Upgrade! San Francisco at the Exploratorium

Last Thursday, Upgrade! San Francisco met at the Exploratorium — an art & science institution founded in 1969. Hosted by the New Media Studio, whose mandate is a hands-on educational experience, we got a tour from staff & Upgraders: Eric Socolofsky, Lotte Meijer and Chris Cerrito. In the after hours, we learned about three of NM Studio’s projects and the behind-the-scenes techniques to make a rich viewer-based experience.

The first installation we saw was Elastrotron — an interactive installation, which acts as neo-funhouse mirror, warping our reality. In front of the screen, visitors quickly loose their inhibitions, performing with their bodies and creating interactions with strangers.

We then played with Where do you belong? in which you can take a picture of yourself, inserting your image in between two other people you select. The buttons to take your picture are at the edges of the frame, creating an effect so that you appear to be holding hands with your two neighbors. The challenges here were less conceptual — as the idea was straightforward — but instead of user-interface. The solution was to make two large buttons that you have to hit with both hands at the same time and also a countdown timer so that that you don’t repeatedly hit the ‘take picture’ button (a common result, especially with younger kids).

This bubble floor, called Social Projections impressed me by its non-interactive nature. At first, it looks like it responds to movement, reminding me of Scott Snibbe’s Boundary Functions — but instead, there is no camera vision. People quickly make up their own rules. Different shapes appear and move through the space. People negotiate social behavior, jumping over lines, stepping in and out and performing collaborative tasks, all without interaction.

We followed up the tour with conversation along the lines of development process, how to generate user feedback and more. Here, it turns out that the new media staff spends a lot of time casually observing how people use the interfaces, refining the process. Prototypes are put on the floor without a huge degree of bureaucracy, creating a truly experimental science space.

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