It is a sight seen all too often – people buried in their phones, seemingly oblivious to the world or people around them. While touchscreen devices have greatly facilitated our ability to connect with those far away, they often act as a barrier to seeing what is directly in front of us. Even touchscreens in museums and cultural facilities have, until now, been an individual interaction – one person selects an item on a table to trigger a singular reaction or result. They’ve also become so ubiquitous as to become a ho-hum, least common denominator of audience expectations. But a new trend in interactive media technology looks to change that, creating collaborative, one-of-a kind experiences that reinforce the importance of community and place, taking people out of their phones and living rooms and into the cultural world.
New York-based media producers, Local Projects, have recently completed a number of “only-here experiences” that utilize game based interactivity. Among the interactives they created for Gallery One at the Cleveland Museum of Art is “Strike a Pose”, in which visitors do their best to try to mimic various sculptures throughout the galleries. In “Make a Face”, facial recognition software matches their facial expressions with one of 189 works of art in the museum’s collection. The matched faces are displayed and can be sent via email. These two interactives, along with nine others within the gallery, offer experiences that visitors could not have by simply swiping their iPhone screen, establishing Gallery One as a “revolutionary space in the world of museums,” bolstering museum attendance by 39 percent and increasing donations by 80 percent.
Another interactive media company, Stimulant, has been working on a variety of projects to reintroduce collaboration into digital media. Seattle’s Museum of History and Industry (MOHAI) asked Stimulant to provide an anchor interactive media attraction for its Bezos Center for Innovation. Their answer was Launchpad, a multi-touch interactive mirror with depth-sensing cameras that can sense and react to guest height and movement. Throughout the experience, the mirror poses questions on what it means to innovate. At key points throughout the interactive, the mirror purposely puts touch points out of reach, necessitating the assistance of taller (or shorter) guests nearby. This multi-faceted interactive teaches that while we all can be innovators, innovation is best achieved as a team effort.
Stimulant recently unveiled another collaborative media installation in Seattle at the Experience Music Project (EMP). The #dBcube, a collaboration with Microsoft for EMP’s recent Decibel Festival, visualizes sensory data from four different Kinects and creates animated visuals from five projectors. When a dancer approaches the five sided, 4’x4’ cube, the cube reacts to their movements in real time, converting them to a dazzling array of geometric shapes and splashes of light and color. If other people join the dance, their avatars are joined by a virtual ribbon, thus turning their individual moves into a collaborative, creative expression choreographed to the music. Total strangers become digital dance partners.
Local Project’s Big Heart NYC installation in Times Square combined place-based experience and collaborative interaction to create a poignant message about human interconnectedness. The ten-foot sculpture, unveiled in time for Valentine’s Day, was made of a series of acrylic tubes embedded with slowly pulsing LEDs. When visitors touched the adjacent podium, the heart beat faster. The more people that touched the podium and each other, the redder the heart would glow. According to the designers, “the heart reflected what Times Square is made of, people and light. The more people, the stronger the light.” Again, interactive media becomes a building block for collaboration, not singularity, for communal experience, not isolation.
The key to fostering the next generation of interactive media experiences is to create devices and programs that offer a sense of differentiation, offering visitors a digital interface not available to them at home. The touchscreen then becomes a catalyst for an experience and not the experience itself, breaking down the fourth wall so that people are interacting with those immediately around them and not with someone on the other end of the phone. With the digital media bar moving higher and higher, those museums or attractions incorporating the technology must do so in a way consistent with their mission, because today’s savvy visitors can easily identify inauthenticity or technology for technology’s sake. They must also make sure that the technology is robust enough to be utilized on various platforms and by a multitude of people – nothing kills engagement like a broken interactive. But used effectively, sustainably and in the right context, today’s digital media can reinforce place, re-establish community and re-invigorate social interaction.