On the Studio’s sixth birthday, we were lucky enough to host a Lunchtime Talk given by Rusty Squid, an amazing, Bristol based animatronics and model making company. The Rusty Squid team, Roboticist Dave, Designer Rosie, Software Engineer Seb and Creative Producer Viv, have recently been carrying out the mammoth task of furnishing Bristol Central Library with 400 interactive, animatronic books to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Public Libraries in Bristol. They came to the Studio to talk about the processes involved in such a project, and to take us on an expedition up to the library to see the project for ourselves. If you haven’t seen Book Hive yet, watch this video before you read on…

At the core of Rusty Squid’s practice is a fascination with the ancient art of puppetry and its ability to conjure primal emotions in people. Much of their previous work has explored robotics with a simple, ‘almost naïve’ approach (as said by co-director Dave), which focuses on the human touch and human responses. A few examples of this kind of endeavor are Heart Robot, a gentle robot that responds to the way it is treated, Breath Light, which uses as subtle a trigger as the human breath to light up a large room, and haptic reassurance for a Pitch Black immersive performance.

Most of Rusty Squid’s work has been commissioned with a particular idea in mind, so when the Bristol Central Library approached Rusty Squid with a completely blank slate, aksing them to think of an installation for Bristol Central Library’s beautiful entrance, they were very excited. After much deliberation, they came up with the idea of a modular structure, integrating hundreds of fluttering, animatronic books, that could be built into different shapes, weaving through the marble columns of the library entrance and celebrating the building’s architecture as well as the physical books. Once they made their pitch and were accepted, they had an incredibly tight timeline. Starting in September, they were to make 100 book mechanisms by the actual anniversary in early December, and then 300 more by mid February 2014. After dozens of designs and iterations, they settled on a mechanism.

Dave had always wanted his mechanism design to be a symbiosis between digital and analogue. The structure was made entirely from slotted wood to avoid nuts and bolts or glue, and cut down assembly time. The team wanted the Book Hive structure to be like a giant kids’ construction kit, and they invited the young and old to their studio to help them put it together. Designing the structure was painstaking. For a project on this scale, a tiny difference in the laser cut shape can result in hundreds of pounds being saved or lost. One of the main worries hanging over the project was the use of so many servos for such a long period of time. The 400 servos were going to be run for eight to ten hours a day for months, and no one to Rusty Squid’s knowledge had done this before. They tested one servo for one month, and decided to take the risk, which has paid off, as the servos have turned out to be amazingly robust. To briefly sum up the technology involved in Book Hive: 3D cameras (similar to Kinect sensors) are positioned above the Hive, which send information to be processed by a simulation computer, which talks to micro-controllers, which control all the servos individually. An unintended consequence of using so many servos is that rather than buzzing loudly and unpleasantly (as many thought they would) they make the Book Hive creak softly like an old wooden ship.

Rusty Squid did have some ideas about how they wanted the books to behave in response to peoples’ movements, however the timeline was tight, and they had little time in the workshop to test the interaction. Seb, the programmer for the project, programmed Book Hive when it was actually installed in the space. This was an interesting iterative process of programming, as Seb has continued to tweak the programming in response to feedback gathered from the volunteering Book Hive Keepers (invigilators). The first hundred books installed in December are the most responsive (one tip – if you make yourself bigger in front of the cameras, say by doing a star-jump, all of the books open at once). Seb is now working on the other structures, to make them responsive in different ways.

Viv told us that they have all been blown away by how Book Hive has affected people. The whole project is made worthwhile by the moment of joy on someone’s face as they realize the books are responding to them. Rusty Squid have deliberately avoided heavily signposting the experience outside the library, hoping that people will encounter it by accident and be enchanted. They want the primary audience to be those who come to the library ordinarily.

During the Q&A, we spoke a lot about digital and physical books. Dave told us that whilst building Book Hive, a flowery, shaky handwritten note fell out of one of the books, saying ‘I know how you feel’. You can’t get this kind of human touch when exploring purely digital avenues. The books used in Book Hive are all archived library books, some of which hadn’t been taken out for some 15 – 20 years. The project almost gives them a life beyond life, and peoples’ reactions to the books themselves have been very moving. One frequent visitor has become fascinated with one of the books, and has reserved it to take out when Book Hive is dismantled. When locking up at night, the librarians say goodnight to the books. We live in a strange time, where physical books are no longer a means to an end for the majority. Dave described Book Hive as a low-resolution touch screen – ‘like books having a go at the digital age’, which seems to be simultaneously wonderful and rather sad idea. Book Hive aims to raise the questions ‘what is a book now?’ and ‘What is the value of having a library?’ Which are all best debated in the beautiful setting of Bristol Central library itself, so if you haven’t seen Book Hive in all its glory, please get yourself there before 16 March when the installation will come to a close.