In mid-December, NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program held its end-of-semester open house, allowing the general public to see the work of these graduate students in a “touch-me museum” environment. On display was everything from light and sound sculptures to mobile apps, big data visualizations and whimsical toys. The place has sort of a mad scientist meets maker faire vibe – you never know when something will beep, grab you or take your picture. Very prominent in many of the DIY projects were Microsoft Kinect sensors, which allowed you to fly an on-screen dragon, play with virtual lego blocks and more. According to program administrators, there were close to a thousand visitors a day at the show.
For those unfamiliar with ITP, the program enrolled its first class in 1979, and prominent alumni include people who created or contributed to Apple’s Quicktime, the NY Times’ digital unit, Foursquare and Microsoft research projects. (Disclosure, I’m one of those many alumni, dating back to the mid-90s I remember when we got web browsers!)
This year’s show struck me as having many stand-out designs, but two struck my fancy. My kids and I got very competitive playing the multi-player game called Splat. The game was created for “Big Screen,” a class where students make an installation for the IAC building’s huge 120 foot video screen wall. In the past, many students have done video installations, or group interaction games, but the Splat team wanted to let individuals interact across that huge space, said Splat’s front-end designer and developer Danne Woo. “We wanted them to not only see interaction, but their own interaction and how it affected the game.”
The game is a little, um, cheeky. You log in with your mobile phone and a bird appears on a wire above a city block with moving cars and buses. You click your on-screen control and the bird makes a “splat” which you time to land on the cars. “We brainstormed ideas for 5-6 hours, and came up with a huge list of 30-40 ideas, chopped off ideas and narrowed it down,” said game designer Phil Groman. He notes that the game was influenced by single-control games like Space Invaders and Tiny Wings. “We only have 3 minutes to present, so we wanted to make sure they could connect, play and interact in that time.” The team built a way to connect 3 instances of the game into one, so it would play across all 3 huge screens. The process of connection and interaction with a mobile
device is unique enough that the Splat team has filed a provisional patent, said engineer, back end and interaction designer Federico Zannier. Groman added “We had a great response at the show. Kids were glued to it, and the graphics made it quite compelling even with simplicity. The dynamic between players was fun. We are interested in getting it installed somewhere to engage people on digital billboards. We have the ability to get user data via sign-ins to track high scores, and then offer discounts or vouchers after they’ve interacted with the game.”You can try a beta, one-player version of the game using a touch screen browser such as an Android or iOS phone or tablet. Just tap your screen to make the bird, ah, hit the target.
After playing games, it was great to see a few students literally trying to change the world. A group of students taking “Design for UNICEF” learned about the challenges facing people in Northern Uganda. “The environment is especially tough for young women who are at risk of rape, poverty and lack of education,” said Robin Reid, a former MTV executive who left to gain new skills mid-career.
The team, which also included Splat team members Gorman and Zannier, decided after hearing some of the challenges, that getting the Ugandans access to electricity would have a good multiplier effect. If there’s light, children can study at night, fewer lanterns means less burning fuel in homes, and less hours spent gathering wood or working for fuel.
Zannier said “During the first few weeks of the class, we were trying to produce electricity using new and renewable ways. Instead of using solar photovoltaic, we thought of solar turbines and steam. We kept exploring alternatives because we wanted to empower people by giving them more electricity.”
Then the students got a chance to experience life without power first hand when Hurricane Sandy hit NYC.
“People who still had power were throwing cords onto their doorsteps and offering up power,” said Groman. “We came to the idea of people who wanted to ‘donate’ power to a community.” After a post-storm visit from FEMA, the group designed the PowerClip. Simply put, the PowerClip attaches to a car battery and provides several USB ports for charging. In the prototype stage, the clip has 2 or 3 charging ports, but a car battery could handle up to 10 cell phones, and charge more than 30 devices before needing a 4-6 hour recharge.
Zannier said, “For the next iteration, we thought about other elements to add, such as solar or other technologies that would help recharge battery.” Gorman added “What if we could have the power clip contain another battery that you could take home to use remotely?” In some situations, you might need light to see where to connect the clip, so the team is thinking about adding a small LED that could be hand cranked or have a small storage cell.
Hardware designer Surya Mattu and the team are excited. Reid says that the team is determined to get this idea to the world. “We’re going to iterate on it. We believe there’s an active community out there to address energy poor areas and we want to discuss how you decentralize access to power.” Let the world iterate. The design and schematic for the Powerclip is available on their website now.
It is thrilling to watch students using their diverse backgrounds and education to create simple yet elegant games and solutions to complex problems. Watch for the next ITP show in mid May. It is a uniquely New York event not to be missed.