Feature Story

7 Places that 'wow' when digital blends with physical

Using imagination, creativity, and digital technology, city living suddenly takes on a new quality of life.

The Internet enables us to live and work almost anywhere.

That means cities are competing to attract and retain their citizens. Quality of life—the experience of living in a city and walking its streets—needs to become a major part of the foundation of every city’s economic strategy.

Instead of working only with the physical aspects of a city, it is now possible to blend physical and digital environments to create a variety of enticing experiences.

The first step is realizing that the Internet is not limited to the computer and smartphone screens we’ve all become used to.

Any wall, any floor, any window, almost any space can be the place where a projection, an LED screen, or even a holographic-like image can be displayed.

Add speakers and sound and it starts to become an experience.  Marry that with cameras, microphones, and smart software, and you have a place where people interact with what they are seeing and hearing. It’s a “Wow!” place.

Over the last few years, a few digital artists have brought some of these concepts to life.  Their work uses the cityscape as the canvas upon which an unrelated piece of artwork is laid. They last for just a short period of time.  These are not fully integrated with the city’s fabric and do not transform the city itself.

Let’s take a look at ways that the physical aspects of a city can blend with the digital. In these examples, all sorts of 21st century urban places become possible. This includes ways of moving, stretching, or changing time and space in the city.

All it takes is some imagination and creativity in using network and digital technology.

1. Portal to Another Place: There are many examples in Europe of the use of high-quality projectors transforming a building’s facade. For example, the Vienna tourist bureau projected a waltz on an old building in London using physical features.

2. Love Messages: The 30,000 square foot underside of the arch of New York’s Manhattan Bridge has been the site of various projections. At the DUMBO Arts Festival, Carl Skelton of the Gotham Innovation Greenhouse enabled people to send text messages of love that were projected onto this arch.

3. Change the Season: Imagine showing in the evening, what a place looks like in the morning. Or what it looked six months ago. Tired of a long winter? Show time-lapse images of flowers coming up on the side of the building as a precursor to spring. Before it even arrives. This summer in Yonkers, New York, it will be snowing when it’s hot outside. At least virtually, as the computer sensors detect the temperature and automatically project a cooling thought on the ground.

4. Show the Inside Out: A city museum might be closed at night or is not big enough to show all of its collection inside its halls. The museum could project those images on its outside walls.

5. See Where You’re Not: Showing in one place what is happening in another part of the city. This is particularly useful if you want those embarking trains or planes to learn of an event taking place elsewhere.

6. See Through Walls: By combining cameras with projections on building surfaces, Mercedes-Benz demonstrated transparent walls. They projected on these walls what was happening on a side street as a car approached. That way, the driver could see something coming before it would normally be visible. The safety benefits are pretty obvious. Or you could make a building disappear by projecting on one side what a camera sees on a wall on the opposite side.

7. Have Some Fun: In Stockholm and Melbourne, partly as a public health measure to encourage walking instead of escalator use, the city painted some stairs to look like piano keys and then linked that up to computer generated sounds. As people walked on the stairs, they were playing music. It was fun, so it achieved its public health goal.

The technologies to create these new “Wow!” spaces are relatively inexpensive, certainly by comparison with what it would cost to build a new physical facility.

Each city is different. There is a large element of creativity in developing an appealing and appropriate blend of the virtual and physical. That will be a fun challenge for mayors, business leaders, artists, technologists, planners, and residents as together they create the city space of a 21st century city.

Norm Jacknis is a writer in New York, senior fellow of the Intelligent Community Forum and chairman of the Gotham Innovation Greenhouse.