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A performative sound installation featuring the "willowphone"

Published onFeb 23, 2022
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Stretching Senses School: an introduction
Stretching Senses School: an introduction

Playful approaches can directly affect our sensory faculties beyond the realm of power and knowledge. The »stretching senses school« is an education-as-research project at the Tieranatomisches Theater Berlin (TA T) attached to the exhibition Stretching Materialities.

This project is a collaboration between Chloé Lee, Samuel Perea-Diaz and Vanta.

Antenna is a performative sound installation that centers around the custom-built “willowphone,” a hack of the traditional virtual reality headset, which reimagines how we engage with, and impact, our environment. This first iteration is intended for the lecture hall at Tieranatomisches Theater, which was selected for its acoustics. The domed ceiling creates echoes and delays, ‘throwing sounds’ in unexpected ways.

Samuel workshopping our prototype.

What is the “willowphone”?

The willowphone is a wearable object and virtual reality headset that transposes the sound of the wear’s environment through two long willow branches mounted on top of the HMD. The user finds themselves in the center of a larger-than-life willow tree that fills the entire lecture hall of the Tieranatomisches Theater.

More specifically, the sounds from the branches are picked up with contact mics, processed, and sent to:

(1) transducers mounted on the front of the HMD, 

(2) room speakers, and 

(3) the virtual world in the HMD (realtime visual manipulation of the 3D mapped space).

Having audio experienced simultaneously through both transducers and room speakers turns the space into an oversized speaker, creating a multilayered experience.

The willowphone installed on the main exhibition room at Tieranatomisches Theater.

We were inspired by the “Structural Textile Project” and are thankful for the dialogue and inspiring exchange of ideas around their research. Special thanks to Natalija Miodragović, Daniel Suarez, and Nelli Singer. 

We learned about the properties of willow, the process behind their willow designs, and considered how we might incorporate aspects of their process. Natalija showed us how soaking willow in water allows the material to be sculpted into shape. Their willow “creatures” were hand woven into intricate patterns used in various industries. When considering the user’s experience in the space, we considered designing a custom circular carpet or weaving a mat similar to one willow sculpture in the exhibition that is woven in a pattern used for car cushions. We decided that the first iteration of the exhibition would be experienced seated on a rotating stool.

The moment that inspired Samuel and I to work together on this project (We filmed each others first reactions, unbeknownst at the time we would be working together).

It was our first interaction with the simple long curved willow branch that inspired the willowphone. Samuel and I also happened to capture matching videos of each other’s first experiences with the original willow branch. It surprising and fun and encouraged us to relearn how to experience our environment. Sounds of ‘scratching’ from the single willow branch moving against the ground were amplified and sent directly to our ears. The willow branch seemed to remove the distance between our ears and the ground. In a sense, they were like ‘natural headphones.’

We were both fascinated by the willow branch’s simplicity of form and how something this simple could bring us closer to an aspect of our environment that we may not interact with in this way on a day to day. We became interested in the way that the willow material can translate and create new ways of engaging, and thus being, with one’s environment.

The framework of an antenna served as a model to explore how the amplified sound from the willow could translate in other ways and on a larger scale. The fan-like moth antennae were particularly interesting because the antennae are situated where we expect eyes to be. In other words, they take in information about their environment not with eyes but through the vibrations sensed by antennae. We translated this to the design of the willowphone, adding transducers to the front of the headset, which transmit both sound and vibration. The circular shape of the transducers when placed over the eye area, resembles eyes, speakers in lieu of eyes. An emphasis of sound over images.

Notes and drawings of various insect antennae by Chloé Lee.

During our first meeting we became familiar with various willow material and how it could be attached to the headset and/or be used as extensions of one's hands. Willow that was sculpted into a spiral created sounds that oscillate within the geometry. In more descriptive terms it sounded like a ‘vroom vroom’ that reverberated back and forth within the spiral of the willow material. A woven willow sculpture with multiple points of contact with a surface created more textural and layered sounds.

We experimented with the placement of transducers on the headset, placing them on the front and back. We wondered how changing the directionality of sound would change the user’s experience. For instance, if the sound was coming from the front, we wondered what the experience would be like if, instead, it was perceived from behind. We noticed the effect forces a relearning or rewiring process; it challenges the way the user perceives their environment.

In the end we chose a more minimal design that extends the original concept of the longer willow branch, doubling its length to have two points of contact with the ground, while keeping the HMD’s hardware attachments simpler and lighter. There are two hardware configurations, one which uses hardwire cables, and another, more truncated version that is wireless. We will come back to this later.

This emphasis on sound is also driven by the fact that virtual reality is a visually dominant experience. The transducers, in addition to sending the sound through room speaks, invert this expectation. The added layer of sound through the room also counters the typical separation that the virtual reality headset creates between the user and their physical environment. This inherent disconnection from the physical space is also addressed through visuals.

Despite this sonic emphasis, we chose to have a visual component; one that is influenced by the sound picked up by the willow. In the HMD, the visuals are minimal to focus on the sound and vibration. The mapped lecture hall space grounds the user with their physical space, while the added willow tree allows them to experience willow up close in a digital form and on a grander scale. Willow takes over the space. Its grand scale parallels the amplified sounds echoing through the HMD and physical room.

As touched on previously, we were interested in playing with the materiality of the willow: seeing it in digital forms allows us to experience willow in a way that is otherwise impossible. In this same spirit we printed 3D models of willow branches and experimented with more organic textures in the fabrication of the faceplate that slides over the headset; inverting expectation of natural and synthetic materials to create something new. Along the way, we learned a lot about this kind of experimentation, and approaches that were new and newer to each of us, such as in the multiple failed attempts at 3D printing.

The next iteration includes plans to design a custom built willow structure to hold the headset when not in use. The truncated wireless version of the headset can be experienced untethered and in the main exhibition room, without the room speakers.

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