Doug Siefken©

By Tom Kray

TransLumen Technologies is changing the way we think about art. The thing about the change is you can’t see it, and that’s exactly the way the folks at the Chicago company want it. They call their new form of art Fluid Stills® and they exist in their own world between static images and video.

TransLumen Technologies was founded by Doug Siefken, the artistic mind behind this technology. He wanted to create art that never got old, that always gave you something to come back to but at the same time would never be a distraction. To learn more about this technology, I sat down with Carol Sherman, President of TransLumen, and Siefken in his home in the Loop. It’s his preferred workspace. He started the visit by explaining the origin of his Fluid Stills® idea by directing me to look at several black and white photos on the living room wall.

“How long could a photo like this hold your attention?” he asked. “A minute or two? Perhaps several minutes if you were really interested in it.”

His point was, once you’ve seen the photograph, you’ve seen it and it doesn’t give you anything more whether you look at once or one hundred times. His idea was to create images that would always give you something new. Next, he directed me to look at the television, which seemed to display a static photo of the Chicago skyline.

“Take note of how it looks now,” He said. “Later, it will look completely different but you’ll never see it happen.”

He was right. Occasionally, over the course of the hour-long interview he or Sherman would direct my attention back to the television and its new rendition of the Chicago skyline. Although the large screen was always visible over Siefken’s shoulder, I never once noticed the image change.

Siefken went on to explain that when viewed, Fluid Stills® appear to be static images, but turn your attention from the screen for a while and when you look back the image will have morphed into something new. Fluid stills® typically change over a period of hours. This example shows the change over 90 seconds. However, Fluid Stills® are no simple screensavers. You can stare at them as long as you like but even though the image is in constant fluctuation the change is so minutely incremental that you can’t detect it happening. 

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 Screenshots from different points in the Fluid Stills® highlight the change. Doug Siefken©

Screenshots from different points in the Fluid Stills® highlight the change. Doug Siefken©.

Beginning in the year 2000, TransLumen sought to use their Fluid Stills® technology as a means of creating art in public spaces. Siefken described his vision for a public art piece that would be 23 and a half hours long. “If someone walks past it everyday at the same time, like on their way to work, then everyday they would see a different piece of art,” Siefken explained.

But early 2000’s screen technology wasn’t equal to the task, Sherman explained. “We looked at what affects it would have on screens. It was mostly plasma screens at the time and image burn-in was a concern and while our screens mitigated the issue, the real problem turned out to be that screens were expensive and there just weren’t enough of them. So, we started exploring other sectors for the technology.

One of those areas was in military training. Siefken, who served in the Navy during Vietnam, thought that the underlying technology in Fluid Stills® called STEGC (Pronounced Steg-C) could be used to improve observational skills in service members. STEGC stands for SubThreshold Extreme Gradual Change. In layman’s terms, this is the technology that allows the change on screen to happen without your brain detecting it. TransLumen Technologies found that if instead of using STEGC to move from one distinct image to another, it was used to make a single image clearer over time, it improved the viewers’ ability to quickly detect critical information in an image.

One way it works is a video begins with a still image that is largely obscured by a white screen. Then over the course of a minute or two the image becomes clearer as the white screen fades away without any individually perceptible jump in clarity. The viewer’s goal is to identify anomalies in the image as fast as possible, a sniper hiding in tall grass for example. According to the Naval Research Laboratory, people who practiced their observational skills using STEGC training decreased their threat detection time by as much as 20%.

If it took a service member a minute to find the sniper before using STEGC training, they would be able to do it in 48 seconds afterwards. You can try it yourself in the embedded video below. See how long it takes you to spot the tiger in the image on the left and the sniper in the image on the right.

The other area TransLumen is experimenting with their art is in hospitals. Originally, TransLumen partnered with a major hospital network simply to provide Fluid Stills® as art in patients’ rooms, but once they were installed, other benefits quickly became apparent.

“We’ve been testing the technology in a major hospital system,” Sherman said, “and caregivers have found that it’s had an incredibly calming affect on distressed patients and the elderly in particular.”

Sherman added that the calming benefits wouldn’t have to be limited to patients, that Fluid Stills® could be placed in waiting areas, and lobbies, anywhere people could be spending a lot of time under stress without much to do about it.

“Another way this technology will be useful in hospitals,” Sherman went on to say, “is by providing light in patients’ rooms at night while caregivers are working. Rather than having to switch on an overhead light when caregivers come in, these Fluid Stills® can be running while the patients are sleeping and they can provide enough light for caregivers to do what they need to do without disturbing the patient.”

Having seen the affects of the technology in hospital settings, Sherman explained that it’s potential for use in hospices for end-of-life care. Since fluid stills can be created from any kind of image, it wouldn’t be difficult to create unique pieces for each patient, featuring images from their home. Rather than being in sterile, and foreign environment, patients could have something of the familiar with them.

Now that the necessary screen technology is sufficiently abundant Sherman, Siefken, and the rest of the TransLumen Technologies team is working to put their unique form of art in front of as many eyes as possible.