Open Books

AI, Controller, Design System, Installation, Sound
Inclusive Audiences, Reviving Digitised Heritage

How can artificial intelligence improve the comprehension of photography books and stimulate the perception of their content for a large audience?

Open Books. Image © EPFL+ECAL Lab / Matthieu Croizier

As tech companies strive to show that artificial intelligence can compete with humans, the EPFL+ECAL Lab explores how this technology can instead serve culture and stimulate our perception. Taking an experimental approach, the design research centre has developed a new interactive and immersive installation in partnership with Photo Elysée. Open Books – Livres ouverts invites the public to immerse themselves in the rich world of photography books.

Open Books. Image © EPFL+ECAL Lab / Matthieu Croizier
Open Books. Image © EPFL+ECAL Lab / Matthieu Croizier
Open Books. Image © EPFL+ECAL Lab / Matthieu Croizier
Open Books. Image © EPFL+ECAL Lab / Matthieu Croizier
Open Books. Image © EPFL+ECAL Lab / Matthieu Croizier
Open Books. Image © EPFL+ECAL Lab / Matthieu Croizier
Open Books. Image © EPFL+ECAL Lab / Matthieu Croizier

In addition to its internationally renowned photographic archive, Photo Elysée owns a collection of over 25,000 photography books. These publications are essential to contextualise a photographer’s work, while often introducing a narrative dimension. But how can we reveal the existence of these books and present their content and special features to a wide audience without endangering their existence? Building on its previous work to define how artificial intelligence can open the doors to little-known cultural universes, the EPFL+ECAL Lab tackled this challenge in a collaboration with the Lausanne-based museum.

Open Books. Image © EPFL+ECAL Lab / Matthieu Croizier

Revealing specific photographic and editorial features in a multisensorial experience generated by AI enhances the perception and understanding of photography books.

Open Books. Image © EPFL+ECAL Lab / Matthieu Croizier

Part of a programme dedicated to experimenting with new forms of exhibition in order to bring back to life large cultural heritages, this research project combines artificial intelligence and design research. Developed in partnership with Photo Elysée, Open Books – Livres ouverts is structured around three main themes:

  • Revealing the specific features of books by analysing visual characteristics such as colour, light and the regularity in the sequences of images.
  • Fostering the discovery of books and authors by creating bridges between works, based on their similarities, particularly in the sequences of images.
  • Reinforcing the perception of content, through a synesthetic experience, i.e., one that stimulates several senses. Thus, the profound nature of the photography book emerges in the form of visual signs and sound traces.

The installation Open Books – Livres ouverts approaches the photography book by highlighting the sequences created by the succession of pages. Five screens offer a panoramic view of the content. The interface reveals the particularities of these sequences, such as the dominant colours, the light, the position of the subjects in the image, whether they are living or simple objects, the blur or the visual regularity that animates the pages. The recommendation tool encourages users to discover other works by going through a similar sequence, according to the highlighted features. Within the multidisciplinary team of the EPFL+ECAL Lab, designers, engineers and psychologists worked closely together throughout this research project, from the concept to the final execution. The work also involved other EPFL laboratories, in particular the Computer Vision Laboratory. It also builds on a previous collaboration between the Digital Humanities Laboratory, the start-up Volumen and the museum, which established the strategies and tools for digitising the publications.

For this first presentation of Open Books – Livres ouverts, the EPFL+ECAL Lab, in collaboration with Photo Elysée, has designed an immersive journey that begins with the presentation of photographic sequences in giant format. It continues with an immense library with bookshelves undulating over some fifty metres. Here, the museum has placed almost 2,000 photographic books, accessible to all. Some of the books are displayed open, to expose their visual characteristics and to echo the digital exploration on offer. Finally, the interactive installation, the fruit of this long-term project, offers visitors the chance to travel to the heart of the books and discover these sequences of images in a whole new light.

Open Books. Image © EPFL+ECAL Lab / Matthieu Croizier

The installation was exhibited at Photo Elysée in Lausanne, from June 30 to October 1, 2023.


Manuel Sigrist, Photo Elysée
Nicolas Henchoz, EPFL+ECAL Lab

Art Direction & Project Management

Romain Collaud

research assistant

Rémi Opalinski 

Scenography & Product Design

Béatrice Durandard in collaboration with Yann Mathys

Engineering & Technology Manager

Delphine Ribes 

Software Engineering

Gabriel Luthier, Yves Kalberer, Ovidiu Olenici, Mateja llic

Sound Engineering & Design

Dr Cédric Duchêne

UX Psychology

Dr Andrea Schneider with assistance of Sofia Viola and Renée Favre

Preliminary Investigations

Marius Aeberli

In collaboration with

Dr Mathieu Salzmann, MER, Computer Vision Laboratory (EPFL)
Pr Frédéric Kaplan, Director, College of Humanities (EPFL) 

EPFL Semester Projects

André Langmeier, Computational Science and Engineering
Jean-Daniel Rouveyrol, Communication Systems 

Photo Élysée Library

Ilhame Benboubker, Stéphane Mocan 

Photography credits

© EPFL+ECAL Lab / Matthieu Croizier