A Healthy Mix of Designers Discuss the Shift of Digital Technology

On Thursday, November 6, the Society for Experiential Graphic Designers (SEGD) held its annual Xlab conference at the SVA Theatre in New York City. The one-day event brought together a healthy mix of designers, students, and vendors to discuss the shifting role of digital technology in spatial experiences.

Thanks to Justin Molloy of SEGD, the event ran like clockwork, packing 12 speakers into four one-hour sessions that were each followed by a moderated panel discussion. Aside from the obligatory messages from the sponsors, the presentations were top-notch, highlighting inspiring projects and offering predictions and insights into a changing industry. Speakers included (to name a few): Jake Barton, founder of Local Projects, whose recent portfolio includes the digital platform for the 9/11 Memorial Museum; Christian Marc Schmidt from Schema; and Paul McConnell from Control Group, the firm responsible for the digital interface of the new wayfinding stations deployed in the NYC subway.

“We are in the memory business”

Jake Barton shared Gallery One, the interactive platform that Local Projectsdeveloped for the Cleveland Museum of Art. In addition to numerous interactive touch screens it includes a 40-foot multi touch wall that displays over 4,100 works of art at a time and allows visitors to interact with the museum’s collection in a new way. Barton recalls entering the project at a time when the curators were considering placing iPads alongside every work in the museum. Intuitively, he knew that this would not fly and advocated the implementation of touch screens in select locations to supplement existing content without distracting from the main attraction—the art.

Barton also shared his work on the interactive pen that will be handed out to visitors of the soon-to-reopen Cooper Hewitt Museum [Editor’s Note: The date is set for December 12; stay tuned for more soon…]. The pen can be used to explore the lesser-known works of the collection, to create and share patterns, and to model simple forms in 3D. It remains to be seen whether or not this pen will contribute to the museum experience in a meaningful way, however with everyone from Diller, Scofidio + Renfro to GE having pitched in on the project, expectations are high.

Like Barton’s projects, the Papal Shrine incorporates two large format multi touch displays that were so large they actually had to knock out a wall in their studio to test them. What was originally conceptualized as a map showing Jean Paul’s extensive travel, developed into a thematic timeline that allows visitors to observe how the pope’s mission changed over the years. Between Bluecadet & Local Projects, the trend for exhibition design seems clear: make it big but don’t let it get in the way of the content.“The city is an expressive medium”

Christian Marc Schmidt of Schema presented a number of investigations into the social life of the city. Aiming to enhance experience with mobile technology, Schmidt’s projects help build an understanding of the subjective qualities of cities at a macro scale. For example, Schmidt created a series of mountainous maps to depict the realtime distribution of trending hashtags in geo-referenced tweets.

During Xlab, he announced the release of his newest app, Journalyst. which will be available for beta testing on Google Glass. The app allows people to record short video moments and to tag them according to a range of emotions. At a macro scale, Schmidt imagines categorizing certain places by the most common emotions they evoke and hopes to one day offer this data to developers, retailers and urbanists.

“The future will be stable, frictionless and a little bit magical.”

Paul McConnell of Control Group refrained from sharing any of his own projects and instead offered his vision of how mobile technology will change the way we interact with environments. Envisioning a twentyfold increase of connected smart devices by 2020, there will be more devices then ever before, communicating with one another long before the user needs to get involved. ‘Your fire alarm will be talking to your toaster saying: Is there a fire? —No, I am just making toast.’

Just as RFID technology has changed the simple transaction of paying a highway toll, everyday digital interactions will become automatic and passive. McConnell sees the end of friction points like credit card swipes or subway turnstiles and notes that wearable technology might even nudge you to the left or right on the way to your destination. The one question that remains is how the design of interfaces will change and if any subsequent standards will emerge.

All in all, Xlab illustrated the wide range of opinion on the appropriate role that interactive technology should play in our retail, transit and cultural centers. It comes at an exciting time because the style guide has yet to be written and the ideal scale continues to oscillate with the development of new technology. As we navigate our way through fractured everyday interactions on multiple devices, apps and interfaces, Xlab is proof that the seamless future we’ve been waiting for is just around the corner.

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