MAP Design Lab is a human-centered, product design studio with a focus on emergent technologies and making in mixed reality. Its partners range from NASA to Nike, and its work has appeared at Sundance, Siggraph and SXSW, to name a few.
Last year, the acclaimed studio partnered with American modern dance company Pilobolus to create Whimsic, a unique concept for Magic Leap 1 that brings dance, performance, the human body and spatial computing together. With over 100 choreographic works in more than 64 countries, and with performances on the 79th Annual Academy Awards, The Oprah Winfrey Show and Late Night with Conan O'Brien, the company’s latest collaboration with MAP Design Lab is now on Magic Leap World.
We caught up with Melissa Painter, Founder of MAP Design Lab, and Matt Kent, Co-Artistic Director of Pilobolus, to find out about the project.
Melissa, tell us about MAP Design Lab...
At MAP Design Lab, we use spatial computing and AI to reintroduce people to the best piece of technology they own: their body. We see gesture, movement, emotional vocabulary, and dance as a way of expressing feelings. Dance is one of the oldest forms of communication that humans have. It's cross-cultural. We’re fascinated by using spatial computing and immersive technologies to teach you new ways to move.
Tell us about Whimsic...
At its core, Whimsic is a mood ring made out of motion capture – a bite-sized pallet cleansing experience. Think of it almost as a haiku, fortune cookie, or magic 8 ball. It’s a way of creating more moments of beauty in our lives. You choose what mood you’re searching for, from brave to calm, or happy; then, once you’ve chosen, we deliver that emotion back to you as a miniature world of movement and dance. By cupping your hands around the experience, or touching the handprints that appear, you hatch more dancers. At the same time you can build a miniature soundscape.
What’s your relationship with Pilobolus?
I've admired Pilobolus from a distance for a long time – both their theater-based work and also their video collaborations with musicians, like OK GO. They found us through a basketball and dance-based mixed reality experience we created called Move Studio. They're the perfect match for MAP Design Lab because they have such an improvisational and collaborative approach to dance. All their dancers are incredibly emotive performers, as well as physical performers. They are storytellers, and they are inspired by nature. In fact, part of the dance inside Whimsic involves humans dancing as animals.
And Matt, why did Pilobolus want to get involved in the project?
The short answer is: it sounded interesting. Then we met Melissa. I felt like there was real chemistry between our teams. And our philosophy about, and relationship to technology, was aligned.
Pilobolus wants to connect the world through the power of dance, and who would have thought that a company known for our proclivity to get naked on and off stage, and to live and work in a rural setting, would feel so at home creating a work only experienced through technology? But it felt like a perfect fit.
We’ve worked with motion capture before, but this was different. We didn't map everything out first. We were able to play and there was room for discovery. Plus, the technology was better, and the suits were easy to move in.
Melissa, you mentioned high-end spatial computing platforms are your favorite development environments - why?
High-end platforms allow us to take advantage of all forms of novel UX, UI, gestural, vocal, movement-based, gaze-based interactions, and they allow the player, user or maker to engage their entire body within the experience. We believe these devices are going to deliver the most utility in the future. And they’ll be the ones that allow people to reframe their relationship with technology.
What’s next for Whimsic and MAP Lab?
We’re hoping to build Whimsic out into a platform that continues to populate itself with more movements and moods. Ultimately, it's intended to be launched by tangible objects in your physical space, so a Talisman that you might wear or have on your desk would unlock these moments for you. Basically it reminds you to move your own body!
What gets you excited about the future?
A return to our bodies. A return to creativity over consumption. Tech not reshaping our human nature to our collective lowest common denominator. We need tech that respects that people are spatial thinkers and learners, that our brains don’t do well when they are asked to run at one constant setting of information overload and addiction; that our intelligence resides in our brain and our body; and that all people deserve moments of casual creativity in their days.
Part of the beauty of the making is navigating the happy accidents, leaning into what is succeeding, and not being afraid of the stuff not within your control. My biggest joy is creating things that respect the imagination of the player, and that invite them to meet me halfway.
And Matt, how about you?
When we first got a peak at Whimsic, we had only seen the renderings. We put the Magic Leap 1 headset on and I was completely thrilled. It didn't feel like covering up reality, like a veil over something, it felt more like a secret in plain sight. It felt open. When our colorful little creatures appeared, they looked like the kind of image a performer would visualize to enhance their own performance. And I was amazed at how it made the user lean forward, how curiosity and wonder were evoked.
The idea and impulse to use technology to promote, or even provoke the user to move their body, to experience whimsy and delight, to feel wonder without a productivity goal connected to it, was a thrilling surprise to me. I think this will change people’s body chemistry as they use it. I think it could make a difference in a big way in our world where technology tends to isolate. I just feel so optimistic!