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

People As Performers: Setting The Stage For Interaction

Last year, SEGD invited us to create an art installation at the Lovejoy Fountain for a one-night event during Design Week Portland. As we delved into the project, we learned that, almost 50 years ago, Lawrence Halprin designed the Lovejoy Fountain with this intention: “In the plaza there should be events…sculpture shows–concerts–dance events with dancers all over and arriving to center space from down stairs around fountain…” A fountain designed for artistic expression? Count us in!


A stage for interaction

The Lovejoy Fountain is a hidden gem, tucked between residential buildings in downtown Portland, OR. The radiating geometric design creates cascades of stages that jet out around the water. Our aim was to use technology and sculpture to highlight and extend these architectural features without obstructing the natural beauty of the fountain or preventing people from exploring it up close. We were excited about the opportunity to move beyond the bounds of the screen and create an immersive experience rooted in place.

People as performers

Halprin’s original vision for the fountain sequence inspired us to focus on the idea of people as performers. How could we craft an installation that would invite visitors to direct an experience for the audience? What would it look like? How could we engage both the passive observer and active participant?

Given the theatrical metaphor of the fountain as a stage, we began to focus on creating an opportunity for visitors to seamlessly step between the roles of director, performer, and spectator throughout the evening.


Not so fast

Like any open-ended ask, it was difficult to settle upon a direction. Projection mapping? Spatial audio? Floating, robotically-controlled pico projectors? How will people know how to trigger the installation? Maybe we should hire an improvisational dance troupe to demonstrate how to play the fountain?

Amidst our excitement, we had to keep a few things in mind…we are dealing with a body of water. We have 8 hours to install in daylight. Then, at dusk, it is showtime for 3 hours. Everything has to be torn down by midnight. Oh, and the event is in October, so it might rain. Well…how are we going to…nevermind. This is Portland! We know how to deal with a bit of rain, right? We’ll figure it out…

After imagining many ways to activate the space, thinking through a few prototype ideas, and visiting the fountain to test out our ideas, we landed on our final concept:

  • The fountain would serve as an armature for a large-scale string sculpture that would reference the radiating, geometric forms of Halprin’s architecture.
  • The fluorescent string would be activated throughout the night by strategically placed Ultraviolet and RGB lights that were controlled by attendees via a central mixing console.
  • Ambient, interactive sound design would add further dimensionality to the experience, connecting both observer and participant and drawing in those passing by.

Getting real fast

With the concept finalized, we had approximately two weeks before the event to handle equipment rentals and design and build our experience.



We made multiple visits to the fountain to brainstorm mounting strategies and forms for the sculpture. During one of these visits, we had the very good fortune of encountering the fountain when the water had been turned off for maintenance. We discovered previously hidden connection points and tie-offs for the sculpture which enabled us to create a structural plan that could achieve our ambitious vision.



A custom mixing console became the focal point of interaction with six sliding interfaces that invited visitors to direct the interplay of lighting, sound, shadow, and form. A single weekend spent soldering, spray-painting, and making last minute fabrication adjustments helped bring the console to life.


Given the tight timing of the install and the fact that a majority of the hardware would not be in our hands until the day of the event, it became essential to design a software system that was as flexible as possible. Our selection of tools and the structure of the code evolved around the ability to quickly debug, edit, and configure behavior in real time.

A flexible, modular design enabled us to troubleshoot unexpected behaviors and make modifications on the day of the event. We built in capabilities that allowed us to tweak the color and behavior of the installation in real time. While our visitors were directing the immediate experience, we had the ability to shape the parameters within which they were interacting, adapting to the changing ambience as dusk turned into darkness.


Given the fact that the fountain is situated in a residential area, it was important that any sound accompaniment be appealing and unintrusive. We composed six ambient sound loops of varying lengths and connected to the volume of each sound to the same user inputs applied to the lights. The different durations of each loop and the inclusion of plenty of silent space within each sound resulted in a shifting soundscape that weaved in and out of perception rather than bombarding the senses.


Transforming the fountain

The morning of the event, we arrived at the fountain ready to jump in the water and install all 500 yards of green and pink string that comprised the sculpture. While the string was being mounted, our lighting vendor, Portland Productions, showed up at 10 a.m. with a truckload of equipment. Once everything was unloaded, we were on our own to test and mount lights, assign DMX channels, and run cabling. Moments after the the final cables were taped and the lights and sound were up and running, it was time for the evening to begin.


We were thrilled to see that people naturally took on the performance roles we had imagined. Children and adults made their directorial debut while others preferred a front row seat. Turns out, we didn’t even have to hire that improv dance troupe. One woman felt moved to dance and took center stage for a solo performance– a highlight of the evening. See for yourself on our project page.

