SUPERSYMMETRY: Where Interactive Technology, Knitting and Quantum Physics Meet.

Photo courtesy of Dpt.

String Theory (noun): A cosmological theory based on the existence of cosmic strings. Supersymmetry (noun): Predicts a partner particle for each particle.

It all started with Vali Fugulin, a producer and designer with a big passion for knitting and arts and crafts, who had the creative spark that set the project in motion. Then Émilie F. Grenier, a narrative designer who holds a master’s degree in Material Futures at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design in London, came on board. Then there was Lysanne Latulippe, who launched String Theory, a one-of-a-kind, Montreal-based textile studio, and with whom Émilie had been hoping to partner with for a while. Finally, Nicolas S. Roy and his team at Dpt., a company that designs interactive experiences, joined the group.

“I love arts and crafts. I always make sure to visit craftspeople and cercles des fermières wherever I travel around the world. What I love most about what I do is the possibility of bringing together areas that rarely get the chance to co-exist, in order to create some sort of new, hybrid entity. Impossible is certainly not part of my vocabulary! I was inspired by a new challenge, and that led to the idea of blending arts and crafts with interactive technologies.” – Vali Fugulin

The newly formed team met around a table and spent hours discussing this crazy idea of creating an interactive project based on knitting. Fresh funds from the SODEC led to the birth of SUPERSYMMETRY, an online shopping experience inspired by traditional arts and crafts, quantum physics and web documentaries, where consumers use an algorithm to crate a double scarf they can then share with loved ones.

“What I love most about what I do is the possibility of bringing together areas that rarely get the chance to co-exist, in order to create some sort of new, hybrid entity.” – Vali Fugulin

The beauty and uniqueness of the project are due in large part to the talent and complementary vision of its creators. It’s almost as if they were tiny particles all linked together in some cosmic way, just waiting to meet to bring to life something both surprising and important.

Interactive weaving

Knitting is certainly the geekiest of all arts and crafts. “Weaving is the forerunner of programming, says Lysanne as she sits at Mylène B on Saint-Laurent Boulevard in Montreal, where the project was officially launched. Maths and textiles have a lot in common, since you’re always using a grid, unlike clay, glass or wood.” While an important part of her work consists in designing unique products to add to her collection, Lysanne also spends quite a chunk of her days operating her knitting machine. She’s the only person in Canada to own such a piece of equipment, which she bought in Japan. This rather imposing “tricotron ” is what turned the project into a success, as it allows Lysanne to control every aspect of the production and resulting products. In the book publishing world, she’d be both the author and printer of her books.

From a creative and technological standpoint, the SUPERSYMMETRY concept was both extensive and remarkable. “The entire process was experimental,” recalls Émilie. Also, while Dpt. was used to collaborating with artists, this project was a first for the studio. “Regardless of the type of collaboration, we always have to establish a link with the digital world – which is so different from the world of arts and crafts, adds Émilie. We had to bring those two separate worlds together to create something that made sense to Lysanne as well as to us.” And it worked.

Harmony from chaos

The entire SUPERSYMMETRY process, from funding to launch, took one year to complete. Due to the nature of the product, said launch had to coincide with the end of the winter season. Says Dpt. Director of Creation Nicolas S. Roy: “It took quite a while for us to figure out how we would go about turning this project into a reality. In a certain way, it’s an e-commerce project. However, its funding comes from the Sodec, and so it’s set within a cultural context, with an emphasis on storytelling. The heart of the concept was to create a web documentary-style narrative experience much like what you see at the NFB.” This brain-racking challenge required weekly meetings where many a great idea hit a technological dead end.

In the end, blind faith in the creative process, the determination to create something meaningful and the wonders of quantum physics allowed all the pieces to fit together.

“It was a totally experimental process, and so for quite a while, it was absolute chaos. However, within such chaos, there was a light around which everyone gravitated. Every member of the team is an expert in his or her own field. We came together to try and create something from scratch, so obviously, there were bound to be a lot of obstacles along the way.” – Émilie F. Grenier

The SUPERSYMMETRY interactive experience is built around a poem that lasts just a few minutes, which is based on a quantum physics theory that bears the same name. Those few minutes are all it takes to establish a powerful connection between users and their creation, and to weave story and scarf together so that users will feel a much stronger bond with the product, than if it had been purchased using more traditional personalized shopping experiences. Clicking to change the colour of a pair of sneakers, this project is not.

