Insights from our SXSW 2015 Core Conversation

On Mar 14th, Rick and I conducted a core conversation around the topic of ‘The Future of Physical Digital Placemaking’ at SXSW 2015 in Austin. Core conversations are formalized formats for informal gatherings where people get together to learn and converse about a common subject. We decided to prepare a presentation, outlining examples that explained the topic, backed by some of our own work, peppered in with conversation starters. This gave the core conversation some structure and lots of food for thought.

The three main questions that we were trying to answer were

  • Where do we see physical digital today?
  • How can physical spaces interact with us using digital technology?
  • What can we do with all the environmental data surrounding us?

We started the conversation explaining the rapid integration of technology in physical spaces and wearables, a natural trajectory from personal computing. Examples like McDonalds Drive Throughs and EZ Pass toll stations helped explain some mainstream examples of how technology has been a part of our environments for a while, facilitating our need to not get out of cars to eat, or to stop to pay the toll, especially in industrialized nations like the US. We gave the example of a project we worked on, for a conference that facilitates connections and conversations amongst conference goers, by visualizing twitter activity. Twitter walls have become a fixture in the conference circuit and our project was a deconstructed artistic version of this phenomena. The discussion ranged from the technologies that we used for visualization (which was processing) to using wearable technology to create a similar output since it would create a more seamless experience.

We then moved on to talking about the modes of interaction that we use to communicate with the spaces around us. These interaction modes could include sound, movement, smell, touch, and more. Some examples that we talked about included the famous ‘Piano Staircase’ experiment by Fun Theory initiative by Volkswagen, and the ‘Drinkup Water Fountain’ by the design studio Yes Yes No to emphasize how physical entities and environments can talk to us and maybe even change our behavior in the long run. The piano staircase is a way to encourage people to use the stairs instead of the escalator by using the mode of play, participation, and musical notes. We have to keep in mind that these are only experiments, a staircase as a piano could probably yield very cacophonous results during rush hour and maintaining something like this in the long run could be expensive.

The discussion revolved a bit around how spatial computing could lead to behavior change. Someone asked whether that applied to our project Silent Lights, which visualizes traffic noise as light patterns. The answer is that Silent Lights does nothing to reduce traffic congestion but the underpass is a lot cleaner since the project was installed. People respect the area around the installation. We also showed a sneak preview of our responsive project that will be installed at a parking lot at the Seaholm Redevelopment Project in Austin this fall. As always, there were questions around how public technology driven projects are powered, which is mostly through the existing electric infrastructure that drives the traffic lights and street lighting. The permits and timeline for some of these things are long but can be accelerated if the land is private.

Also, the interaction modes that we talked about in the previous paragraph can be systematically collected and analyzed to understand a pattern that can help create better cities, for example knowing if garbage cans in certain areas get full a lot faster than other areas in a city, can optimize decisions around garbage pickup and allocation of garbage cans. To emphasize the importance of data informed cities where our responsibility lies in making this hidden data visible, led to us talking about our latest project Airbare. Airbare is a public data art piece that visualizes air quality and gamifies the whole experience to create public engagement. Other examples in this realm included the Array of Things project out of Chicago which is a network of sensors that collect environmental data for future public use.

To sum up the conversation, we speculated about the future. My favorite way to do this is using films. A really important film that did an amazing job of predicting future of physical digital innovation is Minority Report. It predicted gestural interfaces and targeted advertising. We discussed what films today might have gotten it right. Will we develop deep relationships with our operating systems as depicted in Spike Jonze’s movie ‘Her’, or will our mediated reality get darker as showcased in the groundbreaking British drama Black Mirror. No one knows but we can still speculate.

While we were trying to predict what will happen to our physical reality in the future, someone asked us an interesting question – What comes first when we design – beauty, technology or experience? All three. Technology is as important as the other two because it makes a lot of these disruptive experiences possible. The Nintendo Wii would not exist as a great experience if the MEMS technology supporting it was not fully robust. More about this in a previous blog post here.

Technology is leaving our desktops and mobile.  It is permeating our objects as indicated by the success of IOT(Internet of Things), our bodies through commercial breakthroughs in wearables like the Nike Fuel Band, and our spaces through smart home security systems. It is only a matter of time until it becomes totally invisible and integrated in our lives.

You can also download our SXSW ‘The Future of Physical Digital Placemaking’ PDF here. Feel free to circle back with questions to & Happy Friday.