The Cyberhelvetia pavilion was situated on the Forum of the Biel-Bienne Arteplage at the Expo.02 in Switzerland in 2002. Designed as a traditional Swiss bathing resort, its architecture symbolizes a place where people meet and communicate. The familiar exterior leads you to expect a familiar interior: a swimming pool like the one which was right in this very place more than a hundred years ago. But times have changed, people can communicate at many different levels without meeting each other in person, irrespective of where they are or what language they speak. Instead of bathing in real water, the bathers in the Cyberhelvetia pavilion can immerse themselves in the complex atmosphere of an expanded virtual reality. Instead of a swimming pool, they find a mysterious, glowing glass cube that lights up the entire area.
The design group 3deluxe was made responsible for all of the interior design and contracted MESO to develop various interactive games matching the mood of the swimming pool. The result is a fluid composition of interactive situations consisting out of 18 projectors, 23 computers, and numerous sensors dispersed in the room. The system reacts to sound, motion, voice, and even the weather outside.
The glass pool in the middle of the exhibition replaces the real swimming pool. It is filled with virtual water which is enriched by the exhibition visitors; both on the spot or on the Internet with imaginative lifeforms. The reciprocal interaction between the actual and virtually present people and the artificial lifeforms constantly creates new atmospheric images on the pool’s surface. Along both long sides of the pool there are comfortable seating facilities for the bathers who shape the inner life of the pool in their common game. A peaceful lounging area provides space for relaxation and direct encounters between people, while people can watch everything that is going on from two galleries upstairs.
The “Aquaphone”, a cross between tin-can telephone and a stethoscope, allows verbal communication through to the other side of the glass pool. It consists of a key and a talk/listen component. Anyone holding an “aquaphone” against the glass cube’s side wall and speaking into it creates word bubbles in the pool’s virtual water. These can then again be opened and heard at the opposite location with an “aquaphone”.
Communication between the “aquaphones” can be tracked with the “soundshake”. Moreover the speech transfer is overlaid with the sounds from the inside of the pool to illustrate the path of the message through the virtual water. There’s more: when bathers pass on the mobile loudspeaker to their neighbors, other sounds are composed and modified by the movement of the loudspeaker.
On two diagonally opposed corners of the pool there are transparent, luminous objects which prompt you to speak into them. This vocal experiment will create swarms of swirling digital organisms which swim across the waves of the pool.
A digital sea-snake darts around following the visitors’ finger movements on a luminous glass surface, which is integrated in the center console of the bench. The activity and dynamics of the guests’ playing are thus transferred to the pool’s glass body. Left alone, the snake gets a dynamic of its own and starts to dabble.
In addition to the lifeforms created at the poolside, there is another species stirring in the pool: the “Cy.Bees”. These are created by the Internet community and are sent to the exhibition with a message by their creators. The shy “Cy.Bees” congregate on one corner of the glass block and crawl onto the bather’s hand if they keep their hands still for long enough. This moment is captured in a photograph and the image is sent back to its creator via e-card on the Internet. This is a bi-directional communication between actual and virtually present individuals, between the exhibition and the Internet, an encounter in two worlds.
The bathers reach the upper surface of the glass pool by means of a ladder. Here, six soft mattresses float on the virtual water. These are supplemented by VR goggles. Shoals of plankton direct the bather to a free couch where they can relax whilst a short film is shown. This takes them off on an entertaining journey above and under the water into the world of the “Cy.Bees” and the flying-fish.
The virtual water reacts to the data on climatic conditions from a weather station on the pavilion roof. Like the surface of Lake Bienne the artificial surface of the water also changes its appearance during the course of the day and seasons and, thus, links the artificial with the natural, as well as the virtual with that which can actually be experienced in reality.
A short time after being taken, the group photos float trough a glass channel embedded in the ground. This stream of images, referred to as “Pixflow”, leads to the pool into which the pictures flow and disappear. Stepping near the stream’s perimeter will alter the flow dynamics of the virtual water. As an artistic realization of online image-transfer, the “Pixflow” succinctly conjures up a visual representation of the fluid interface between reality and virtuality.
The exhibition was open for five months and had 750,000 visitors.
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Max Wolf, Joreg, Sebastian Gregor, Jörg Obenauer, Stefan Ammon, Michael Höpfel, Christian Strobel, Ekkehard Ehlers