“It was a totally experimental process, and so for quite a while, it was absolute chaos. However, within such chaos, there was a light around which everyone gravitated.” – Émilie F. Grenier

An experimental shopping experience

From the start, some clear guidelines were established. First, it would have to be a double scarf. Second, each piece would be unique, in the tradition of arts and crafts. And finally, quantum physics – something that also inspired Lysanne’s company name String Theory – would become the poetic ingredient that would connect the user’s various decisions in the creation of the scarf.

“I began learning about quantum physics, and that led me to the supersymmetry theory, says Lysanne . It’s based on the notion that two separate particles in the cosmos are linked together. Even if it’s not like a mirror effect, one particle will be affected and transformed when the other goes through some cosmic event. There was so much poetry and narrative beauty in this theory, that I ended up writing a poem about it. That poem will accompany users as they create their scarf.”

The supersymmetry theory also encompasses its own vocabulary, which not only dictates the type of relationship between the project’s various designs, but also forms part of the entire interactive experience of creating a scarf, from start to finish.

Of utmost importance was that the scarves had to retain the essence of Lysanne’s artistic vision, and that all of them be visually attractive, regardless of a user’s choices. “Lysanne’s signature design is made up of patterns that, visually, already call to mind the digital world,” says Vali. That turned out to be quite a happy coincidence, considering the amount of work required by Lysanne and the Dpt. programming team to develop various patterns that would then interact to constantly deliver visually interesting results.

“At times, we all had serious doubts about the whole thing, recalls Nicolas. Could we pull it off and create something cool, or would we simply end up with boring, run-of-the-mill scarves?” He points out that several interesting ideas were abandoned along the way, either because the rendering was too random, or because the algorithm was too rigid . The notion of unity wasn’t just an item on a wish list. It stood at the very heart of the project.

Data Knitting

The project’s challenges went from creative to technological, as a new algorithm allowing for the creation of scarves that truly stood out had to be developed. Said scarves needed to be created within a few minutes on the internet, then purchased online, sent to Lysanne using a compatible file, and knitted within a reasonable time frame. Nicolas has nothing but praise for the project’s appointed programmer. “Creating the patterns was a very complicated process, he says. There were many, many options available, since a user’s every decision has an impact not only on the scarf itself, but on the one that is simultaneously created. We had to generate this graphic duality between both scarves that made the project so interesting in the first place.”

Photo courtesy of Dpt.

“It was great to be able to use this source of inspiration to create the patterns. In the end, what we have is a bunch of unconscious decisions that allow people to create something both meaningful and unique. I had to transform words such as chaos, vibrant and harmonious, which form part of the interactive experience, into various forms and movements. From a creative standpoint, it was quite stimulating. The entire Dpt. team was very patient with me – I wasn’t always easy to follow!” – Lysanne Latulippe

In addition to the graphic rendering, Lysanne had to find a way to program her knitting machine so that she could create two scarves, which could then be separated simply by pulling on a thread – all while avoiding any unstitching. For once, technological challenges crossed over instantly into the real world!

The SUPERSYMMETRY experience

When talking with the creators, one gets the feeling that the project already existed somewhere in the cosmos before they got their hands on it. From the creation of the team to the concept and the end result, everything made sense to them. There are no apparent signs of compromise, as is often the case when experimenting with something new, and the whole thing feels like a successfully completed endeavour. The same goes for the scarves themselves, which are made from merino wool. They are knitted in Montreal based on a user’s interactive experience, and shipped from Lysanne’s machine to each co-creator’s door.

In short, SUPERSYMMETRY is an unusual digital experience, a unique creative challenge and a resulting product that one can enjoy – and share.

Create your own scarves at: symmetry.stringtheory.co

Project team

The SUMPERSYMMETRY project is nominated for a NUMIX award in the Communications and Promotions category!

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