Augmented reality brings “something completely new” to Signal festival

Augmented reality installation by Jan Kaláb

After being cancelled last year, Prague’s Signal festival of light, which begins on Thursday, is promising highly novel experiences for visitors this time out: For the first time, the four-day event will include “non-existent” installations that can be viewed via the display of a mobile phone. On the eve of Signal, I spoke to its founder, Martin Pošta.

“What we have completely prepared new is one route, which we call ‘Route in augmented reality’.

“It’s something that we have never done before and that, to my knowledge, hasn’t been done in the cultural space in the Czech Republic either, so for us it’s a big experiment.

“We’re presenting six art works by five artists, including Jan Kalab and AOKU and many others.

“Jan Hladil has created, with sound design by Michal Šupák, an amazing ‘video mapping’ for the Kooperativa building in Karlín.

“It would have never been possible to do in real life, or it would have been really difficult to produce.”

You have to explain to me what you mean by augmented reality. How does it work?

Photo: Signal Festival

“So there are apparently more, but there are two most common, let’s say, parallel realities.

“One is virtual, where you put your headset on and you’re completely immersed in non-existent space.

“And then there’s augmented reality, where either through Google Lens or your phone – in our case it’s your phone – you add a layer of non-existent matter, or fabric, into existing space.

“For us it’s an experiment, so we tried five or six different approaches to how you can augment that reality, through the computing power of your phone processor and through the imagination of the artists.

“One is at Lyčkovo náměstí, where we have a sculpture which is obviously not there by Jan Kalab.

“It has completely his handwriting, it’s completely created by Jan Kalab, but in virtual space.

“Through the lens of your phone it is placed on Lyčkovo náměstí.

“So you kind of look odd a bit, but you look through the display of your phone at something that doesn’t exist that levitates in virtual space.

Augmented reality installation by Longiy | Photo: Signal Festival

“And then we have video mapping that is basically a fake [laughs], a fake projection projected on the Kooperativa building.

“The important thing, which I forgot to say, is that to experience the augmented reality you need to have a Signal festival app.

“There is a special AR section on the app and you need to scan a QR code that is placed close to that artwork.

“What the QR code does is it perfectly aligns the artwork with the space where it’s supposed to be presented.

“So it’s like an anchor, basically, for the artwork – it’s at the height that it’s supposed to be, it’s in the X-Y position that it’s supposed to be.”

It sounds like it’s going to be an amazing new experience for so many people here in Prague?

“It is definitely an amazing new experience, and what is even more amazing for us is that it stays there forever, basically.

“As long as the markers are placed in Karlín, the artworks stay there, and it’s for visitors to Prague, tourists, etcetera, to enjoy for the year to come.

“Plus it’s another layer of Signal festival, because you can basically enjoy it through the day.

Martin Pošta | Photo: archive of Martin Pošta

“It works a little bit less well in the night, because the camera of your phone doesn’t actually track that environment that well.

“But it’s a ‘from dawn to dusk’ kind of artwork experience.”

The last couple of years have been tough for Signal festival. What are your feelings going into this edition?

“We delivered this festival, at least mentally, last year, because we were cancelled just a week before.

“It’s as if you partially already experienced it, but only now is it actually happening.

“So it’s mixed feelings. I’m looking forward to getting over it [laughs] finally, after two years, because you never wait for such a long time to actually deliver your project.

“But it’s also very exciting in the sense that we are presenting something completely new.

“The artworks that we have had in our heads for years are finally actually taking shape.

“As I haven’t seen them live yet I was very excited to see the videos, because some of the artworks look just amazing.

“And some of the artworks that I was not sure about… because 95 percent of the artworks that we have in this edition of the festival are brand new – they’re conceived and curated by the Signal festival…

“You were kind of worried: What are they going to look like? How’s it going to work?

“Because you see them only on paper – and it’s very exciting to see that what is on paper actually works very well in reality.”

Augmented reality installation by AOKU | Photo: Signal Festival