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PRANA: Experimenting at the Crossroads of Art and Technology

by Mike Potter, Art Director<br>and Eric Heaton, Technical Director
January 21, 2016

Experimentation is an integral component in growing an agile team in this industry.

With this in mind, B-Reel recently completed a project called PRANA; a unique interactive experience housed for five weeks at the Fridman Gallery in New York City. A free-hanging sphere consisting of 13000 LED lights responding to the breath of the viewer inside, PRANA drew large crowds and esteemed media into its glow. The takeaways from PRANA yielded some insights into experimenting at the intersection of art and technology, and we wanted to share.

Try something you don’t know a lot about.

A project like PRANA really is a testament to the place that it was created. B-Reel always pushes us to try and do something new and unexpected in our work. PRANA was one of the most difficult projects that we have ever completed, so it definitely precipitated a lot of growth for us professionally, in confidence, knowledge and abilities.

Cross-Disciplinary engagement is a MUST.

PRANA was not in a standard creative or technological space, so it fostered cross-disciplinary engagement between creatives and technologists which is a perfect example of the B-Reel way. Most of the team knew very little about how to do what we embarked upon at the beginning, but that didn’t scare us off - in fact, it excited us.

Don’t separate the art from the technology

There is no need to separate tech from art. Of course, there are many cases when they are not related but, especially in recent years, it seems to be the natural progression of things for tech to become part of the art. As our technology advances in every direction it is opening up new avenues to create - and that may mean using tech as the tool to create something, or as the art itself.

Make a plan, and make a plan for your plan

A big thing that helped the final execution was having an overarching plan. A majority of the first few months of this 9-month endeavor consisted of doing R&D just to come up with this plan. While there were different changes and road bumps over the course of the project, we did stay on point with things for the most part. The plan also wasn’t just about each of the components, but it also included how those components worked together and how they fit together. It took in such considerations as team capabilities, physical / architectural constraints, technology, environment, cost, and of course, timing.

Even the smartest and most agile team has a learning curve

One of the biggest (unexpected) challenges was timing, especially for education. When one route didn’t work out, we were able to substitute it with another, but we didn’t account enough time for the team learn each of the different parts of the process, which set us back.

When mired in the details don’t forget the bigger picture

One thing that we are very proud of with PRANA is how similar the final product ended up being to the original concept. When the project was just an idea, there was a long road of problems, decisions, alterations, and ultimately solutions ahead - but we were able to keep the final result in our sights throughout the entire process. Overall, it was really just a natural progression of how it came together, we knew what we wanted the experience to be and to look like, and more importantly, to feel like for the user.

Test the shit out of it

With that in mind, we were continuously iterating and testing each and every element of the piece. From the scale of the installation to the tech that would make it possible , the type of LEDs to the physical structure itself, and the sounds that would be heard to the colors that would be seen; everything took many versions and tests to get the right balance.

Don’t give up, even when you f*ck up

There were definitely several moments where hope was dwindling, and roadblocks were seemingly insurmountable. The biggest one for us was figuring out the best way to track the breathing data. We did lots and lots of research, and then lots of testing, and were coming up short with every direction - nothing was getting the accuracy or dependency we wanted. It wasn’t until we stumbled upon an article describing the Xethru that our direction became clear. Even then, the chip required a lot of testing, perfecting, and tweaking to get it to work as well as it did.

With any project like this, time and cost seem to exponentially increase with every little mistake. With this project, some errors (by ourselves, or by the equipment) set us back days, even weeks - which of course is incredibly detrimental to the schedule. What we learned is that you really need to measure 3 or 4 times, and cut once on a project like this. That, and there needs to be a considerable amount of time padded for the tech’s performance.

Share the wealth

We created a code editor that allows anyone who can code to create animations for the sphere. We were curious about what people around the world might do with the canvas that we had created. Once we started discussing it as something we could do, we got really excited about PRANA becoming a living piece of art that could change over time with people from anywhere contributing to it. PRANA is a unique space. It gives creative technologists the opportunity to code for a 3D space (which isn’t really uncommon) but also the opportunity to visualize it in a physical way. A community driven project like this can take the “technologically organic” nature of the piece and push it a step further.

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