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Artist Marcus Lyall is Working on a Concept that Could Change the Way We Drive

The 'Lumia Ride' uses biodata to provide custom musical and artistic compositions
May 23, 2016, 5:30pm
Theo Cohen Photography

Marcus's Lumia Ride project could harness light, sound, and biometric data to lull drivers into a state of controlled relaxation.

It's been 100 years since the first BMW model went into production. In the century that has followed, the company has created iconic vehicles and pioneered new technology. To mark its centenary, the BMW Group is championing the brands who are conceiving the very future of motoring – MINI, BMW, Rolls Royce and BMW Motorrad.

With MINI, one of the most recognisable brands of all time, it has always been about personalisation and design in mobility. Over the next few weeks, we'll talking to other pioneers, artist Margot Bowman and other Future Shapers, to consider how design and technology will change personalisation and influence the journey's we'll be taking in 2the future.

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In a business park at the foot of the Dartford crossing, the audio-visual artist Lyall is working on a concept that could change the way we drive. Marcus is one of MINI's Future Shapers, a group of designers, scientists and artists the iconic car brand has commissioned to explore what personalised experiences and products could look like in the future – both in mobility and culture. The applications of certain designs, technologies and scientific findings are set to lessen the distinction between man and machine. On a recent Tuesday, I visited his studio to see how Marcus's "Lumia Ride" project could harness light, sound, and biometric data to help prepare drivers for their next destination.

I appreciate that the previous sentence might conjure images of new-age medicine, wellness bloggers and sweatboxes, so just bear with me as I attempt to explain the tech. The installation is positioned in a pitch-black room. The focal point is a six-foot high canvas curved into a semi-circular shape. The participant sits on a chair placed inside the semicircle, while six lasers are trained onto the outside of the shape. In front of each laser is a piece of glassware–an ashtray, a vase, things like that–that slowly rotates on a platform, causing the beam to refract onto the canvas in different patterns. These patterns also appear on the inside of the canvas, surrounding the person in the chair.

The participant is hooked up to an electroencephalogram (EEG), which charts the electrical signals of the brain, and various other gadgets that read their biodata. Depending on the readings, the light projected on the canvas will react in different ways. The calmer you feel, the calmer the light. And as the visuals continue to mellow, so does the user, until an optimum state of relaxation is reached. The concept displays the potential for an incredible link between man and technology, and Lyall feels the 'Lumia Ride' project's future could be in vehicles. It could, put simply, make driving an incredibly serene and calming experience. After he showed me around the installation, I caught up with him to find out how his work has the potential to better our daily commute.

MOTHERBOARD: I was hoping you could tell me a little more about how the Lumia Ride project works?

It's an experiment where we're monitoring people's biodata, like their heart rate, brain activity, and galvanic skin response - which is the same thing they use in lie detectors. We're using the biodata to measure the participant's state of relaxation, which in turn will drive an interactive soundtrack and an interactive light painting. The light painting is created by a group of lasers refracting through glass objects onto a screen. This composition is designed to make the person sitting in the chair feel very calm and relaxed. The more calm and relaxed you get, the more intensely beautiful the composition becomes.

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MB: If someone sat in the chair and they were feeling really stressed already, that would be reflected in the light painting?

If the person sitting there was really stressed, it would look very different than if a calm person was in the seat. The colour, brightness and sound would change. The sound would even be more raspy, less smooth. But it's all very subtle. It's all about gently steering you into a certain state, rather than making you feel something. If a certain light or sound relaxes you, that will be picked up in the data, so the tech will slowly increase that particular effect. You'll slowly drift toward a relaxed state, rather than being pushed to go there.

MB: So it's more of a link between the technology and the person, as opposed to one having control over the other?

It's a two-way relationship. The user can look at a part of the 'painting' and think, 'that makes me feel quite relaxed, but that part's putting me off a bit.' So then we can tweak it to increase the part that's relaxing and diminish the part that's not. You're having an effect on it, and it's having an effect on you. It's about the loop. You're saying what you want it to do; it's not forcing you into a state of relaxation. So you're in control.

MB: How could this concept of, I guess, a hyper-personalised environment work in a car?