It was a pleasure to sit back and watch people engage with our creation and experience Halprin’s fountain in a new light. While the event was brief, the impression it made on our team was lasting. We left the fountain feeling inspired and eager to continue exploring the possibilities when art, technology, and public space converge to connect people and place.

– Laura Allcorn, Senior Content Strategist, & Chris Carlson, Interactive Developer

Final photo by Bruce Forster

Posted in Culture, Design, Technology

24 Frames of Craft-mas

This holiday season marks the 50th anniversary of the Rankin-Bass stop-motion classic: Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. This film has delighted audiences both young and old since 1964—and been a major influence on filmmakers like Tim Burton, Henry Selick and Wes Anderson. This magical film also happened to be the spark of inspiration for one of my favorite Second Story projects, Verizon Stop-Motion Studio, which celebrates its anniversary this month—and is making an encore performance this holiday season at Verizon’s flagship stores in Chicago, Minneapolis, and Houston. You can watch some of the stop-motion movies being made each day by customers here.

With the stop-motion technique, it takes 24 individual frames to create just one second of animation. For Rudolph, it took about 18 months to complete filming. That’s a whole lot of work! But there’s even more to it than that. Consider everything that has to happen before you can even begin filming—the characters, the props, the scenes, the songs, the script. There’s so much craft behind this film that simply remains invisible to its audience.

As I step back to reflect on Stop-Motion Studio one year later, I can’t help but think about the tremendous amount of work that went into every tiny detail of the project. And just like a feature film, this process remains hidden to most. So, we thought it’d be fun to expose some of what goes on behind the scenes. During the course of this project, we kept a camera close by to document all the little details that went into crafting the finished piece. And a year later, we finally got around to editing this footage together ;) We hope you enjoy.

– Joel Krieger, Creative Director

Posted in Culture, Design

Recital: A solitary light and sound experience for Halloween 2014

For the past four years, the ScoutMob-Goat Farm Halloween Party has been the sold out main event for Halloween night in Atlanta. Billed as a night of avant-garde immersive artistic performances and installations set among the ruins of a nineteenth century factory complex, the party is always an unforgettable experience.

When Second Story Atlanta heard there was space for a sound installation less than a week out, we streamlined our creative process and got cracking. We worked eagerly and efficiently to create a compelling experience that fulfilled the party’s notorious standards for boundary-breaking work and our studio’s passion for storytelling.


We created Recital, an intimate audio installation that carries listeners to strange and wonderful worlds. People step under a bright narrow spotlight where they experience sounds only they can hear that take them on an imaginary elevator ride. We harnessed a curious effect made possible using HyperSound directional speaker technology. These speakers create a narrow, focused and stealthy ultrasonic beam that carries sound but is only audible when some object (such as your head and ear drums) interrupts the beam. It bounces and reflects off of hard surfaces, and can be carefully tuned so that it sounds like a faint echo unless one is directly within the beam area.

In Recital, you hear the sound of the elevator around you dinging and opening to distinct floors, opening a new world at each stop. Each time the elevator stops, the doors open to a new world. The background audio suggests a recognizable setting, and computer generated voices babble and read lists as if identifying the objects in the surroundings. In the basement, a mad scientist ticks off solvents in a bubbling lab. On other floors, voices recite types of wet weather as frogs croak in the rainforest, or they enumerate kinds of marine mammals along to whale songs. On another floor, we start on the launch pad and when the rocket finally arrives in space we hear Sputnik’s pings along with the distant beeps and messages of that historic spacecraft.

Given the tight timeline, we sourced audio from the public domain and recorded lists dictated by Apple’s pre-recorded Speech profiles.

Recital’s other ingredient was light. In a dark room, spotlights signal a promise — whether for interaction or performance is not clear. People discover by walking inside the light beam, where they become the audience to the immersive soundscape. To onlookers, they appear as performers on stage. They hear one recitation, while they act out another.

Coordination & Install

The party was a huge, multi-installation event requiring careful coordination to provide and test locations, lights, amplification and power. The night before the party, we affixed speakers and spotlights to the old factory’s high beams. Back on the ground, we listened to the soundscape and rode our elevator to the next level. It was resonant, powerful, wonderful. It was time to go home.


The next night, hundred of party-goers arrived on Halloween to find Goodson Yard awash with sound. Recital’s audio struggled to compete with the overall decibel levels. Between the chatter of hundreds, stage amps and passing freight trains, our soundscape was drowning.

But still, people stepped into the light. So we watched.

zen pose - CU 

Eyeing the Unexpected

The spotlights served a purpose to the costumed crowd: Well-lit areas in very dark rooms are great places to take pictures. The circumstance we had to confront made us keen observers. Even though Recital couldn’t speak to people, the people spoke to us by demonstrating how to create an experience of their own design.

