Interactive Marionettes

Gustave Baumann was born in Germany and emigrated to the United States at the age of ten. While he is known as an American artist, primarily as a printmaker, his marionette skills were deeply rooted in his German heritage.

The New Mexico Museum of Art in Santa Fe owns a collection of over seventy marionettes carved by artist Gustave Baumann during the 1920s and 30s. Their age and fragility means that they are rarely displayed and never used as designed. Figuring out a way to surface this collection and to encourage an interactive experience has been a goal for the collection’s curators for a long time.

The museum approached the development team from Media Arts & Technology at New Mexico Highlands University. In order to allow visitors to interact with a rarely seen collection, five of these unique marionettes have been scanned via photogrammetry. Using current technology, the scans have been repurposed to demonstrate the articulation of the marionettes.

The project involves the Microsoft Kinect hardware and software written for Unity3d to allow the user to embody a marionette. I recently prototyped another version which uses the Leap Motion Controller hardware and Javascript to provide the user with the fine-tuned experience of controlling a marionette’s movements.

The Leap Motion Controller has a significantly finer range than the Kinect and is an ideal solution to complete the user experience. Using the Javascript framework for Leap, marionette data is attached to ragdoll physics bodies which respond to fine movements of the user’s fingers and hands. The idea was to mimic the control planes used by traditional puppeteers, but I discovered the Leap hardware has some sensitivity issues sensing the roll of a user’s hand. Pitch and yaw are easily readable, but this would give an incomplete experience, so I modified the metaphor to give the feeling of controlling the strings directly with the user’s fingers.

The Baumann Marionettes Interactive will be included in the exhibit “Gustave Baumann: A Santa Fe Legend”, which opened at the Las Cruces Museum of Art in February 2014.

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