The installation is a twenty-four foot counter capable of hosting fifteen visitors. Vintage products chosen by the visitors reveal photos, videos, maps and oral histories that altogether tell the fascinating stories of Shop Life on the Lower East Side.
Shop Life exists at the intersection of culture and commerce. Working closely with the Tenement Museum, Potion designed an interactive counter where products tell the stories of the shops that once sold them. The Shop Life counter is the first interactive installation ever incorporated into the historic museum. The installation is a twenty-four foot counter capable of hosting fifteen visitors. Vintage products chosen by the visitors reveal photos, videos, maps and oral histories that altogether tell the fascinating stories of Shop Life on the Lower East Side.2. The Brief: Summarize the problem you set out to solve. What was the context for the project, and what was the challenge posed to you?
The design challenge was severalfold — to create an experience within the educator-led tour, to engineer an installation that disappeared into the vintage decor, and to script a sequence that led visitors from tangible products to an understanding of the store’s role in immigrant neighborhoods. While excavating the bottom floor of the historic tenements, the museum peeled back nearly 30 layers of wall paper to reveal the stories underneath. Potion was approached to solve the problem of how to tell these stories in the same space. Most museums use timelines to show the progress in a story, but Potion took a new approach to navigating by allowing each of the visitors to experience the time periods simultaneously and then create the connections between periods.3. The Intent: What point of view did you bring to the project, and were there additional criteria that you added to the brief?
Potion’s unique ability to tell non-linear narratives brought a fresh perspective to the museum experience. While the Shop Life counter is integrated into an hour long tour, it provides an intermission where visitors explore and discover elements of the story that they get to share in discussion. In some projects social media can bring a human element to the content. In Shop Life we forgo those elements to focus on bringing actual human interactions to the installation. It is not uncommon to see one visitor turn to another to share the content they just learned about.4. The Process: Describe the rigor that informed your project. (Research, ethnography, subject matter experts, materials exploration, technology, iteration, testing, etc., as applicable.) What stakeholder interests did you consider? (Audience, business, organization, labor, manufacturing, distribution, etc., as applicable)
From concept through installation, the Shop Life exhibit covers new territory. The project went through many iterations of visual design, user experience design, and hardware integration. Although Shop Life is seamlessly integrated into the vintage space of 1860s, there are a plethora of sensors, projectors and computers behind the scenes to allow for the seamless interaction. Throughout development, users were brought in to test the interaction which led to much insight about visual cues, the aural experience, and intuitive handling of tangible objects. As a result of testing, the intro sequence for each item became like an overture for a performance, introducing the themes and forthcoming story to spark curiosity. With archival audio and music of the times, visitors are brought back to the time period before being asked to navigate the story on their own. Figuring out how to let shelves full of objects tell their own stories when placed on a counter was no small technical task. Potion custom designed and milled table insets to handle 15 RFID readers, and custom electronics to sense when handsets are being raised and lowered. Additionally, all of the touch sensing is done from above, using custom software and depth sensing cameras. A network under the table allows all 15 stations to communicate with one another and give the instructor the ability to begin and end the interaction with a swipe of the wall behind her. It is important that the space retain the look of its times, so when not it use, the tech seems to disappear.5. The Value: How does your project earn its keep in the world? What is its value? What is its impact? (Social, educational, economic, paradigm-shifting, sustainable, environmental, cultural, gladdening, etc.)
Shop Life represents a new form of seamless integration for story telling and technology in the museum space. Designed to be timeless, the counter uses minimal graphics, typefaces that speak to new and old, and incorporates tactile elements that is often overlooked in museum settings. In an age of Google Glass, the concept of augmented reality is going to be ubiquitous, so providing a strong example of how to tell great stories and make them more memorable with an augmented view is one of the more grand contributions of this exhibit. Accessibility. Believe it or not, this is the Tenement Museums most accessible exhibit to date. To the museum’s credit, they manage wheelchair accessibility. Potion, however created an experience rich in tactility, aural guidance, and visual cues. Closed captioning is presented for every audio clip in the experience, and the technology was designed to allow for hearing aids to be activated by the handheld speakers.
Usually this type of interaction only works well with non-physical exhibits, as it is good at exploring situations as opposed to distracting from the contemplation of objects. However Tenement Life seems to succeed by walking a delicate line, using everyday objects, or ‘mementos’, to talk about and indeed bring to life, tenement life.