TEDxUCLA 2012: Open

Designing responsive environments


About Cameron

Cameron McNall is an architect who lives in Los Angeles. New work is added periodically. His professional work may be viewed at www.electroland.net. His backpacking blog is trailnamebackstroke.com.


With my group Electroland for the last 12 years, we’ve been exploring all the ways that technology can change and augment how people engage physical space. Many of the principles that we use are what you could call basic interaction design, but what we discovered is when you put people in physical space together, there are many other things you have to take into account that are very, very important.

So I’m going to show you several projects to show you some of the conclusions that we’ve reached and some of the principles that we have developed in the design of physical space.

For this first project, it was pretty simple. You had a mobile phone, this is in 2001, if you remember what those were, and it features digits. There’s no picture there. And you press buttons, and when you do this, you activate a very long array of lights. The lights react according to the buttons that you push.

So it was very, it worked, you know, it was easy to learn, which is a principle of interaction design, and it was very satisfying. I mean, very satisfying. You press this button and then bam, this whole building lights up.

But it also raised a question that persists to this day, which is if you have an interaction with a physical space and it affects the space and other people, is that a good thing or how should that be in some way? And we’re still exploring that one.

For this next project, we took the, what we learned from this first project, but we wanted to eliminate any need for a device and any need for instruction. You didn’t need to know a telephone number, you weren’t, you didn’t need to be told anything.

Now, we wanted to make a completely intuitive experience so that when you step on a tile here, you activate the building face. Everything you see happening on the building face here is actually mirroring what people are doing on the interactive floor. So in this way, you are performing at the scale of the city but with these other people. It was completely intuitive, we didn’t have to instruct you about anything.

What we learned from this that was profound and has changed everything we do since then is the extent to which we were designing social experiences. That beyond having a person interact with a building or having something happen, we were creating scenarios for people to interact with each other.

And that has become absolutely critical in the design of all other projects. This is a webcam from above showing you how people are interacting with the building, but you can also see them pointing and talking to each other.

So from there, we wanted to fine-tune the ability to make the experience more personal. And in this project at Rockefeller Center, it’s still there, in 2005, we outfitted a space with over 30,000 LEDs and a sound system and four stereo video cameras that can persistently track an individual as they walk through the space.

So it isn’t just that it knows that there are blobs moving around, but it identifies you as an entity and tracks you separate from the other people the entire time. That allows us to personalize the experience to each and every person.

In this case, that personalization was assigning a color to each person. Here you see every cone is actually the tracked person. And when you walk in you’re assigned blue, red or green, and that blue, red or green follows you everywhere you go separate from the other people who may have different colors. And this is what that looked like.

There’s actually only two installations in the world that have this level of persistent tracking, and it’s still there at Rockefeller Center. But let’s see how well that worked.

And it’s certainly intuitive. Even a four-year-old can figure it out and engage the experience. We embed webcams into all of our experiences. So we actually watch remotely in Los Angeles everything going on in New York. We also, because these are unusual art spaces, we also employ large-scale spectacle, as you see here.

So as I was saying, we have these webcams and we constantly tweak the programing to see: how our people responding to it? Do we need to change some parameters, sound or light, to make them respond better? And you can see that the social activity I mentioned earlier is happening here very successfully. And it seems like the younger the people are, the smarter they are.

Okay, so here you see some people just starting to notice that something’s going on, they are engaging. You don’t know when people come, I was going to show a movie before of people walking through the space and being tracked very successfully, except they had no idea it was going on. So what we’ve learned is that when people come to spaces, when there is no expectation of anything out of the normal, we have to catch their attentions, what we call “the tickle.” And you saw these people being tickled. And once they pay attention, then they engage the experience.

Here’s another example of the tickle happening.

Video Person This is so cool. This is so cool. Holy smokes. This is so cool. Yeah, look at this! This is so cool! Wow! This is so cool!

Finally, going back to the project at Rockefeller Center, it was made in 2005 and this paralleled the rise of Facebook, sharing images on Facebook, and YouTube. And so what we have discovered now is an integral part of how people apprehend our spaces is photography. That they’re there experiencing it, but they’re also thinking about how can they share that online. So they basically have one foot in the Internet and one foot there. I just had, I just had the camera set up and these people in front of me started doing this photoshoot. So she’s really something.

But the important point here is that people do, particularly with smartphones, do engage these spaces and half of their head is somewhere else thinking, “How can I share this to the online community?” So we think about that as we design these spaces.

Next, for this much larger project with Indianapolis Airport, we combined our persistent tracking, where each person is tracked by, you see a red dot, and then blue dots connect different strangers to each other.

So this is what that looked like from the outside. You can see the red dots moving along and the blue dots connecting different people. In this way, you’re connected to total strangers as you walk through the space.

The space is also besieged by very large numbers of people, which has important implications for interaction design. And what we discovered is that what works for two people or five people doesn’t work for 20 or 50. So we have to constantly scale the experience according to the number of people. We also like using all the fireworks, as I said before, for a large-scale spectacle experience.

But once again, most importantly is that static spaces, architecture as we know it, doesn’t have the ability to scale. If you go to a restaurant and it gets too noisy, it’s too noisy. In our case, if it’s too noisy, we turn the volume down. We change the nature of sounds. We change, we make the lights and the sound fit the number of people so it’s most satisfying for that particular number of people at that time.

We’ve then gone on to try using these principles in a variety of other spaces. This is a large outdoor sculpture in an atrium where all the flowers act in concert, but then also individually talk to you as you pass them.

Then for this project, which we’re now completing for Norfolk, Virginia, it’s a large outdoor sculpture that will completely activate a large outdoor area area for people. So once again, it’s about the activity of people as much as it is about what we create, the objects we create.

Finally, for Google in Barcelona last fall, we created what we call Touch Wall. This is acknowledging that there’ve been a lot of advances and interest in the use of touch in interaction design.

So we created 36 tiles and employ every kind of touch we could think of: fuzzy things, you know, air, sound, hot, cold, lights, vibration, y’know, weird textures and so forth. And certainly there’s a lot more to explore when it comes to a responsive environment to vary the textures that are there and how people engage with them.

So the last movie I’m going to show you is a project we proposed in 2006 for a national corporation headquarters. It wasn’t realized and in part it probably wasn’t really because we didn’t quite have the technology to pull it off. But I can absolutely tell you that this is where it’s going. This is going to happen.

This is where we combine persistent tracking, where we know that you’re an entity walking down the hall, but we assign data to you, which is your personal data. You carry around your personal data. And this is evidence and shown to you and the other people by your own personal avatar. And what ends up happening when you have this shadow avatar, and other people have these shadow avatars, is the result.

So you already experience the sharing of your personal data on the Internet and you have your data show up in different places. They suggest what you might want to buy, they think about where you might want to travel. What this project suggests is if you transfer all that data and the ability to know where people are and who they are, all that personalization is possible in a public realm. But there also will be this element that your virtual life will be shared with others in a whole parallel plane that’s quite separate and distinct, and that’s pretty exciting stuff. So thanks again very much.