Acts of urban experimentation, like pop-up parks and street swings, give cities personality and can do wonders for residents' states of mind. The success of such projects is leading to a whole new movement in city design, where the focus is on well-being as much as functional infrastructure.
Along these lines, three master's students from NYU's Interactive Telecommunications Program have been looking at how to make street signs more "sentient," with the hope that people will feel "more connected to their city and each other."
"We want to get people away from being so closed off toward each other, and we think that a fun shared experience around a personified street object can be a great way to do it," says Sam Slover, one the designers.
Their idea, which is currently debuting on a street corner in Manhattan, goes like this. Two screens, looking like typical yellow signal boxes, broadcast messages based on conditions at the intersection at any time. If "Pop Pop" is happy, he'll say things like "Today is a great day - smile!," "NYC is a lovely city with you in it," "Have a fun day cause you're awesome." If he's feeling a bit down, or that street-walkers are disregarding the traffic, he'll say stuff like "Come on folks, no jaywalking please!", "Please be safe NYC," and "Be safe. Look up from your phone."
The designers liken Pop Pop to "a caring older gentleman" who "wants to make sure everyone is safe and happy as they cross through his intersection."
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Pop Pop's "feelings" are generated from several sources. First, every few minutes, the system will ask the online crowdsourcing site Mechanical Turk to analyze a live feed of the scene, looking at parameters like the number of people and cars using the interaction, and the number of pedestrians jaywalking. Second, it also crunches data like real-time weather, news, and recent crime statistics.
Pop Pop has six states—"happy," "attentively upbeat," "relaxed," "a bit down," "sleepy," and "distressed"—with a deliberate skew towards the happier side of the equation. ("Who wants to see their local pedestrian signal constantly down or distressed?" Slover says).
For now, it's just a small experiment. But Slover and his fellow team-members Alexandra Coym and Steve Cordova think the idea of "living" street furniture has legs. They're now developing another system where screens talk about the history of the area, or that get people to play quizzes while they wait to cross the road. They are also developing an interactive mailbox that encourages people to write quick letters to their loved ones. "We think this area of connected objects in urban design is going to be huge," Slover says.