They retrieved chairs from lounging areas nearby to use as props and invited strangers whose costumes offset their own to join them in the beam. The spotlight succeeded in creating a stage for performance. It invited people in, successfully attracting participants without any promise of a payoff.

The concept for Recital aimed to craft a zone of individual experience surrounded by the crowd. We wanted individuals to share their experience with others in a ‘hey-you-gotta-try-this’ kind of way. In a quiet room, this totally worked. On the dance floor, it bombed.


chair with cat

But like our public installation that covered a Dumpster with magnetic illuminated boxes inscribed with words that people could rearrange, we again observed that simply giving people the tools to express individuality can inspire creativity and social activity more naturally than prescribing behavior through explicit prompts.


As an innovation center, our studio needs to embrace risky work and take chances. It’s why we put our first-drafts in front of people—to explore unknowns around exciting ideas. By getting real fast, we iterate on insights and wrangle dynamic possibilities at the intersection of art, technology and storytelling.

– Ashton Grosz, Experience Designer & Andy Pruett, Interactive Developer

Posted in Culture, Design, Technology

Meet Second Story Atlanta

In 1994, Second Story was one person working out of an apartment in Berkeley. The flagship project and calling card was being delivered to prospective clients on a 3.5’’ floppy disk.

Today, we’re nearly seventy people across three studios and we’ve delivered more than 350 projects. Looking back, an evolutionary arc becomes visible; from online media, to installations, to the creation of spaces that braid story and technology together from concept to completion.

Hindsight is one way to see evolution. By blurring two decades of conversations, decisions, and projects together, a larger picture emerges of something we all contributed to, and none of us was in control of. Like evolution in the natural world, ours is a combination of tiny steps and unexpected leaps, triggered and shaped by the chaos of circumstance, honed through hard-fought successes and failures, driving toward a beautiful, collective unknown.

Enter Second Story Atlanta. This crew exemplifies the art of making evolution a conscious and daily practice. While their Lab provides the tools and space for sparks to fly, as this short film shows, the Lab itself is not the true catalyst. It’s simply a tool for a team with a voracious appetite for tipping points, actively choosing an ethos of collaborative exploration at every given moment.

Atlanta’s imagination, team spirit, and laughter are infectious. Personally, I love the way they champion and use the unexpected versus clinging to “the big idea.” Check out their work for Whole FoodsWorld of Coca-Cola, and Verizon, and enjoy AV Producer Vanessa Patchett’s inside look at the next chapter in the evolution of Second Story.

– David Waingarten, Creative Director

Posted in Content, Culture, Design, Technology

iBeacon Technology: From Lab to Launch

It’s been almost a year since Apple launched its iBeacon technology. Since then, tech gurus have frantically speculated about how beacons will enhance consumer experiences in physical spaces. Although much has been said about what beacons can be used for (wayfinding, dynamic pricing, ticketing, etc.) — few are talking about how to design for this new experience paradigm. To truly understand the feeling of interacting with beacons, we decided to get our hands dirty and build a lab prototype that would allow us to experiment. We placed Gimbal beacons around our studio and built an app that triggers content as a person approaches these various spots. We strategically picked very different points of interest to allow exploration of different content types:

Still Furniturestill furnitureInteractive Project DemosInteractive Project DemosWindow VistasWindow Vistas

Our prototype app went through multiple rounds of testing and tweaking, unveiling key insights along the way. Inevitably, we learned much about the technical capabilities of beacons and Bluetooth Low Energy, but experiencing it first-hand within a real physical space brought to attention several experience design principles as well:

1) Content must be delivered in bite-sized, highly visual chunks.

05_5H2A0713Since the digital application is augmenting a physical experience, it should allow for a primarily heads-up experience where users are able to fully appreciate the physical world around them, but also quickly consume contextual content that helps them make sense of what they are seeing.

2) There is a fine balance between a helpful alert and an interruption.

03_5H2A0713Our first iteration of the app triggered content to take over the screen when the user came close to a beacon. Depending on the context, however, we quickly realized that this could be disruptive if the user is still looking at the content screen for a previously triggered beacon. So our second iteration “nudges” the user instead. A thumbnail bubble for the new content playfully animates onto the screen without obscuring it, and the user has the choice to launch or ignore it.

3) Navigation via physical means (walking up to various beacons) must be reconciled with more traditional navigation via app UI.

WoCC_Hub_01On-screen UI elements such as navigation menus and back buttons break down when content is navigated by physically walking through a space. Rules must be determined for which method trumps the other, while still ensuring that the user has a clear mental model of how the app works. For instance, we might consider abandoning traditional, nested hierarchies for more modal, state-based screen navigation.

