Common Place

If you’re looking for provocative opportunities for design, look at the boundaries between things. Find those points of intersection between two communities, two professional fields, or two ecosystems. Look in the places we share in common.

These intersections give rise to a vibrant diversity that pushes design practice forward. Second Story has deep roots in this kind of thinking. Our foundations are built in the intersection of design and technology, a boundary space that is well recognized and explored today, but was maybe less so when our company was founded more than 20 years ago. The inherent tensions and mutual inspirations between our designers and technologists are part of what’s driven some of our most inventive and exciting work over the years.

Now, as more digital services and technology are embedded into physical structures and spaces, we increasingly see our work in digital interaction design cross over into another field—the placemaking practices of architecture, landscape architecture, and urban planning. I think it’s important to examine what this new boundary space means for our work because, like the intersection of design and technology, there can be a lot to unpack.

One obvious issue is the gap in concrete skills and technical knowledge. If we want to be part of building physical environments, we should have some capacity in industrial and environmental design. At Second Story, we’ve been evolving the studio makeup to our needs, and our teams now include a number of physical designers.

You can see this on display in our recent work on the Photography Interpretive Gallery at the newly renovated San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Working with the museum, we built experiences that invite visitors to enhance their own visual literacy. They learn about photography’s history, its connection to their lives, and its impact on California as we know it through images and videos from the museum’s collection. What’s more, we were given the opportunity to design both the digital and physical aspects of the experience.

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At an industrial design scale, details like the analog dials and buttons that referenced camera controls tied the physical design of our interfaces back to the digital content.

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At the environmental design scale, we thoughtfully shaped the interface consoles and fixtures to reflect the larger architectural design features of the renovation, echoing the building’s faceted geometry and clean material palettes.

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But coming from an experience design perspective like I do, there is another more nuanced point here that I want to draw attention to. Thinking about placemaking in digital interaction design is more than just a technical matter, more than just a switch from bits to atoms. The concept of place is wrapped up in complex social and cultural issues of community, locality, accessibility, and participation.

And it’s worth calling this out because, for digital folks, a much different narrative can dominate our work. Maybe too often in the world of technology, people, places, and things are framed as resources for us to monitor, standardize, and use at will to carry out functions in ever more efficient and productive ways, anytime, anywhere.

This narrative is powerful in some contexts and at some scales, but when we talk about placemaking, it tends to see as obstacles the very things that make a place worthwhile: diversity, open-endedness, and unique local relationships.

Just think about meandering through your favorite neighborhood, being recognized at your usual haunts, and experiencing the stimulating messiness of the public street. Designing for place needs to involve more than optimization and features, it demands a sensitivity to the dense interconnectedness of people and activities facilitated by an environment.

And while attention to context has always been a hallmark of experience design, what may be different here is the scale at which placemaking occurs. We are moving from isolated devices and interactions to the scale of rooms, buildings, neighborhoods, and cities.

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To give a small example, take another look at our gallery at SFMOMA. It sits directly adjacent to the museum coffee shop, a detail that critically informed how we designed the space, not necessarily because the digital elements needed to address the additional functions, but more because we needed to consider how our design would fit appropriately into the larger ecosystem of the surrounding building.

A coffee shop is a place for socializing, for relaxing, and for observing. We recognized that part of the experience of the gallery would have nothing to do with our digital interactives. In the end, we took small measures to accommodate the hybrid architectural programming of the space, by arranging seating into centralized islands and designing minimal digital interfaces that can be interesting from afar and unobtrusive in the periphery. Visitors hopefully feel welcome to just sit, sip their coffee, and watch others use the interactives—or ignore the technology altogether.

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It will be a slow evolution to define a common place where our relatively new practice of digital interaction design can effectively intertwine with the centuries-old professions of architecture and urban design. But I’m excited by the potential partnership because it feels challenging and uncharted. Digital designers can and should draw from the deep history of collective theory and approaches on placemaking. And, in turn, we might be able to offer fresh perspective on how digital materials change the way our environments shape—and are shaped by—our interactions.

– Norman Lau, Senior Experience Designer

For a much more detailed meditation on these ideas, check out Malcolm McCullough’s Digital Ground. It’s worth a read for digital designer and architect alike.

