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Art goes digital: Japan's teamLab breaks new ground

February 2013

by Jonah Asher, WIPO Japan Office

Art is going digital. As the boundaries between technology and art become increasingly blurred, Japanese company teamLab is breaking new ground and setting new trends in digital artistic expression. The company’s stunning 40-meter digital mural welcoming visitors to one of the world’s tallest structures, the 634-meter high TOKYO SKYTREE®, is testimony to its trailblazing credentials. Jonah Asher from the WIPO Japan Office visited teamLab’s offices to find out more about the company and its work.

Close-up of teamLab’s 40-meter-long digital mural at the entrance of the
TOKYO SKYTREE. (Photos: teamLab)

Founded in late 2001 by Toshiyuki Inoko, teamLab brings together some 300 self-described “ultra-technologists” from a variety of technical and creative backgrounds. The company’s four-storey offices in the heart of Tokyo are the source, arguably, of some of Japan’s hottest trends and most creative artistic works.

teamLab’s futuristic digital art installations fuse art and technology, offering viewers a unique and enthralling visual experience. With some 30 projects on the go at any one time, the creative range of the company’s activities is as varied as it is exotic – encompassing animation, sound, performance, the Internet, fashion and design.

A new high-tech reality

When I visited teamLab’s offices to meet the company’s founder, Toshiyuki Inoko, and his colleagues, I came face to face with an exciting, new high-tech reality. A large, colorful flat-screen display running on teamLab’s proprietary software, Face Touch, presents images and details of company employees. I selected the picture of my contact, Ms. Yukari Mori, and with a few swipes I was connected to her via a live video feed. Moments later, she greeted me in person and led me into a bustling space brimming with creativity, technology and edgy design.

How it all began

In the mid 1990s when Toshiyuki Inoko was studying engineering at the University of Tokyo, he recognized that the future would be digital. While, at the time, the focus was on developing the technology itself, Mr. Inoko began thinking about how digital art and technology could be integrated to form new cultural assets. These ideas took concrete form a few years later when, at graduate school, he started bringing his friends together on a regular basis to exchange creative ideas. Although setting up a business was not a primary consideration at that time, these gatherings were the seedbed of what later became teamLab.

Since its establishment in March 2001, teamLab has been at the cutting edge of the digital art industry, working with galleries, art festivals and other partners from around the world to create a range of captivating works.

An open and collaborative approach

“When we start a new project we have an overall idea of what we want to achieve,” explains Mr. Inoko. “At the same time, we challenge each other with questions about the project until we can’t come up with an answer. This forces us to think about things in a new way and can lead to something very different from what was originally envisioned.”

This, Mr. Inoko explains, is what happened with the TOKYO SKYTREE project. It began as a simple request for digital signage but evolved into a striking and colorful digital mural spanning 40 meters – a fitting precursor to the breathtaking views visitors would witness from the tower’s viewing platforms.

Echoes of traditional Japanese art

Inspired by traditional Japanese artistic styles, the mural skillfully fuses hand-drawn illustrations with digital media to create a captivating bird’s-eye view of Tokyo, past and present, in all its depth and complexity. The work has the scale of Godzilla and the detail of the Sistine Chapel.

The mural draws on three traditional Japanese artistic styles:

  • ukiyo-e - a type of wood block painting popular from the 17th to the 20th centuries;
  • rakuchurakugaizu - a genre of screen painting that captures detailed views of life in Japan’s former capital, Kyoto; and
  • edozubyoubu - a folding screen depicting scenes of Tokyo, formerly known as Edo.

The influence of ukiyo-e techniques is visible throughout the mural, from the people crowding the streets to the trains, buses, cars and boats making their way through the city. “There are historical and contemporary themes woven into the mural,” explains Adam Booth, teamLab’s Chief Art Director. “We had the idea of a ukiyo-e kind of visual, and using digital technologies we are simply making a modern version of it.”

To give the mural depth and a sense of space, teamLab’s creators layered the various details - people, buildings, vehicles, trees, parks, shrines, temples and so on - using traditional edozubyoubu techniques. Each layer depicts, in impressive detail, Tokyo’s major landmarks, from the serenity of Mount Fuji to the dynamism of the fashionable Shibuya district.

Wide-lens shot of teamLab’s 40-meter-long digital mural fuses hand-drawn illustrations
with digital media to create a captivating bird’s-eye view of Tokyo.

“It’s a tradition in Japanese painting to have a bird’s-eye view,” explains Mr. Booth. “We wanted to create a visual that has so much in it that you can’t take it in all at once. That was the idea behind using technology, because you can create something that would take dozens of people many years to achieve.”

