Convergence: Blending the Digital and Physical

Sept. 1, 2008

Part of the Experience Design Section 

By Jesse Seppi and Vivian Rosenthal


The intersection of digital and physical design opens up new realities of form and experience. Whereas in the past the digital process was merely a means to represent a structure, today's digital tools now inform the architecture itself, allowing for innovation and experimentation in the built form.

At Tronic, we have been exploring this melding of the digital and physical for the last 7 years. Our work always begins in the digital realm where, unlike in the built environment, we have total control of form. We are able to sculpt freely, to use gravity, to reverse gravity, to freeze liquid in mid-motion, to create double curvatures. Digital tools inform the process and usher in a new aesthetic.

The following case studies explore the relationship between the physical form and the digital process. We see that the built form is not necessarily a direct translation of the digital form but, nonetheless, these new physical forms would not have existed without their digital beginnings.

One of our first projects to investigate this blending of realities was a sculpture installation for the Japanese electronics manufacturer Sharp, which wanted an installation that spoke to the HD technology used in its screens. What immediately struck us was the relationship between the reality on the screen and the reality outside the screen.

The goal of the HD screens was to represent the physical world so realistically that one couldn't tell the difference between the digital representation and the real thing: A hummingbird on your HD screen would be indistinguishable from the one outside your window. The sculpture depicted the merger of these flows: one red and organic, the other silver and synthetic. The installation, "Bloom," which we described as a synthetic manipulation, acted as a commentary and insight into the mimicry of nature by technology. The word "manipulation" was critical, as we came to realize that it was not an exact one-to-one relationship between nature and technology, nor the digital and the physical.

As with any translation, there was some variation when the transformation to the physical took place. Using CNC (computer numerically controlled) technology, we milled the sculpture from high-density foam and treated it with a glossy paint finish. By designing the sculpture digitally and using a digital fabrication process, we achieved a physical form that previously was almost unimaginable.

As fabrication capabilities grow, so, too, will designers' ability to shift scales and use the digital process to inform work on an architectural scale. Once the fabrication and manufacturing technologies are able to match the digital process, new architectural forms will surge.

Hitachi commissioned us to create a large-scale sculpture installation exploring the theme of water. Water is an usual form because it is formless on its own. It necessitates an exterior form to give it shape. The process of creating form from non-form necessitated sculpting containers to hold the liquid rather than sculpting the liquid itself. The containers gave form to the liquid.

We turned to a digital process using a liquid simulation software to generate the water and then designed the shape of the containers, which would give the liquids their recognizable forms. The simulation software allowed us to have full control over the behavior of the liquid, including the viscosity, which in turn allowed us to control the shape of the sculpture. We captured the liquid at a single point in time, giving life to a physical manifestation of a digital process.

In this case, the physical form and experience of water in motion would have been nearly impossible without digital tools. Technology freed us from one reality and opened up new realities of form. A similar process can be applied to architecture on a larger scale, allowing movement to inform circulation, program, and form. With this new process, space can be explored as something in a state of becoming rather than in a fixed state.

Target commissioned Tronic to create a series of digital films for them for one of the world's largest high definition outdoor media installations, Dallas' Victory Park, which includes eight movable 15- by 26-foot LED walls. "Condensation" is a unique exploration into the overlap of the digital and physical realities of form because the process was reversed: We began with physical environments and people and had those inform the digital form. The physical choreography of human movement determined the digital form, which was then inserted into the built environment. In this case, the built environment—what we thought we knew as physical form—was captured in HD, a digital medium, offering us the ability to create physical-derived forms in movement that were actually digital.

Critical here is the blending between the two realities. The physical reality of the actors informed the movement of the sculptures but it was the digital process that allowed us to actually create the form of the sculptures. In the physical realm we couldn't have designed form in movement. The physical world limits us to mostly static form, whereas the digital process allows for form in movement.

Digital technologies allow for new forms and experiences to be created, thereby expanding the horizons of architecture. The digital process allows for architecture, sculpture, and the experience to become one. These future landscapes are predicated on convergence, the blending of the physical and digital to open new realities of form and experience. In 10 years this convergence will be so seamless that the distinction between the digital and physical will almost cease to exist.

Tronic is a New York City-based design, directing, and animation studio founded in 2001 by Columbia Architecture graduates Jesse Seppi and Vivian Rosenthal ([email protected]). They have directed and animated spots for Nike, Sony, Microsoft, Target, and LG; conceived and executed experiential design projects for Diesel, GE, Sharp, and Hitachi; and worked to eliminate lines delineating one form of creative media output from another. These visual futurists are boldly combining architecture, graphic design, sculpture, and animation through new uses of technology to create striking and conceptually based work.

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For Hitachi, Tronic developed a way to give life to a physical manifestation of a digital process. (larger image)
Digital technology opened up a new set of possibilities for Tronic's Hitachi sculpture installation, which explored the theme of water. They used a liquid simulation software to generate the water and then designed the shape of the containers that gave the liquids their recognizable forms. (larger image)
Tronic created a series of digital films for Target for one of the world's largest high definition outdoor media installations at Dallas' Victory Park. (larger image)

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