With the technology still prohibitively expensive, fully interactive signage could remain in the realms of cinematic fantasy, but three recent, small-scale projects using architecture and dynamic content might point the way forward, says Scott Billings
Signs that react to audiences - providing information they need, exactly when they need it - are an appealing idea, especially to interaction designers. And with embedded communication technologies such as radio-frequency tagging and wireless, mobile Internet links, the emergence of fully interactive signage becomes possible.
At least, it does in theory. In reality, the cost of building interaction into signs is often thought to outweigh the benefits. 'Interactive signage can be very expensive,' says Ico Design Consultancy creative director Benjamin Tomlinson. 'The technology is there to create it, but the cost and complexity of roll-out quite often directs [a project]. It's not a case of what's possible, but a question of initial investment. Will the extra interaction be worth the investment?'
In many commercial situations, the answer is no. But experimental research underway at the Design Museum in London aims to put interactivity and dynamic content into what the museum's strategic consultant, Daniel Charny, calls 'explorative signage' - part sign, part interactive wall. 'It's part of a process of making the museum's collections more accessible through signage. Although it works like an interactive kiosk, it will be in the foyer and people will see it as they come in or sit in the café, so it's signage,' explains Charny.
This explorative signage is pioneering something of a technical first too, marrying screen-printed graphics with special conductive ink technology to create active 'buttons' on the surface of the foyer wall. Graphic designer Lea Jagendorf's visual scheme will be brought to electrical, interactive life under a system designed by interaction consultancy Osmotronic. When users touch the buttons they will trigger media content that will be projected on to the wall.
'It works on two levels: it's passive for people looking on, but it's also controllable by people touching the wall. And while it's interactive, it doesn't look digital because it's a projection rather than a screen,' explains Charny.
The system will first be used to offer visitors access to objects from the Design Museum's collections that aren't currently on display in the building. These digital assets include video and photographic material, as well as detailed written information. The system could also function as an information point.
'As it's in the foyer they need it to be flexible, so it can be unobtrusive if other events are taking place. Therefore, we've designed a minimal grid of buttons, each around 5cm across, "soft-labelled" at any given moment by the projector to show what they do,' explains Osmotronic director Matthew Falla. 'When you're looking at an object, pressing a button might bring up more information about the design, its client, processes or materials, and so on.'
At around 4m2, it's perhaps the scale of the projection that allows it to be considered as signage, but what's especially valuable about this approach to wall space is that the content is dynamic, rather than static. Media can come to the fore or recede, as required. Along with collections content, the Design Museum wall could also provide visitor information, introductory material for groups about to view an exhibition, or even media for private functions or events.
In a project for Manchester Art Gallery, signage design consultancy Holmes Wood also employed technology to create large-scale, dynamically changing signs suspended in the building's main atrium. 'They can be used for daily events and promotions and then used in the evenings for corporate events, with the addition of sound. We designed the software as a bespoke solution, with templates and grids that allow it to be updated and managed in-house by the gallery,' says consultancy director Alexandra Wood.
A similar system was built for auctioneer Christie's by Land Design Studio and digital consultancy Clay Interactive. Using high-quality projectors and screens, walls at Christie's King Street showroom in London become embedded, 'invisible' media spaces, playing out content on auction items, or information about events at the venue. According to Land creative director Peter Higgins, using media in this way allows it to become part of the physical space. 'It's about how to nurture spaces, how it becomes "media as architecture",' he says.
Although not interactive from a user's point of view, the Christie's and Manchester Art Gallery projects show how, as at the Design Museum, dynamic media, architecture and signage are starting to cross over. 'The architecture, hardware and software development is all happening together with the client's content. It's incredibly important that these are in parallel,' adds Higgins.
The Design Museum's interactive signage will trial throughout the summer, after which it may be extended further into the museum and its interactivity thrown open to include content generated by users of the museum's website. 'It's really an experiment at this stage, but it could be used throughout the museum as a new type of signage exhibit,' says Charny.