Mermaids do not exist? Interactive Costumes do!

Creating and Staging Interactive Ballet Dance Costumes
Bauhaus-Universität Weimar, HCI Group, winter term 2016/17 and summer term 2017.

Inspired by underwater world animals glowing in the dark, our interactive costumes turn dancers' motions into meaningful light patterns on the stage.

The Seahorse - design sketch (graphics by Christian Wiegert).
The Seahorse - close-up of the exoskeleton.
This project is based on the ongoing collaboration with Claudia Kupsch who is the director and one of the dance teachers of a local theatre's children and youth ballet. Already one year before its premiere, Claudia invited us to create interactive costumes for a few characters of the ballet performance based on the fairy tale The Little Mermaid by the Danish author Hans Christian Andersen. Besides designing the Sea Witch Costume, I thus initiated two student projects - one for creating interactive costumes for the Seahorse and the Jellyfish who play supporting roles in the opening part of the performance, and another one for evaluating the costumes deployment on a real performance stage.

For the first student project in winter term 2016/17, we followed an interdisciplinary approach and students of Computer Science and Media, Human-Computer Interaction, Media Art and Design, and Product Design worked in two mixed teams. My part was to introduce them to costume design and crafting, and to teach them how to combine electronics with textile materials. Additionally, we visited the costume designer Hilke Förster who was in charge of creating all the other costumes for The Little Mermaid performance for getting a better understanding of a costume designer's work. I further guided the students through conceptualizing costume designs that could fullfil the requirements given by the director of the performance. Everything happend in close cooperation with the choreographic work and we regularly visited and observed Claudia Kupscch and the dancers while rehearsing. In February/March 2017, the two costumes were ready for their final staging.

Due to the fixed cycles of the university's year we could not stage the costumes together with their creators. That's why, I initiated a second student project in summer term 2017. A major goal was to evaluate how interactive costumes can be deployed on a traditional theatre stage within the given structutres and procedures. We further wanted to investigate how the performers, other stakeholders, and the audience perceive such interactive costumes. I developed the research question together with two students of Human-Computer Interaction. I further introduced both into qualitative research in HCI and guided them through the evaluation process ranging from the study design, over developing interview guides and a questionnaire, to analyzing the results. The students further supported me during the final rehearsing period and helped staging both interactive costumes.
The Seahorse - final costume design. These pictures show how the light changes through the dancer's motion (photos by Maike Alisha Effenberg).
Christian explaining the Seahorse costume concept and receiving the ballet troupe's feedback.
Maike explaining the Jellyfish costume concept and material ideas to the ballet dancers.
Concepts of the Interactive Costumes
Jellyfish Costume _ This costume is conceptualized in layers - underneath the dancer wears rosy tights and a leotard, then a technology layer with more than 110 addressable RGB LEDs, and on top two cover layers one of foam and one of tulle and organza to diffuse the light. The illuminated costume is white and slowly pulsates, comparable to a jellyfish’s swim movements. The balloon dress stands for the typical umbrella jellyfishes have, and the head band reminds of the gonads. Three accelerometers are integrated - two on the upper arms to detect arm up- and down movement and to trigger a red pixel moving up and down the oral arms underneath the dress respectively, and one in the lower back to sense spinning movements and to turn the light of the dress into red during these moments. Creators: Jing Zhao, Maike Alisha Effenberg, and Milad Alshomary.

Seahorse Costume _ This costume basically consists of a black long-sleeve and leggings. On top, the dancer wears a bodysuit with hood that houses all electronics and is covered by the bright exoskeleton from head to toe. More than 180 addressable RGB LEDs are integrated in sum. The idea is to visually let the human body disappear and to have the lighted exoskeleton of a seahorse come to focus. An accelerometer is attached to each upper arm in order to sense quick and large dance movements, which again changes the light pattern from yellowish-red to bluish-green and speeds up visual oscillation of light. Creators: Christian Wiegert, Tahira Sohaib, and Fernando Cárdenas Monsalve.
Premiere _ Landestheater Altenburg, June 4th, 2017.

Participating students _ Milad Alshomary, Clara Pauline Bimberg, Maike Alisha Effenberg, Eva Kratz, Annika Theresa Meinecke, Fernando Cárdenas Monsalve, Tahira Sohaib, Christian Wiegert, and Jing Zhao

Collaborators _ Children and Youth Ballet Theater&Philharmonie Thüringen with director Claudia Kupsch

Supervision _ Eva Hornecker and Michaela Honauer
  • Michaela Honauer, Danielle Wilde, and Eva Hornecker. 2020. Overcoming Reserve - Supporting Professional Appropriation of Interactive Costumes. In Proceedings of the 2020 on Designing Interactive Systems Conference (DIS ‘20). ACM, New York, NY, USA, 2189–2200. DOI: (BEST PAPER AWARD) PDF
  • Michaela Honauer, Christian Wiegert, Tahira Sohaib, Fernando Cárdenas Monsalve, Jing Zhao, Maike Alisha Effenberg, Milad Alshomary, and Eva Hornecker. 2017. Mermaids do not exist?: Interactive Costumes do!. In Proceedings of the 16th International Conference on Mobile and Ubiquitous Multimedia (MUM '17). ACM, New York, NY, USA, 535-540. DOI: PDF.