Posted in Uncategorized

Being There

Imagine a place where buffalo, bighorn sheep and pronghorn antelope roam freely, sometimes just a few feet from your wide eyes. Where in the course of a single day, you can hike through towering granite spires, dive off sun-baked rocks into a crisp mountain lake, and take in the highest view east of the Rocky Mountains. Now imagine thousands of people every year driving straight through this paradise, on their way someplace else.

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Custer State Park lies in the heart of the Black Hills of South Dakota. Many people cross in and out of the Park on their way to more well-known sites like Mt. Rushmore, Crazy Horse, Wind Cave, the Badlands, or Rapid City, unaware that they’re passing through one of the best places to view wildlife in the entire world.

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Custer’s staff wanted to change this. As they prepared to break ground on a new visitor center, they approached us with two key challenges. The first centered on the Park’s most famous residents. Custer is home to one of the largest bison herds in the US. There, coming face-to-face with wild bison isn’t a stroke of good luck, it’s a frequent occurrence. But no matter how “normal” these close encounters seem, Rangers needed a new way to educate visitors about the dangers of getting too close.

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The second challenge was to inspire people to experience more of the Park and not just pass through. Rangers told us the most frequently asked question was, “So what can I do here?” As thousands of tourists and families hit the road to tour the Black Hills, how could we encourage them to get out of their vehicles and experience the profound beauty of this place more deeply and directly?

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Our team got to work developing concepts for a large interactive map table that would orient visitors and reveal opportunities for adventure, and a bison safety interactive that would combine live-action footage with depth sensing and proximity-triggered content to answer the question: “How close is too close?”

We spoke with Rangers, researched, sketched, collected images, created 3D models of the space, and built full-scale prototypes of both experiences in our Lab.

 

But the work just wasn’t clicking with the Park and no one could put their finger on why. Our initial visual design was illustrative, translating the landscapes and wildlife of the Park into polygonal faux-3d worlds. While beautiful, the aesthetic abstracted the places we were trying to celebrate.

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The content too felt oddly inert. We had facts, hero images of points of interest and some basic context—everything you would expect to introduce the Park to first-time visitors. But it all felt flat.

Our team had unintentionally fallen into the same behavior we were trying to help change in many of the Park’s visitors. Like the motorists who zoom through and only experience the Park through their windshields, we were trying to know this place through browsers and screens. We were inviting people to have a richer experience with this land without ever having stepped foot on it ourselves.

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So Matt Arnold, our Lead Integration Engineer, and I hit the road. Driving out of the airport in Rapid City, we passed horses galloping over hillsides on both sides of the highway. An hour later, we were diving off rocks into the brisk waters of Sylvan Lake.

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We spent the next twelve hours hiking the Park’s trails, summiting its highest point, driving the Needles Highway, and marveling at mountain goats, bison, pronghorn and their young.

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We drove the Wildlife Loop and the Iron Mountain Road, then headed east to the Badlands where we hiked until midnight and had to hitchhike back to our car, sharing the back of a pick-up with a husky named Shadow.

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The next morning, driving in to meet our clients for the first time face-to-face, we rounded a corner and landed smack in the middle of a herd of bison. Best excuse for being late to a meeting ever.

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When we got back home to Portland, the visual design, content, and experiences all changed. But the greater change was in us, the makers. We had fallen in love with the Park and had our own stories to tell. Everything from the copy we wrote to the images we chose was informed by what we had seen and experienced first-hand. A critical insight was that the interactions should be quick. Our job was to give people just enough context to get them out the door, off the pavement and into something more raw and fantastic. If we could get you to walk farther than the edge of the parking lot, we knew we could trust the Park to do the rest.

In hindsight, the disconnect our team got stuck in seems painfully clear, but at the time it wasn’t. Part of what made it hard to see is the ubiquity of ways to virtually explore and access places we’ve never been. I can pick up Google’s Pegman and drop him all over the planet and be instantly transported to a Street View. I’ve done it dozens if not hundreds of times, and that moment of arrival when the blur resolves into a 360-image feels like a magic trick to me every time. Social media is bursting with candid images of the places we go, recognizable and remote, curated and shared to engender awe, envy, and an appetite to capture places of our own. Wherever I am, TripAdvisor can tell me what its bests are. Billions of dollars are being pumped into VR as a new consumer medium that will immerse us in places real and imagined we could never experience otherwise. Second-hand is trying harder and harder to feel like the first-person.

