York artist augments reality at the Ontario Science Centre

Experience cutting-edge technological wizardry that blurs the lines between art, design and science in The Amazing Cinemagician: New Media Meets Victorian Magic, opening May 29 at the Ontario Science Centre’s Idea Gallery.

The exhibition features two interactive installations by new media artist and York University PhD student Helen Papagiannis (left) that use augmented reality (AR) technology, fog screen and radio frequency identification (RFID).

AR – a layering of virtual information atop the physical environment, such as a heads up display – originated in the world of computer engineering but has recently emerged as a new trend in design, advertising and entertainment. Papagiannis is one of a handful of contemporary artists who have tapped into the creative potential of AR for interactive art. She was cited in the top 10 forces currently shaping the AR industry by leading AR news blog Games Alfresco, which named her “the new ARtist in charge” for her presentation last year at the International Symposium for Mixed and Augmented Reality in Florida.

“AR provides enormous opportunities for new modes of storytelling and visual experiences that can change the way we see and interact with the real world, but who is defining this new form?,” asks Papagiannis, who is presently completing her doctorate in Communication and Culture at York, specializing in AR. “It is a critical time for artists and designers to be involved as pioneers in driving this new technology and contributing to its creative future.”

The Amazing Cinemagician is a mixed reality work that projects film clips by Georges Méliès, the father of special effects, onto a fog screen. The audience can interact with the clips through RFID technology – the next evolution of retail bar codes, where small radio transponders emit a unique ID code. Each of the ethereal film clips is linked to a RFID chip embedded in a series of playing cards, which the viewer uses to activate the installation and display the images onto a translucent projection screen consisting of a thin curtain of dry fog.

Visitors to the exhibit can also interact with Papagiannis’s Wonder Turner, an AR experience where viewers physically rotate large cubes to reveal and create a new video composition. The cubes are equipped with black and white AR symbols, which the software interprets and emits as video clips. Using the classic “exquisite corpse” format with three interchangeable heads, torsos and feet, rotating the cubes allows the user to create a wild variety of creatures – from a surgeon’s head, belly-dancing torso and penguin feet to a llama head, guitar-playing torso and trampoline feet and other wondrous creations. An augmented video of the visitor with the transformed turner is simultaneously displayed on the screen.

“An important aspect of my work is the notion of play,” Papagiannis says. “Playfulness in the types of imagery you will see, and also in practice, in the physical involvement of play and exploring the work. I also love melding new digital technologies with older, analogue modes.”

Papagiannis has been exploring AR as a new creative visual force since 2005. She created The Amazing Cinemagician and Wonder Turner as part of her doctoral studies and her work as a senior research associate in the AR Lab, part of the interdisciplinary Future Cinema Lab research collective in the Faculty of Fine Arts at York University.

Papagiannis has exhibited her work at Interactive Arts festivals and conferences around the world, including the 2008 International Symposium for Electronic Arts in Singapore and the 2009 International Symposium for Mixed & Augmented Reality in Florida. She is an invited presenter at the upcoming Augmented Reality Event 2010 in Silicon Valley, the first global event dedicated to advancing AR. Prior to her work in AR, Papagiannis was a member of the Bruce Mau Design studio, where she was project lead on Massive Change: The Future of Global Design, an internationally touring exhibition and book published by Phaidon Press.

York University’s Augmented Reality Lab, which is directed by film Professor Caitlin Fisher, Canada Research Chair in Digital Culture, is at the forefront in working with both established and emerging technologies to produce innovative research methods, interfaces and content that challenge cinematic and literary conventions and aim to enhance the ways in which people interact with their physical environment and with each other. This work grows increasingly important for Canada’s culture and entertainment industries as AR and associated technologies become more prevalent.

The AR Lab is part of the Future Cinema Lab: New Stories for New Screens, a collaborative research initiative at York. The first dedicated facility of its type in Canada, the Future Cinema Lab  fosters interdisciplinary research on the ways in which new digital storytelling techniques can critically transform a diverse array of state-of-the-art screens.

The Amazing Cinemagician and Wonder Turner will be on view at the Ontario Science Centre to Sept. 6.