After several iterations of the lab prototype, we had the opportunity to apply what we learned to the design of the World of Coca-Cola Explorer mobile application. Overall, our lab process allowed us to discover answers to questions that we would not have otherwise known to ask. As designers, it is impossible for us to anticipate every nuance of how a final experience will play out. The only way to get even close is to build something quickly and actually feel it ourselves — leaving plenty of room for unexpected and insightful learnings.

— Pavani Yalla, Associate Creative Director, Experience Design

Posted in Design, Technology

Design Week Portland: Reimagining Lovejoy Fountain

Second Story's installation at Lovejoy Fountain for Design Week Portland

This past Tuesday, Second Story, along with six other design studios and artists, had the privilege of participating in an exhibition called Revolution in the Landscape: Re-experience Halprin’s Fountains. Hosted by SEGD as part of Design Week Portland, the event aimed to showcase local designers and reactivate Lawrence Halprin’s Open Space Sequence. Second Story was asked to bring the Lovejoy Fountain to life.

The Halprin Open Spaces Sequence is one of the most important pieces of late 20th century public art in the US and the Lovejoy Fountain is a hidden gem nestled between buildings, shops, and condos in downtown Portland. Our goal was to stay true to Halprin’s original intent of creating a space full of dichotomous interaction while highlighting the existing architecture and complimenting the late Modernist aesthetic in a cutting edge temporary installation.


After imagining many ways to activate the space, conducting physical testing, and visiting the fountain to consider the possibilities, we landed on a direction the whole studio could get behind. Using string, multiple light sources, and directional sound manipulation, we created an installation that would activate the fountain in a new way.

The following images offer a peak into what we created, but stay tuned for more in-depth documentation and behind the scenes footage!



— Adam Paikowsky, Lab Technician

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Posted in Culture, Design

A Lesson From Maker Faire


This month, we had the pleasure of exhibiting at Portland’s annual Mini Maker Faire held at OMSI. We described our project, Construct-A-Comic, as a digitally enhanced, do-it-yourself comic strip kit. At our booth, visitors could use a few different storytelling tools to create their own three-panel comic strip.


A set of paper props and characters with mix-and-match heads provided the cast for the comics. The skeleton and crocodile were particularly popular with the kids.


We set up a mini stage with projected video backgrounds that could be adjusted to different scenes, everything from a carnival to outer space.


Once the stage was set, we recorded the visitor’s creations in a panning video and posted them to Instagram.


That gives you a basic idea of what was set up at our booth. But there’s another aspect of our project that I’d like to talk about here. It’s something that I feel Construct-A-Comic exemplifies well, not necessarily because of what it is, but because of what it empowered people to do.


There’s a French word, bricolage, that describes the act of using whatever you have on hand to make something. Someone who performs bricolage, or a bricoleur, draws their materials and resources from a limited pool to achieve the ends of their work.


As an after-hours passion project with little budget, Construct-A-Comic was definitely an exercise in bricolage. Thanks to a set of talented volunteers from our studio, we were able to pull together our project from whatever we happened to have in our Lab. This is what you’ll find all over Maker Faire: groups of bricoleurs who are passionate about the act of making and embrace the challenge of working with constraints.


But the idea of bricolage can extend beyond the physical things we make. In his book The Savage Mind, anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss uses the metaphor of intellectual bricolage to describe what he sees as a valuable means for humans to make sense of the world:

[The bricoleur] derives his poetry from the fact that he does not confine himself to accomplishment and execution: he ‘speaks’ not only with things… but also through the medium of things: giving an account of his personality and life by the choices he makes between the limited possibilities. The ‘bricoleur’ may not ever complete his purpose but he always puts something of himself into it.


Put another way, this is a philosophy of process over product. There is something immensely valuable, but sometimes difficult to quantify, in the process of making things, and not just in what you end up making. The process of encountering and working with constraints should be celebrated because that’s what makes our activity inherently satisfying and meaningful.


I think part of what makes Construct-A-Comic special is the small way it encourages the kids who use it to engage in their own intellectual bricolage. We set up a space where we offered them limited tools and asked them to make something of their own. And they didn’t disappoint:

Our ability to freely engage in bricolage seems to dull as we get older. We become more tied up in believing there is a “right” way to do things and complain about the compromise when we are forced away from it.


But that flexibility of the bricoleur to see multiple possibilities in a limited set and adapt to shifting conditions is what I consider a good design skill. So, for designers especially, I think there is something to be learned from these kids who fearlessly created stories out of whatever we gave them. This is the lesson from the Maker Movement: you can shape our world meaningfully, not in spite of the constraints you will encounter, but because of them.

