World of Wonder
The second-generation Sony Wonder Technology Lab negotiates a new deal between technology, architecture, and experience.
In many ways, the newly renovated Sony Wonder Technology Lab—Sony Corporation of America’s interactive, free-to-the-public museum in midtown Manhattan—reflects the evolution of our love affair with technology.
When the museum first opened in 1994, the age of computing was still relatively new and we were fascinated with “high tech”: the workings and physicality of it, the hardware and cables and shiny metal boxes.
Fast-forward 16 years and the world is a different place. We take technology for granted and we don’t want to see the cables and boxes. We demand transparency, adaptability, portability, and immediate response.
“So the design language needed to change dramatically,” says Lee Skolnick, principal of Lee H. Skolnick Architecture + Design Partnership (New York). In 2001, Sony asked the firm to revamp the museum’s second level, which was completed in 2003. In 2005, Skolnick was asked back to lead the redesign of the rest of the four-level space.
“Instead of focusing on technology for technology’s sake, we wanted the museum to be about technology as an enabler,” says Lisa Davis, senior director of communications and public affairs at Sony Corporation of America. Sony wanted the museum to embody the “3 Cs,” emphasizing how technology helps us create, connect, and communicate.
It also needed to showcase some of the world’s most advanced technologies—some of it not yet commercially available. And it needed to withstand the enthusiasm of more than 200,000 annual visitors, many of them schoolchildren.
Skolnick’s challenge was to create an environment that seamlessly merges interaction and connectivity. “What that means to me as a designer is that the communication, the architecture, and the media are all as one, and whenever possible, visitors are interacting with the environment itself, not just a station.”
His Big Idea—the one he literally came up with on an airplane—was that if we all interact with technology and communications in the real world, why not create a metaphorical world that is self-contained, completely immersive, and actually formed from the communications created by visitors?
From that, Skolnick’s architectural vision emerged: a glossy white envelope on which every surface is alive with projections or embedded with media. A sleeve formed by curved white floor-to-ceiling panels is peeled back in places to accommodate windows, doors, screens, and infrastructural requirements. Mesh acoustical ceiling tiles and glass also punctuate the space. Against this backdrop, visitors interact with technology using hardware encased in sinuous white powdercoated-metal forms—the antithesis of traditional “kiosks.”
On arrival, visitors log in and create personal profiles, which are recorded on RFID cards they use throughout the space. As they collect experiences during their visit, bits and pieces of their profile data are manipulated, shared, tweaked, and broadcast in the space itself.
“We want people to understand that from the moment they enter, they are in a special world that operates according to its own rules, like entering a huge 4D game,” explains Skolnick. “As you move through it, you create a storyline that moves with you.”
Getting the tech right
With technology as both a central content theme as well as the primary delivery system, getting it right was crucial. Technology consultants were embedded in the project from the onset, a contrast to the more typical model where designers design, then find someone to translate the concept to reality.
“Now, in a time when technology is a means for us to understand and mediate a complex world, designers and technology experts have to work together much earlier in the process,” says Eli Kuslansky, co-founder and managing partner of Unified Field (New York), which partnered with Skolnick on design and development of media, software, and interfaces. Three Byte Intermedia handled the systems integration and updated the museum’s back-end infrastructure. “Projects like this one are about creating instant communication and constant dialogue, and that has to be done in a transparent way,” adds Kuslansky.
Skolnick agrees. “We needed their expertise to know what was possible. We needed them sitting at the table as we fleshed out the content, providing input on how it would be delivered and interacted with. We especially knew there would be big expectations around the interfaces, so we called on their expertise for going beyond touchscreens and push buttons.”
When it came to selecting the technologies to be showcased in the museum, Sony had strong ideas and a vast treasure trove of resources. Members of the design team traveled all over the country to understand Sony’s products, and worked with eight different Sony divisions on content and technology. They also sought out a wide range of content and technology experts.
Ultimately, the museum employs several technologies that have never existed outside the R&D laboratory. Visitors use haptic (touch) technology to perform virtual open heart surgery, generate digital profiles with integrated–circuit smart cards using RFID technology, create computer animations using real-time 3D visualization, program robots, and work in a state-of-the-art high-definition TV studio.
Ramping it down
For all its virtual magic, the museum does exist in physical space. And the four-story, 14,000-sq.-ft. floor plan was not without its challenges.
Visitors enter the museum on the ground floor, then take glass elevators to the fourth floor, where they log in and work their way through the space down a series of Guggenheim-like, ADA-accessible ramps.
“What we’ve learned from experience is that when people are on ramps—particularly kids—the motivation is to get down them as soon as possible,” says Skolnick.
So part of the design team’s challenge was to slow them down. They did that by adding things to see and do along the way, and by expanding some already-existing platforms so visitors could detour and interact with new stations and activities. The “Anytime, Anywhere” exhibit is an artifact-based timeline that chronicles the history of communications technology, from early telephones and televisions to the latest high-tech gadgets. Even this diorama-like exhibit is interactive: when guests tap their ID cards on special card readers, their images are broadcast on a grainy old black-and-white TV set, an HD TV, and a new OLED TV to emphasize improvements in picture quality.
“Signal Stations” along the ramp, along with all of the museum’s other interactive exhibits, are activated by the same tap of an ID card. They recognize the guest’s profile, greet the guest personally, and guide him or her through various activities to manipulate profile data, then broadcast it to other stations or to huge transparent projection screens for all to see.
Into the light
Beyond the demands of user interfaces, transparency, and seamlessness, Skolnick says his personal goal was to create the antithesis of the typical dark, “cave-like” science and technology museum.
“Today, because of the strength, clarity, and brightness of screen technology, we don’t need to be in the dark anymore. I wanted to create a place that was bright and cheerful, not spooky or ominous.”
Karen Kelso, the Wonder Lab’s executive director, says the redesigned museum succeeds, too, in bringing technology to light. “We set out to demystify technology,” she explains. “In the past, it was appreciated from afar. We wanted to invite children to experience technology in a hands-on setting, to spark their creativity and show them that, using their imaginations and technology, they can create virtually anything.”
--By Pat Matson Knapp, segdDESIGN No. 26, 2009
SONY WONDER TECHNOLOGY LAB
Location: New York
Client: Sony Corporation of America
Architecture, Exhibition Design, and Graphics: Lee H. Skolnick Architecture + Design Partnership
Design Team: Lee H. Skolnick, FAIA, Paul Alter, Jo Ann Secor (principals); Peter Hyde, (senior exhibit designer/project manager); Alethea Cheng (senior associate/project manager); Miguel Cardenas (senior design associate); Maja Gilberg (senior interpretive manager); James Hollingsworth (senior exhibit designer); Richard Bressani, Linda Feinberg (exhibit designers); Christina Lyons (senior graphic designer); Daphne Smith (graphic designer)
Construction Management: Big Show Construction Management
Consultants: Unified Field (design and development of media, software, and interfaces), Three Byte Intermedia (A/V systems integration, back-end infrastructure), Scharff-Weisberg (A/V consulting), Available Light (lighting design)
Photos: Steve Rosen (except as noted)