Tellart & Google Creative Lab
The Sydney Opera House
These street-mounted tourist binoculars act as long-distance periscopes for looking at landscapes and geographic landmarks halfway around the world. It’s a great, collaborative combination of technology, pop-up exhibition, and everyday tourist draw. – Geoff Manaugh
Jørn Utzon’s iconic Sydney Opera House is one of the most recognizable structures on the planet. It also happens to be the youngest member of the UNESCO World Heritage Site family, celebrating its 40th birthday in 2013. To help it celebrate, Tellart teamed up with Google Creative Lab to invite its friends to the party. The Binoculars bring the world’s most amazing destinations to Sydney. A modified version of the classic Tower Optical coin-operated binoculars, this installation uses the rotation and tilt of the binocular head to navigate high-resolution 360-degree scenes of the world’s landmarks via Google Street View.2. The Brief: Summarize the problem you set out to solve. What was the context for the project, and what was the challenge posed to you? Who is the at-risk population, and what behavior do you seek to change in this population?
The Sydney Opera House is one of the world’s most beloved and recognizable buildings. It is an instantly recognizable cultural artifact that helps make Sydney Harbour one of Australia’s most popular tourist destinations.
To mark its birthday, Tellart and Google Creative Lab wanted to embrace the Opera House’s status as a top tourist destination, while simultaneously honoring its placement among the giants of the UNESCO World Heritage Site list. Google Street View had acquired custom, advanced image captures of other UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and wanted to showcase them in a unique way.
To bring it all together, we utilized another iconic tourist artifact: an actual cast-iron coin-operated tower viewer. Its design is instantly recognizable from scenic locations around the world, having been manufactured continuously since 1932 (by the Tower Optical company in Connecticut, USA) and placed in many of the world’s greatest tourist locations. These binoculars are a quintessential and tangible part of the heritage surrounding being a traveler, explorer, or tourist in the 20th century.
The Google Street View scenes are the ideal explorable environment for the pan-and-tilt motion of the binocular head. The Binoculars bring all of the UNESCO sites to Sydney in an evocative, playful, and surprising way– no coin required. Visitors need only to flip the lever to transport to a new location.
The Binoculars project, as well as being a way to celebrate the Sydney Opera House and its connection to the other UNESCO World Heritage Sites, also involved our favorite combination of traditional manufacturing and connected digital technology. The team felt it was absolutely necessary to maintain the “a-ha” moment when a visitor discovers the unexpected experience inside the retro binocular head; this could be easily lost if the technology didn’t completely disappear.
Creating this moment required a rigorous user experience design and engineering process that allowed us to embed the custom technology and content within the existing product enclosure, and allow interactions with the digital content through the original elements of the cast-iron binocular head. The combination of old and new elements would only be successful if the final product was surprising, elegant, and reliable; any technological or design inconsistency would cause a break in the experience.
After working with Google Creative Lab on the concept and content, Tellart guided the UX design and engineering/build process required to deliver a successfully delightful experience for the Sydney Opera House.
At Tellart’s studio, designers and engineers work closely with each other and our clients to bridge vocabularies and create new methods for building interactive products and spaces.
Following concept definition, the challenges of implementing The Binoculars provided the types of constraints that spur creativity and growth. Though based around an existing product, this was not a “hack.” As a public, long-term installation, The Binoculars experience needed to be as robust and reliable with electronic components as the original cast-iron version was with mechanical components.
Working within an existing product design – particularly one executed in chrome-plated cast iron – presented our team with a hefty set of challenges and constraints. Replacing the interior mechanics with microcontrollers and hardware required reworking the optics; attaching rotation and tilt sensors to the enclosure; hiding cabling through slip rings and channels in the iron; and sourcing/installation of an appropriately-sized high resolution display. Tellart embraces constraints and custom hardware needs like these, and The Binoculars launched with resounding success.
Essential to a smooth user experience, and one of the primary challenges we encountered in the digital retrofit, was the reworking of the binocular optic system. What previously was engineered to focus on objects miles away was now required to focus on a screen inside the binocular head itself. Adding to that, the optics needed to be user-focusable to account for varying viewer heights, placement of eyeglasses, etc. In our experimentation we consulted subject matter experts, created custom-made lenses paired with various mirrors and reflective devices, deconstructed viewfinders and traditional binoculars, and even tested microscopes. This testing concluded with the final solution of a super magnifying camera viewfinder, and the software-based division of the LCD display into two distinct views. With a separate lens focused on each of these views, we created the stereoscopic illusion of 3D space within Street View.
The Binoculars demanded an immersive, theatrical experience; one that allowed the viewer to feel enclosed in a globe-like scene. This took many screen and hardware iterations to get right. Beyond the screen and optics, the tilt and rotation of the binocular head had to be detected in a robust and reliable way and communicated to the internal Raspberry Pi running the system. With only a fixed amount of room inside the iron binocular head, Tellart engineered custom hardware mounts that allowed all of the parts to fit together without interfering with the optics system. We cut and filled interior channels that connected with slip rings, allowing for cabling to be hidden and the classic outward appearance maintained.
The Binoculars are about showcasing the wonders of our world. They are an opportunity for people to explore the sites of our global heritage and to connect faraway lands to each other. The Binoculars’ placement in Sydney Harbor honors the Opera House on its birthday, placing it at the center of this connection. Their operation requires no instruction– the familiar form acts to communicate their function, while simultaneously being the subject of surprise and wonder. The Binoculars combine an icon of tourism with an icon of human achievement; celebrating both through the surprising synthesis of seemingly unrelated technologies. We hope it will be the first of many locations.