SemiTora: seeking new ways of communication

Semitrasparent Design was founded in 2003 by Ryoji Tanaka, Toshiyuki Sugai, Yusuke Shibata and Hiroshi Sato (who joined in a little later). Their main focus lies on exploring differnt types of networks and interactive projects as well as dealing with traditional media. PingMag went to look at their newest installation for the BEYES select shop in the newly opened shopping complex Omotesando Hills.

Interview by Uleshka & Kyoko
Translated by Kyoko

BEYES in Omotesando Hills

“Interactive Interior” poster designed by Semitransparent Design

Can you explain your project for BEYES to us? All we know so far is, that it is an international collaboration of 5 design teams: Nanika(UK) (the new Hi-ReS! company for interactive projects), wowlab+wildcard(JP), Takashi Kamada(JP), Marcos Weskamp and you, of course!

EDITWALL placed at center of the store

Tanaka: BEYES started out as an online shop. This is their first actual store. They wanted us to create an installation piece for the store, which acts more like a piece of furniture, something like an “interactive interior” rather than an attraction to lure customers into the shop. It’s not like a media art piece for a museum or so… some people might not even notice it, but others might discover its interaction and start to get engaged. We tried to make something pop and easy to understand for everybody.

This screen is integrated right in the middle of shop and called EDITWALL. The original content, which each group provided will be shown on a day-by-day rotating basis. One day Semitransparent Design (also nicknamed SemiTora) and the next day Marcos Weskamp….

We didn’t just provide our piece, but also created the system and website for this installation.

visitors create various images according to their movement
various visual effects

Can you tell us a little more about your piece? How does it work?

Tanaka: There are 2 CCD cameras right above the screen. The camera captures the movement of the customer and displays a filtered image on the screen in the shop. This, however, is also connected to the EDITWALL website. We use the data from this website to influence the image on the shop-side screen. The movement of the web site visitor’s cursor is displayed by a red X on the screen. See that one right there?

screen in the store. red cross is input from website

The other way around, you can view the shop customers’ contour and movement on the website as well.

EDITWALL website. red image is customer’s silhouette

Shibata: While you visit this website to get some information about this project, you became part of the installation without noticing it.

Sugai: When we build the website, we didn’t want to make it too obvious that you are actually participating in the installation at the same time…and yet you are, wether you want it or not. It is same for the customers who visit the store: as soon as they enter their image gets picket up, transformed into data and displayed as a visual effect. Consciously or unconsciously you become input and consciously or unconsciously motion and color- output.

Then what’s going to happen if, let’s say 30 people are looking at EDITWALL website at the same time? How will you calculate which mouse movement to display?

Tanaka: Well, if 30 people are looking at the website there will be 30 red Xs showing up on screen creating effects. This input and transformation of the installation piece in the shop by users from the website only works for our piece, though. Since we were involved in this project from the very beginning, we had more opportunities in experimenting.

red cross(=mouse) can create effects as well

What does this title for your piece “Skew” stand for?

Tanaka: Our concept for this piece was to connect the store installation with the web page. “Skew” is something I learned in elementary math class, meaning that 2 parallel lines will never intersect. However, if you imply a 3D way of thinking, the two lines might look perfectly parallel from one perspective, but when changing the perspective in a 3 dimensional space, it actually looks, as if they cross each other, even though they don’t. A little hard to explain without 3D software to simulate… Even 2 lines looks like it is crossing in 2D world, they are not crossing if they are not on the same plane.

Sugai: Like skew, our piece looks like that they are two “lines”, two worlds crossing and “touching” each other. The small cross on the screen and the store movements on the web site, but they are actually 2 individual movements…. connecting and yet seperate…. That’s why we named this piece “Skew”.

work by wowlab+wildcard

work by Nanika

Tanaka: Projects like these are the actual reason we left the pure web-design business and founded SemiTora. We seek to explore more interactive/network projects in order to find new ways of communication. We’ve made about 4 network pieces so far, connecting real space with web space and encouraging a communication between them.

bitthingsinteractive piece created for Yamaguchi Center for Arts and Media

I heard about a piece you provided for club WOMB in Shibuya…

Tanaka: Oh, do you mean the bathroom piece? We’ve created several pieces for WOMB… but for this particular project we installed touch screens for each lavatory bowl at the men’s and several touch screens on the walls of the women’s toilets. You could easily scribble and draw messages on the screens with your fingers. The inputs coming from male bathroom were displayed in black and the girls’ inputs were in red. It was a lot of fun to communicate through those screens.

interactive work for WOMB bathroom. Men’s
interactive work for WOMB bathroom. Women’s

Sugai: Yeah, you could write something like “let’s meet outside later…”


Tanaka: But since all screens shared the info probably everyone tried to meet outside!