As human exploration and connection become more virtual, it’s worth asking what it means to experience and know a place. What does it mean to actually be there? In Plato’s cave, people believe they’re seeing reality, when in fact they’re only seeing the shadows of what’s really there. I wonder if Google Maps presents us with a contemporary equivalent, a means to go anywhere but only through wide-angle slices of frozen time, as seen from roads, chased by the shadow of a car with a weird contraption on its roof. Our team could know a lot about Custer State Park from our offices in Portland. But it was just a shadow of what it was like to swim, hike, and wander through it. And what we designed were just shadows too—ones that hopefully point us back in the direction of what’s really there.

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— David Waingarten, Story Director

P.S. That cute, shaggy bison you want to take a selfie with is 1,400 pounds of muscle that can charge at speeds of up to 40 mph. I’d back up at least 75 feet.

 

 

Posted in Content, Culture, Design

Let’s Play!

Meaningful audience engagement is an experience designer’s ultimate goal. However, we are often designing for a very broad demographic, or—due to the novelty of many of our experiences—a demographic that we know very little about.

So how do we design confidently for people we don’t know?

Since biological, cultural, and geographical factors can lead to varying personalities and preferences, it becomes helpful to identify psychological principles that unify our species.

One such principle is the notion that play leads to joy, learning, and many other benefits. 

There is extensive research in the field of play, but its application is often centered around children. All children use some form of play to discover and learn about the world around them. But research shows that play is crucial to adults as well. Simple everyday acts such as driving, cooking, or singing all involve some form of play and nourish us.

To leverage this innate human need, we decided to more intentionally incorporate play into our work. To simplify what is often a complex thing to design for, we distilled what we know about play into six easy Principles of Play. We use these principles during ideation sessions both internally and with our clients…

1. Create

If you’ve ever experienced the joy that comes with engaging in creative activity, you understand this principle well. Creative activity sparks feelings of optimism and achievement, even in those who do not consider themselves to be particularly creative. With this principle, whether it’s making an art piece or video story, we make it easy for anybody to unlock their inner creativity and play.

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2. Compete

Competition is deeply rooted in our evolutionary heritage, and we thrive on it in many aspects of our lives. Sports and games are the most popular form of competitive play, but even something as simple as completing a small task causes your brain to release endorphins. Using this principle, we often introduce our audience to playful challenges that must be overcome—inciting a competitive instinct that is addictive.

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3. Imagine

Most children spend hours playing in make-believe worlds, but an occasional daydream can lure adults into a state of imaginative play as well. Using this principle, we create experiences that leave just enough room for imagination—like a world full of hints that spur audiences to imagine and interpret a story from another time and place. 

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4. Perform

Whether playing a musical instrument or acting in a play, performers experience a range of positive emotions including confidence, flow, and pride. In addition to being emotionally beneficial to the performer, this particular form of play is also entertaining for audiences who experience the performance. Designing for this principle means creating the perfect stage and tools for anybody to become a performer.

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5. Direct

Though one of the more subtle principles, the ability to direct something with one’s own body leads to a very natural form of play. Humans crave tactile interaction, and the simple act of picking up a block or pulling a knob instills a sense of agency that is empowering. 

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6. Ride

In many ways, this principle is the inverse of the previous one. While having control can be satisfying, letting go and hanging on for the ride can make us feel alive and adventurous. Playgrounds and amusement parks are proof of this principle working its magic. 

We’ve noticed that applying one or more of these principles to a project leads to a more engaging, sticky, and memorable experience. In a world where busy calendars and information overload dominate our existence, we strive to design moments that activate our naturally playful selves to lead happier and fuller lives.

– Pavani Yalla, Associate Creative Director, Experience Design

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Posted in Content, Culture, Design

Happy Thanksgiving!

We have a lot to be thankful for this year. Our studios in Portland, Atlanta, and New York are growing, our work is being recognized, and we have some very exciting projects on the horizon. 

