A new platform that simplifies the creation of multi-speaker sound installations has the potential to broaden their use and enhance their complexity, says UNSW’s Associate Professor Oliver Bown.

An innovative sound design platform opens up aesthetic possibilities for using sound within the built environment and creative industries.

The creative coding toolkit, HappyBrackets, simplifies the networking of audio devices in sound installations, making them more accessible, affordable and scalable. As such, it creates new opportunities for using sound to be enhance diverse environments, such as commercial façades and foyers, creative arts venues and other public spaces.

The platform was developed by Associate Professor Oliver Bown from UNSW’s School of Art & Design in collaboration with colleagues from UTS and electronics producers Bitscope Designs, and via knowledge exchange with UK partners Squidsoup, a leading media arts collective.

“While light is embraced, generally sound is avoided [in ambient media art and architecture], because it's considered a nuisance,” A/Prof. Bown says. However, sound can enhance atmosphere in nuanced ways, creating compelling artistic and interactive environments, he says.

“If you get a big loudspeaker and pump lots of sound out of it, then that's a very intense sound source,” he says. “[But if you] get lots and lots of tiny speakers then they don't need to be very loud at all.

“You can fill a room with sound in a much more even way – and a much more managed way – so you can more precisely define where the sound is located in a space. So you could make less annoying and more possibly beguiling installations where listeners discover sound sources.

“I think there's a huge potential for that to become more and more common as a type of media installation.”

Innovation supported by real-world expertise

The HappyBrackets platform facilitates the creation of complex sound installations.

“While there are lots of off-the-shelf options for light installations, sound is a different kettle of fish. Sound is a high-bandwidth medium,” A/Prof. Bown says.

“The purpose of the platform we're making is to enable someone to really easily and scalably design a large distributed light and sound artwork for a space, and design the content for that in an easy way. We’re making that as simple as possible so you don’t have to have a computer science PhD to do it.”

A/Prof. Bown is a practice-led researcher, electronic music producer and digital artist, who works with creative technologies. The HappyBrackets project exemplifies his interest in how artists, designers and musicians can use advanced computing technologies, such as AI and evolutionary systems, to produce complex creative works.

“My skill is largely in the creative design itself,” he says, “but I'm using that skill to do the user research and design conceptualisation to work out what makes something really useful for an artist.

“There’s one ginormous pain point with doing any work like this, which is that you just get completely stuck in technical problem-solving. So we want to remove that.”

Partnering with industry means the platform is supported by cutting-edge electronic development, with Bitscope Solutions, and invaluable real-world immersive media experience, with Squidsoup.

“Immersive sound is at the cutting edge of creative research in interactive multimedia,” says Bruce Tulloch from BitScope. “We believe research and industry partnerships like this are key to leveraging the collective expertise required to deliver innovative and deployable solutions for the creative industries.”

Top: While there are lots of off-the-shelf options for light installations, the sound is a different kettle of fish. Sound is quite a high-resolution medium says A/Prof. Bown. Image: Chantel Bann, courtesy of Casula Powerhouse. Below: Spiral, by Dr Bown in collaboration with the Tangents ensemble, is a musical composition and installation that explores the mechanical and performative nature of self-playing instruments.

How it works

The digital platform allows you to write simple computer programs that sends messages to control networks of audio devices remotely using wifi. 

The coding toolkit is designed with Distributed Interactive Audio Devices (DIADs) in mind. DIADs are simple interactive systems that play sounds in response to built-in sensors and digital messages received over a network.

They can run on batteries for interactive portable use, and because they are controlled over wifi it is easy to install hard-wired units. They are powered by a tiny single-board computer, such as the very cheap Raspberry Pi brand, which runs the programs.  

Programs can be written to respond to environmental factors within the installation measured via built-in sensors. For example, used in an interactive performance, gently moving an audio device might trigger one sound response, while shaking it or detecting a change in light intensity might trigger another. A speaker then plays the sounds as dictated by your program as written in the HappyBrackets platform.

Using micro-electronic devices, such as DIADs, allows greater freedom in the placement of audio devices for more complex soundscapes. 

There is huge potential for sound to become as highly valued as light within media art and architecture, says A/Prof. Oliver Bown. Image: Chantel Bann, courtesy of Casula Powerhouse. 

Where you use it

The platform creates media architecture and art installations, interactive performances, tactile gallery and festival experiences and interactive toys. It lends itself for use in art galleries, museums, commercial venues, theatres, and event and public spaces.

A/Prof. Bown is currently working on a commission for the Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre: an interactive installation titled Speech Bubble: “A giant cloud of lights and speakers in the shape of a speech bubble.

“It’s a vocal play instrument, so you can sing a note into it and it fires off a sound and light response like a firework or a pinball machine. It fires off this chain reaction of vocal sound… It’s evocative of vocalisation, and the sound and rhythm of speech,” he says.

The team is taking new commissions to use the technology and develop bespoke immersive sound installations. They are currently developing a 120-speaker system for a theatre company who are mounting an immersive voice-based sound installation in Melbourne.

Sounding off

Even though HappyBrackets is open-source for public use, the team is looking at commercial development for additional support resources and services, and more end-user products.

The team is also developing some readymade tools within the platform for use in live music performance.

In this case, the platform operates “like a big synthesiser,” A/Prof. Bown says. “You can plug your computer into it and send it messages and control it.

“You can play notes on it, you can choose what sound it plays, you can change the parameters of the sound. But then in addition it's spatial so you can choose how the sound is moved and distributed around the space . And then likewise you can also say what the lights are going to do.”

With lockdown now easing, the HappyBracket team are planning a gig – a kind of interactive tech test – with 10 guest artists invited to do live performances with the system.

“We’ll just put tools in their hands and see what they do creatively.” 

Lead image: Sound installations can enhance atmosphere in nuanced ways, creating compelling artistic and interactive environments. Image: Ryan Hernandez, courtesy of Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences (MAAS).

This article was originally published in 2022.

Written by Kay Harrison