An essay by Marko Peljhan and Carsten Nicolai on the project "Polar", 2002

description of the artistic concept and technical realization

The work polar could be described as an interactive multimedia installation, as it was also described for the entry in the Prix Ars Electronica competition, but its complexity in a way defies this classification.

We envisioned the 7mx7mx4m totally connected and tactile space as a complex tactile matrix interface, that enables the visitor to experience the flow of data in the global and local networks in a completely immersive, yet cognitive way. The work was inspired by the notion of the cognitive ocean as described in Stanislaw Lem's and Andrey Tarkovsky's solaris. The initial conceptual equation was:


The main outline of the work was based on the creation of two software and hardware engines, the so-called polar engine (with adjacent pols, polar dictionary and knowledge base) and the change engine (with adjacent trace route visualiser, which consisted of two separate displays). The first was envisioned as the input-analysis and construction zone, the second as the output-synthesis-experience zone. These zones were defined both in conceptual-software and hardware senses and also in the environmental sense. We have defined a zone in which the biological and physical, was directly interacting with the abstract-immaterial.

One main question was posed in this process:

How do we construct a cognitive and tactile experience of the seamless and near-abstract matrix with the analysis/construction/transformation of it included in the process?

Basically, we wanted to create an interface between the human body and senses and the matrix, which would by the sheer presence let alone the activities of this humans already transform also the structure of the matrix that is being observed/experienced and of the physical space that is being inhabited during this process.

the space

The polar space is a 7mx7mx4m white three dimensional physical space, which includes four projection surfaces, seven speakers, a 3D high resolution tracking system, a micro-organism growth module, a wave patterning water vibration module, two so called field displays-touch input modules and seven 'pol' zones. The hardware configuration of the space is clearly decodable. The whole construction was modular and includes also the ceiling, where a complex system of 32 lights controlled by the main engine of the project also played an active role in the tactile and sensorial experience. One of the main experiential goals of the space design was to minimize the presence of clearly discernible technological elements within it on one hand, and on the other to approach it from the pragmatic viewpoint of an all encompassing 'human-machine' interface.

the software systems

As it was previously described, the software systems were divided into two main zones. The first zone served as the input and cognitive zone, the second served as the output, sensorial and tactile zone. To connect the two a third routing module was created, named solaris. Its purpose was to route and connect all the systems in the polar network. To do so, a protocol to connect different software, hardware and OS systems was created. The protocol is one of the most invisible but also most important parts of the software development for this work, since it connected systems as diverse as the Canon Inc. polar modified Advanced Intelligent Information Retrieval System (AIIRS) and the Twosuns GMBH's Cartasia and Enclued software workbench and 3D tracker.

While the protocol was the language of polar the polar engine, polar dictionary and knowledge base were the heart of the content systems and the connecting point of the work with the information matrix. The knowledge base was built by the authors as the main initial content part of the work. The base consisted of at least 20 text files of 100KB for each of the seven categories for each language (the whole work is bilingual-English and Japanese) defined by the authors as the main content categories of the polar dictionary.

The seven categories were:

  • crystal-crystallization
  • diagram
  • stealth-stealthy
  • machine-machinic
  • wave-waveform
  • symmetry-symmetriad
  • spectral-specter-spectrum


From this categories, the authors defined ten keywords for each of them, this 70 keywords in English and 70 keywords in Japanese were the starting point of the database search options for the users when they came to them during the exploration of the ocean space. The polar dictionary was enlarged during each session run, through the search of the matrix and the distillation of keywords from retrieved texts and documents.

The polar engine consists of three modules:

  1. Keyword Distiller module
  2. Knowledge Base Generator module
  3. Category Filter module.


These modules select the useful information from the retrieved texts, summarize it, extract keywords and categorize it. The system used for this operation was developed from Canon Inc. proprietary software developed by the Media Technology Laboratory by the authors of polar. The multi-agent model called 'artificial staff' suited for the architecture of an information retrieval system was used. 'artificial staff' agents are autonomous, observe the users patterns and other agents and exchange the acquired information under a loose protocol. The flow-type information retrieved form the matrix is thus processed and categorized. The polar dictionary grows in an autonomous way, determined only by the initial users choice pattern and the result from the information retrieval and analysis from the texts based in the matrix. During this processes an immense amount of numerical data is created. This data was analyzed and created the main content transfer between the different modules in the polar network. This data was the blood flow of the system and was routed through solaris to the tactile zone and systems. They're the physical and tactile interaction with the visitors was of paramount importance.