We can’t 3D print a turkey yet—although NASA is coming close—but we can 3D print a Thanksgiving greeting in our lab. 

Wishing you a wonderful holiday from all of us at Second Story!

Posted in Uncategorized

Happy Accidents

Bugs.

Gross, repulsive, aggravating—but not always. Sometimes, bugs come disguised as little helpers, useful warnings, or beautiful surprises. Every developer understands the need to deliver bug-free code, but, while striving to implement that perfect solution, a bug can sometimes unintentionally provide new insight to your task.

When we come across these happy accidents at Second Story, it’s a pleasant change of pace. The dreaded bug becomes a boon, even a source of inspiration.

Motivated by this tilt effect for images, we wanted to see if we could create the same subtle sense of depth to videos. A three-dimensional effect should occur by layering multiple semi-transparent videos on top of each other and allowing the user to tilt the videos on mouseover. The videos tilt towards the user’s cursor, creating the illusion of shifting the viewing angle of the scene. Simple enough. However, each of the videos buffered at different rates, causing them to fall out of sync.

This created a beautiful, ephemeral effect that reminded us of how we remember our dreams. Inspired, we began to think about how we could implement this effect in web interactives. However, a bug is still a bug and needs to be squashed. Here is our intended “fixed” version.

Our bug-in-disguise revealed to us an angle we never expected. As we continue these kinds of explorations, we hope to stumble upon more of these happy accidents.

– Hannah Cin, Interactive Developer

Posted in Technology

Responsive Environments: Denver Botanic Gardens

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The result of calm technology is to put us at home, in a familiar place. When our periphery is functioning well we are tuned into what is happening around us, and so also to what is going to happen, and what has just happened…This connection to the world around we called “locatedness,” and it is the fundamental gift that the periphery gives us.

                                                                                                                     Mark Weiser, 1995

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We fix our gaze on screens to work, to stay connected, to capture and share our lives, and to be entertained. Screens are good, but there is a problem: for all of the access that they provide, these surfaces create a harsh divide between our physical world and our digital experience. When we look at our computers, we tune out. We disconnect from our surroundings and retreat into ourselves.

As technology becomes smaller, more malleable, and more integrated into our environment, we have a great opportunity to refocus our gaze, to draw it upward and outward with light, sound, and tactile interfaces that respond to presence, social engagement, and natural data. These experiences should be subtle and empowering. They should live at the seams between the physical and digital, smoothing the boundary in between and enabling us to more fluidly navigate our world.

At Second Story, we use technology to create spaces for learning and exploration, places that breathe, allowing stories to unfold and evolve over time. These responsive environments are designed to inspire and delight through the activation of the body, the senses, and the periphery. They extend the impact of the content that we deliver through traditional screen-based media. Our mission in building these environments is not to bombard visitors with sensory stimulation but rather to provide another layer of experience, one that draws people into an active dialog with their surroundings.

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Learning to See, an exhibit we created last year for the Denver Botanic Gardens, is an example of our work in building experiences in which stories are revealed through a responsive environment. The exhibit seeks to cultivate a deeper relationship between people and the natural world. We designed a system that immerses visitors in scientific research and teaches them about the diverse ecosystems of Colorado. A collection of interactive “boulders,” LED light pylons, and haptic interfaces facilitate learning and exploration. These distinct experiences are unified through a responsive light environment that changes in texture and tone with daily and seasonal shifts in weather.

To design and develop the exhibit while the Pyramid was still under construction, we assembled a virtual model of the space. Our team experimented with a variety of light effects and animations, which were visualized in the model and tested in our lab on a single full-scale mockup of one of the pylons. This end-to-end process allowed our motion designers and software developers to collaborate quickly and iterate on new ideas. Most importantly, it enabled our full team to have a clear expectation of how the environment would look once we arrived in Denver.

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Nature is an active participant in the exhibit. As the outside temperature changes throughout the day, so do the colors of the interactive experiences and the ambient light environment. To create a varying spectrum of light, we divided the thermometer into segments that reflect the broad range of air temperatures experienced each day in Denver. Each segment has an associated color palette that was carefully selected to complement the transition from cold to hot. Repeat visitors notice a marked shift in the mood of the space during the day, between seasons, and over the course of the year.