If you’d like to see all the stories our visitors made during Portland’s Mini Maker Faire, go to

— Norman Lau, Senior Experience Designer

Posted in Culture, Design, Technology, Uncategorized

The User Experience of Driverless Cars

I recently took a short road trip with a friend from Brooklyn to Dover, DE for a concert. As we inched south through New Jersey in typical I-95 traffic, conversation shifted to Google’s autonomous car project:

“We’ll be no more than 10 feet from the car in front of us,” Andrew exclaimed, “still going 65 mph! Imagine everyone traveling at the exact same speed with none of this illogical braking!”

We traded bits of news gathered from articles about how much safer the roads will be, how much energy we’ll save, and, of course, how much traffic we won’t be complaining about.

“If a central transportation network knows where every car on the road is headed, there must be ways to programmatically group cars with similar destinations and manipulate the infrastructure to create quicker routes.”

I was referencing what Höweler + Yoon Architecture developed for the Audi Urban Future competition in their Boswash:Shareway 2030 concept. The project imagines a connected network streamlining multiple modes of transportation that goes beyond the subject of autonomous cars —referring to the larger urban landscape and mobility in general—but it illustrates an important trend happening right now that’s paving the way for the autonomous cars of the future. We are seeing the internet’s physical potential being actualized in the form of connecting objects with environments and with people, mostly to streamline life’s everyday activities. Some call this the Internet of Things, and autonomous cars are another instance in this trend, making travel less stressful, costly, and dangerous.

However, of all the objects we’re connecting to people and environments, automobiles are a very unique instance. They’re symbols of freedom and passion, especially here in the United States. Songs and movies have been written about them, first kisses (and other firsts, I’m told) have taken place ‘parking’ in them, and some of the world’s most fervent sports fans literally stare at them circling a track. We’ve built up a collective nostalgia from the ‘user experience’ of driving that over time has helped define American culture.

But the experience of driving is about to change, and so must our relationship with cars and how they fit into society. It’s important we begin talking about what that means beyond all the energy, money, time, and lives we’re due to save.

To frame a conversation about the user experience of driverless cars, we can look through three lenses: Control, Freedom, and Trust.


Control | Freedom | Trust

I drive a car with manual transmission, which is a rarity these days. In fact, that I own a car at all in New York is uncommon, but I enjoy the feel, the connection between my movement and the mechanical reaction that makes the car go! It’s a matter of control, like steeping coffee in a French press versus letting it drip in a machine. I feel more accountable and responsible for the car’s movement, and therefore I’m more engaged in driving.

The recent Google car prototype features no steering wheel, brakes, or turn signals, and certainly no clutch or gearshift. It looks eerily empty inside, similar in a way to the first iPhone, whose interface-less interface changed our behavior and the way we interact with people and our environment in ways we don’t completely understand yet. Beyond being the conduit to the current Internet of Things trend, this culture disruptor has taught us how influential the human-computer interface can be.

With the driver’s controls, and, therefore, purpose now relinquished, he/she is no longer the primary user but a passive passenger (just another back seat driver?). The driver’s cockpit will shift to feel more like an extension of familiar environments like our homes, offices, trains or subways, though with the potential to become more personalized.

This is an important point for us at Second Story, where we don’t currently design vehicle interfaces, but we do explore our relationship with environments and how we interact within them. So, before driverless car interiors are lined with screens, the interesting conversations will be around what new roles the users of this environment have. What will an optimal seating arrangement look like? Will the father of nuclear families still sit in the driver seat? Will the driver still reach across to protect his/her passenger after a sudden stop? Will so much control be relinquished that parents send their children alone in the car to school and back? In this new flattened hierarchy of users, the notion of control is about to be radically redefined.


Control | Freedom | Trust

When I think of early moments in my life that triggered a monumental feeling, driving alone for the first time is up at the top of my list. It was just a 10-minute trip to Blockbuster (THAT long ago), but it gave me one of the first sensations of fearless adventure and escape I can remember. And it was adamantly clarified to me that with my newfound power comes responsibility. “Your life,” as my father put it, “is in your own hands.”

Receiving one’s driver’s license is a rite of passage, a tangible milestone in the transition from adolescence to adulthood where the notion of “responsibility” becomes a truly real thing.

I tried to imagine this life event in the time of driverless cars. A 16-year-old—perhaps even younger considering that the risks associated with driving would be irrelevant—would excitedly enter an address into the car’s computer, say a nearby 7-11 (which, unlike Blockbuster, would surely still be around). I then imagine her kicking back and texting her friends or checking her social feed. I can’t imagine her experiencing that liberating sensation of steering in whatever direction she wishes or the accountability associated with this newfound access to anywhere.

