How Demand for Digital Experiences Is Transforming Our Physical Spaces

And Creating 'Screens' Where There Weren't Any

By Published on .

Garrick Schmitt
Garrick Schmitt
At times it seems that the entire world has become a screen.

The proliferation of devices of all shapes and sizes -- from the jumbotrons in Times Square to the micro-menus of Apple's Nano -- surround us. And, of course, the sheer multitude of these screens (GPS, iPod, mobile phone, LCD TV, Nintendo DS, etc.) has begun to change our interaction with the physical world.

But what's most interesting about this development is not the abundance of screens, per se, but about how our culture's seemingly ravenous desire for digital experiences is changing our expectations for physical spaces -- both in public and private.

In the past few years, a host of artists, programmers and marketers have melded art and science to create new, digitally driven experiences that are redefining the way we think about our urban and personal landscapes.

Some of the better-known advertising work here includes Mini's groundbreaking "Motorby" campaign, where an interactive digital billboard responds to Mini drivers passing by, and HBO's "Voyeur" campaign, which transformed a New York City street into a theater.

But the trend is more than just "digital out of home," which is a phrase that gets used a bit too broadly to describe this cultural shift. Instead, it's a complete rethinking of our public spaces as digital experiences.

Project Blinkenlights: Perhaps the most influential and pioneering work done so far has been by this German group, which transforms office buildings into digital interactive installations. Its most recent project, Stereoscope, took over Toronto City Hall and created an interactive, visual concert.

Blinkenlights Stereoscope Toronto documentation video from Tim Pritlove on Vimeo.

The experience went beyond just a light display; it was participatory as well. Attendees were invited to play video games on the sides of the building by using their mobile phones. And artists could create their own animations for the installation using Project Blinkenlights' open animation formats and tools.

555 Kubik: Similar to the work of Project Blinkenlights, the 555 Kubik project is a digital installation that turns a naked building facade into a compelling piece of art through 3-D projections.

555 Kubik extended version from UrbanScreen on Vimeo.

The project was created by UrbanScreen, a European agency that specializes in large-scale projection on urban surfaces.

YouTube Symphony Orchestra: The YouTube Symphony Orchestra was an attempt to crowdsource a virtual orchestra via auditions through YouTube. For the public performance, which featured 96 professional and amateur musicians from 30-plus countries, Obscura Digital specifically mapped Carnegie Hall's architecture to project 20,000 square feet of full-resolution video and dramatically enhance the event.

Livestrong Chalkbot: As part of Lance Armstrong's return to the Tour de France and his Livestrong organization's mission to cure cancer, Nike commissioned the Livestrong Chalkbot. Created by DeepLocal and StandardRobot, the Chalkbot enabled thousands of people to have their messages (submitted digitally) chalked along the route of this year's Tour.

'Top Chef Las Vegas': For this season of "Top Chef Las Vegas," Fallon and Monster teamed up for one of the more clever uses of mobile and digital-billboard advertising. The team created an interactive casino in Rockefeller Plaza that highlighted the Las Vegas element of the show and allowed passers-by to play interactive slot machines with their mobile phones for the chance to win $5,000 -- now that's an incentive for engagement.

While the melding of digital and physical has been done well before, it's often been in fits and starts. But it's only been as of late, as the technology has become cheaper and connectivity more pervasive, that we've started to see a more profound shift in digital altering of our public spaces. The emergence of radio-frequency identification and augmented reality and shift toward branded destinations -- see the O2 in the U.K. -- will only accelerate the trend.

Leave it to Guinness to give us an early taste. Working with London's Red Urban, Guinness placed RFID tags on its team's rugby balls and players, providing real-time data for fans and coaches alike. Running pace, kicking power and passing speed are all monitored -- allowing a digital window into a physical event that is just scratching the surface of what's possible.

If the Guinness RFID work is any indicator, perhaps the future won't be about screens at all -- it may simply become a matter of data and sensors.

Garrick Schmitt is group VP-experience planning at Razorfish and the agency's global lead for user experience. He publishes FEED, Razorfish's annual consumer experience report, and in his spare time flails about on Twitter @gschmitt.
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