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Adtech Tech Innovation

From hacking the brain to real virtual reality – the coolest creative tech from Sónar+D

By Aoife McGuinness | junior innovator

June 26, 2015 | 6 min read

Interested in the digital transformation of the creative industry? Then you’d better get to know Sónar+D, a cutting-edge festival in Barcelona that merges creativity, music and technology, running parallel to the Sónar international music festival.

This year saw the third Sónar+D and the most successful yet, with more than 4,500 attendees taking in workshops, keynotes, panels and live performances – from speakers and organisations such as Kickstarter, Vimeo, Google Creative Labs, Chris Milk and Bruce Sterling.

Below, I’ve picked out the projects that had the biggest impact on me this year.

Hacking the brain

Will we be able to replay our dreams in the future? Is it already possible to find our ideal partner, online, based on brain scans? Could we temporarily acquire somebody else’s mathematical skills on demand? These are all questions posed at the Hack the Brain event run at Sónar+D this year by the Waag Society. The message was that, as technology advances, brain hacking might just mean a revolution in education in the future – the question is whether or not we're prepared for it.

One brain-based project was ‘MoodBox’, one of the winners from the Music Hack Day at the festival, which saw 100 hackers battling it out to come up with the most innovative music tech prototype in just 24 hours. MoodBox is a collaborative music jukebox that selects the music to play based on the emotions felt by users. A variety of biometric data, including brainwave scanning, has been used to create mood-recognition technology that has then been mapped to a collection of some 10,000 tracks.

Not only were you able to use your emotional state to control music at Hack the Brain, you could also get a refreshing beverage, provided you put your mind to it. The ‘Zero Calories Can Dispenser’ was a fridge that could only be opened when a certain level of concentration was reached while wearing a Mindwave EEG band. This was a project from Libelium, an internet of things platform provider.

Movement to sound to movement

Sónar is famous for its impressive AV shows accompanying many of the world-class performers – and this year was no different, with arresting backdrops for acts including The Chemical Brothers and Flying Lotus. Another artist pushing the audio-visual boundaries was Emmanuel Biard, with his mesmerising show ‘The Well’, in collaboration with up-and-coming Glaswegian producer Koreless.

Speaking at Sónar+D’s Creative Technologies Café, Biard explained how he was inspired by the parabolic mirrors used in flight simulators and decided to create the illusion of a well using a large circular one and lasers. As Koreless played hypnotic basslines and shimmering synths, the parabolic mirror was moved – resulting in the crowd being bathed in beautiful visuals.

‘Dance’ was a project from the European Commission’s START (Science & Technology & Arts) initiative that analysed a dancer’s moves using mobile sensors in real-time. These were then converted into sound and music. The data recorded was based on the balance, fluency and abruptness of the dancer’s movement.

RGB | CMY Kinetic’ was a large audiovisual installation where primary colours (Cyan, Magenta, Yellow) interacted with additive colours (Red, Green, Blue) via five airborne reflecting discs, moving gracefully in empty space. Ólafur Arnalds composed the music for the project, converting the data stream produced by the movement of the discs into sound.

Real virtual reality

Since Facebook announced that it was going to buy Oculus last year, people’s opinions about virtual reality have changed. It’s become clear that the future of VR is not just in gaming, but in film, education and beyond.

One of the speakers at Sónar+D, Chris Milk (famous for his interactive experiences, e.g. ‘The Wilderness Downtown’ featuring Arcade Fire), described VR as “A fundamental new way to tell stories” and said that 2015 marks the birth year of ‘real’ virtual reality. Milk is the man behind some of the most groundbreaking VR projects to date, some of which were on show at Realities+D, the dedicated VR space at Sónar+D, with some 12 films, music videos and interactive experiences.

In ‘Clouds Over Sidra’, the viewer follows a 12-year-old girl living in a refugee camp in Jordan, to get a unique insight into her vulnerable living conditions. The film was made for the UN in partnership with Samsung, and was presented to state and business leaders at the World Economic Forum in Davos – where it was highly praised for generating greater empathy in the spectators.

Another of Milk’s projects at the festival was ‘Evolution of Verse’, a stunning two-minute journey through a photo-realistic CGI landscape (every frame took seven hours to render), where you can experience walking on water and being back inside the womb. These pieces can all be downloaded on VRSE for the Samsung Gear, or for Google Cardboard on your iOS or Android device.

The dates for Sónar+D 2016 are 16-18 June. Get it in your diary now.

Aoife McGuinness is a junior innovator at HeyHuman Agency

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