Digitally Enhancing Public Spaces at the Urban Prototyping Makeathon

An observer peers through Turn to Clear Vision, one of the projects fabricated at the Urban Prototyping Makeathon last weekend. Photo: Rio Akasaka

Here’s a challenge: design a physical object that has a digital component, which will better your city’s public spaces. It must cost less than $500, it must be replicable by anyone else who wants to follow along, and the whole project must be open source. You have 48 hours. On your marks, get set, go.

That’s what about 50 makers heard last weekend at the Urban Prototyping Festival‘s Makeathon in San Francisco. Hosted by the Gray Area Foundation for the Arts, with partners from the 5M Project, Intersection for the Arts, Rebar Art & Design Studio, IDEO, and the Mayor’s Office of Civic Innovation, the event saw teams of one to eight people join together, based around an idea, and build a working prototype over the course of two days.

The Makeathon was really a contest; five teams that the judges felt fulfilled the requirements best were offered an additional $500 to $1,000, plus several more weeks to work on their projects before displaying them at a larger street festival in mid-October, along with 16 other projects selected from proposals submitted in August.

“Each of these projects brings people together, they engage in the public realm,” said Jake Levitas, research director at GAFFTA. “The result is healthier cities, more engaging cities, more walkable cities.”

On Sunday afternoon, the team behind Turn to Clear Vision was still tweaking their prototype while participants and observers gathered at the Intersection for the Arts to eat hors d’ourves, drink beer, see prototype demos, and hear results. Clear Vision is like the binocular viewfinders you find at scenic overlooks, but instead of magnifying the view with glass optics, it displays a video stream from a distant location. Inside, an Arduino controls the unit, bringing in a feed from a 50-foot wire that connects to a Gorillapod-mounted camera.

Turn to Clear Vision is a play on a strange phrase found on a viewfinder: “bring distant objects of interest within close range with the use of this machine.” Dave Rauchwerk, who came up with the idea, thought, Why not expand that to mean really distant objects? A camera could be placed anywhere in the world, and send a feed back to the viewfinder, teaching observers something about a place they’d never been to.

“The idea is to play with people’s expectations using one of these publicly installed viewing devices, such that we can show them something that is interesting, but is not necessarily what they expect,” said Rauchwerk. The team’s next step is to make the viewfinder more durable (steel, rather than wood) and run the camera’s feed over the internet rather than a cable.

Highlights – Alleyway Projections adds digital light projections and highlights to underused spaces. Photo: courtesy Urban Prototyping

Turn to Clear Vision was selected by the judges, along with a projector to put art in dark alleys, a light-up stage for street musicians, an interactive hand-holding game, and a noisy, light-up, urban version of hopscotch.

“The five projects that won were totally unanimous,” said Levitas, who was one of the judges. “Everyone involved thought [they] were completely worthwhile, interesting, replicable, affordable.”

Over the next couple weeks, the Makeathon teams will refine their projects, prepping to show them on the street (5th Street in San Francisco, between Market and Howard, noon to 10 pm, Saturday October 20). Along with them, the other 16 selections include a real-time pollution measurer, an open-source traffic counter, a public urinal (yes), and many others.

“I think the common theme is using the public realm as a platform for creative projects that people can engage with,” said Levitas.

“This whole thing, even the festival, is more about the beginning of the process than the end,” he said. “Ultimately, our goal is to create new pieces of infrastructure.”

Participants assemble CitiPlay, a series of squares that respond to being stepped on by emitting light and noise. Photo: courtesy Urban Prototyping.