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In 2007, children visiting Cinekid, the world’s largest digital exposition for young people, saw something unlike anything they’d seen before. Called Funky Forest, it consisted of three walls, two with projected landscapes and one displaying a waterfall. When the kids walked up to a wall and raised their hands, trees began to grow. When they used fabric “logs” to divert water from the waterfall across the floor, the trees would grow bigger and eventually attract magical creatures.

From left to right: Emily Gobeille, cofounder;
Theo Watson, cofounder; Nick Hardeman, minister
of interactive art; Anna Cataldo, producer.

Up till then, installations that combined projection and animation were largely restricted to more traditional tech venues, like Ars Electronica. They were serious adult fare, mulled over by people like me, chin in hand. The idea of using innovative technology at such scale for the sole (and much more laudable) purpose of delighting children marked a major shift for the digital world.

With the project, Design I/O had announced itself to the world. This new kind of firm would live on the outer reaches of technology and do fantastically innovative work, but usually for play and fun.

“We like projects that give us big headaches and challenge us to do something that no one has done before,” says cofounder Theo Watson.

Of course, Funky Forest was hardly the first go-round for Watson and fellow founder Emily Gobeille. The two met during a game-design competition at Parsons School of Design in New York, where both were already polymathic creatives. Gobeille could illustrate, animate and code, and Watson had a respectable art portfolio and would soon cofound openFrameworks, an important visual coding library for C++.

Browse Projects

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After graduation, the pair moved to Amsterdam, where they were soon making smaller installations that combined sensors, animation and technology. Supported by the city’s burgeoning cultural scene, they found the space and freedom to develop their talents and explore the possibilities of combining illustration and technology.

Funky Forest is a culmination of this period of their lives—and has proven surprisingly durable with an updated version currently attracting visitors to the Singapore Museum of Art. But as Gobeille and Watson continued working the cultural scene in Amsterdam, a financial crisis rocked the European economy, drying up support for projects like theirs.

At the same time, they were deciding where to spend the rest of their lives, home or abroad. The answer turned out to be home. Gobeille had grown up in northern Connecticut, so they settled in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and soon found their talents in major demand. They added Nick Hardeman (résumé: painter and coder) and have since taken on only one more employee, producer Anna Cataldo.

Philosophically, the team is neither rigid nor intense. They have no guiding principles other than pushing technology and taking only projects that allow them to reinvent the wheel. They’ve created apps, augmented-reality experiences, one-person kiosks and massive installations. Typically, their work involves a mixture of Gobeille’s illustrations and Hardeman’s and Watson’s use of sensors, projectors and the ever-growing set of capabilities provided by openFrameworks. The firm’s processes vary greatly, but you can think of them as states of experimental play that end up being expressed in digital form.

“We’re so nimble that we can fit our processes to whatever project we need to accomplish,” says Hardeman. “We always experiment a lot early on. If we get stuck, we might do pen and paper or code sketches. And we constantly play with everything, see if it works and iterate.”

To understand Design I/O’s work, start with Weather Worlds, a traveling exhibition that enables people to control something they normally can’t: the weather. Like much of the firm’s work, Weather Worlds builds on an earlier project, Knee Deep, which enabled children to explore the concept of scale by walking in front of a knee-deep green screen.

“From that, we learned that kids like to see their faces,” says Gobeille. “They were constantly bending down to see themselves.”

As a result, Weather Worlds embraces the whole body. People stand with their backs to a green screen. As they move their bodies, a stereoscopic camera picks up their movements and a software program interprets them. Instantaneously, they see a projection that places them in an animated world that responds to their movements. If they make a swirling motion, they create a tornado. If they hold up their palms, they produce a rainbow. The result is a fun, yet kinetic experience that produced plenty of excited smiles (and is currently looking for a permanent home—hint, hint.)

We like projects that give us big headaches and challenge us to do something that no one has done before.” —Theo Watson

A more ambitious example of Design I/O’s penchant for iteration is Funky Forest’s younger sibling, Connected Worlds. Just about the only thing you can criticize about the former is that many more children want to play with it than feasibly can. Connected Worlds went a long way toward addressing that weakness. Occupying 2,500 square feet in the Great Hall at the New York Hall of Science, it features six biomes fed by a massive digital waterfall.