Changes in the measured wind speed outside the Pyramid trigger digital pressure fronts that flow through the columns of LEDs embedded in the pylons. These animations evoke the patterns of sunlight that filter through the leaves of Aspen trees blowing in the wind, adding texture and life to the space through the interplay of light and shadow.

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While the connection between temperature, wind speed, and the ambient light environment in the Pyramid is simple and direct from a technical perspective, this subtle digital gesture enlivens the physical space and connects the stories of the Denver Botanic Gardens back to their natural source. Visitors do not have to be told that this mapping exists – they simply experience an environment that is alive and responding to the pulse of nature.

As we continue to develop responsive environments at Second Story, we look to a future in which the boundaries between our digital and physical experience are increasingly blurred; an age of spatial media that connects people and place rather than creating barriers. This is how we will tell the stories of the twenty first century.

– Chris Carlson, Interactive Developer

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Posted in Design, Technology

Here to There: What Happens When the Story Finds You?

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At this year’s Tribeca Film Festival’s Interactive Playground—a gathering of panels, talks, and experiences—Second Story debuted Here to There, an experiment using wearable technology as a new medium for immersive storytelling.

We were excited about creating an environment where we could give the festival audience agency in weaving their own narrative experience in a completely non-linear and spatial way. We wanted to build a platform where anyone or anything could activate a story.

The main idea behind Here to There was simple: what happens when the story finds you?

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“IF THIS IS THE FUTURE, I NEVER WANT TO LEAVE” TFIi audience member

Our goal with Here to There was to really rethink wearable technology beyond fitness and the Internet of Things and smart homes—to imagine a future of dynamic environments that are responsive to our presence and our location in space. In a world of hyper-digital-connectivity, could we redefine what it means to be connected to others through technology in a more human way?

We wanted to explore themes of vulnerability through performance, connection, and narrative, using story and technology to bring people together and provoke a conversation about the future of storytelling. So we concepted an experiential, aural experiment, a new kind of immersive experience that transforms your surroundings by adding texture but also keeps you present and aware of the people around you.

In Here to There, the audience discovered the story through wearable devices and actors. The actors wore Relators, custom helmets that related the story to the audience. The audience had the freedom to explore the festival space while wearing custom headphones called Receivers. When a Receiver came into proximity with a Relator, parts of the story were revealed. Aided by the choreography of the actors, the audience experienced a non-linear narrative built from their proximity and interactions with the different characters.

We had the pleasure of collaborating with Sci-fi Artist and Body Architect Lucy McRae who wrote a futuristic three-part story for Here to There, a narrative of one person’s life journey that transpires in the past, present, and future. In the story, Lucy explored themes of vulnerability in technology, extending the human body via our own biology, and the future of our existence.

“As I stand and applaud the end of act one, I ponder how my life has turned into a performance laboratory, seeking a new synthesis of man, space, and machine that is physical, visceral, embodied in emotion. Vulnerability is the key, and that ain’t something that Amazon drones deliver to your door.”

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VULNERABILITY IN TECHNOLOGY

“A knowing feeling overwhelmed me; a comfort, a connection, I am not alone, and I was accepting these mutations willingly…out of my control and I trusted it.”

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We built Here to There using an RFduino hardware stack. The RFduino is an Arduino-compatible device with an onboard Bluetooth low energy (BLE) module that enabled the wireless communication between Here to There Relators and Receivers. Our stack also included an audio shield to play the sound files from Lucy’s story in addition to an RGB LED. Each Relator emanated a unique color, and when Receivers connected to one of the three Relators, their LED would light up to match, a visual indication of which character was triggering your experience.

The hardware is battery powered which gave us flexibility in the physical design of the wearable device.

EXTENDING THE HUMAN BODY

“I’d worn it almost everyday since its doorstep delivery. It felt snug, natural, like it was my own…well I guess it was, it was grown from my own biology, this anatomically precise second skin, encapsulated my silhouette seamlessly.”

