Hacking the Streetscape at the Urban Prototyping Festival

In the alleys behind the San Francisco Chronicle building, an unusual part of town where capital-rich startups flank skeezy porn shops and dollar stores, an experiment was going on. Music from DJs accented the sounds of a warm Saturday afternoon, accompanying 23 interactive project mockups that lined the streets and sidewalks, each representing an early stage of what its creators imagined could become a viral improvement to neighborhoods and cities across the country and the world.

This was the second-ever Urban Prototyping Festival (the first was held in Singapore earlier this year), a one-day event that was the culmination of several months of open-call development, plus a weekend-long makeathon contest.

“[The projects] have all been created, from the ground up, in the last two months,” said Jake Levitas, research director for the Gray Area Foundation for the Arts, which instigated the festival and enlisted the help of six other organizations. “Everything’s going to disappear as quickly as it appeared. At 10 p.m., it’ll be gone.”

His statement encapsulated the difficult transition of many good ideas, especially in the vibrant technology and maker scene in San Francisco. You can put a prototype on the street for an afternoon, but security, weather, and legal issues make positioning physical, street-level installations for viral adoption a tough road. GAFFTA acts as a liaison to the projects, connecting the creators to cities, hosting designs on their website, and even offering some fiscal sponsorship, said Levitas.

And the projects need help being assimilated into civic use. It’s not that they’re bad ideas, it’s just hard to approach a city or other institution as simply a group of makers. When Eleanor Pries and her teammates approached the Bay Area Rapid Transit about putting a slide on BART station stairs, BART said no.

The Clip + SlidePhoto: Brian L. Frank/Wired

So Pries, along with Yes Duffy, Allison Owens, Shivang Patwa, and Marina Christodoulides, put Clip + Slide together on the street at the festival, as a free-standing, playground-style slide. Colorful wooden squares decorated with laser-cut topographic maps, a couple feet to a side, were clipped to each other instead of to staircases. Slippery Plexiglas lay over the top, and as festival-goers (each of whom first signed a waiver) slid down, their weight depressed copper switches. Rigged to Arduinos, the slide played tones and lit up luminescent EL wire — at least, it did when condensation beneath the Plexiglas wasn’t shorting the connection.

GAFFTA has committed to working to help Clip + Slide get installed somewhere, said Pries, adding that semi-permanent installations face a tricky permitting landscape. And that’s in addition to technical issues like the condensation, and security issues.

“Definitely, the idea is to not have to have somebody babysit it,” she said.

But it’s not completely unbroken ground: It all started with the Parklet. The festival’s creators hold it up as the ideal — a portable, parking-space-sized park, cut out of a shipping container, and placed around San Francisco and other cities. The festival was conceived, partly, to find the next Parklet, with the added requirement of an interactive, digital element.

The Pulse of the City team incorporated a lot more than one digital element. A heart-shaped sculpture, bigger than a parking meter, made of cardboard and auto body putty, Pulse linked an EKG board to a pair of copper handles to measure the pulse of anyone holding it. Then, with an Arduino, a midi shield, a handful of LEDs, and an XBee radio, it generated a light and music show, and shared pulse information to the web.

Inside Pulse of the CityPhoto: Brian L. Frank/Wired

“We programmed an algorithm that takes your heartbeat and makes a unique tempo, drum beat, and melody,” said George Zisiadis, who created Pulse of the City with Matt Ligon and Rachel McConnell. “It’s the first time people ever have a sense of what they sound like.”

Of course, a portable cardboard structure isn’t quite ready to be a semi-permanent installation on a street corner somewhere. Like all the other projects, Pulse of the City was a prototype. And like the others, it’s open source. “We’re not going to travel around the country and install these, but anybody can,” said Zisiadis, noting that plans for the device would be published on GitHub and Instructables.

In fact, the open-source nature of the projects represents both an opportunity and a risk for their dissemination. While it means that anyone who wishes could follow along and build their own, it doesn’t necessarily mean they will.

“In terms of spreading, from the outside there’s somewhat of a mentality that open source is kind of magic, and if you put it out there, amazing things happen on their own,” said Levitas. And while that’s partially true, it still takes outreach to spread the word. Now that the festival is over, GAFFTA plans to meet with each team to discuss how to proceed. Most will begin a crowdfunding campaign of some sort, said Levitas.

“There’s not really a central node for public design, public technology,” he said. “We hope to become sort of a central resource to that.”

With a little imagination, it’s easy to see how a lot of these projects could be integrated into a city. They do have a long way to go, but for one day, each project had an audience, and together they made up a full-on festival, with thousands of visitors, lawns made of square pieces of sod, and even a beer garden. It continued into the night, with projection and light-up projects firing up later on, and by the next day, it was gone. And although the future of each project is unknown, the festival itself will go on — an Urban Prototyping Festival in London has been confirmed for April 2013, according to GAFFTA’s Executive Director and Founder, Josette Melchor.