The LAB at Rockwell Group
Commissioned by Zero1 and The City of San Jose
Plug-In-Play is an interactive installation consisting of an architectural scale projection and a series of networked input platforms representing a playful take on the future of the connected city. It was the central installation of the 2010 01SJ Biennial in San Jose, CA by the LAB at Rockwell Group.
ROCKWELL Founder and CEO: David Rockwell Studio Leader: Melissa Hoffman Design Team: Joshua Walton, James Tichenor, Keetra Dixon, Brett Renfer, Adi Marom, Tucker Viemeister, Zack Boka, Lars Berg, Ellen Haller and Chris Allick Projection Equipment: SenovvA, Inc.
Jon Kolko: This is visually stunning, and really intriguing - I want to try it. Todd Wilkens: They were effective in pulling a lot of things together; technically, this is impressive.
1. Summarize the problem you set out to solve. What was the challenge posed to you? Did it get you excited and why?
Plug-In-Play was a response to the theme of the 2010 01SJ Biennial: “Build Your Own World.” This theme is predicated on the notion that innovative individuals worldwide can make a difference by building unique and distributed city-wide platforms for creative solutions and public engagement. The Rockwell Group digital interaction LAB took this theme as a challenge to show the growing connection between the physical and virtual in urban life, and to explore the role this connection plays in shaping the cities of tomorrow.
The second challenge we were faced with was the site itself, Richard Meier & Partners Architects’ San Jose City Hall. The large, iconic site provided both a practical as well as conceptual challenge: how were we to address such a large and unique site, and how could our installation meaningfully address the location as a civic space?
Thus, the problem we set out for ourselves was to acknowledge and explore the growing role of technology within the context of civic space and to do so in a way that both activated the architectural space and created a physical link to the virtual world.
2. What point of view did you bring to the challenge? Was there anything additional that you wanted to achieve with this project or bring to this project that was not part of the original brief?
The unique perspective that we brought to the project was to approach technology as a seamless part of the urban experience of San Jose residents and visitors rather than as an obvious or intrusive gesture. In addition, as mentioned above, our fascination with (and prior research into) connecting the physical and the virtual played a large part in the installation we developed.
We saw this project as a unique opportunity to create a set of interactive experiments that could coalesce into an overall installation. This allowed us to purse another area of research in the LAB: the idea of choreographing spaces. We saw our commission as a way to create both a prototype of the connected city of the future and an initial version of the large-scale, networked, communicative spaces we have been envisioning.
3. When designing this project, whose interests did you consider? (Discuss various stakeholders, audiences, retailing, manufacturing, assembly, distribution, etc., for example.)
While keeping in mind the creative voice of the curator of 01SJ, we considered our primary audience to be the city of San Jose. As such, we focused our interactive interventions on both the physical city itself–creating spatial interventions that were practical and had a traditional civic reference–and on the concept of Silicon Valley–connecting to and visualizing the virtual world.
On a more practical level, we kept the physical interaction stations in a familiar design language in an attempt to create natural, meaningful interactions
4. Describe the rigor that informed your design. (Research, ethnography, subject matter experts, materials exploration, technology, iteration, testing, etc., as applicable.) If this was a strictly research or strategy project, please provide more detail here.
Our initial research examined existing conceptual precedents–such as Peter Cook’s Plug-in-City (1964)–and real-word examples of these ideas coming to life–e.g. “Internet of things” organizations such as Pachube. We then focused our work on realizing our ideas on a practical level, which we accomplished through a series of iterative prototypes.
Our first mock-ups were hacked together from milk crates and paper cups embedded with Arduinos and sensors. Each successive stage added complexity: enclosing sensors in existing objects, moving the sensors from wired communication to RF transmitting, and so on. We were able to refine the pieces to the point that we created our own custom printed circuit boards for each sensor. Our final prototyping stage centered around connecting each individual piece (separate interaction “stages” for physical and virtual input) into an architectural scale environmental choreography system.
5. What is the social value of your design? (Gladdening, educational, economic, paradigm-shifting, sustainable, labor-mindful, environmental, cultural, etc.) How does it earn its keep in the world?
Silicon Valley and San Jose have a unique position of being specific places while also being at times a very placeless sprawl of office parks. So often when people come to San Jose they seek an authentic experience of “seeing” Silicon Valley in all of its innovation and groundbreaking activity, but it can be hard to find the center of this experience. With this in mind, we designed Plug-in-Play to capture some of Silicon Valley’s extremely active digital activity on Flickr, Twitter, and Foursquare.
With this in mind, we designed Plug-in-Play to capture some of Silicon Valley’s vibrant digital activity through the online communities of Flickr, Twitter, and Foursquare.
6. If you could have done one thing differently with the project, what would you have changed?
The intention of Plug-in-Play was to build a playground of ideas related to how we engage our urban environments, and a platform in which to test interactive urban experiences. To encourage this play we built and documented an “open plug” that allowed citizens to build their own urban sensors that would inform the installation. Given the opportunity to do it again we would love to expand on this idea through better documentation and stronger community outreach to get them engaged to build their own world. What excited us so much about this site was the unique contributions that engineers of Silicon Valley can make in building an interactive civic space.