Creating environments that feel ‘alive’

by: on 28 May 2015

Imagination’s Ollie Williams highlights best-in-class examples where places react to people

"Every time a user pushes something that doesn’t respond, or stands waiting for something to happen, it’s a missed opportunity to engage and find out more about them."

Ollie Williams, creative technologist, Imagination 


When we design experiences, we’re often seeking to create something that reacts to the user/visitor’s presence. When a visitor pushes a button, they want a response, when they stand in the spot marked with an X, they’re expecting something to happen. They’re like Tony Stark in the recent Avengers: Age of Ultron, pushing on walls giddily murmuring “please be a secret door, please be a secret door”. They want their environment to feel alive to their presence.

And it’s not just the user that wants an environment to be alive to those that inhabit it; as designers of experiences, we’re always looking for ways to measure engagement and interaction, to put a real-world value on the experiences that we create. Which means that every time a user pushes something that doesn’t respond, or stands waiting for something to happen, it’s a missed opportunity to engage and find out more about them.

But how can an environment feel alive? It can pulse, it can shimmer, it can blast music all day long, but no amount of sensory overload can make a space feel like it’s living and reacting to the people in it. Thankfully, advances in mobile and the Internet of Things mean that we can now collect more data than ever and use it in ever more ingenious ways.

Virgin Airlines use of iBeacon technology offers a hint at the future of smart environments, offering context aware notifications as Upper Class passengers pass through the airport. The functions range from having your electronic boarding pass ready on your phone as you approach check-in, providing maps of airport facilities, to offering deals and vouchers in duty free or restaurants.

Elsewhere, the Playable City Award provides a thrilling glimpse into the future of smart, living environments. Recent winners include Jonathan Chomko and Matthew Rosie’s Shadowing which seeks to counter ‘the coldness and anonymity of the urban environment’ with contextual art that brings cities to life. Shadowing allowed street lamps to ‘record and playback’ the shadows of those who passed under them, echoing back the journeys of previous passers by.

Another winner, Hello Lamp Post, (see video above) used the infrastructure of Bristol to create conversations between passers which were relayed by lamp posts, post boxes, bollards, manholes, bins, or telegraph poles. Members of the public exchanged texts with inanimate objects which stored the information they received and passed it on to the next person.

The data that environments gather could also be used to help us in our daily lives; Citi’s Streetline uses a network of sensors (always a network of sensors with these things) to help drivers find parking spaces in busy cities. With 30% of traffic caused by drivers searching for parking, this puts gridlock one step closer to becoming a thing of the past. 

Most intriguing of all is emotional intelligence; we now have the technology to read and analyse biometric data, measuring the emotional response of an audience. Companies like RealEyes have already begun to read facial expressions to gauge viewer reactions to video content, and last year Saatchi and Saatchi’s New Directors’ Showcase used wearable tech to measure and then visualise an audience's emotional response to a film in real time.

With all these tools at our disposal, we have the opportunity to create experiences that can engage and captivate audiences like never before, but more importantly, they can offer us a deeper understanding of our audiences than we’ve ever imagined. Brands can seize the opportunity here in order to delight consumers within intelligent spaces. 

By Ollie Williams, creative technologist, Imagination