The point of the project is to teach children about resource conservation and systems thinking. Kids use “logs” to direct water to the ecosystems. When they hold up their palms, a Kinect camera captures the movement, and a seed interface appears. They then plant seeds, eventually attracting creatures, inducing migrations and so on.

Unlike almost any other digital installation, however, Connected Worlds is not completely intuitive. Nor was it designed to be. Instead, it makes excellent use of the New York Hall of Science’s staff of “explainers.” Enabling the museum to take on much more ambitious and educational exhibits, the explainers are an ever-present group of young people who demonstrate how to use them.

In this case, the explainers come armed with an iPad application that controls the physics of the exhibit. If mostly young children are playing with it, the explainers can maximize the amount of water flowing into the biomes, making it easier to grow plants. With older children, they can restrict the flow or increase the rate of evaporation. The explainers can also demonstrate the more exotic features of the habitats, such as showing children how to create nesting areas and how to attract fantastical creatures.

As with any Design I/O project, the team had to experiment a lot with Connected Worlds to get it right. A key problem involved the “migration” of creatures from one biome to the next. A different Mac Pro controls each screen, but the animals must be able to move seamlessly from one to the other. Watson and Hardeman solved the problem by broadcasting an animal’s location to every other computer and ensuring that only the one that matters grabs the information. It’s a low-tech solution to a vexing problem.

The museum’s director of Exhibit Services, Michael Cosaboom, who led the installation of the project, offers his own take on what makes Design I/O successful: “They have such confidence they can get things done.” To explain what he means, he relates how they needed to relay information from the Kinect cameras almost 400 feet, which is a major technological challenge. “I went online to look up who had done something like this,” Cosaboom says, “and I found out that the longest anyone had ever done this was 100 feet and the person who had done it was Theo. So I asked him if it was going to work, and he said, ‘It has to.’”

Although many think of Design I/O as a children’s firm, it’s more accurate to refer to it as a playful firm. For a look at a project aimed at adults, we can turn to Raw Space, which was billed as the world’s first live, 360-degree, augmented-reality album stream (there’s a first for everything).

Done for singer/songwriter Beatie Wolfe, it took place on May 5, 2017, at Bell Labs’ anechoic chamber, once the world’s quietest room. To help them out, the team brought in illustrators Josh Goodrich and James Paterson (known for his personal website Presstube). Working in 3-D illustration program Quill, they created 40 minutes of generative moths and other dynamic elements that floated around Wolfe as she strummed a guitar in the huge and strange space. Over the next week, they also streamed the songs from a record player in the chamber with live visuals.

We’ve only really scratched the surface of merging design and technology.” —Theo Watson

If you’re looking for a major challenge, streaming 4K, 360-degree video while you’re creating generative illustrations in real time fits the bill. “All the tech was on the edge of not being possible,” says Watson. “We were generating stereoscopic 3-D video that’s predistorted. Our software had to create these distortions to perfectly match those of the stereoscopic camera feed so that the generated visuals looked correct when they moved around Beatie.”

To show how tricky and even dangerous this is, at one point, they made the simple mistake of sending the video streams to the wrong eyes. This promptly caused Hardeman, who had volunteered to be a test subject, to become nauseous and rip off the 3-D goggles. But the project came together as one of the most ambitious uses of virtual reality so far.

Looking toward the future, Design I/O has no intention of expanding. It will remain focused on the work and immersed in the technology. And if that means that the world gets only a few projects a year from the firm, everyone will have to be patient.

“We’ve only really scratched the surface of merging design and technology,” says Watson. “We’re at a point where a huge amount of tech is being developed quickly. So much good stuff is coming out in terms of equipment and techniques. If we could take what we have today and not get anything new for ten years, we’d probably have enough. Instead, we have a novelty craze, and we have to go with it.”

And if anyone can keep up with the ongoing innovation, it’s probably Design I/O. In the meantime, if you’re near any of its projects, they’re well worth seeing in person. All the technical headaches they solve typically add up to great fun for kids of all ages. ca

Joe Shepter is a freelance writer specializing in travel and interactive media. He has worked with Adobe, Oracle, Whirlpool and Coca-Cola, among others.

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