Capturing a Face: Bjork, Masks, and 3D Scanning at LaGuardia Studio

By Keith Allison

Icelandic musician Bjork has long been interested in the intersection of technology and nature and is an enthusiastic early adopter of emerging technology, while MIT’s Neri Oxman‘s specialty is designing 3D printed objects using innovative materials that relate to and are designed by biology. In June of 2016, Bjork appeared onstage at the Tokyo Miraikan Museum wearing a complex mask that had been designed and printed by Neri Oxman and her team at MIT’s Mediated Matter Lab. The mask used an advanced “Nano Enhanced Elastomeric Technology” material created by Stratasys, Ltd., which allows designers to manipulate it on the micron level to create 3D printed objects with varying degrees of rigidity and flexibility. For Oxman and Bjork, the goal was to extrapolate a form from the contours of the singer’s face, then print a mask that, while still being a single piece, mimics the structure of the human face: bones for support, muscle fiber for flexibility and movement. The project was named Rottlace (a play on an Icelandic word meaning “skinless”).

Neri Oxman describes what she does as “material ecology.” She explores the intersection of digital design, fabrication, material science, and “synthetic biology.” Oxman considers each of these things inseparable from the other and has applied this philosophy of design and creation to a number of projects, including one in which the chitinous shells of shrimp were used to create a fully organic, biodegradable substitute for plastic that could then be used as a material in 3D printing.1 Stratasys, Ltd., which manufactures 3D printers and 3D printing materials, has also been at the forefront of exploring new methods and materials for 3D fabrication, including work featured at New York Fashion Week. The Nano Enhanced Elastomeric Technology material used to create Bjork’s masks allows designers to print single pieces made of fibers with variable flexibility.

Obtaining a Scan

Before the Rottlace mask could be printed, it had to be scanned. That scanning took place at NYU’s LaGuardia Studio, where scanning experts Taylor Absher and Blair Simmons used a hand-held Artec scanner to create a digital model of Bjork. Unlike the old way of attaining a 3D scan, which involved affixing a series of nodes to a subject, Artec scanners fire beams of light that register and record the subject, allowing the technician to move freely around the subject. There are, needless to say, certain challenges with scanning a human body. First and most obvious is the need for the subject to remain still for half an hour or more.

Because the scan is later mapped onto a pre-built digital “skeleton” that enables a designer to manipulate joints to mimic the movement of a real human, the scanned subject must stand with arms slightly bent and held away from the body. This enables the joints of the arms to be better mapped to the 3D skeleton, but it’s also an uncomfortable position to hold for half an hour. Even small motions can create ripples in the scan resulting in, for example, Bjork having three sets of arms (which, perhaps, is a scan she wouldn’t have minded). Because movement is more or less unavoidable, Taylor Absher and the team at the Studio must go in afterward and compile multiple layers of the scan. Their next task is finding layers that contain one error but not another, then combining them with yet another layer that doesn’t contain the same error but might contain a different error. There is no easy way to do this. Creating a 3D scan is a lot of painstaking detailed work.

Generative system that procedurally creates a mask and its individual parts.

Generative system that procedurally creates a mask and its individual parts. First, the principal curvature directions of the 3D head scan are calculated. Afterwards, the resulting field is modified. Based on the divergence of the modified filed, bone-like support structures are generated that act as the rigid frame for the soft fibers that emerge from them. Image courtesy MIT Mediated Matter.

Absher and his team discovered other unanticipated complications as they went through the scanning process. For example, in order to get the most accurate scan possible, Bjork wore a black bodysuit which the team discovered, once the scanning area was illuminated, had a tendency to create a pattern. At first, this was good news. The pattern in the bodysuit provided a large number of “data points” the scanner could latch onto. Unfortunately, even the slightest shift in Bjork’s position would cause the pattern of the fabric’s weave to alter ever so slightly—but more than enough to confuse the scanner.

One would think, given the tendency of the human body not to stay still, that scanning inanimate objects would be a much simpler task. And it is—sometimes. But even when the object sits perfectly still, Absher and his team have discovered complication in the scanning process. Among the most challenging are objects with reflective surfaces, such as glass and metallics. The light from the scanner hits the surface and is reflected or refracted, making good data harder to collect. To circumvent this, the team at the LaGuardia Studio has experimented with a wide array of substances that create a matte finish, including powder and, to Absher’s surprise, buttermilk. The complexity of inanimate objects can also be difficult for the scanners to process, especially in the case of something like a sculpture with exceptionally fine detail. As the technology continues to evolve, it’s probable these technical hurdles will be cleared. Until then, Absher and the technicians at the LaGuardia Studio keep experimenting with novel and sometimes surprising solutions.

Visualisations on the human body of the final, selected and refined mask designs.

Visualizations on the human body of the final, selected and refined mask designs. Each mask comprises over 20000 individual fibers with varying material properties in stiffness and translucency. Image courtesy of MIT Mediated Matter.

Bridging Nature and Technology

For Bjork, working with this emerging technology is something that has fascinated her for most of her career. Limitations are encountered, but new possibilities are discovered. In an interview with The Guardian, she explained that, “I see myself as someone who builds bridges between the human things we do every day and technology.”2 When the iPad was released and ushered in the new era of touchscreen technology, Bjork immediately began to wonder how she might incorporate it into her music production. Eventually, the iPad and a suite of music making and sound engineering apps became her studio. She described these tools as liberating on both a personal and social level, since sound recording studios are still expensive and dominated primarily by male sound engineers and producers. For Bjork, moving the studio out of the studio and onto a laptop or tablet allows women to create and produce their music free from the constraints of a male-dominated studio structure. It also allows her, she explains, to record a song on top of a mountain if she feels like it. “We have to unite technology and nature,” she said in an interview with The Creative Independent.3

The Rottlace masks were printed as part of the ongoing multimedia experience surrounding her album Vulnicura. The album, which she describes as an exploration of the feelings of grief and ultimately of healing after the end of an intense, long-term relationship, leaked online before it was finished. Rather than scramble to rebottle the genie, Bjork decided to adapt the album to the leak, to make it an ever-evolving thing for which new videos, variations, and performances were created periodically. The show during which she debuted the Rottlace mask was part of this philosophy, as was an immersive 3D virtual reality experience. When she began working with virtual reality and how to apply it during a live experience, she described it to The Creative Independent as “this thing that hasn’t quite been figured out entirely” and added, “I love this feeling of entering the unknown.”4

About the LaGuardia Studio

The LaGuardia Studio provides advanced digital media and fabrication services to NYU faculty, students of the arts, scientific researchers, and visiting artists. Services at the facility, located at 545 LaGuardia Place, include museum-quality digital prints and 3D scanning and printing. Project consultations are available by request.

Design variations for the Rottlace mask serie

Design variations for the Rottlace mask series, employing the generative system to rapidly create variations from which a final design was selected and refined. Image courtesy MIT Mediated Matter.

Notes

  1. TED Talk, Neri Oxman https://www.ted.com/talks/neri_oxman_design_at_the_intersection_of_technology_and_biology
  2. Ellis-Petersen, Hannah. “Björk: ‘I Build Bridges between Tech and the Human Things We Do'” The Guardian. August 31, 2016. Accessed November 28, 2016. https://www.theguardian.com/music/2016/aug/31/bjork-build-bridges-technology-somerset-house-london-virtual-reality-vulnicura.
  3. Stosuy, Brandon. “Björk on Nature and Technology.” The Creative Independent. September 27, 2016. Accessed November 28, 2016. https://thecreativeindependent.com/people/bjork-on-nature-and-technology/.
  4. Stosuy, Brandon. “Björk on Nature and Technology.”