Talkative Technology: When Gadgets Go to the Gallery

Blog: 08.08.11

Monday, August 08, 2011 - 06:00 AM

Gadgets aren’t just for nerds anymore.  In the age of social media, they've become an extension of who we are.

Talk to Me, a new design exhibition focusing on the communication between people and objects at New York's Museum of Modern Art, brings all things techy into the gallery space.  And it makes the case that design in the Digital Age has surpassed mere practicality and now is chasing human interactivity: "As the purpose of design has, in past decades, shifted away from mere utility toward meaning and communication, objects that were once charged only with being elegant and functional now need to have personalities."

I recently wandered through Talk to Me's nearly 200 design projects. They ranged from whimsical and speculative, such as the "Expressions Dispatcher," a tablet-like mask displaying a range of emoticons and controlled by remote; to more pragmatic devices such as the "EyeWriter," which reads the ocular movements of a paralyzed artist and turns them into paintings. (See images of both projects in the slideshow below.) There are tons of screens to tap and touch.  And scanning the QR code on each object's information placard with your smartphone reveals a virtual jungle gym of social networking, launching you into a cyberspace full of related web links and Twitter feeds.

Metro Card Vending Machine by Masamichi Udagawa,
Sigi Moeslinger, David Reinfurt, Kathleen Holman,
and MTA New York City (1999)

Within this labyrinth of virtual information, I found myself gravitating towards a cluster of people in a corner of the gallery.  They were gathered in front of a NYC Metro Card Vending Machine. It's an exact replica of the machines you'll find just down the street in the subway station.  It's fully functioning, and the crowd couldn't get enough.  (I'll admit being tempted to use the machine to check the balance on my own card, but the line was too long.)

In a room full of some of the coolest, most innovative, albeit speculative technology of our time, why did people migrate to the most conventional object in the room? Although I'm guessing it didn't mean to, Talk to Me revealed that we still like our machines functional, especially when that machine is our ticket home. 

The exhibition runs through November 7.


Slideshow: Talk to Me

Talk to Me: Design and the Communication between People and Objects at The Museum of Modern Art in New York.  The exhibition opened on July 24 and runs through November 7.

Photo by Sascha Nordmeyer
Sascha Nordmeyer, "Communication Prosthesis Portrait Series (Politician)" (2009)

Does social networking have you anxious about face-to-face interaction? Sascha Nordmeyer's “Communication Prosthesis” forces automatic facial expressions and an exaggerated teeth-baring smile. How's that for a conversation starter?

Photo by Thomas Xaver Dachs
Bernhard Hopfengärtner, "Hello World!" (2006)

German artist Bernard Hopfengärtner combines the ancient art of crop circles with the modern QR code by mowing a large-scale Semacode into a wheat field. With the use of Google Earth software, the 36 dark and light squares can be decoded to read "Hello, World!"

Photo by Chris Woebken
Chris Woebken and Kenichi Okada, Design Interactions Department, Royal College of Art, "Animal Superpowers" (2008)

Kids can stop pretending they are animals and finally become one. Chris Woebken and Kenichi Okada have designed an apparatus that displays the world through an ant's eye view.  Microscopes in the gloves magnify surface details to 50 times their regular size and transmit the images to the helmet.

Photo by Gerard Ralló
Gerard Ralló, Design Interactions Department, Royal College of Art, "Expressions Dispatcher" (2009)

Gerard Ralló's "Expression Dispatcher" puts our emotions in other person's hands. It's a two-part system: a helmet equipped with a screen and a keypad used by an expert who follows the wearer around and controls which emotions are displayed.

Courtesy of EyeWriter Team
Zach Lieberman, James Powderly, Evan Roth, Chris Sugrue, TEMPT1, and Theo Watson, "EyeWriter" (2009)

In 2003, Tony Quan, an LA-based graffiti artist was diagnosed with ALS, leaving him completely paralyzed except for his eyes. The "EyeWriter" tracks Quan's eye movements and relays the information to laptop.  The computer then uses a laser to paint his designs onto walls and other surfaces.

Courtesy of EyeWriter Team
Zach Lieberman, James Powderly, Evan Roth, Chris Sugrue, TEMPT1, and Theo Watson, "EyeWriter" (2009)

A painting generated by the "EyeWriter."


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