Unified Field Gives Architecture a Reboot

Event: Media Architecture, Myths, Definitions, Challenges and the Future
Location: Center for Architecture, 02.09.10
Speakers: Eli Kuslansky — VP Business Development, Unified Field; Jeff Miller — Director of Programming, Unified Field
Organizer: AIANY Technology Committee
Sponsor: ABC Imaging

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The dance booth at Sony Wonder Technology Lab.

Unified Field

In one scene of the 2002 film Minority Report, Tom Cruise’s character stands before a giant video display, sorting through digital data with the wave of a hand. These days, real life is starting to catch up to sci-fi, remarked Eli Kuslansky, vice president of business development of Unified Field, a firm that specializes in interactive media environments in museums and other buildings. High-tech, responsive spaces are becoming more common, as the fields of architecture and digital media become ever more tightly intertwined. In their recent talk, Kuslansky and colleague Jeff Miller offered a rapid-fire overview of the myths and challenges concerning “media architecture,” as well as presenting some of their company’s own boundary-pushing projects, including digital installations in the Gehry Partners-designed IAC headquarters in Chelsea and the Sony Wonder Technology Lab in Midtown.

So what is media architecture? As a new and evolving field, it’s tricky to define, and it sometimes goes by other names, such as “dynamic environments,” Kuslansky said. It can be thought of as “the confluence of the built environment and digital media,” he explained, and it draws from a wide array of disciplines, including architecture, digital signage, interactive media, exhibition design, information visualization, and real-time building management systems. For architects, the field offers a new, expanded vocabulary and a fresh toolset that lets them create interactive spaces that engage the inhabitants as active participants.

One common misconception about media architecture is that it’s purely an advertising medium, Kuslansky said. Building owners are often inclined to use large-scale outdoor displays for ads, but it’s preferable to mix in other types of content, too. And not every project needs to have a measurable return on investment, he added. Sometimes a digital display or interactive installation can offer a subtle form of branding that’s not easily quantified.

Kuslansky stressed the importance of close interdisciplinary collaboration between architects and technology consultants, to ensure the success of media architecture projects. He also advised that the content should never be an afterthought, but instead should drive the design of the display system.

Some real-world examples of projects provided ample inspiration. At the IAC headquarters, lobby installations display data visualizations to help visitors learn more about the company’s web properties. On the east side on the lobby, an installation allows visitors to use a trackball to turn a virtual 3-D globe that shows the locations of web traffic for IAC websites in real time. On the other side of the building, a 118-foot-long video wall features another sort of data display, with Ask.com web searches symbolized by blades of grass in a field.

The youth-oriented Sony Wonder Technology Lab, a free technology-and-entertainment museum, was designed to offer an all-enveloping multimedia environment. “In some ways, it points to what the next generation of museum is,” Kuslansky said. “Since they’re a media company, Sony was very focused — the whole museum should feel like you’re immersed in the media,” Miller added. In a renovation completed last summer, Unified Field worked as executive producers and collaborated with Lee H. Skolnick Architecture + Design Partnership on the concept design for the exhibits.

When visitors arrive, they log into a computer and create a virtual profile that includes their photo, voice recording, and favorite color and type of music. They receive an RFID card so their profile can be used to customize their experience at exhibits throughout the museum. When they finish their profile, a trail of LED lights illuminates, shooting up from the computer station, along the ceiling, and down the wall of a ramp, leading visitors onward. The lights symbolize the digital profile flowing forward to join a virtual community, as the visitors move on to explore the physical space.

High-tech interactive exhibits invite hands-on participation. A dance booth with 10 cameras lets kids use a simple form of motion capture — without need for special markers or clothing — to create dancing animated 3-D characters that mimic their movements. In another exhibit, a haptic joystick lets users virtually wield medical instruments to perform simulated heart surgery. Not quite as futuristic as Minority Report, perhaps, but close.