Interview: Universal Everything's Matt Pyke 'interactive design lets the public create something beautiful'

Matt in his studio in the Peak District

The founder of one of the UK's most innovative design studios, Universal Everything, discusses how interactive design can make the public feel powerful, and allow them to create something that's way beyond what they can do with their bare hands.

We sat down with the founder Universal Everything, Matt Pyke, to talk about the future of design, how we might be interacting with technology in ten year's time, the prevalence of screens that need to be filled with content, the importance of collaboration and the power that interactive design can give to the public.

Matt started Universal Everything eight years ago, and since then the studio has worked with a number of big clients including Audi, Apple, Coldplay, Chanel, Nike, Hyundai and the V&A.

Most recently, the studio created 'Gliders', an interactive installation for Intel that lets visitors use Intel's touchscreen ultrabooks to create their very own Glider through the use of touch, movement and sound, and then launch the Glider so that it can join the other creations on a big screen.

Going forward, Matt believes that the prevalence of screens across many different surfaces will be key to the way we interact with design and technology in the future. "You're seeing them in cars, we've started to get them on t-shirts. Eventually there will be touchscreen and interactive wallpaper. So I think more surfaces will become a screen."

"It doesn't necessarily mean it will be a passive wallpaper type experience, it will be something interactive as well," he says. "I think that's where the future's heading. And the main thing is the more screens there are the more content and engagement there needs to be, so I think our industry can only really get busier because of that. There are more and more blank screens that need to be filled."

Of course, many of those screens will be filled with advertising, which Matt admits he's not a huge fan of. "Ultimately for me, what we do really as a studio is taking these formats that are originally developed for a more commercial purpose and doing something more artful, and more meditative on it," Matt explains. "It's taking a great big video screen that would potentially be used for billboard advertising and doing something much more minimal and artful with it."

You don't want every screen around you shouting at you to buy something. That's our role, to create these moments of reflection and emotion amongst all the noise.

Matt Pyke

An example of Universal Everything's passion for taking giant screens and using them to create something more meditative is the work the studio did for Hyundai for its 'Vision Hall' at its campus in Korea, which is designed to allow the motor company's leaders, engineers, scientists, workers and designers to learn, rethink, collaborate and be inspired.

Universal Everything created 18 new films for that space. "We were taken on a tour around all of Hyundai's aspects in Korea. We saw robots, labs, wind tunnels," Matt tells us. "We took all that as inspiration and made a series of art forms. Essentially it is advertising, but it's also expressing something, and finding the beauty in it all."

Matt explains that this commission was really pushing the limits of display technology and the CGI. The Hyundai piece was 18,000 pixels wide, so it was a test to see how detailed you can go and how long it takes to render such a huge animation.

"That was us trying to push things into a place where it's never really been done before. We're always trying to find the limits of something and trying to break it. That was super challenging."

Starting point

When first approached with a commission, Matt and his team at Universal Everything carefully think about the idea, the concept and the approach. They think about what effect they want the piece to have on the audience, and what they want the audience to do. For example, with the Hyundai project, the aim was to inspire people about the beauty in how steel is made, in molten metal, in the way a wind tunnel blows over a car and so on.

If the piece is interactive, it needs to be simple and intuitive enough that it requires the minimal number of instructions. "If you need to have pages and pages of instructions on it, it's no good. You need to really be able to pick it up and interact with it straight away," Matt says.

"Another thing for us, which is really exciting, is how you can use interactive to make the public feel powerful. It gives them these super strengths to do something really beautiful. It's way beyond what they can do with their bare hands."

Matt also emphasises the importance of collaboration when working on projects on such a large scale, or projects that require lots of different skills.

"A lot of designers are very artistic, and that's my background too. Drawing and painting and more expressive things," he says. "I'm not a programmer at all so what I did was find some interesting programmers and collaborated with them. So you start a really good relationship between a more technical person who's good at solving the problems in code, and someone like me who comes up with the ideas, rather than trying to do everything yourself. There's only so much room in your head."

The future

When discussing what the future could hold for technology and what that means for designers, Matt suggested that we could one day be able to access everything on any device. And as screens find their way onto more and more surfaces, almost anything could provide access to your digital world. He also mentioned his interest in new wearable device like Google Glass, not only as another example of screens creeping onto new surfaces, but also because it could stop us from staring at our phones all the time.

An Apple TV App Store is something that's also high on Matt's wishlist as a designer. "That medium for us in terms of creating digital art, where the television in your living room can become a canvas for more meditative work rather than just advertising or high octane entertainment. That'll be really interesting."

"You can start doing pieces that are more interactive or more collaborative work on people's home televisions."

At the moment, there's not much control for the end user to customise or personalise their experience of technology, says Matt. "Millions of people in the world are using the same aesthetic on Apple's operating system of Windows operating system. For me, that'll be the next thing. Not just assuming that millions of people in the world want to be constrained to one designer's taste or one design group's aesthetic."

We asked what he thinks about the design of Apple's new iOS 7, which certainly doesn't give much control to its users when it comes to customising it.

"The design community will like it, but what about everyone else?" he said. "That's the thing I wonder about iOS 7. Apple used to be a very design friendly world. All of us designers grew up with a Mac, but now it's a much bigger audience but they're still behaving like it's for designers. There should be more room for other tastes."

Upcoming projects

Right now, Universal Everything is working on a project for the Science Museum's upcoming Media Space, which will open in September in London.

Universal Everything has been asked to make the launch installation for the opening of the museum, and the studio is hard at work finishing the project.

"We're making two new pieces that are very much about the collaboration between many different people in the studio," Matt said. One of those people is choreographer Benjamin Millipied, widely known for his work in Black Swan.

"We worked with two of his dancers, who we flew over from Los Angeles, and did motion capture on their bodies," said Matt. "We captured all the motion and turned them into a series of dances that are performed around the room using digital computer generated costumes. So it's somewhere between choreography, ballet, fashion design."

Also part of the collaboration is Matt's brother, musician Simon Pyke, who created the soundtrack that the dancers are moving to as it plays in the installation room.

A second installation has been designed for the centre of the room at the museum. "The theme of the whole show is about the drawn line brought to life through digital means. In the centre there's an installation created entirely by the public by downloading an app on their smartphone. On the app, they draw a line, and the line comes to life and starts dancing to the rhythm. So the more submissions there are the more the gallery gets filled with all these dancing shapes that the public have created.

"It's been a long process, it's been really intense. We've worked with an architect as well and we've designed the whole structure in which the installation works in. Engineers are building all of the structure out of aluminium. It's super ambitions. But because we're working with all these super smart people, we're able to do it."

"One of the most important aspects is that the public can walk in an interact with it themselves. It's they who create the exhibition, rather than the artists. We're just there to make the rules."

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