Eidophusikon: A physical interactive with a computer-enabled 3D counterpart.

Imagine this, the year is 1786, the place, London. A crowd of 150 people jostle to enter a small theatre whose advertisements over the previous three weeks have caused excited expectation. The theatre is called the "Eidophusikon" and it features a strange new entertainment which a London newspaper describes as "various imitations of natural phenomena represented by moving pictures." Prof. Iain McCalman, in the written introduction to our 2005 Eidophusikon recreation

The creator of the Eidophusikon was an artist and scenographer by the name of Philippe Jacques de Loutherbourg. His radical theatre employed a unique visual technology which included controlled lighting, clockwork automata, 3-dimensional models, and an accompanying soundscape. The effect was unlike anything the audience had previously encountered, convincing to the point that during the recreation of a torrential storm wrecking a ship at sea, one of the audience, a young artist called William Pyne, feels he is actually there: he later says he had to stop himself from crying out hoarsely in terror.

Iain McCalman, professor and cultural historian at the Australian National University is writing a book about de Loutherbourg and his shows, "Technomancer: Moving Pictures and Virtual Realities in the Age of Wonders." Working with McCalman, EDM Studio together with a small team undertook - in the space of three short months - to build a scaled-down but working prototype of a de Loutherbourg spectacle, the "Wreck of the Halsewell."

The original scene, running only a few minutes in duration, was simultaneously a disaster movie, newsreel, multi-media experience and experiment in virtual reality: a re-enactment of the sinking off the Dorset coast of an East Indies merchant ship, the Halsewell. Although the wreck is now forgotten it was as famous in its day as the Titanic is in ours. Short as it was, de Loutherbourg's movie became a London sensation, half a century before the invention of photography.

Our approach was to produce a deliberate convergence and interaction between technologies of the eighteenth and twenty-first centuries. We would use modern technology to automate the 18th-century spectacle (computer-controlled halogen lighting, motor-driven waves and ship, scrolling LCD background, photoflash lightning and a sequenced soundtrack) while trying to stay faithful to de Loutherbourg's visual and auditory aesthetic. And while de Loutherbourg's original patrons would never know the means by which the spectacle was realized, using VR technology we added a virtual view that allowed for a "behind the scenes" look into the Eidophusikon of two hundred years ago. EDM Studio's Andrew Edmundson digitally modeled the components of the scene and the mechanical devices that de Loutherbourg invented for producing thunder, rain, and wind. Rendered into separate left and right eye images, the resulting 3D view and accompanying narration ran in synch with the main spectacle, so much so that members of our modern audience were convinced that this backstage portal was literally a window onto the real scene.

End Note: Our Eidophusikon was conceived and built as a prototype. The temporary exhibit ran from 16 December 2005 until 13 February 2006 at the Australian National University. Documented in a short film by Kim McKenzie, this Eidophusikon has now been dismantled. Professor McCalman is meanwhile seeking expressions of interest from museums and galleries worldwide in the commissioning of a museum-quality version.

Production Team:

  • Kaoru Alfonso (National Gallery of Australia)
  • Christopher Baugh (University of Kent)
  • Ann Bermingham (University of California, Santa Barbara)
  • Damien Cassidy and Ian Gilmour (ScreenSound Australia)
  • Linda Davy (Freelance Artist, Australia)
  • Andrew Edmundson (EDM Studio)
  • Darran Edmundson (ANU Vizlab and EDM Studio)
  • Iain McCalman, Lachlan McCalman, Georgina Fitzpatrick and Kim McKenzie (Centre for Cross Cultural Studies, Australian National University)
  • Paul Warren (ANU Supercomputer Facility)

With Invaluable Support From:

Andrey Bliznyuk, Paul Bourke, Steve Brooks, Ray Browne Joinery, John Chappell, Mark Chatburn, Ben Cory, Ron Cruikshank, Tony Cullen, Rob Davy, Joel Davy, Eve Fortnum, Dennis Gibson, Rhys Hawkins, Dan Henne at Phidgets Inc, Margaret Kahn, Gerhard "Kim" Kimenkowski, Michael Maloney, Tom McGuinness, Robert Poulter, Alison Scott and John Wilson. 3D Projection Technology graciously provided by Jumbovision International Pty

Computational resources provided by the ANU Supercomputer Facility