© 2019 Richard W.P. Huang

The Origin

    Being a filmmaker with a music background, I've always been fascinated by how sound can completely change the atmosphere of a movie. For example, if we watch a horror movie without sound, it will not be as scary as it would be with sound. I always take advantage of this in my work and spend a lot of time on sound design. After working on several films, I realize that it is often the first element to be ignored in not only small projects but also some large-scale productions. This doesn't mean that people don't think of it as necessary, but more that it is not as important as the visual. Hence, I always wanted to create an auditorial experience with no visuals, like a movie without the sound. It would be interesting to see what people think about it and whether it will change people's perspective toward the sound.

 

    In the Design Studio 2 class of DMI, one of our projects' objectives was to create a John Cage-inspired instrument. I thought about him blurring the line between music and noise, and I realized this was a great opportunity to create a version of my audio-only experience, combined with John Cage's concept of randomness. After some brainstorming sessions, I ended up with an installation that would bring people to a random time and location - by playing a recorded ambient sound from somewhere around the world. The concept and the name of the project "Anywhere Door" came from a Japanese manga series “Doraemon," about a robotic cat named Doraemon who travels back in time from the future to help the main character, a boy named Nobita Nobi. The Anywhere Door is one of the most representative gadgets owned by Doraemon. According to the Doraemon Wiki, "It's prime function is to transport the user to whatever location they desire by walking through it. One needs to say where they want to go going, and then they can open the door and go through it to reach their destination. The Dokodemo Door's destination limits to the memory of locations it has been implemented, which means it does not record new areas automatically." Doors are objects that separate two spaces, whether it is two rooms, indoor and outdoor, or even different states of motion, such as static and moving. When the door opens, the sound and the air will be connected and mixed.

Design

   The objective was to create an installation that connects spaces. I created a system in MAX/MSP that uses a camera as a sensor. Every time it senses a person entering the room, it will randomly select and play an audio clip from the file library. An experience cycle is 6 minutes and 30 seconds long. After the current session, it will reset itself and start a second cycle from the very beginning. It is a relatively long cycle, especially when people are listening to ambient noise. People are expected to get bored and leave, and this is one of the designated purposes of the work–only the people that are patient enough and are genuinely enjoying the experience can hear the transformation between spaces.

 

    To make this an immersive experience, the audio had to be in a surround sound format. I used ambient sounds I recorded as the base and added some sound design details into the audio. For example, I mixed random conversations into one of the coffee shop clips, as well as some traffic sounds into outdoor clips.  After finishing the mixing of the audio clips, I decided to create a second layer of space transformation. During the session, the sound transits from one space to the other. Between the sound transition, there are designed sound effects that connect the spaces, which also hints at the changing of time and space. It can be an airplane flying over, a train passing by or even a police car siren sounding.

 

    Since this project is about an auditorial experience, the space in which people will have the experience is a vital element. Initially, when I described the project as a movie without the picture, I naturally thought about movie theaters. But after infusing John Cage's concepts, I decided that the audience needed to be able to move around the space freely. By creating an empty dark room, I could remove all the things which might be distractions. I wanted the room to be made of concrete walls and a wooden floor (not for acoustic reasons, but to engender a feeling of cold and warm materials combined). Cold concrete walls give users an unsafe sense, but at the same time, the wooden floor they walk on will give them enough comfort to stay.

 

    Another important trait for the room is that I wanted it to be very dark, so the user’s sense of alert will be activated. I think most people have had this experience. You’re late for a movie, and you rush into the theater from the super bright hallway. It suddenly becomes super dark, and the movie has already started. You slow down your pace trying to get used to the darkness; in the meantime, you hear the sound of the movie and you know exactly what is happening on the screen because your brain started to generating the pictures for you, even though you haven’t seen it yet.

 

    In this setup, the audience will go through a few psychological steps. First, they will feel unsafe when they first step into this very dark room. Second, they will feel confused when they get used to the darkness, then they will try to understand the situation. Third, they will notice what is being played when they realize that it is sound from some unknown places.  At this stage, they will start to walk around and listen to the details. Fourth, people will find the details and think they understand what these details are. Lastly, people will be surprised when they experience the transformation of spaces.

The sound structure for the experience

Prototype & User Testing

    When building the prototype, I used the Massachusetts College of Art and Design sound studio as the room for the experience. The sound studio has a complete 7.1 surround setup and a decent amount of space. It is also mostly built of wood, which met my initial room design goal. I set up a camera in the corner of the room detecting movements in the room using “camera-trigger” in MAX/MSP. The only downside of this version was that I could not dim the room to the darkness I wanted, because the camera wasn't capable of capturing an image in such darkness. I then invited people to experience the project without telling them anything. Despite the  less than ideal lighting condition, people heard the details and enjoyed the experience. Even though I did receive feedback complaining about the length, most of the people stayed until the very end because it took them some time to adjust to what was happening and started to listen to the details. I think this is a successful prototype and I can use the experience in my future build of this project.

The Max patch for the piece

Conclusion

We often use the term "See the world" because we always put vision at the top of the sensory hierarchy when we think about the ways we receive information from the world. Hearing is a sense that we often rank after vision. But just like any other sense, it plays a huge part in how we perceive the world. Our brains are mighty in processing everything we receive, through our eyes, ears, noses, and mouths and building a whole experience out of everything we perceive. All of these combined are what we think we "see," but what we see is the experience of feeling everything.

     Anywhere Door is not the first project in which I tried to amplify the power of hearing sound, but it is the most direct project I've made for this purpose. It also gave me a chance to test out one of my long term art pieces. After this process, I knew that if in the future I am building the installation, I can use the same system to create the effect I want and that I can make more people understand that they can hear much more than they usually do.

Media

Hardware

Software

Date

Exhibition

Interactive Installation

Computer, Camera, Surround sound system

Cycling' 74 Max 7

April 2018

Elements of Media Semester Show