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Tuesday, April 5th, 2011 by Patrick

What’s Good and What’s Commercial in Tangible Interactive Work

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More and more I’m recognising a tension in the type of work I do. The tension is between the interactive, physical, spatial work I think is ‘best’ and the work that’s commercially supportable (often by the advertising and marketing industries). Sometimes the two coincide, with the best work being commercial work too, but often they don’t. Why?

For me the best tangible interactive work is centred on the person experiencing it (I’ll use the term user despite its problems). The best work creates a strong, direct connection with the user. Maybe the work allows the user to create something interesting or express themselves or simply to have an novel and enjoyable experience.

Some of my favourite examples of works that succeed on this level:
– Zach Lieberman’s piece Drawn which magically animates marks made with ink and brush.
– Brad Hindson and Mitchell F. Chan’s A Dream of Pastures cleverly uses shadow to transport a person pedaling a stationary bicycle onto the back of a galloping horse.
– Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’s Pulse Front converts a persons pulse into a skyscraping tower of light.

One thing that my favourites have in common: they’re best experienced in-person. They may come across pretty well in the Youtube videos but its the authentic, real life, physical experience that really shows their strength.

Another common factor of these projects is that they’re funded through the worlds of arts or academia. I don’t think that’s a coincidence either. It’s not that the pieces of the kind I’ve highlighted couldn’t be branded and used for marketing purposes. It’s just that the cost-benefit ratio probably wouldn’t be attractive. Simply, physical work of this kind may create a strong personal connection but it can’t practically create that connection with a big enough group of people.

Marketers are generally used to working in TV, print and online – all spaces where you produce a single piece of creative and reproduce it cheaply for a large audience. The sort of connection this work creates may not be deep but it is broad and relatively cheap.

To put it another way this is a problem of experience versus broadcast. Experience is powerful but reaches relatively few people. Broadcast is cheap and reaches mass audiences but doesn’t generate the exciting and real connections that experience can.

So the question is how do you create interactive tangible work that’s powerful in person yet reaches enough people to be cost effective?

One approach I’ll call pseudo-interactive. These pieces initially appear to fall into the human-centred, in-person experiential class of work I’ve outlined. In fact they are cleverly designed to reach a broad audience through online or broadcast video and are only superficially interactive (after all the real target is not the individual user but the people watching the video of the interaction on Youtube).

A recent example of pseudo-interactive work would be Machine à Voyager (Escape Machine) for the French rail company SNCF.


In the video you’ll see what seems appears to be an incredible interactive experience. An innocent member of the public approaches an intriguing black box set in a public square and triggers a spectacular outcome. It looks great but the ‘interaction’ is obviously carefully managed and no more than superficially interactive. That’s ok in a sense, it looks fantastic in the video and I’d assume gets lots of attention for SNCF. But I’d argue that the producers weren’t creating an interactive design at all (to be fair they may not claim they were). Instead they were producing an interactive looking set-piece performance. If it was really interactive you’d have to design for pesky problems like: what happens if two people approach the box at once; how do you avoid unsightly burns when would be interactee approach the box and its pyrotechnics from the side rather than the front; how do you cope with the fact that a single person going through the experience spoils the crucial element of surprise for everyone else in the space…

To return to the question. How do you create interactive tangible work that’s powerful in person yet reaches enough people to be cost effective? Obviously I don’t think pseudo-interactive work is the answer. Simply because it is interesting but it’s not genuinely interactive. So what is the answer? I have some inklings about that but for now though I’m going to let the question hang.