But the notion of freedom and exploration has been changing in recent years, especially as it relates to our cars and the millennial generation’s desire for them. According to a 2013 Time Magazine article by Brad Tuttle, fewer and fewer people between the age of 16 & 34 are buying cars.

Car-sharing services like Zipcar and Lyft have made individual mobility easier and cheaper by removing the commitment of owning. These new models of car usage are contributing to a shift in sentiment toward automobiles from passion to convenience, so freedom could be interpreted as the freedom to mobilize only as needed. And with driverless cars we would be able to seamlessly shift from one environment to the next without having to disconnect and distract from our digital activity (whether this constant connection is beneficial to us is a whole other conversation).

So how might we hold onto our sense of exploration and responsibility in the future of driverless cars? And is this a task worth undertaking? Perhaps we shouldn’t fret because new technology might continue to dictate our cravings for digital connection over an analog escape. In any case, multiple driving modes would help ease the transition. Maybe we include a configurable interior where one could choose the ‘classic setup’ featuring a steering wheel. We could flip cruise control around and allow a young driver to take the lead until the car’s computer anticipated danger, similar to today’s crash avoidance systems. Maintaining some sense of personal responsibility and the potential for escape might help ease the adoption of driverless cars.


Control | Freedom | Trust

When my friend asked what I thought about Google’s driverless cars, I sat for a few seconds looking out at the people driving on the highway and thought: We will have reached the point of no return when we give up human control and rely solely on an invisible technology to manage our lives (admittedly I saw flashes of Terminator 2). Indeed a cynical reaction, though I would think it’s a daunting prospect for most of us. But how we trust our technology has changed dramatically just in the last 50 years.

There was a time not so long ago when we balanced our own checkbooks. We now sign into our banking websites with the same credentials as our Pinterest account. We send money freely over the Internet to companies we might not have heard of a week ago in exchange for a T-shirt. There is a sense of comfort we have achieved with technology because the incentives for convenience and efficiency have outweighed the risks.

But technology still disappoints us even without human error. Have you ever sent a text message to learn that it didn’t successfully send and a miscommunication resulted? Or sent the feared autocorrect message that incited a look of terror on both your face and the recipient’s? Even worse, our technology can purposely manipulate us—remember Facebook’s “Emotion Contagion experiment that caused an onslaught of outrage?

Now consider a driverless car failing us on a much larger scale: it takes us to the wrong location, makes us late, or worse, it jeopardizes our safety. In the last year, writers have tapped into the life or death dilemma designers of autonomous cars might have to consider: should a driverless car make impact with a person or car in front of it or swerve to effectively injure/kill its own passengers? There’s no easy answer, but the question is important for us to consider. Even though driverless cars are slated to save a staggering number of lives, when we leave instinctive decisions up to technology, a great debate surely divides us.

Earning trust in any form takes time. In the case of driverless cars, we will first need to overcome our fear of losing too much control and freedom. At what point will that happen? Some argue there is a threshold where our trust in technology results in diminishing returns for society, but it is technology’s tendency to recast cultural rules, to expose new possibilities that enable us to do more and better—the invention of the printing press, for example. Eventually we’ll all have to consider where that threshold lies and what sacrifices we’re willing to make in order to continue evolving with technology.

— Justin Berg, Experience Design Lead

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Posted in Culture, Design, Technology

“Digital Revolution” in London

With its post-apocalyptic looks and lost bits of nature, London’s Barbican Estate deserves a blog post all its own, but I wanted to share my experience with “Digital Revolution,” a unique exhibition hosted in its depths at the Barbican Centre.

This exhibition successfully brings together a selection of old, recent, and exclusive works, aiming to show the convergence of technology and creativity in design, music, film, videogames, and, actually, everywhere in our culture since the ‘70s. The boundary between these spheres has become nearly invisible, as creative minds have progressively found, crafted, and used digital tools to explore the possibilities.

Without any gimmick—it’s 100% SpaceInvaders-sticker-free!—this exhibition is a truly refreshing and inspiring museum experience designed for everyone. I suspect it will not export to the U.S., and I doubt all of you will be able to visit London in the next month, so I wanted to share here my thoughts and favorite parts.


Pong. Broken Age.

Digital Archaeology

The journey starts with a brief but necessary retrospective of digital antiques, surrounded by a dozen synchronized screens showing historical references to the digital landscape (the appearance of GIFs, iconic video games, famous movies using ground-breaking CGI, etc.). I say “brief and necessary” because this exhibit is not about nostalgia but rather about how our accomplishments over the past 40 years have informed a better understanding of the creative innovations being showcased and the breadth of possibilities for the future.

