Innovations in the fields of projection mapping and facial tracking are allowing artists to do some amazing, and creepy, things with digital images projected onto both inanimate and animate objects. In just a few years the technology has advanced from still images being projected onto static surfaces, such as buildings, to animations being projected onto moving faces.
Madame Tussauds in Nashville is soon to launch a new interactive experience where a digital animation of a face will be projected onto the wax figure of Hootie & the Blowfish frontman Darius Rucker. The facial projection technology will bring the wax figure to life – its face, at least – as the intricately projected image makes it look like the still waxwork is talking to you.
While this is the first time Madame Tussauds has integrated this kind of facial mapping projection technology into its exhibitions, this is not the first time artists have played around with this fascinating, and fast-evolving, technique.
In 2015, French digital art company BK embarked upon a series of projection mapped works it called "augmented uncanny sculptures" under the project banner of Golem. The concept projected moving faces onto classic sculptures in a gallery setting. The result was a weirdly unsettling but exciting mesh of old and new art, bringing to life these still figures through subtle projected movements.
The team's second realization of the concept, at the Lyon Fine Art Museum, brought three more classic sculptures to life, including one chillingly creepy projection on a statue of Medusa.
However, the most innovative, and technologically advanced practitioner in the field of facial projection mapping is undoubtedly Nobumichi Asai, a Tokyo-based artist. Asai has been refining the technology over several years, with his work now able to track facial movements in real time and adjust the projections accordingly.
His early work, under the banner of Omote, created mind-blowingly effective images akin to live projection make-up. We saw faces morph into lions or slowly deconstructed to reveal robotic circuits underneath.
The work was so influential that it wasn't long before he was enlisted by Lady Gaga to help create a stunning tribute to David Bowie at the 2016 Grammy Awards. The performance included various iconic Bowie looks being projected onto Gaga's face, all while a spider constantly crawled around.
Another innovative work from Asai was kagami / Real-Time Face Generator, an installation that acted like a 3D mirror where the participant would have their face scanned by a 3D scanner only to have a 3D replica appear in real time constructed by 5000 small motor-driven rods. The three dimensional face would then have a series of images projected onto it.
The most recent piece by Asai shows the rapid, and impressive, development of the technology. In INORI (prayer), Asai joined forces with researchers at the University of Tokyo to create a system that can map fast-moving faces in real-time. The university team designed a projector that could project images at 1000 frames per second and combined it with Asai's face-tracking technology to create a performance where dancer's faces could be altered in real-time at amazing speeds.
The final product is a stunning leap forward in the field of facial projection mapping, for the first time allowing for accurate mapped projections onto figures moving at fast speeds. With this kind of innovation across just a few short years one can only wonder at what these technologically influenced artists will be creating a few years from now.