Inspiration: Part 1 – At the Intersection of Smartphones & Public Art

Inspiration: Part 1 – At the Intersection of Smartphones & Public Art

The following is the first of a series of posts on what inspires us here at NGX.

If you wandered down to the Vancouver Convention Centre a few weeks ago during the TED conference (March 17-21) and looked up, you might have been surprised to see a huge piece of fabric strung up over the water and walkways. Also known as “that TED sculpture thing”, the 300-foot long sculpture titled Skies Painted with Unnumbered Sparks was created in collaboration between artist Janet Echelman and Google creative director Aaron Koblin. Like any good piece of modern public art, it offered more than just an interesting visual.  At night it came alive with help from city goers – passersby with smartphones could interact with the sculpture through a website that allowed them to add visual input to the sculpture in real time.



Justin Williams, our Senior Interactive Designer, was one of those passersby with a smartphone who decided to see what all the talk was about. After testing it out himself, he was impressed – not by the complexity, but rather by the simplicity. “It’s actually a very basic interactive. But getting people to connect in a simple way is what makes it an accomplishment,” says Williams. “There’s no account to log into, you don’t need to be on social media, you just connect through Wi-Fi, go to a website and touch the screen.” When it comes to the user experience, creating an easy-to-use interactive platform encourages everyone with a smartphone to participate, making it approachable and accessible, and creates a feeling among visitors that they’re contributing to something bigger than themselves. The idea of connecting the public to the art is the goal here, not how many digital bells and whistles the public can manipulate. And that connection is made possible by the commonality of smartphones.



The last time Williams remembers experiencing something similar to Unnumbered Sparks, in which multiple people interact with a public piece to create something, was back in 2010 during the Olympics. Featured as part of the CODE (Cultural Olympiad Digital Edition) festival, Reactable is a back-lit circular table used in a dark room that visitors place blocks onto. These blocks interact with the visual display and virtual synthesizer to create sound effects or music.



The idea of immediate public connection to art, like the TED sculpture, is also seen in Reactable but with a much steeper learning curve. “The interactivity took a bit of learning, but the audio and visual feedback gave instant gratification,” says Williams. The audio he created using Reactable wasn’t anything to write home about, but the appeal of the interactive was not about the quality of the end product. Rather, it was the experience of creative engagement that delivered the biggest payoff.

As far as public art goes, interactive pieces like Reactable and Unnumbered Sparks embody the next generation of public engagement and creativity, where the art goes beyond  just being admired by the public, and is actually created by the public. Technology here acts as a messenger, facilitating the connection between public and art, and gives new meaning to the term “public art.”

Similarly, in Montréal’s Quartier des Spectacles, the interactive installation 21 Balançoires (21 Swings) consists of 21 musical swings, where each swing – when in motion – triggers a different musical note. When all the swings are swung at the same time, a musical piece is composed. Brilliant and simple, this piece approaches its full creative potential as more and more people become involved.


In another simple interactive piece that used technology to blur the lines between public and art, Light Drift was featured along the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia and consisted of 90 floating neon orbs that were activated by sensors on land and responded to the movements of passersby. Just the simple act of sitting down on a motion-activated seat was enough to influence the pattern of lights and creatively contribute to this installation.



With the buzz surrounding Unnumbered Sparks reaching deafening heights during the TED conference, and the growing popularity of similar public art installations in other cities around the world, we could be seeing many more interactive pieces here at home.  “The reason the TED piece got so much press is because it was something different and pushed the envelope a little, so I think we will continue to see that happen,” says Williams. Who says our city can’t also be our canvas?

Jason Clarke, Content Strategist  &  Justin Williams, Senior Interactive Designer


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