Behind the scenes of Brian Eno’s Bloom: Open Space installation

When any new media technology is developed, the tendency is for content creators to aim for the spectacular.

And so it has proved with emerging VR and AR technologies, where you’ll find a preponderance of content featuring explosions, battles, car chases and lots of dinosaurs.

As you may expect if you are familiar with his oeuvre, Brian Eno’s work often tends towards the more atmospheric and contemplative.

In 2008, Eno and his lead developer, Peter Chilvers, created the iOS app Bloom. It uses the touch screen to create music and visual content derived from haptic input combined with generative audio techniques. In early 2018, Eno and Chilvers brought an AR version of Bloom to the Transformatorhuis in Amsterdam.

For the Bloom: Open Space installation, Chilvers worked with Microsoft’s HoloLens, a VR headset that uses some of the motion and positional sensing technology from their Kinect hardware.

Obviously, this being an AR work from Eno, audio is a vital component of the experience and is provided by the small speakers set behind the ears in the HoloLens. The space itself is surrounded by high resolution screens – a ‘screen henge’ as Chilver describes it – and the ‘augmented realists’ pinch the 3D spherical ‘blooms’ that they see in their headsets, visible alongside the so-called ‘real world’ outside.

The ‘performance’ is also relayed to the screens and audio setup in the hall so the audience can partake in the experience. The location for the installation, Westerpark, had been an industrial area, so it seems a fitting location for Eno and Chilver’s experimentation with these new technologies. The space (an old electricity transformer building) has been repurposed for artistic use and it’s about as big as a medium sized church.

“I’ve been looking at VR and AR for a while, but there is no definitive platform for consumers to experience the work yet,” says Chilvers. “It’s a bit of a VHS vs Betamax situation just now and it’s very fragmented. It’s mostly people with high-end gaming systems that have the technology for VR, so the audience for artistic work is currently limited.”

Eno and Chilvers were approached by New York-based WeAreListen to collaborate on an installation. “The really exciting aspect of working with AR is this idea of the shared experience – to create something in the air around you and to see what other people are creating too,” says Chilvers. ”It opens up this whole new way of experiencing Bloom and interacting with the space.”

Microsoft’s technology was an essential ingredient of the work. “The HoloLens is an incredibly high resolution device. If you create an object in the air it looks like it’s something solid floating in front of you – it’s quite uncanny,” says Chilvers.

“There’s this magical presence – you can see the blooms appear. It’s like the Bloom app but in three dimensions, so instead of creating circles you’re creating spheres. There’s a little filtering going on – if you have twelve people in the space you don’t want them all frantically ‘blooming’ away, so you only get a small amount of what other people are doing. You still feel you’re interacting with others, but you aren’t being aurally assaulted.”

The ‘performance’ of the HoloLens wearers is also spread out onto the six video screens that shows an approximation of what is going on and also contributes to the soundtrack that non-performers are hearing as well, but in a quite sparse way, as Chilvers explains: “There is also a generative soundtrack playing in the room, so even if you aren’t using the HoloLens you’d still have the experience of attending a Brian Eno installation. When you’re inside the HoloLens you have this extra layer of interaction on top of that.”

The generative music element of the installation derives from another app created by Eno and Chilvers, Scape.

“To some degree, we imported the soundscapes from Scape,” says Chilvers. ”But when Brian came into the room he immediately identified a problem that, on a simple set of speakers, you don’t have. On the twelve L- Acoustics monitor setup we used, some of these ‘breathy’ sounds were enormous and dominated the space. So although we needed to modify the sounds, it’s all based on the sort of ideas we’ve used on our apps, where sounds aren’t played in sequenced melodies but are generated on the fly and interpreted. So while we are using different software here, we are using similar approaches to the sound creation.”

Chilvers explains that the concept for Bloom was all about simplicity, not complexity. “There’s a tendency for both the artistic and gaming use of this technology to push the envelope all the time and to do something that dazzles and is flashy,” he says. “Brian is obviously something of a master of leaving space in his work.”

The whole installation was run from a single – albeit extremely powerful – computer, while the audio distribution duties were handled by a Yamaha QL1 console. “Each screen had a different piece of the soundtrack playing, says Chilvers. “So if you were next to one it could be presenting more of the low frequencies, another the high ones, for example.” The software Chilvers used to create the installation was Unity. “I absolutely loved it as a programming environment,” he says. “It was designed to create virtual worlds, so it’s all geared around code being added to a those worlds rather than code directly being used to create the virtual worlds themselves.”

These are early days for VR and AR technology. The ‘rules’ have not been written yet and artists have pretty much free reign to experiment.

“I think the area will be dominated by games, but I hope that the technology will be used more for artistic experiences as well,” says Chilvers. The next Eno and Chilvers AR installation is in Berlin in April 2018 and features forty-seven speakers and screens arranged in a in a hexagon.

Sound can be placed in various speakers using a projection system designed by the city’s Pfadfinderei studio and Klangdom a multi-channel soundsystem from the ZKM Institute For Music And Acoustics.

“I’m sure the technology will also become more accessible,” says Chilvers.”The HoloLens is pretty comfortable to wear but it is still quite big. But as is the way with technology, it will become cheaper and smaller over time.”