The Hacker/Maker Culture at Sensing Places

Flavia Sparacino is an MIT Media Lab PhD, a prolific inventor, and founder and CEO of Sensing Places LLC, a creative technology agency based in Santa Monica. We had the chance to visit Sparacino and her staff recently to learn about what they’re doing in the digital user experience space and experience the energy of a boutique tech agency with a hacking/making/tech start-up culture. Join Sparacino at Xlab 2015 and you can experience it too!

Flavia Sparacino will be the featured speaker in the “Transforming Business” session November 5 at Xlab 2015 in New York City. Join her there!

With her small team, Sparacino runs her company like the MIT Media Lab spinoff that it is, focusing on developing and delivering innovation and custom technology solutions to brands and institutions. Sensing Places' approach is hands-on, driven by experience design supported by rapid prototyping and iterative problem-solving to develop unique cutting-edge digital experiences for retail, architecture, and entertainment applications.

Sparacino and her colleagues showed me how they’re developing custom solutions and product platforms for workplace, museum, and retail environments. In essence, Sensing Places is truly a boutique creative technology agency, with the staff developing ad-hoc solutions for each design challenge. The continuous experimentation and growth lead to new developments and solutions that are personalized for each client.

A hacker/maker culture is essential to this operation, as I saw when Sparacino and her co-workers demonstrated some emerging technologies and how they’re developing platforms to help people collaborate or deliver goods and services.

Beacons are one example. Sparacino’s team sees beacon technology, first developed by Apple about four years, as a huge opportunity for retailers, museums, and other applications to provide location-specific information to users via their mobile devices. Her team has developed a subscription-based service platform for beacon technology that provides clients with a beacon-compatible software library and a cloud-based “playlist” of content that is mapped to each beacon location with a simple click on a browser application. This opens up possibilities for clients to update their content independently of the mobile app, without incurring any further software development costs. The platform allows designers and organizations to shift focus from solving a technology problem to offering a compelling experience and digital content to their visitors.

Sparacino thinks the design community should “get creative about this and come up with interesting experiences using beacons, not just the obvious ones.” She and her team are stimulating a discussion among designers about developing the most compelling use cases. "The technology is the easy part. Now we need to carefully craft the user experience according to specific venues and the real needs of people. It's like the early days of computers. There is so much possibility.”

Being ahead of the curve in emerging technologies is nothing new to Sparacino. MIT granted her 13 technology licenses for her inventions, the highest number ever awarded after Amar Bose. Her work on gesture control and body-driven dance, music, and gaming applications came 12 years before the launch of Microsoft Kinect and five years before Spielberg’s Minority Report movie was released (as documented by the Discovery Channel feature on her work). She also built wearable computers and sensors for use in museums and performance spaces almost 10 years before the launch of Google Glass.

She founded her company in 2002, and since then has created technology-based experiences for clients such as the Museum of Jewish American History, the British Pavilion at the 2010 Worlds Fair in Shanghai, and Sentosa Island Aquatic Resort and Casino. She worked with architect Zaha Hadid on digital technology applications to improve the traveler experience at Beijing Capital International Airport, including a mobile application that uses augmented reality to translate signage into various languages.

Sensing Places’ work is very much propelled by creating innovative user experiences in physical spaces. The team created a new showroom for Vodafonedesigned from an experiential standpoint versus an architectural or space planning approach. Sensing Places designed, engineered, and developed software to creatively unveil new enterprise products to CEOs, high-level executives, city officials, and journalists. The 10,000-sq.-ft., invite-only showroom takes guests on an experiential journey through eight different interactive environments controlled by dedicated software running on a tablet. A custom mobile user interface and back-end server software allows for easy content management and controls all screens, audio, and lighting levels in all areas of the showroom.

Sparacino believes this shift from space/material-based design to experiential design is critical. “We design spaces experientially thinking about the activities of people in them and how technology can enable the desired behaviors. Interior design and space design should be grounded in experiential design. Similarly, the software for each space needs to be molded to the experience as clay in the hands of a sculptor. As a community of creatives, we need to be all on the same page with the focus on experience in order to foster the right practices.”

Justin Molloyis SEGD’s Director of Educational and Professional Development.

More about Flavia Sparacino
More about Sensing Places

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