is to enhance your real-world environment. I think the next technological revolution will be in merging the physical and the digital. Simplicity is key to this. Back in the 60s, if you wanted to own a car you needed to be a part-time mechanic to maintain it. Now cars just work, they’re simple. I think that same transition needs to happen with the technologies that connect the real world to the digital.
Augmented reality is technology that merges the digital with the physical. Kevin Slavin famously criticised its visual bias and said ‘reality is augmented when it feels different’. Do you agree?
Ivan Poupyrev: I can see both sides of the argument. Realism, by itself, is boring. When the artist can inject their very personal view of the world, morph the world and objects within it in a way that reflects how they feel about the world, that’s when things become interesting. That’s why cartoons are compelling. The resurgence of 8-bit graphics is also related to this. Bitmapped graphics enable a purity of expression: when you’ve got a limited palette, every pixel matters. Things become interesting when you can create experiences you cannot experience in the real world. That’s what fascinates me.
Brian Eno famously complained about the imprisoning nature of computer interaction. he said, ‘how does one Africanise, or Brazilianise, or otherwise liberate a computer?’
Ivan Poupyrev: I’m with Brian Eno 100 per cent on that! Liberating yourself from the screen was exactly why I got into virtual reality in the first place. But computers themselves are a culture. For the original supercomputer designers, the idea that you would use a machine of that power to play games on would be outrageous! That way of thinking about computing as a serious tool to do serious business is still very strong. It’s less about west vs east, but it’s a historical legacy of how computers came to be.
Where do you look for inspiration?
Ivan Poupyrev: I’m always looking at trends. I want to see the seeds of what is happening, not the results. Printed electronics really interest me at the moment. Printing is a very old technology but it’s seeing a reinvention right now. We’re printing things which were not supposed to be printed. The big shift is we’re printing things that can do things themselves. We printed an optical sensor that senses input, using LEDs and light pipes printed inside the object! These technologies will let us create previously impossible things. It’s going to be hugely significant.
Where will the next tech revolution happen?
Ivan Poupyrev: Well, the revolution happens from all quarters. I think that the enthusiasts are the ones on the forefront but it’s when there’s big business to be had that things accelerate fast. Even with lots of stupid money being wasted on projects during the first dotcom boom, it was that swell that made the big companies wake up to the internet. But the maker community around (open-source tools for creating interactive environments) Arduino and Processing was eye- opening for me. They are tools that lower the entry bar, and the community that’s emerged bucks the trend of passive consumers. When entry barriers are lowered, people get involved. Curiosity is wired into us: the excitement of making and creating something new.