But SemiTora doesn’t only do interactive stuff! I came across your beautiful, clean editorial work for The Helvetica Book, as well as an unique piece you provided for atipika JAPAN. Can you tell us little bit about thoe projects, too?

Sato: About the Helvetica book… I worked with the author of the book and was in charge of the overall design. I tried to make it really simple and straight, putting even more weight on grid layouts and typographic composition than usual. I think I learned a lot from this piece and can’t wait to apply this experience to the new project!

The Helvetica Book

Tanaka: About atipika JAPAN: we were asked by the ATIPIKA design studio based in Mallorca, Spain to contribute somethng to their book called atipika JAPAN. We didn’t want to give them a regular graphic piece, so we created a graphic of a QR code.

And? What can you do with that QR graphic then?

You can download special software from our website for this piece and if you view this QR code through a web cam, graphic images appears on top of the QR code. It is like augmented reality…combining real imagery with computer generated images.

graphic for atipika JAPAN: QR code

Wow, that’s sound interesting. Could you tell us how it works?

Through a web cam the computer determines the position, distance and angle between camera and QR code. Based on this images are applied onto QR code.


You guys also joined the Japanese design conference Apartment. How did you like it to speak to a decent audience?

Sugai: We usually don’t have the opportunity to show our works to the public, so therefor Apartment was a great chance for us to talk.

Tanaka: Definitely! We would like more people to know about us, especially people in outside of Japan. (big smile)

What kind of project you would like to work on in the future?

Ryoji Tanaka, explaining his work

Tanaka: We would like to work on some “slow” interactive pieces. What we do now is mainly interactive pieces with immediate reaction. But we would like to create something which reveals a result in – let’s say – three years time….

Hmm, I don’t know if I get it right…. Do you mean something like waving my hand in front of EDITWALL now, then sort of “recording” that movement and projecting it three years later to someone else walking past the screen? Is this still “interactive work” then? Or would that be closer to leaving a message…

Tanaka: Well, maybe I shouldn’t call it interaction, but I didn’t just mean to record one thing and reproducing the exact same thing three years later. What I meant is closer to gathering inputs building up over time. Then after X amount of time, you will finally get a result different to your single experience. For this type of project, it is important to examine the environment we live in.

Adam et Rope poster

We’ve already been experimenting with this kind of slow interaction in a way when working for the Japanese clothing company Adam et Rope. If you visit their website now, without noticing your action gets transformed into color information and is sent to us. We complied about 3 to 4 months of data (which turned out as about 200,000 different color patches). This color information got layered – again and again – and basically created this huge image. That eventually became a poster and will also be used as a pattern for the shop’s paper bags.

I think this is one example of “slow interaction”…. Well we are just starting with those kind of experiments…

graphic for Adam et Rope bag

I remember other projects you did for Adam et Rope in collaboration with IMG SRC, Inc.. You created this kind of “pattern generator” on their site, where visitors would create patterns and based on their data they produced, shopping bags were printed with the users’ designs. That was beautiful!

Yes, this project has been going on for around 6 years now, I think…compiling data from web users and making into actual pieces. I never thought about it as a “slow interaction” before, but in a way, I guess that’s what it is. If the web viewer can participate in making something real and bridge this unpersonal, distant feeling the web leaves behind, I think that is very satisfying.

Definitely! Didn’t you also design T-shirts for Adam et Rope?

Winny T-shirts

Tanaka: True! The motif we chose for their T-shirts was Winny. I’m not sure, if you know about Winny or not, but it was a highly controversial issue here in Japan, especially among computer users a while ago. Winny is a P2P (peer-to-peer) software that allows you to share files while you keep your identities untraceable.

Some people used this software illegally such as coping illegal files (child porn) and pirating copyrights. Therefore their developer was arrested in charge of encouraging these activities… very difficult to judge, I guess but certainly many people thought of it as unjust arrest and even raised money for him through the internet to defend him (over 11 million Yen).

Revolutionary icons or anarchy symbols are often used in fashionable T-shirts claiming to be cool and wild… we thought that what Winny stands for is truly controversial and can therefor be an icon worth printing on a T-shirt!

…those who are into fashion probably don’t know about this geeky issue, though! But Adam et Rope got it! We thought that was really cool!

Thanks a lot for sharing some of your thoughts with us today!

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