Silent Lab - to feature at EXPO 2015 in Milan - combines Nature and High-tech

Silent Lab, photo: archive of Full CapaCity

Silent Lab is the name of an ambitious Czech installation featuring this year at Expo 2015 in Milan, which begins later this spring. The installation, which brought together students at the technical university in Prague (ČVUT) students of architecture and the company Full Capacity, recreates the experience of the Czech forest, combining Nature and hi-tech.

Silent Lab,  photo: archive of Full CapaCity
I spoke to Full Capacity’s Creative Manager Jan Rolník about the project.

“The basic idea is about the atmosphere in a typical Czech wood, which has a certain character and atmosphere and we wanted visitors of EXPO 2015, many of whom will not have experienced it, a chance of seeing it. We also wanted to give them a chance to interact with the woods and the surroundings.”

Whose ideas was it initially and what is the role played by Full Capacity?

“The original idea was that of two students at ČVUT, David Sivý and Jan Tůma. They came up with the basic concept. Our company came on board to prepare the project for the competition to be featured at EXPO, which we won. Now we are at the point when the whole project has come together and Full Capacity is responsible for the realization of the whole installation.”

What are the main components which create the atmosphere of the woods or forest, giving the feeling of being there?

“The most important is definitely the living biotope from the Czech woods, plants and so on typical for the Czech forest. This is something which we set up under very specific conditions: an artificial planting mechanism, you could say, which is automated to water the plants, to adjust the humidity and light and so on, to ensure that everything lives and grows.

“The other thing is that we are using robotic arms and hands and cameras and interactive systems to allow visitors to interact with the installation. If they stop their activity, if they become quiet at a specific spot in the installation, suddenly the big projection screen which is around the biotope and around the visitors begins to go into details. They begin to see much more…”

So a close-up?

“It is more than that: it goes below the surface. You zoom in until you get to the microscopic level. There are two points in the display where one person at a time can get that experience, while the others around get a sense of the overall forest. Interactivity for more, mass interaction, is a very difficult concept and it is very hard to make that function. So the others have a strong feeling of the woods, through sights and sounds and even the smell of the forest.”

You mention the olfactory element: is there a specific time when it is recommended to visit for the best effect?

Silent Lab,  photo: archive of Full CapaCity
“Yes, there definitely is, just after the installation opens in the morning. The reason is because we reversed day and night for the biotope so that overnight the plants get light while during the day the room is darker. That means when there are no visitors they photosynthesize. So if you are the first in the morning, you probably get the strongest olfactory experience.”

It sounds fairly complex: is there any one aspect which was harder to engineer than the others?

“Actually, the complexity is in all the ‘moving parts’ – getting everything coordinated to work smoothly together. There are three very different demands from three different aspects: you have the biotope itself, then the robotic machines, and finally the visitors. Getting all three to work seamlessly together was the hard part.”

To come back to the idea: this kind of screen (a kind of cornerstone towards virtual reality) has become a mainstay of science fiction from Ray Bradbury to the director’s cut of Aliens, where this kind of wall is featured on a space station… Philosophical, do you see the installation more as an invitation for visitors to come to the Czech Republic or is there also a different message as well, a reminder that we should appreciate Nature which is under greater and greater assault?

“Definitely both things which you mentioned are a motivation or the philosophy of the concept of the installation. The third thing, which is very positive, is that we want to show that the Czech Republic is a technological and innovative country which can succeed in such a complex task as taking and maintaining part of its cultural or in this case natural heritage in artificial conditions. The fact that we can already do something like this, I think, is amazing. There are ‘problematic’ aspects such as post-apocalyptic visions, but overall I think that we can do this is very, very positive.”

What happens to the pavilion after EXPO wraps up at the end of the year?

“There are some preliminary negotiations at the moment. Our hope is that at least part of the installation would remain permanently but that is still at the beginning so for the moment I cannot say more.”

Silent Lab,  photo: archive of Full CapaCity
You touched upon it at the beginning: many Czechs do love the outdoors, they are known for mushroom picking, they like camping… How do you explain the kind of passion that Czechs have for Nature and being outside?

“Well I think most nations love their own countryside and in the Czech Republic we have woods, we don’t have a sea! (laughs). For example, in the Czech Republic, woods are a public space – even if you own a stretch of the forest, you cannot fence the area in. It remains there for everybody. For us, walking in the woods is as natural as someone who lives by the sea going for a swim.”