The hearts of the tactile zone were the change engine and the trace route, data flow and 3D space visualisers. The change engine consisted of the Enclued and Cartasia software modules, which served as real time dynamic multi-media process generators and trackers. This was the output generator, which generated tactile and sensorial (light, space, sound) changes in the ocean. Along with them, a pair of displays showed real time data flow within the system and the matrix, combined with a 3D display of the space, so the displacement of data in the matrix triggered by movement in the space was visible. The second display was a two-zone trace routing display system, showing real-time trace routing data in Japan on the top and the world on the bottom part. The software for the data flow display was based on a latex wave pattern model and was written using OPEN GL and a proprietary library. This tactile zone was enhanced using other, analogue systems of interaction, that did not include software, but are described in the hardware systems part and experience flow part of this document.

the hardware systems

The hardware systems consisted of a combination of computers connected in a LAN, a MIDI connection for the light systems, two mobile wireless computing units (pol), display systems and analogue loop systems. The systems were connected through a protocol and also by analogue lines. They included also a micro camera filming the process of growth of the human cell, which was triggered by the temperature changes connected with the usage of the space and a system of an analogue input of sound and wave pattern data into two projectors. The third analogue system used was the wave patterning water vibration module, which consisted of a special fitted pool of water, connected to two subwoofer bass speakers, that changed wave patterns in it. For the connection between the LAN digital systems and some of the output analogue systems sound was used as the main trigger.

The four projectors used in the system showed:

  • data flow and 3D real time space situation
  • trace routing
  • analogue output and changes of a test pattern video system triggered by sound inputs
  • magnified picture of a human ear cell in growth in the space during the two weeks of operations


The other hardware elements of the system were the two field displays, which were the main user interfaces with the polar dictionary and the 'pol' units, which are two mobile wireless sensor packages, which collected and relayed temperature, acceleration, sound and visual data and generated the first set of numerical data, collected in space and by the user, to trigger power up of the field display and the initial generation of the keyword list on each of the visitors monitors. The digital hardware and computers were connected in a wireless and wired LAN, MIDI lines and analogue cables. During the exhibition, a web camera was placed in the system, that enabled users on the web to observe the situation in the space and the visitors exploration and behavior.

The 'pol' was the main interface of the user during the initial exploration of the ocean space. It included a sensor package measuring outside and inside temperature, a 3D-axis accelerometer, a still camera and a sound recording system. With the 'pol', the user explored the space. It was based on a SONY VAIO PCG-C1VN Transmeta Crusoe based computer, a wireless LAN card and the proprietary sensor package. The 'pol' was envisioned as the first encounter of the users with polar and a tool, which will generate a code sequence for the start of the change processes in space through physical exploration of this same space. When the 'pol' was placed in the right position in the space on one of the seven 'pol' zones, the space changing process started.

The 3D tracking of the visitors and the 'pol's' in space was done through a motion tracking system, consisting of six computers and twelve IR cameras, tracking four IR sources. The system has a very high resolution and was developed by Twosuns GMBH for polar. This tracking system constantly relayed positioning data back to the main solaris router and the change engine. This data was included in the main routing and accordingly, the changes in space were generated.

experience flow

With interactive works it is of course very difficult to describe the experience flow of them, especially in ones, that like polar are constantly changing, but we will give it a try. We will do this in two parts, one describing the visitor's point of view and one describing the data package point of view.

Visitor As the pair of visitors come in front of the space, they are explained the main rules of the interaction within the ocean space. The functioning of the 'pol' and the users interface of the field display are also explained to them by the hosts. After that, they wear a special jacket, which includes the visitor's infrared ID badge. Then they are given each one of the 'pol's' and they enter the space. In the space, as it is also clearly audible in the video documentation, there is a constant low hertz hum. This hum changes immediately as the visitors enter it. The system senses the 'pol' and the visitor and starts reacting. The light patterns start to change very slowly, the sound also and the temperature in space too. These processes of space-time change are based on a random generation of data, combining random generators with the real time data flow from the 3D tracking system and the 'pol' data output.

The visitor has two to three minutes for this initial exploration, then a specific sound is heard, that marks the point where a special place for the 'pol' must be found. The 'pol' must then be placed into one of the seven 'pol' zones. When the right zone is chosen, the space reacts with a very bright and quick flash and a totally different high-pitched sound. The 'pol' is in the right position, and the random keyword choosing sequence is generated from 'pol' gathered data, the input field displays are then turned on. The visitor much chooses the language of interaction and then the chosen keywords are displayed. The solaris sends a message to all modules that the change processes have started. When one of the visitors chooses a keyword and places it in the system, the solaris sends the keyword to the polar engine. Exactly what happens with this keyword will be explained in the data package point of view that follows.

