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Gentle Air Giants: Interview with Emma Powell

Air Giants is an exciting collaboration between Emma Powell, Richard Sewell, and Robert Nixdorf. Together they create strikingly beautiful, soft robotic creatures that come to life at the intersection of puppetry, robotics, technology, and software design. Matt Gibbs caught up with Emma Powell, one of the co-founders and the creative director of Air Giants, about their emotionally expressive creations.

LUMA – Air Giants, 2020. Photo: Paul Blakemore.

How did you and the team first conceive of the idea behind Air Giants?

My colleague Richard Sewell is a prolific tester of ideas, and he has tested some ideas using soft robotic principles at a very large scale. I saw some of his early experiments and fell in love with it as a medium! Together with Robert Nixdorf, we started hatching a plan to take the principles much further and apply some of the human-robotic interaction principles we’d learned from other projects, as well as refining and improving the beautiful motion the technology offers.

We were lucky to get prototype funding from the South West Creative Technology Network which allowed us to tackle a lot of the technical challenges involved and find people who would be interested in exhibiting and commissioning the work.

The idea of creating creatures came quite quickly because even our first prototypes had a powerful sense of life about them. We love the idea of working with more abstract forms too, and some of the projects we are developing at the moment are about transforming whole spaces into interactive environments.

LUMA – Air Giants, 2020. Footage: Paul Blakemore and the Air Giants team.

How do you go about bringing such a sense of life and movement to these robotic creatures? What challenges do you face?

It’s certainly a challenge! Puppetry is a useful tool in exploring the possibilities. We often use table-top scale puppetered versions of designs to map out motions and interactions before thinking about how to realise these at full size. My own background in puppetry is very useful here. There’s something about the nuances of the way a real object moves that I haven’t found possible to express properly through storyboarding.

Then we have to take the vocabulary of movements we’re aiming for and figure out how we can translate that into the pneumatically controlled fabric. We now know a lot about the geometries and pressures needed to make it all happen, but it can still take a few modelling attempts at a smaller scale of about one metre before we finalise a design.

Once the design is in place, the actual fabrication requires a lot of space for laying out and cutting huge pieces of fabric. There is also lots of valve assembly, bespoke control coding for each new piece, and a huge amount of sewing to do.

What is challenging is that this is new ground – there’s no handbook for what we’re doing! Soft robotics is being developed in many university labs, but there’s nothing of this scale which we can reference. Everything from the specific geometries of the internal compartments to the air control valves has been designed by us from scratch. We’ve been learning fast, and we’re excited to see that the possibilities here are incredibly broad.

TRIFFID – Air Giants, 2020. Footage: Air Giants team.

How important is the movement and lighting to creating emotion? And what do you hope audiences will take away from the experience?

The movement really is key for us. The scale and spectacle of the work is striking, but it’s amazing how people respond to the movement at an instinctual level. Much of the motion is bio-inspired and the wide range of wiggling, flexing, and other contortions we can create are not usually associated with robotics.

Audiences are constantly trying to read meaning and behaviour into the movement the robots make, so designing the motion and responses is a large chunk of the work for us. I think there are very strong parallels to the art of puppeteering here. 

We want people to have joyful experiences of the work and to have a sense of having met something intelligent, otherworldly, and engaging. It should be a moment of magic and a way to step outside of normal life – something we could all use at the moment.

LUMA – Air Giants, 2020. Photo: Paul Blakemore.

What are your hopes for Air Giants in 2021? What more can we look forward to?

We’ve got a few exciting projects we’re hoping to get the green light for in 2021. I can’t say too much, but hopefully we’ll be bringing work to lots of people in all sorts of places, from town centres to botanical gardens.

We’re interested in co-design, site specific work, and collaborations with other creative industries. We’re very approachable and love to make connections happen, so please feel free to get in touch!

We’re looking forward to experiencing more of these gentle giants in the months to come and exploring the new spaces they might inhabit.

Air Giants is the brainchild of Emma Powell, Richard Sewell, and Robert Nixdorf; who create huge, emotionally expressive soft robotic creatures and spaces.

Emma Powell is an artist and director from Bristol, UK, who creates exciting, inspiring, and accessible work in theatre, film, and events.

Visit https://www.airgiants.co.uk/

Visit https://www.emmapowell.com/

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Interview with Emma Powell

Interviewed by Matt Gibbs

TRIFFID – Air Giants, 2020. Photo: Air Giants team.