“Our understanding of space, our sense of spatial awareness, is very different from western cultures,” explains Mr. Inoko. “People from outside Japan might think we are looking at the world as a set of layers, but the people and artists of old Japan saw these layers as a logical expression of the world around them. In traditional Japanese art, there is no central perspective. The world is viewed from its side. As viewers move alongside the work of art, they drift into the world evoked in the work and see it from inside out. In developing the TOKYO SKYTREE mural, we built on this idea to create something larger and digital, something that is visually captivating.”

By incorporating these traditional themes into the mural using modern technology, teamLab’s creators have crafted a detailed, colorful and unique interpretation of Tokyo – at once static and alive.

The making of the mural

Bringing this extraordinary mural to life was no mean feat. A team of 16 artists and animators worked for 2 years to capture the intricate details of city life in this seamless, multilayered work.

teamLab’s creators began by taking detailed photos from countless street corners to capture the diversity and color of Tokyo’s cityscape. Using these images, they recreated the city with detailed hand drawings, one section at a time, using maps for maximum accuracy. The result is a unique panoramic view of Tokyo, that captures the detail, color and complexity of the city’s life.

Emoticons, extremely popular in Japan, and other visual quirks such as a twisted building, a Samurai warrior or the giant leg of a mythical monster, are scattered throughout the mural to surprise and enchant spectators.

One of the most challenging aspects of the project was the need to merge the mural’s static panels with its animated scenes. “It was all drawn by hand in pencil. Each of the pencil lines is only about one pixel. Matching up the lines seamlessly so that the road continues (from the monitor) onto the printed area required a great deal of precision. If one was slightly out of kilter, the whole mural would have been ruined,” explains Mr. Booth. “I don’t know if anyone has ever quite done that before.”

The intellectual property dimension

Like many of teamLab’s other creations, “as an original work of art, the mural is protected under copyright law,” notes Kenko Mizumoto of teamLab’s Catalyst Division. “We want to share our mural with the rest of the world, so we entered into licensing agreements with various companies to make souvenirs of the mural, and these are already on sale.”

Intellectual property (IP) is an important aspect of teamLab’s business strategy. IP protects much of the company’s diverse and eclectic portfolio of digital creations. As the holder of IP rights in its works, teamLab leverages the commercial value of its creativity through licensing deals, which are an important source of income. “Copyright is a good thing. It makes it possible for us to share our original works and, at the same time, to safeguard the company’s commercial success,” explains Daisuke Sakai, Director and co-founder of teamLab.

The teamLabHanger makes shopping a more interactive experience. When clothes
are lifted from the rack by a customer, a signal is sent to a nearby screen which
displays the various views of the garment.

“Images need to be reused. In a way, that is advertising too,” notes Mr. Booth. “I think art should be an ongoing thing that people can use to make something else,” he says, “but, of course, it’s not right if somebody gets hold of a high-definition print created by someone else and claims it as their own.”

“Copyright licensing agreements are a key to commercial success,” says Mr. Inoko, “especially when you are operating in an industry based on things that are virtual.”

teamLab’s IP portfolio extends beyond the copyright it holds in its digital works and proprietary software. The company also holds a number of patents for innovations such as the teamLabBall and equipment to graphically display information from multiple sources at the same time in a single location. It also holds a patent on an imaging device (marketed at the Distance Camera) to digitally measure distance which is the subject of an international application under WIPO’s Patent Cooperation Treaty (PCT/JP2011/069316).The company also has a number of other pending patent applications, including for the teamLabHanger.

While Mr. Inoko believes “patents are a good thing” in that they offer some sort of “judicial recourse”, the costs associated with obtaining and enforcing a patent are very expensive and a source of concern for a small outfit like teamLab.

At the edge of creativity

The fascinating range of teamLab’s intriguing creations offers a glimpse of the new forms of artistic expression that can emerge in the information age and shows “how new interest and value can be created using ingenious design and technical applications,” notes Mr. Inoko.

“I believe that anybody in any culture has amazing potential to go beyond their limits,” Mr. Inoko says. “If we can use the digital age to expand and highlight the strengths of our culture and turn it into a new experience or expression, I believe that is something very special.” With this creative vision and ambition at teamLab’s core, the possibilities are endless.

The WIPO Magazine is intended to help broaden public understanding of intellectual property and of WIPO’s work, and is not an official document of WIPO. The designations employed and the presentation of material throughout this publication do not imply the expression of any opinion whatsoever on the part of WIPO concerning the legal status of any country, territory or area or of its authorities, or concerning the delimitation of its frontiers or boundaries. This publication is not intended to reflect the views of the Member States or the WIPO Secretariat. The mention of specific companies or products of manufacturers does not imply that they are endorsed or recommended by WIPO in preference to others of a similar nature that are not mentioned.