For the visitor, the time lag between the involvement of the keyword in the matrix and the first results is the time in which he can and has to explore the ocean space. This exploration changes the position of sound fields in the 3D configuration of space and the initial numerical results from the 'pol' data and now also from the matrix search processes change different sound pattern levels. Because of this interrelation, not two experiences in the space are alike. The visitor can observe the wave patterns changing as a result of his movement and movement of data in the water module, he can observe the cell organism live and projected, the temperature in the cell module also fluctuates according to data generated through movement and through the matrix searching. Of course, only a visitor on the first and last day could see the difference in the actual growth of the cell...

The data flow and 3D tracking combined wave display make the user aware that the space she/he inhabits is also a data space, since data flow patterns interact with the patterns of his position and the position of the 'pol' in the space. When the trace routing display starts (very late in the process, because of the large amount of data from the tracing that needs to be processed and parsed), usually the field display is ready for another keyword input. The list of keywords of course grew and a new keyword list is in the meantime generated. The visitors had a chance to involve two to four keywords in one session, depending on the keyword and the result base. This was because the time for the exploration was limited to 10 minutes for two visitors at a time. Of course, longer times can be set for the exploration and thus more changes in the space-time data-space could be observed.

After the clock runs out, the space automatically turns the lights on at maximum and the process of cooling down is started. This process enables the visitor to understand that the change process is over. Also on the field display the visitor is reminded that the process is over and that she/he must leave the space.

Data package The experience of the data flow in the processes in polar is as hard to describe as the experience of the visitor, since there are many flows of packages at once. But the basic pattern is as follows:

  • 'Pol' acquires environmental data, acceleration, temperatures, visual data, sound
  • When 'pol' is in the space, the 3D tracker starts to track the 'pol' and the visitor and relays the tracking data to solaris
  • This tracking results in the light pattern and sound pattern changes in space. The space is full of light/sound positions that are constantly shifting according to the data input form the tracking system
  • The system has a time limit and 'pol' stops collecting data after two to three minutes
  • The tracking system waits until the 'pol' is put into the right position, randomly chosen from the seven possibilities according to the 'pol' data
  • The whole package of the 'pol' data is sent to solaris
  • solaris sends start commands to other modules
  • The field displays start up and wait for the language input
  • When the language is input, the polar engine chooses a list of seven keywords from the polar dictionary
  • The keywords are displayed on the field displays
  • The visitor chooses a keyword and when he is placed in the right position the keyword is sent to solaris. In all this time, solaris relays the positioning data and the data flow information to the data flow visualiser, which was changed from sound visualiser in the scheme.
  • solaris sends the chosen keyword to the polar engine, which then sends the keyword to 15 different search engines for each language
  • The results pages from the search are put into a temporary data pool, these results are then analyzed, compared to the knowledge base and the new possible keywords are distilled. The results are also analyzed for the URL, and trace routing. Each URL of a positive result is trace routed and this data is then sent to the trace route visualiser.
  • All the numerical data generated in these processes is sent to the change engine through the protocol and the space-time-sound situation in the space is constantly shifting.
  • After the keyword is added to the polar dictionary, the solaris sends a message to the field display that the time is right for another search
  • The process could continue indefinitely, but a timer in the solaris can be set and is in an exhibition situation to a limit, where the processes of one session end.
  • The systems and the modules power down and wait for the new session.
  • The transformation is completed.


As it was said in the beginning, we posed ourselves one basic question:

How do we construct a cognitive and tactile experience of the seamless and near-abstract matrix with the analysis/construction/transformation of it included in the process?

With this system, we are trying to answer to this question. Also, as said in the beginning, the ocean from solaris was the inspiration for it, with its complexity and cognitive elementarily. We wanted to create such and experience of an ocean similar to that in solaris, but a different one in the sense that it combines data and topology of the matrix with a real 3D space-time in an all encompassing tactile experience. It tries to materialize the immaterial. For us, one of the main goals was that each interaction of humans-visitors with this data and physical space, would result in it being different than before, transformed in size and shape.

Sounds within the data space shift, sound and light trigger positions too. New are generated in the process, and the dictionary, based on the seven basic categories set up by the authors too. Everything is shifting and changing, some things are growing (cell), some physically changing (water).

polar has a life of its own.

More information can be found on http://www.canon.co.jp/cast/artlab/artlab10

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