I’ve met several talented interaction designers and new media artists who have to accept jobs they are not exactly thrilled about in order to be able to “work on their own stuff” in their leisure time. Fortunately i’ve also met creative practionners who were brave enough to set up their own practice and do not look back. David Kousemaker, Thomas de Bruin and Tim Olden from the interaction design collective Blendid are three of them. They met at the HKU (Utrecht School of the Arts) and over the past few years they have cooperated on a number of projects about experimental interfaces.
Among the works of the Amsterdam-based studio is Demor, an immersive outdoor game experience for visually impaired children; Robotract, an augmented reality game; TouchMe, an interactive installation that allows the public to leave a personal imprint in the public space. Experimenting with the whole body of a dancer as an input device they also created the Mocap Performance.
You set up a company right after having graduated. That’s a very bold move. Did you do it because you felt there was a need on the market for the works you develop or was it because there wasn’t much alternative: you think you wouldn’t have found a job interesting enough?
In our graduation year we considered our future options, it seemed pretty hard to imagine landing a job out in the real world that would allow for the kind of experimentation we value. Because of our shared interest in connecting the digital with the everyday reality it seemed like a good idea to combine our skills. We figured that Blendid would help us to develop our own ideas and that this format would allow us to work in both commercial and autonomous contexts.
Any advice for young creative who would like to start their own business right after school?
It is very tempting to set up a business after you graduate as it seems like a good way to live of your creativity without having to deal with someone who tells you what to do. For some this might be exactly how it turns out but there are some drawbacks to be aware of too. Starting a business means spending a lot of time on non creative stuff. Getting to know rules and regulations that you, as a creative person, might not have any interest in.
Having to deal with finding costumers and setting up an office can be a drag sometimes, but in the end, if this is what enables you to do the kind of work you enjoy, it is definitely worth it.
How many opportunities does The Netherlands offer to young creatives? Do you feel limited by the size of your country? Or does it make it easier to get noticed?
The Netherlands currently has quite a few initiatives to stimulate the creative industry. So far these initiatives haven’t yet translated into any concrete support for Blendid but we hope that will change. Right now we are noticing a growing interest for our expertise from the commercial sector that should lead to some interesting projects. Size wise, Holland might be small, but so far this has not been a limiting factor. We try to make our message as international as possible anyway.
As you write in your “about us” page, so far your “approach has led to a diverse collection of work that cannot easily be boxed into a single category.” What drives such variety: do you get bored with one technology once you’ve explored it, are you just too curious and want to try everything or is it because you are/were three individuals which each have their own interest?
The main reason for the diverse nature of our work has to be our wide interest.
We just really enjoy investigating new and different topics when they come on our path. Also, when we encounter new technologies, we always get excited by the cloud of possibilities and potential they can have for new projects, when we take them apart, or combine them in unusual ways. Our different projects do have something in common, because at the core of all our work, there is a vision of a more natural interaction between people and computing technology.
Which new technologies or social aspect would you like to explore next?
At the moment we have a growing interest in flocks, meshes and clusters. It seems that we, as people, will have to start understanding more about how our individual actions connect to the whole community. Technology, specifically when networked can possibly be a very effective tool to support insights in this area. To keep our technological toolbox up-to-date we do a lot of (online) research and try to attend relevant workshops, like for instance the RFID & the Internet of Things workshop at Mediamatic we went to recently.
You’re also teaching, how do you keep the balance between your “duties” as a teachers and your creative practice?
Our job at the HKU (Utrecht School of the Arts: Faculty of Art, Media & Technology) mainly consists of tutoring both bachelor and master students in their graduation year. Being around young talent is creatively stimulating as we get introduced to, and made to think about, a range of topics that might have otherwise escaped our attention.
Next to the half day a week we spend tutoring the students, we also give seminars that allow us to communicate much more of Blendid’s design perspective. In this context, one of our older projects, a motion capture performance experiment has grown into a reoccurring series of MoCap Lab seminars.
