Sunday, September 28, 2008

Life and the Big Screen: Media, Design, and the Apocalypse

posted by William Bostwick

For weeks, Iron Man has had the design world convulsing with what can only be called a grand maul geek-out. The lead character, Tony Stark, represents the tech-happy dad in all of us. A billionaire industrialist/master engineer, he builds a powered exoskeleton and becomes the technologically advanced superhero and all-around bad-ass, Iron Man. The cars, the girls, the computers: he's like Inspector Gadget in a mid-life crisis.

But the future hasn't always been so pretty. Let's rewind, way back, to 1996, when high-tech gadgetry wasn't a blessing, but a curse, when the blue glow of Stark's mechanical heart heralded nothing less than the end of the world. I'm talking about Independence Day.

Here, Jeff Goldblum's computer scientist is a straight-up nerd and the world's armies use old-school Morse code to coordinate their attacks. The blue light that pours out of the alien spaceships is deadly and depressing, like the TV glow from suburban windows. Independence Day didn't come up with this idea—here's Jack Kerouac almost 50 years earlier describing the lone poet in a wasteland world: "I see him in future years stalking along with full rucksack, in suburban streets, passing the blue television windows of homes, alone, his thoughts the only thoughts not electrified to the Master Switch." Will Smith's Capt. Steven Hiller sees that switch flipped on, full blast, and watches the White House go up in electric flames.

Brainwashed or blown apart, it's a tough way to go, but we're welcoming the end with open arms. Media technology courses through our veins, and we love it. We're tapped in, turned on, Iron Man-style by its cerulean glow. We bask in it like tourists at "Take Your Time." And instead of designing the architecture of our lives to shield us from it, we're doing the opposite. From bookcases to billboards, design has gone media crazy.

Think of these projects as psychics, moving their divining rods to map the space we can't see, channeling the spirits of our geekdom.
Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby, industrial design provocateurs, call this glow Hertzian space. The idea is that our media gadgets—phones, radios, TVs—leak out a sea of electromagnetic waves. We can't see it, but it's there, as powerful and intangible as Eliasson's light. Don't believe it? Try reading this post near Petra Farinha's Jealous Furniture. Farinha, a student in NYU's Interactive Telecommunications Program, designed furniture that spies on you. Click through a couple links, fire up a few videos, and the lamp, hooked up via Bluetooth to your computer's internet connection, will start to flicker and shake and books will jump off their shelves as they sense how much bandwidth you're using.

Then there's fellow ITP-er Andrew Doro's Table for Electronic Dreams (the name references Dunne: "Electronic objects are not only 'smart,' they 'dream,' in the sense that they leak radiation into the space and objects surrounding them"). Drop your iPhone on the table, and its leaky radiation—its dreams—trigger an LED web that makes the table glow. Get a call, and the lights get brighter. "The electromagnetic spectrum has become increasingly noisy and dense," Doro says. "But we do not have direct access to this medium or an awareness of its invisible contours." Think of these projects as psychics, moving their divining rods to map the space we can't see, channeling the spirits of our geekdom.

Our cars are plugged in too, with navigation screens taking up more and more of the dashboard and Bluetooth connectivity an increasingly standard option. They don't just light up when we get a call, they feed it through the stereo system, giving hi-fi, immersive surround-sound urgency to "don't forget to buy milk."

Check out Apartment Therapy's Unplggd blog for homes that are wired (or de-wired) for media technology. Their motto, "smarter homes, fewer wires," says it all. You can take drool-worthy slideshow tours of digitized digs where AirPorts replace Aalto vases and big screens seem to grow right out of the exposed brick.

But what about the houses themselves? Media technology is here too, in the literal nuts and bolts of building construction. Last month, the The New York Times ran an article about Los Angeles developer/Blade Runner buff Sonny Astani. Astani wants to rig up 10-story-tall LED video screens on the sides of two of his downtown towers to flood the skyline with ads and art. Anyone who has looked up New York's Seventh Avenue at night and seen the glow of Times Square bubbling up over the rooftops knows this isn't a new idea, but the sheer scale of Astani's vision makes it understandably head-turning. Meanwhile, on the other side of the planet, GreenPix, the largest color LED screen ever, opened last month on the side of a building in Beijing. It's just plain massive: a 24,000 square-foot 2-D museum showing digital media art.

You can't talk about signs and buildings without talking about Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown. In Learning From Las Vegas, they lay out a manifesto for post-modern, symbolist architecture by contrasting ducks and decorated sheds. A decorated shed is a building wrapped in signs, literal or metaphoric (a firehouse that says "firehouse" or a bank with Greek columns, signs for classical power and stability). A duck is a building that is itself a sign, like the Big Duck on Long Island: a duck-shaped building that sells, you guessed it, ducks.

What better way to push L.A. into the future than with a sci-fi-grade media project? That glow Kerouac feared isn't a sign of society's decay; it's the pulsing blue heart of modern life.
The screens in L.A. and Beijing are signs—ads for art projects, cars, and clothes—but they're not just decoration, they're identity-changers, not make-up but plastic surgery. Tony Stark in his armor suit isn't Tony Stark in an armor suit; he's Iron Man, a transformation powered by the ark reactor's cool blue glow. The GreenPix wall is built into the building's structure, an integral part of the design, turning the whole thing into a giant TV. The building isn't a shed; it's a duck, a literal embodiment of the modern, media-soaked world.

These giant screens—and the media glow they pump out—are symbols of a modern city. We know Blade Runner takes place in the future because of the building-sized billboards (OK, and because of the flying cars). We know we're in New York when we see Times Square. "Everyone wants downtown [L.A.] to happen," Astani told the Times, and what better way to push it into the future than with a sci-fi-grade media project? That glow Kerouac feared isn't a sign of society's decay; it's the pulsing blue heart of modern life.

In fact, you can even buy an LED box for your house that sends would-be burglars scurrying by mimicking the glow of a TV—a sure sign that someone is home. But in case you want to give criminals a real light show, there's Philips's Ambilight TV. It leaks out the energy of the show you're watching in the form of color-coordinated light, immersing you in a media glow.

The same idea extends to audio. Most hotels have iPod docking stations, some hooked up to a room's built-in speaker system. (The Tribeca Grand, admittedly not like most hotels, has the "iStudio," a room fully stocked with Apple gear. You know it's a hotel party when someone chucks a G5 out the window, right?) Hotels are pros at the immersive experience, from lobby pianos to elevator music, and now even your room can be bathed in media.

Back home, you can build speakers into your walls, of course, but lately you've been able to design the walls themselves to capture and channel sound. Arup (the engineering rock stars who brought us GreenPix) are on top of this with SoundLab, a computer program that maps buildings' sonic spaces. Even houseware designers like Mio are releasing acoustic wallpaper that, Mio says, "gives individuals the ability to customize and re-define space on a budget" by manipulating sound.

If you want to see the immersive audio media space taken to its extreme (and seriously, who doesn't?), check out David Byrne's "Playing the Building", up through August 10th at the Battery Maritime Building. Byrne hooked up an old organ to motors that he connected to the structural elements of the room—pillars, beams, water pipes. Hit a key, and the whole place vibrates with sound. The building is one, giant speaker, coursing with energy, and the organ just plugs into it.

That idea—using design to tap into the media sea—made one of the smallest pieces at ICFF this year also the most intriguing. The Bocci 22 outlet sits flush with your wall—no more face plates—giving you the feeling that you're plugging your TV (real or fake) right into your house. It's a small detail, but one Tony Stark would love.

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