by Julia Rubinic

MOMA Talk To Me Exhibit Poster

MOMA Talk To Me Exhibit Poster

This past summer, on an extremely hot summer day in NYC, I visited the excellent exhibit at MOMA “Talk to Me“.  The entire exhibit was inspiring and thought-provoking, but there are two impressions that most affected me.

First, I was blown away by the ingenious use of simple technologies in many of the pieces displaying on urban streets. They were original, thoughtful and universally appreciated by the crowds that gathered to participate. My second impression, and no less powerful, was that it was so hot out even my sweat was sweating.

The next day, I was still thinking about the exhibit as I packed two furiously panting dogs into my heat capsule of a car and made a 3-hour trip to the nearest lake. There were several examples of groups using technology, often complex, combined with ideas, often simple, which invited and encouraged people to engage in play. Interactive billboards caused strangers to dance together. Roaming objects with personality tracked movements and inspired playful reactions. A lost robot bearing a plaintive handwritten sign drew strangers together to root for its success.

One great example is Hungry Hungry Eat Head, which premiered in Edinburgh for the BBC Big Screen as part of the Abandon Normal Devices (AND) Festival. According to MOMA’s web site, it “is an installation meant to engender interactive play in a public place.” It does this well, judging by the number of people dancing around in the street, by using QR codes to graft funny avatar heads onto people projected onto a giant display.

The happiness so clearly seen in this video, combined with a splash in the lake, reminded me of the better summer days of my childhood. I had two uncles (whose names I’ll change from the Croatian originals for privacy and, more important, pronunciation) who used to take my sisters and me on typical summer excursions. Uncle Robert was always willing to drive far, and dole out a decent amount of cash, to take us to water parks, carnivals and fairs. He never joined us for much, often waiting in the car or watching us from behind lines. He was the generous provider; the custodian who cared deeply for our happiness and was content with observing it in action.

Uncle Tommy was a whole different sort of uncle; he was often described as a whole different sort of lots of things. His car was shabbier, and his wallet lighter, than Uncle Robert’s, but he shared a genuine interest in making us happy. The condition? Uncle Tommy was no spectator. If we were going to a water park, he was the first in line for the scariest slide. If we went to a carnival, he’d compete alongside us for the biggest prize. And if we went swimming, Uncle Tommy would not end the day without at least one gigantic belly flop in the pool. He was the powerful buddy; he “knew” fun and knew how to make it happen.

I recognized the dopey smiles on the faces in the Talk to Me exhibits. They were the expressions of people at play, and these same expressions can be seen at pools, carnivals, lakes, playgrounds and, now thanks to some very creative artists, in front of billboards in city streets. In the Hand from Above, also from BBC Screen for the AND Festival, a street is reflected on a billboard in real time, only the billboard displays a giant hand that interacts with pedestrians, by flicking, pinching or grabbing their image on screen.

Another favorite, that is now making its way across the globe on a kind of technical tour, is the SMSslingshot. This device allows you to tap in an SMS and fling a colorful story-high version onto the side of a building, via a contraption that resembles a space age slingshot. A seemingly simple action from our past is resurrected in a new way to remind us of the joy of catapulting, giving us permission to play once again.

More and more brands are recognizing the new and innovative opportunities available via “out of home” to elicit positive emotions, and inspiring play is one of the most obvious ways to make people happy. While sponsoring events and concerts has always been an effective way of enhancing a brand’s personality through association, they are very Uncle Robert. We appreciate them, in many cases we truly love them, but they are the generous provider. When we remember what was actually fun, we don’t feel as strongly about Uncle Robert, or the brand, as we do about the uncle who belly flopped in the pool. These artists reminded me of the potential of play to not only get people engaged, but also leave them with a lasting and powerfully warm memory.

Here are some fun examples of playing with brands.

McDonald’s game billboard in Sweden.

Ford has fun with giant lips. (It makes sense, I promise)