I got to play on an original Pong arcade station with a CTR screen. The Fairlight CMI, 30 years old and one of the most iconic sampling synthesizers, was on display. A 9-year-old kid held an original Game Boy in his hands and played his first game of Tetris. Visitors checked out a couple of obscure NetArt pieces using Netscape.

Showcasing these artifacts presented some real curatorial challenges, since, unlike books, sculptures, or paintings, they need another medium to be visible. It’s also very hard to find replacement parts for the consoles, and newer browsers deprecate old code. The fast digital obsolescence makes these works—and, by extension, our own work in the digital sphere—very fragile. Worse, the easy ability to duplicate digital content makes them less valued. The exhibit carefully labels these once innovative creations, giving their authors due recognition for their ingenuity.

Tetris and Minecraft. Deletion and creation.

Tetris and Minecraft. Deletion and creation.

We Create

The exhibition continues with more recent works grouped according to a series of themes. We Create glorifies projects that touch a sense of collaboration in their conception—such as the beautiful Broken Age, a point-and-click game supported by more than 80,000 people via Kickstarter; in their actual making and goal—like Aaron Koblin‘s work and Chris Milk’s Johnny Cash Project, where visitors are invited to collectively draw a tribute to Cash; or in the community that they developed—like the sandbox Minecraft with its millions of players and contributors and its omnipresence in the collective memory. Getting to watch a group of kids discover they could actually play Minecraft during the exhibition reminded me that “Digital Revolution” is truly a celebration of interaction. It understands that if a project (a game, a website, an app, etc.) is meant to be interactive, it has to be showcased in a participatory way because the user, the human, is such an essential part of it.

Another piece linked to We Create is Universal Everything’s Together, which invites people to create a short frame-by-frame looping animation. Pending review, contributions are displayed on a long wall of screens. As I regularly work on motion design at Second Story, I just loved this piece. The interface felt a bit raw, but constraint allows creativity, and the installation is still very attractive and educational. It’s a great way to understand the basics of animation and to challenge yourself to create contributions to inspire others.

Nearby, visitors can also play a few recent independent games, testaments to the ability of small teams to create powerful and rich experiences now that the tools they need are more affordable and knowledge is more accessible. Fez, Paper’s Please, Antichamber and Journey are some of the award-winning titles available.


Les Métamorphoses de Mr. Kalia.

State of Play

State of Play gathers body-conscious interactive installations, where creators experiment with play and gesture using the user’s physical behavior and tools to observe it like Microsoft’s Kinect (something we are very familiar with). Les Métamorphoses de Mr. Kalia, one of the pieces commissioned to Google DevArt, was definitely my favorite. The experience is quite simple: when in position, a character follows your movements and you take part in a short surrealistic interactive story (sort of a body extension of Google’s Puppet Parade). The piece is visually poetic, there’s a great sense of mystery and revelation in the relationship between participant and spectator, and best of all, you are given a link to replay your performance on the website right after you finish your story (by the way, here are my moves). Another very curious installation—that I unfortunately missed due to its unobvious location—is Umbrellium’s Assemblance, which allowed people to interact with lasers and sculpt the light with their shape and gestures.


Computer imagery from Apple’s Woodcut to Dreamworks’ Apollo.

Creative Spaces

Creative Spaces showcases some examples of technology’s influence on how we tell stories. A documentary describes the impressive Apollo project, a tool conceived by Intel for Dreamworks animators, that they used for How to Train your Dragon 2. This new tool enables a faster approach to their animation and lighting work, helping them to avoid needing to render every individual change they make—an apparently standard process in animation. Apollo improves efficiency and allows them to focus on the core of their craft.

The exhibition also includes two behind-the-scenes physical installations on two recent blockbusters. We first learn about the making of the city-bending scene in Christopher Nolan’s Inception. But while the content doesn’t differ much from what you see in the bonus section of your Blu-Ray, the experience offers the opportunity to use a Leap Motion controller—another familiar tool at Second Story—to interact with the content. Moving the hand from left to right over the sensor will play the scene forward, moving the hand down to up will make you browse through the different steps of the process as layers, from the first documentation shots to the conceptual art to the non-textured 3D explorations to the final render. This interaction sounds fairly simple, but without boundaries and because of a very discreet user interface, many would start the experience moving their hand in all directions, only understanding after a couple of seconds that you use just two axes. Even so, it is not a bad experience and is actually a very inspiring way to browse through content.

We also learn about Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity and how they built an entire set of environments and tools to capture the actors’ performances and help them empathize with their characters. The installation was shaped like one of their tools, the Light Box, which immersed the actor in a cube of LEDs displaying a rough animation of what a character would see while in action. In the exhibit, several screens are precisely synchronized to display the different steps of a very complex scene where the visitors get entirely immersed. These screens then progressively reunite, revealing the final rendition.

