Name: Anthony Rowe

Area of interest: Immersion

LinkedIn: anthonyrowe
Twitter: @squidsoup
Facebook: squidsoup


Anthony Rowe is a media artist, designer and researcher. He founded digital arts group Squidsoup in 1997, with the aim of creating immersive, emotive and intuitive experiences that merge the physical and the virtual. Squidsoup’s work has been seen by millions of people on six continents. Previously, he also worked as an illustrator, photographer and sailor, crossing the Atlantic solo (1988).

What I’m working on:

I am currently investigating the idea of liminal materiality (see above). We live in a material world, and engage with it in very physical ways, yet digital processes are essentially immaterial. How the digital manifests itself in the physical world is fundamental to any kind of digitally augmented experience, but I am exploring a particular aspect of this: a liminal material is a boundary material, something that straddles the divide between real and virtual, sitting uncomfortably and incompletely in the physical world; intangible, not quite there, highly ephemeral. My questions are: 1. To define exactly what is a liminal material; 2. What other forms of potential liminal materials can be created, and what are their particular affordances? (other forms of bioluminescence, the aurora phenomenon, and various types of suspended particulates are prime candidates at this stage, but there will be others); 3. In what ways can these liminal materials be practically co-opted into the creation of dynamic immersive multimedia experiences? The primary output will be a physical installation piece and some form of written document outlining/defining liminal materiality.

Expertise and skills:

I founded digital arts group Squidsoup in 1999. My aims with it have, since its inception, been to create immersive experiences. Early experiments with navigable soundscapes (eg Altzero2 at the ICA, London, 2000) led to a series of works using projection mapping and interaction to create worlds within worlds (eg Living Timeline, @Bristol, 2012 onwards), and eventually into the work we do now, which focuses on using volumetric light and sound to create social, immersive, digitally augmented walkthrough experiences. A prime example of this is Submergence (2013-16), which has now been shown over 40 times on six continents, including Bristol (commissioned by Watershed, 2014). This also led to creating immersive performances with live musicians. Recent work with Four Tet (2015, 2018) aims to blur boundaries between performer and audience, as well as between performance and immersive installation (pronounced by MixMag to be the “the best live show in the world”). Another project, Bloom (2016), uses hundreds of bespoke IoT devices to create immersive audio- and sound-scapes with up to 1,000 choreographed voices. We are currently working on a second iteration with much enhanced audio capabilities. This practice relates closely to my PhD, Immersion in Mixed Reality Spaces (Oslo School of Architecture and Design, 2015), which explores the notion of ‘immersion’ in some depth, and applies those concepts to various forms of augmented space and AR experiences. Current explorations revolve around the idea of liminal materiality: hybrid materials whose very materiality is unclear and unpredictable. This has involved the use of bioluminescence and projection into/through semi-translucent nanotech materials. It has also led me to start experimenting with mist and smoke as part of a multimedia approach to immersive and ambient experience.


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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.