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Pixel Artworks The Garden of Light

The ‘Garden of Light’ aiming to stimulate shoppers’ senses

Image credit: Pixel Artworks

The ‘Garden of Light’ installation at a designer outlet mall in Ashford, Kent, is hoping to provide shoppers with a multi-dimensional walk-through experience and offer a digital connection with nature.

Shopping, as a pastime, can be a heaven or hell experience depending on your perspective. What is not in doubt is that it is changing. With online sales booming and high streets struggling, it is clear that the retail environment is evolving. A new sensory experience, just opened in a Kent shopping outlet, could be a blueprint for the way forward. For the next six months at least, it should certainly provide a welcome distraction at very least.

‘The Garden of Light’ is part of the expansion of the Ashford Designer Outlet, developed by the McArthurGlen Group, that is intended to be a relaxing and enjoyable walk-through experience – and it uses some very clever technology.

The company that designed and built the Garden of Light is Pixel Artworks, and creative director Riaz Farooq expands on the philosophy behind the project: “They have just installed Europe’s largest ‘Living Wall’ and they were looking to do something special with this unit – something out of the ordinary and looking to give something back to the visitors here, draw people in and look to the future as to what a shopping space might consist of.”

This could, therefore, be a testbed for McArthurGlen’s development of its other facilities in the UK and around the world. The Living Wall, incidentally, covers much of the façade around the new retail units and comprises some 120,000 plants. While not related to the Garden of Light project, the theme of Ashford being at the heart of the Garden of England is consistent.

The Garden of Light takes the visitor through separate areas that are a journey through the seasons. Interaction is not only encouraged, but it is also essential in order to gain full benefit from the experience. A waft of the hand can break the flow of a waterfall and reveal what lies behind the tumbling water – or a step on magic toadstools can send streams of ‘energy’ across the floor and up a tree trunk to the canopy above.

It is a fully immersive experience. “Every season has its own audio to help create the feel of that season,” Farooq adds. “For example, the winter/spring took the sounds of the forest but then added to them to give that fantastical quality – so not just taking inspiration from the real Kent landscape and exaggerating the small sounds that you may get from the forest, but building on it with those sort of dancing chimes, something that has a magical nature where you interact.”

Creating this has been a considerable technical challenge. Farooq continues: “Producing The Garden of Light has truly been a creative journey through a multitude of artistic and technological disciplines. Collectively we have explored the boundaries of motion design and real-time graphics, effectively creating a living game-like environment, full of discovery and play.”

Technology consultant of Pixel Artworks, Clarisse O’Dell, takes up the story: “It’s a unique project and we have made some quite broad leaps in integrating technology fully. A lot of this is driven by real-time software integrated into quite a complicated custom-built platform.”

That platform is created in TouchDesigner (TD), which O’Dell likens to an audio visual environment with building blocks to provide flexibility. “It can effectively take in information from interactive points which are lidar scanners and PIR sensors, and it can translate that into an audio trigger or a lighting trigger or a video trigger,” she adds.

It is what happens when these triggers are activated that becomes really interesting, as this is where the high-level gaming environment is created. “The key to delivering this is [another piece of software called] Notch which is cutting edge, real-time generative video software,” says O’Dell. “So the visuals are not pre-rendered animations, they are always un-rendered animations that can always be affected at any time.” The generative nature of this ensures that everyone has their own, unique experience in the Garden of Light.

O’Dell concludes: “It’s not a problem getting the technology to work, it is about nuancing the system so that it feels human, and it’s responsive. So it all integrates seamlessly. You are not aware that you are listening to the audio – people are not looking for the sensors and that is a sign to us that people are not looking for the technology, they are not trying to break it down. They are just playing with it. I have been to many experiences and there are only two or three which really feel human, where the technology goes to the back of your mind.”

It is only a brief experience – maybe 15 minutes or so, so it is not something most would plan a day’s retail therapy around. But maybe with the changing shape of retail therapy, shops will only survive if they can offer that extra bit of enjoyment and interest, such as the Garden of Light, that can’t be found online.

Entry is free and doesn’t require booking. Donations are welcome, though, and these go towards creating a sensory garden for the William Harvey Hospital in Ashford.

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