Play It Forward: A Temporary Interactive Installation

Fabrikator
Friday, January 13, 2012
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Part of this year’s Digital Capital Week, the project turns games into donations for a charitable cause.

When Washington, D.C.-area designers Hiroshi Jacobs, Jonathan Grinham, and Kash Bennett were asked to create an installation for Digital Capital Week’s 24-Hour City Project, which seeks to improve urban environments with creative technology, they knew it had to be more than just something to look at. The team created Play It Forward, an interactive, motion-sensing display that donates a small amount of money to charity each time someone plays with it. Unveiled at the technology festival’s closing party at Arena Stage and now part of an exhibit at D.C.’s Project 4 Gallery, the installation demonstrates how advanced parametric design and digital fabrication methods can work together to encourage interaction and promote social change in the process.

  • Fabricators Hiroshi Jacobs, Jonathan Grinham, Kash Bennett, Jasmina Lopez, Sam Mrozinski, Alana Thurmond, Chris Weimann
  • Designers Hiroshi Jacobs, Jonathan Grinham, Kash Bennett
  • Location Washington, D.C.
  • Status Complete
  • Materials White polyethylene on MDF, Arduino microcontroller, photoelectric sensors, LEDs
  • Process Parametric design, digital fabrication, custom interactive sensor-driven technology

Once the design trio won 24-Hour’s $1,000 grant to design their project, they had only a month to create it. Budget and time aside, the project’s main challenge was modeling the entire interactive system by hand. “We had to integrate a number of systems into the fabrication,” said Jacobs. “It’s the surface itself, the connections between units, and also the connections from the individual units to the structure. It’s a little different from a project where you have one material and one connection system.”

The piece was fabricated with the help of fabrication equipment and students from the School of Architecture and Planning at The Catholic University of America. Its exterior of white polyethylene was chosen for cost, and the project’s units were sized so that two could be CNC-cut from a single 11-by-17-inch sheet. But the installation’s exterior, a white, wavelike form that lights up in red, belies its complicated innards: 432 hardware connections, 72 photoelectric sensors, 288 LEDs, and more than 1,000 feet of electrical wiring, all assembled to create a new form of social interaction.

Sensors located across the piece allow installation visitors to play a simple game in which LEDs provide visual feedback. For the initial presentation, each game resulted in between $1 and $4 being donated to KaBOOM!, a charity that builds playgrounds in needy neighborhoods. The piece generates a digital readout of how much money has been donated, while players are prompted to share their experience via social networks.

This physical-digital interaction is made possible with an Arduino microcontroller working in conjunction with the sensors and LEDs. The designers describe the system in a project statement:

As the game is played, the microcontroller transmits game data via processing to an internet data hosting website called Pachube, which in turn is accessed by a custom-developed website that displayed statistics about the most-recent game. Players access the website on their smart phones by scanning an individualized QR code that is displayed on an Apple iPad near the installation.

For the next two weeks, the piece will be installed at Project 4 as part of an exhibition related to digital fabrication that will also include some of Catholic University’s work for the Solar Decathlon. The designers see Play It Forward as part of a larger goal to influence architecture. “The most interesting thing to us is not any one of those individual technologies, but using them together,” said Jacobs. “I think this could happen on a bigger scale in a more permanent way.”

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