Cars are going to be really different in 100 years. I mean they're already driving themselves, so that makes you think about what we're actually going to be doing in cars. For example, are we going to be in windowless cars if we don't need to see where we're going? If that were the case, the interior of your car could become like an isolation tank–designed to prepare you for your next destination. Now, quite a lot of people consider driving to be not just driving, but a time away from other people, a bit of 'me time'. So Lumia Ride is taking that idea to a different level. Rather than it being 'me time', but I've got to drive the car, it's 'me time' but I'm in an isolation tank with something that's helping me reach a certain emotional state.

MB: So how could biometric data alter your experience in a car?

We use a technique called bio-feedback. All these sensors pick up data which can be used to judge how relaxed you are. There's an algorithm in the technology that learns what relaxed means in relation to your body, and it alters the soundscape and lightscape to help you get to that point. So say you get in the car with the technology inside it; the car senses that you're not relaxed at all, so it determines that it needs to get you in a relaxed state in, say, the next 30 minutes, so you can be calm before your interview, or whatever. To help you achieve this, it will play the sounds and display the light that it knows will get your brain to a point of relaxation, meaning you'll be nice and calm by the time you reach your destination.

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MB: Is the idea that the future technology could read your bio-data just from you sitting in the car seat? Or will you always need to be connected to a sensor?

Totally. I don't think that's a long way off. At the moment you've got the sensor that you have to put on your head, but that will eventually be a thing of the past. I think the sensors will soon be similar to the technology used in augmented reality products.

MB: And the feeling of relaxation will be caused by both audio and visual stimulation?

Yes. It involves using the two together. So rather than thinking about sound and visual as two separate things, it's about creating something that's a composition of both. So a musical note will have something that directly relates to it in the light.

MB: Say if you were stressed, the vehicle would be able to acknowledge that through a reading of, for example, your brain signals?

Yeah, we can do that now. When I showed you the installation, you could see that our participant wasn't in a state of relaxation when he first got into the seat. When someone moved a camera or there was a big clunk from outside, you could see his levels drop and the light change. The idea is what we're creating a little 10-minute holiday. We're blocking out the outside world and replacing it with this very calming light show and soundscape. Right now, we're doing this with these really primitive sensors. But in 100 years it will be so advanced. I mean they've only had really good EEG sensors for the last decade.

MB: Could the tech work in the other direction, taking you from a relaxed state to a more alert one? For instance. If you started to fall asleep behind the wheel could it wake you up?

Absolutely. I'm involved with a lot of light shows at concerts, and a lot of bands are now interested in the concept of the journey before a live show. For instance, one idea involves every person driving to a gig in a car with the Lumia tech inside it. It could be programmed to bring everyone into a hyped state of mind by the time they reach the venue. So when the band plays the first song, everyone would have this moment of synchronisation, because they've all been affected by the same atmosphere on the journey over.

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MB: So if a family went on holiday in a car and the kids were screaming in the back, could it calm them down?

I think that's a possibility. Right now it's working more like an isolation tank, but yeah I think, theoretically, you could definitely create a collective emotional state inside a small space.

MB: How would you respond to people who say this could be seen as a risky melding of man and machine?

I don't think it's an issue. If anything, that idea has already happened. If you look at the amount of time people spend on computers and phones and whatnot, I think we're past that point already. What it's about now is trying to find ways of making that combination useful. The only way is to try. You determine the good aspects of the interaction between technology and human nature, and pursue those.

MB: Is there a future for this technology beyond the car? Could it be used in other aspects of our lives–like our homes?

It would be a lot easier in a house. We could set that up now just by putting the installation you saw in another room. Making it move is a lot trickier. But the goal right now is driving. I think you already get into a sort of zen state when you're driving - it can be quite relaxing to cruise along the motorway - but we want to enhance that feeling, to make it a different kind of journey.

Thanks for speaking to me, Marcus.

The BMW Group Future Experience Exhibition showcasing MINI's vision of the NEXT 100 years will take place at the Roundhouse, London, from the 18th to the 26th of June. To win two VIP tickets to MINI's invite-only event on June 20th, enter your details here.

See the rest of The Future Shapers Project here.