Demor has been designed for both blind as sighted players. How difficult was it to work for the blind? Did the experience influence successive works? Did you have to refine/redesign the project after the first user tests?
Although each group of users always has particular limitations that should be considered when designing any application for them, in the case of visually impaired people, this limitation seems more challenging. This was in fact not the case with Demor, as the blind teens where a perfect audience for an augmented audio environment.
The user testing we did during the early stages of development turned out to be very helpful in the process of making design decisions. In the end of the project we only had limited time for iterations, but thankfully there wasn’t any necessity for major redesigns. The basic principle of the game worked very well, as most of the players really enjoyed making their way through the first level and were remarkably successful at doing so.
It was incredibly rewarding to see how naturally our target audience played the game, often doing better then we did during our own practice runs. At the time this really helped crystallize our thoughts on how invisible and direct we would like any interface to be. Finding these types of natural ways to directly augment our everyday world with digital information has remained one of our key ambitions.
Would you feel confident to permanently install TouchMe in a public space like an airport or a train station? would it imply constant maintenance? How reliable/robust is the technology?
It would be great to see TouchMe set up permanently in the kind of public space the piece was originally designed for!
The technology behind the installation is definitely solid enough to run without hitches for extended periods of time. However, we would probably build a moderation tool for periodically removing less interesting contributions.
During the STRP festival last March, the installation ran for 3 days in a row capturing more than 2000 imprints of different people. This indicates that people really enjoy interacting with the piece and underscores to us the premise the piece was build on.
Your work is very playful: games, installations that I’m sure kids must love, etc. Is that playfulness an essential component of your work?
Games are great platforms to get users involved with any type of mediated experience. In the case of Demor, where we choose to build a new interface around a generic FPS concept, it became clear to us that the ‘flow’ of a simple game really help the user to focus on a task while ‘forgetting’ about the interface.
That playfulness is a reoccurring component in our work is more of a collateral phenomenon then a premeditated design goal. We always aim to construct the kind of interfaces that require a very direct manner of interaction of the user. This usually means we try avoiding menu structures and other types of abstract GUI’s, but rather focus on interaction modalities that borrow their behavior from unmediated, real-world tasks. That such types of interactions turn out to feel very playful to most users is often just an added bonus.
What are you working on now?
At the moment we are working on a couple different projects about which we can’t disclose much for now. For one of those projects our designs have to contribute to an enjoyable ‘experience’ with tangible and interactive aspects, another project involves an installation for a more commercial setting.
Next to these and other projects that we do for third parties we are trying to do some autonomous work with a project to make what we call ‘Wixels’. In the academic context we are involved with helping to shape the curriculum for the new studies of Ambient Experience Design at the HKU.
Which place do you think your practice should take in society? How do you see your “role”?
As interaction designers it will always be our task to build bridges between people and technology. For most interaction designers this might have mainly consisted of the design of interfaces for websites and software or for devices like mobile phones. With the arrival of pervasive computing new layers of functionality can be added to everyday objects and environments. This promises to be a fascinated domain for those who share our interests, but can potentially also be somewhat of a nightmare for those who are less adept when it comes to technology. As can be seen in many of the projects on display at WMMNA, the best designs don’t simply add buttons to object to access this new level of functionality but utilize a broader set of tools to find the most suitable interaction modality.
Can you point us to some Dutch interaction designers, artists or other creatives we should keep our eyes on?
There are a few Dutch designers and artists we like to keep track of ourselves.
Although she only graduated last year, Lotte Meijer already has an interesting collection of small sparkly interaction design projects to her name.
The guys of grrr don’t only have a cool name, they also manage to be consistent when it comes to the high quality of their mostly web-based interaction design work.
It is hard not to be stunned by the work of Marnix de Nijs who is obviously one of the frontrunners when it comes to (Dutch) interactive art.
Last but not least, we much enjoy PIPS:lab , a group that incorporates experimental interaction design in extremely entertaining theatre.
Thanks a lot Tim and David!