Projected animations at the wave of a hand

The road to bringing a wearable technology concept to life is not an easy one, as Charlotte Ashley learns speaking to PrickImage founder Shaun O’Connor.

When Shaun O’Connor first told technicians about his vision for a lightweight, portable device that would bring 3D animations and characters to life on the street, people thought it was impractical to pick up a projector. Now WalkPro3D can be found at concerts, on catwalks and buildings around the world. How did he do it? Four off-the-shelf elements of technology, a good measure of patience, and not being afraid to tear up the rulebook.

Originally from New Zealand, O’Connor chose to retrain in digital media after moving to London in 1998, deciding he wanted to further pursue creativity outside of the hospitality sector. After enjoying research into the applications of wallpaper digital displays, he graduated with a first class BA from London’s College of Communication, despite dyslexia meaning he sometimes struggled with writing down his ideas.

The plan was always to return home, but the lure working the “exploding” VJ scene in London clubs and warehouse events was too great. O’Connor caught the buzz for entertaining people working in bars and restaurants, and honed an understanding of “what people respond to and how they react to things,” O’Connor recalls. Little did he realise seven years down he would find himself at the heart of his performances, infusing costume with projection and the element of surprise for clients including Adidas, Vivienne Westwood and the Chemical Brothers.

O’Connor often felt “stuck” at the back of the room in a technician-like role, and realised larger ambitions “to move amongst the people and interact with people.” “At big events, everyone is faced on one direction looking at the visual or the DJ, but it’s nice to move around and change people’s perceptions and direction,” states O’Connor.  

And so PrickImage was born, Walkabout Projection and byproduct WalkPro3D would follow, a portable projection system bringing bespoke HD video and animations to any indoor or outdoor surface, controlled by hand gestures.  The project fulfilled O’Connor’s desire to bring more creativity, freedom and interactivity to projection. He says WalkPro3D is “a way of trying to take the visual off the screen to break the 4 x 3 or 16 x 9 frame.”

“WalkPro3D is a way of trying to take the visual off the screen to break the 4 x 3 or 16 x 9 frame.”

The system consists of a Unity3D gaming engine and a Leapmotion sensor controller that feeds back to a mini CPU, as well as a battery attached to the body. It now weighs under a kilo, however the product’s development stages brought about challenges when it came to battery size, weight, and processing power. O’Connor states that his ideas for controlling 3D characters in real time in the street was put on hold for many years as the technology was too big and bulky.

“The motorcycle battery packs we were using in the early days were 5 to 6 kg each, and we needed two of them! It was all very uncomfortable, so you never really wanted to do it for long periods of time.”

“Before we used video clips and sequenced them together using smart phone apps or media players to give the illusion it was a real 3D character, but now we really are able to do it.”

“I had to deal with a lot of scepticism at the beginning. People saying the image should be square or rectangular; it should be static, with nice focus. Saying ‘don’t try and move it around, or the image with get distorted.’ It’s been a work in progress and still is continuously evolving, but dealing with the restrictions of the technology and the environment has helped create the product it is today.”

Shaun OConnor, PrickImage headshotO’Connor often collaborates with 3D software designer Pikilipita to bring client’s ideas for animations to life. “We were collaborating originally using his 3D characters, because he already had a very unique performance as a VJ. He used to use little video game controllers and create his own operating system.  I met him as a VJ, and then I created the Walkabout projection system, so it was a nice right time at the right place moment. It was like okay, let’s take your characters and take them away from screen, out onto the streets, and he was excited to see his characters used in a different way.”

Pikilipita uses free software Blender to create the content. “He’s not really tied up in using really complicated 3D software,” says O’Connor. “We like to keep the characters quite simple, because when you’re projecting on loads of different types of surfaces  like bricks,  dark wood, or even carpet, its nice to keep the characters simple and strong coloured. And also for processing speed, they need to be less geometrical, so then we can control them in a more natural, quick way.”

He adds: “We have created a bespoke app pulling all that together, and allowing us to have complete freedom of the hands, treating it like a joystick.”

O’Connor’s perseverance with “getting the technology to catch up with our imagination” means 2016 could be a landmark year for PrickImage. The company has already been commissioned to be a part of Malta’s 2018 European Capital of Culture celebrations in Valetta. With two years to plan, the project has the potential to be PrickImage’s largest yet, with O’Connor already brainstorming how he can bring the element of surprise to the event. “It will be exciting to get maybe 25 or 50 of the projectors popping up in that crowded environment. It could be something as crazy as Grandmas pulling them out of their handbags, or businessmen pulling it out of their briefcases and then disappearing as quickly as they appear in a flashmob-style performance.”

He also states he is in talks with a “big international brand” about providing a significant number of WalkPro3D kits for a big campaign. O’Connor says getting their big break will “really put PrickImage on the map and give us the investment to develop WalkPro3D to the next level.”

PrickImage’s portfolio is already diverse, ranging from projecting animations and arrows under a bridge to direct runners during a 10K run for Adidas, to surprising guests with visuals of the Cheshire Cat at an Alice in Wonderland-themed charity event. “I find it really exciting to use the technology in different ways; you can see us at a festival but also in a corporate environment.” O’Connor recently helped promote a corporation’s new logo by projecting it on and around its employees at an event celebrating its rebrand.

“The Chemical Brothers was my favourite collaboration. One of their team saw me developing the project in its early stages at Glastonbury and they asked me to help create a multi-sensory experience to blur what’s on the screen and how the audience perceives it.” He adds, “As they have very strong graphics that look good on big LED screens, I used to look at them for inspiration on how to make visuals visible working in underground clubs, so it was a perfect collaboration.”

He has also had success using traditional puppeteering methods to make projections appear even more life-like. “Because we’re not controlled by the frame, we can take the fairly simple movement of a walking 3D character and give it a bit more life and scope. The breadth and fixed points allows you to deal with the architecture of the space so the character can walk up steps, walk along a roof and it feels like they are really there doing it, and make people respond.”

O’Connor was inspired by Omoto’s iconic face tracking and body mapping video, and is keen to progress his real-time body mapping applications of the technology - previously lent to the BBC - with developers. “The next level for us is developing the processing power to be able to do this in compact way in a mobile environment, but it is tricky.” He is also excited by the potential of VR, stating that is could be another avenue he explores in the future.

Often found donning a tuxedo and a top hat for his work, the element of performance is evidently at the heart of all O’Connor’s work with projection. He says the third of Arthur C. Clarke’s three laws best epitomises PrickImage: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” “Kids chase the little characters and want to play with them. Even adults respond if you bring the technology to them,” he says. “The whole idea of technology looking like magic, I think that’s exactly how we like it come across.”

See WalkPro3D technology in action in previous InAVate coverage of PrickImage.

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