Innovation also happens outside of Hollywood. The interactive documentary Clouds features artists, developers, and hackers talking about their thoughts on code, data, community, goals, and challenges. The documentary is actually a full 3D environment, where interviewees appear in-between illustrations created by coders, shot with a combination of Kinect’s RGBDToolkit and a DSLR camera. Interview by interview, the viewer can navigate through a large network of topics, here again enjoying a unique, non-linear experience.

Finally, with a bit of a political bent, James Bridle gathers online information about American drone strikes in Afghanistan and Yemen and publishes aerial images of the locations along with the date and a description of the event on an Instagram account named Dronestagram. This creates a virtual space, open to discussion, to bring closer and better reveal events of the same nature happening in less accessible areas and rarely covered by the media. I was surprised and excited to learn about this project and to see it in this exhibition. It’s an attempt to showcase a less entertainment-oriented piece aimed at raising debate on socio-political issues in the real world.


Clouds. House of Cards.


This section mostly covers how the development of visual arts, via synesthesia, helped create new experiences in the domain of music for both audiences and musicians. We find Arcade Fire’s Wilderness Downtown and its multi-window and geolocated interactive music video, Radiohead’s House of Cards music video, shot using only proximity sensors, Bjork’s album Biophilia and the apps that accompany each of its songs, Amon Tobin’s Isam 2.0 show with its impressive projection mapping performances, and Holly Herndon and Akihiko Taniguchi’s Chorus music video featuring 3D captures of messy work environments. There are so many terrific examples of this kind of work that it’s impossible to be exhaustive, but curator Conrad Bodman has gathered here a solid representative sampling.

I am not sure the setup for watching these videos was ideal, however: a wall of screens displaying them looped as a mosaic with headphones hanging in the front in order to hear the music. It felt hard to appreciate each piece on its own and keep focus on a single video at a time. Nevertheless, it’s a good conversation piece that inspires the visitor to remember other similar works that have moved them in the past.

Beyond music, I discovered Energy Flow, a collaboration between FIELD, Intel, and VICE. It’s an app that explores deconstruction of narration by using an algorithm to randomly associate and edit videos and sounds. This algorithm consequently creates a new story every time it is watched. The results are infinite, feel very poetic, and are open to interpretation.


Kinisi. MAN A.

Our Digital Futures + DevArt

Certainly the most experimental part of the exhibit, Our Digital Futures lets artists explore the potential evolution of the relationship between our environment and the human body. Alongside examples from the fashion industry introducing us to 3D-printed materials and wearable computing is Kinisi by Katia Vega, a tech-infused make-up project. Sensors are placed on a person’s specific facial muscles and LEDs are placed on their skin and hair. Digital signals collected by the sensors during specific movements (a blinking eye, an open mouth, raised eyebrows) activate a light sequence on the face. Products like Google Glass are already aiming at introducing facial interfaces, but this goes a step further by starting a conversation about the possibilities of skin and muscles as interfaces.

Back on the subject of synesthesia, we learn about colorblind artist and Cyborg Foundation founder Neil Harbisson who cannot see colors but can hear them via an antenna implanted in his skull. A camera placed at the top of the antenna, facing what he sees, translates the colors into sounds. More than experiencing colors in sounds, he also hears sounds, voices, and music in color.

Another body-enhancement project, the EyeWriter, was created by the Not Impossible Foundation, allowing people with forms of paralysis to write and draw using their brain waves and by tracking their eyes. The team has built a low-cost device, now available to everyone. A version of it has been created specifically for the graffiti artist TEMPT1, now entirely paralyzed except for his eyes, so he can continue his artwork.

Exploring the notion of urban camouflage, artists Gibson/Martelli came up with MAN A, an installation and art app where people can, via their smartphone or tablet, reveal invisible tribal dancers from a scene filled with markers at the intersection of camouflage, barcodes, and QR codes.

Finally, close to the waiting lines, people can interact with robots in Petting Zoo, built by Minimaforms. These creatures are artificially intelligent, evolving, and reacting to their environment and human behavior via camera-tracking systems. The interaction is awkwardly intimate with what look like the probes from The War of the Worlds. They don’t hurt and can be playful but also visibly angry. A slightly frustrating low wall is set up to preserve humans, making it harder to get close to the creatures.


Universal Everything’s Together

“Digital Revolution” is a truly interactive, well-curated museum exhibition. I sure hope the links above are inspiring and make you want to visit it, should you find yourself in London before mid-September. Indeed, a lot of the pieces shown in the exhibition can be viewed online —isn’t that the case for pretty much all works of art now, anyway?—but the Barbican Centre exhibition is unique enough to be worth experiencing in person.

— Swanny Mouton, Interaction Designer

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