Inspired by Lucy McRae’s work and her explorations in technology extending and transforming the human body, we designed the physical forms to create a visually memorable experience for participants. The exaggerated bubble shapes of Here to There redefined the body’s silhouette, and the translucent material exposed the enclosed technological components as well as the user’s own body.

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The different form-factors for the Relators and the Receivers accented each’s purpose. The Relators were oversized dome-shaped helmets that acted as beacons signaling a focal point of transmission for participants. The Receivers were oversized headphones emphasizing the act of listening, which is key to the experience.

In contrast to how headphones in public space become barriers between us and our surroundings, in Here to There the Receivers were meant to enable the audience to be present and connected to their immediate surroundings and to others in the experience.

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THE ART OF PLAY

At the playground, we shared the space with some terrific projects including Interactive Haiku from the National Film Board of Canada and ARTE, innovative social impact augmented reality comic book Priya’s Shakti, and a host of a virtual reality experiences like Confinement, which gives you a glimpse of what it feels like to be in solitary confinement in prison.

Lucy McRae kicked off the Interactive Playground day with her captivating keynote titled Vulnerability: A Gateway to Innovation, speaking about her compelling body of work and explorations in emerging technology, science fiction, storytelling, and extending the human body.

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“AM I LISTENING TO YOUR THOUGHTS?” TFIi audience member

The biggest take-away for us from TFIi 2015 was how much people loved putting on the Here to There wearables, taking selfies with the objects, and the performative playfulness of it all. Even Lucy (pictured above) had fun experiencing her own work. The Playground was full of smiles.

The audience described the experience as having a “superpower in the narrative sense,” something akin to a surreal “stream of consciousness.” Despite the exaggerated form factor, one gentleman told us, “It extends something we as humans normally do: we sit next to someone and listen to their conversation.” My favorite quote of the day: “It was a narrative trip.”

“Although this personal microcosm was isolated and solitary it operated on primal foundations that without visual or physical contact, I was somehow attached to another.”

We also learned that the experience of the relationship between Relators and Receivers was new for people, a silent interaction that promoted intimacy and connectivity. Even more interesting, some members of the audience preferred to be Relators because they wanted to have the power to deliver stories to others.

Here to There was a big hit at the TFIi 2015 and we were very excited to have been asked to participate this year. Executive Technical Director Thomas Wester and I did a fun interview with Tribeca’s Franchesca Ramsey as part of the festival’s Daily Wrap Up, where Franchesca walked down a runway wearing a Receiver—now, that’s what I call “nerd chic.”

For more information, check out Tribeca Film Institute’s own coverage of TFIi 2015.

– Yasmin Elayat, Technical Director

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Posted in Content, Culture, Design, Technology

Creative Coding Art Workshop

As anyone in the creative industry can attest to, sometimes things get busy. Very busy. When things get busy, it’s easy to lose sight of the forest for the trees. It’s easy for the “industry” in “creative industry” to loom large and for the “creative” to get lost in its shadow.

The technology team at Second Story has started a bi-monthly art workshop where one member of the team brings a short code sketch that the other members can modify, tweak, and personalize during the session. These two-hour blocks are short enough to keep going even when project-related work is in overdrive. The goal is for the art workshops to serve as a creative release valve for the developers and inspiration for the rest of the studio.

Here are the results of the first workshop, set to music from Interactive Developer Chris Carlson. Enjoy!

– Donald Richardson, Senior Interactive Developer

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Posted in Uncategorized

A Giffy NYC Welcome to Adi & Erin

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While shooting in the lab for a projection mapping prototype featuring full-body images, the New York team spawned an unintended gif to celebrate Adi & Erin joining the gang.

– Justin Berg, Experience Design Lead

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Posted in Culture, Design, Technology

Cheers to 2015

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Second Story partnered with Premier Press in Portland to produce a three-piece set of coasters celebrating the new year. We collaborated across our three geographies to come up with designs honoring an iconic texture from each city: a perfectly imperfect wood grain for Portland, an intricate lattice pattern from the top of a peach pie for Atlanta, and the clean lines of a manhole grate for New York.  Printed on dual-mounted Curious Skin black stock, the coasters were letter-pressed with glossy black and matte silver foils, the edges finished with a high-gloss black ink.

– Chris DeWan, Design Director

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Posted in Design