A preview of Aurora Imaginaris

In November 1906 Norwegian scientist Kristian Birkeland presented his Terrella, a working scale model of Earth blasted by solar plasma to create an aurora glow, to a small group of interested people in Oslo. He had previously spent five years exploring and analysing the northern lights in situ in northern Norway, but this was the first public showing of the northern lights in miniature.

That event came to my mind as I presented the initial fruits of my own investigations into a novel form of digital hybrid material to another small group of interested people at Bristol’s Watershed during a SWCTN workshop a couple of weeks ago.

It was the first time anyone outside my studio had seen the work. Though in no way as groundbreaking as Birkeland’s endeavours, this project is very much inspired by the northern lights, and by the visual effects conjured by Birkeland’s Terrella. My project, Aurora Imaginaris, uses the optical properties of nanotech materials and projection mapping techniques to create a new, hybrid, beguiling, liminal materiality, neither fully physical nor fully digital, not quite real but definitely present.

The presentation itself was chaotic, and there was tension in the air. This was my latest baby’s first venture into the real world. Would people get it, would it work its magic on them, would it even work?

The software techniques I used were somewhat Heath Robinson, connecting projection mapping software to sets of algorithms and generative imagery adapted from previous Squidsoup projects to create an illusion of slow moving waves of energy passing through a small block of matter of strange physical presence, as though the energy is radiating from within, much as the aurora borealis radiates in the night sky.

It took longer to get the process to run than anticipated, but the audience was patient and expectant. The impromptu round of applause when the imaginary aurora finally emerged, radiating its presence to the world, was much appreciated: the project had taken its first steps.