Seeing through walls in Chris’ Out of Bounds. Photo by the artist, via Flickr.

Chris O’Shea (also of the blog Pixelsumo) has a brilliant installation that allows people to see through walls. It’s an idea I’ve seen done before, but Chris actually makes the effect convincing, by giving visitors an infrared torch (what we’d call a flashlight here in the States, though torch in this case is an even better word). Software tracks the position of the IR emitter via an overhead security camera, and the whole thing is coded to make the impact realistic.

Software is coded in OpenCV (an open-source computer vision library from Intel, in C++) and OpenFrameworks (a lightweight multimedia C++ framework for artists, on some level trying to do for C++ what Processing has done for Java).

There is a childlike quality about wanting the ability to see through walls with x-ray vision like a superhero character. This memory is something Chris O’Shea wants to capture in the interactive installation Out of Bounds. The work encourages visitors to bore through the walls of the museum and engage in a ‘behind the scenes’ experience with an x-ray torch. This playful interaction encourages childlike curiosity in young and old alike, and opens up a portal into the Museum’s forbidden spaces.

Shine the torch at the wall to reveal the secrets hidden beneath. Pay an anonymous visit to the staff office, collection’s store, workshop, roof hatch or plant room.

Out of Bounds on Pixelsumo
Designers in Residence Program, Design Museum, London
Now showing at DesignTide, Tokyo
Out of Bounds Project Description, Documentation

Seeing the IR Rainbow

The torches, tested. Chris reports the most expensive one worked best. (Yes! Justification for nicer IR gear!)

The results are so realistic, Chris says he’s gotten emails from people thinking it was real. But the whole effect is purely illusion; IR emitters of this type (near-infrared) aren’t capable of penetrating surfaces. That’s something I had to explain to people when I was using IR-sensitive cameras myself (nothing fancier than a DV cam in night vision mode). Higher up the IR spectrum, it is possible to sense heat through walls, though the effect is nothing like the Superman “X-ray vision” seen here.

But among those fooled by near-IR’s “magical” properties? The US government, evidently. It seems our government, in the latest expression of its infinite wisdom, has placed import/export bans on simple IR flashlights for security reasons. (This sounds really odd, even for us; if anyone knows more about this, I’m curious to know.) I’m not sure what the precise security threat would be; maybe commandeering someone’s TiVO by shining at its remote control receiver? Don’t tell the US government, but there’s all kinds of mobile lighting technology that allows you to see in the dark, too. Like Mag-Lites.

Reimagining Projection

What I most like about this project, separate from how lovely it is as installation art, is that it breaks up the projection itself. The spotlight mechanism is simple, but it suggests the potential for letting viewers control projection, and “virtualizing” the projected image rather than letting it simply be a rectangle. (Not that I don’t love rectangular images — I sure spent a lot of time watching TV episodes in rectangles this weekend. But you get the idea.) I’ll be interested to see how ideas like this show up in clubs and performances.

  • BirdFLU

    I'm guessing IR flashlights are banned for export because combining one with a set of nightvision goggles allows the enemy to see better in the dark. A good IR light source makes a crappy nightvision device work a whole lot better.

  • i'd like to see the video clip of this!!!

  • Video is here:

    And yeah, this will allow you to assemble ghetto-style night vision. But, again, it's like banning light. That kind of low-grade night vision is really easy to do, and we'd have to have really crap security in this country for that to be a serious threat.

  • Zac

    In Australia you can buy an IR security camera with IR LEDs…

    Is this the case also in America? Have you tried that avenue? Im not even sure if this is because here we can legally buy IR torches.. just know that cameras had em.. just looking in my Jaycar electronics catalouge and even baby monitors come with 8 IR LEDs..

  • Zac

    edit : just noticed in the same catalouge we have IR LEDs ( transmitters and also recievers ) for $1 each… so i think we might have different laws here…