Japan Supernatural

Interactive touch wall brings historic masterpiece to life.

  • Art Gallery of NSW
  • 24
    unique animations
  • 290k
    interactions

For hundreds of years, Japanese art and storytelling has been captivated by yōkai – supernatural monsters and household objects come to life. Working with the Art Gallery of New South Wales, we bought one of these historic artworks to life through creative technology with the Japan Supernatural Touch Wall. With delicate animations and conductive ink interactivity, the experience retains the rich beauty of the original masterpiece while using a contemporary medium to reimagine its stories for modern audiences.

Background for Japan Supernatural.

A unique, interactive experience

The Brief

For centuries, Japanese artists have brought to life a wondrous supernatural world of ghosts, goblins and shapeshifters. Delving into this rich tradition, the Art Gallery of New South Wales’ Japan supernatural exhibition invited audiences into this vibrant world as they explored magnificent paintings, large-scale installations, miniature carvings and humorous installations from Japanese artists past and present.

Japan supernatural poster.

As part of this exhibition, the Gallery was looking to extend their collection of supernatural artworks into the digital world. Together, crafted a huge interactive artwork using motion and interaction to reimagine the work of Japanese artist Hiroharu Itaya. Maintaining the richness and beauty of the original work, our goal was to harness contemporary techniques and technologies to engage modern audiences with historic stories of the Japanese supernatural.

Japan supernatural touch wall.

Collaborative process

Process

Like so much of our work, the Japan Supernatural Touch Wall would not have been possible without collaboration. In this case, our diverse team of animators, interaction designers, technical artists and programmers was bolstered by researchers, installers and technicians from the Gallery, all working to translate ideas into animation, animation into interaction and interaction into final installation.

Reimagining a masterpiece

Original Work

Hiroharu Itaya’s narrative handscroll ‘Night procession of the one hundred demons’ was a key artwork of the Japan supernatural exhibition. Created during the late Edo period (1603-1868), the scroll’s delicate illustrations tell of how ordinary household objects – umbrellas, brooms, kitchen utensils – transform into mischievous yōkai.

Our interactive artwork would be presented alongside this scroll, mirroring its 6m length while extending its height from 30cm to 2m. Enhancing the magic and spirituality of the artwork, the Japan Supernatural Touch Wall would invite audiences to actively explore the stories, tone and intent of Itaya’s 19th century scroll.

An act of co-creation

Art Direction

We considered this project an act of co-creation across centuries. While we would be reimagining Itaya’s yōkai in a new medium, it was important for us that our interactive artwork remained faithful to the artist’s style and intent. Our goal was to recreate his vision in the medium of our time – digital technology. In doing so, we would give contemporary audiences the chance to explore the deeper meaning and stories hidden within Itaya’s work through motion and interaction.

Two women stand in front of the Japan Supernatural interactive touch wall by creative agency S1T2 for the Art Gallery of NSW.

Revealing hidden stories

Yōkai Animations

Looking to use modern tools as a way to recapture old techniques, our animation style drew heavy inspiration from Japanese traditions of narrative handscroll and Noh theatre. Cultural research became a key pillar of our process as we sought to craft animations that would extend, rather than replace, the movement of Itaya’s yōkai.

Loop of umbrella monster.

Staying true to this ethos was a time-consuming process. Not only did we need to carefully deconstruct each character prior to animating, we often also needed to fill in gaps within the illustrations with elements recovered from elsewhere in the scroll so that the animations themselves would make sense. While painstaking, this creative technology process resulted in more authentic animations capable of bringing audiences into closer relationship with the work.

The way we animated each yōkai was instrumental in not only retaining the spirit of the original work, but also helping audiences better understand the story it tells. Focused on building personality through motion, we relied on simple movements and tightly controlled gestures, all based on the mythology of each individual character. In doing so, the animations blended illustration and motion, physical and digital into an authentic yet contemporary expression of the supernatural.

Loop of gongheaded crocodile.

Seamless interactions

Conductive Ink

While the large-scale animations drew audiences into the Japan Supernatural Touch Wall, it was the work's interactivitythat created a truly memorable experience. Captivated by the animated projections, audiences were also able to engage directly with the yōkai through interactive touch points. Finely screen-printed onto the wall before its final coat of paint, the conductive ink was all but invisible, creating a feeling of magic as the yōkai came to life at a single touch.

Layers of story

Interaction Design

When it came to the physical design of the Japan Supernatural Touch Wall, we decided on six zones of interaction. This would allow us to blow the yōkai up to almost life-size proportions, in turn helping to bring audiences into the procession itself. It would also allow us to showcase a wide variety of characters within the constraints of the space, with interaction points at heights accessible for both children and adults.

The touch wall’s six interaction points hid over 24 different animations. This choice provided an extra dimension of awe and intrigue, as each repeated interaction unlocked more of the artwork. In this way, the touch wall’s interactivity not only gave audiences agency over their experience, but provided them with the opportunity to engage more deeply with the underlying story through creative technology.

Thousands of interactions

Engagement + Results

Over the course of the three-month exhibition, the Japan Supernatural Touch Wall saw over 290,000 individual interactions, with one conductive ink touch point triggered every 11 seconds. Bringing Itaya’s yōkai to life for modern audiences, the interactive artwork ultimately demonstrates how creative technology can be used to enhance and extend the gallery experience.

Yokai character at Japan Supernatural.
Woman use her hand to trigger an interaction point for projection animations at Japan Supernatural.

Bringing these characters to life gave audiences the opportunity to experience Itaya’s vision in a tangible, visceral way. It’s one of the many ways technology can seduce us into engaging with the heart of a story that - especially in today’s busy world - we may otherwise miss.

Chris Panzetta,
Project Lead at S1T2

Through interacting with the touch wall visitors come to more intimately understand the personality and stories behind these characters.

Brooke Carson-Ewart,
Head of Digital Engagement at AGNSW

A shadowy silhouette projection

Circular Projection

In addition to the touch wall, we also created another creative technology artwork as part of the Japan supernatural exhibition. Upon entering the exhibition, audiences were greeted by a huge, double-sided circular projection. Seen from both outside and inside the gallery space, the projection featured the silhouettes of supernatural creatures from throughout the exhibition, giving audiences an intriguing – and photogenic! – glimpse of what lay within.

Characters of Japan Supernatural.

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