John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
Post boxes, trash cans and lamp posts will chat up members of the public in what is perhaps the strangest public-art project to come out of the U.K.
If a mailbox could speak, what would it say? "Get your hands out of me, you filthy mailman, them's my letters"?
Anybody who's ever wondered about that question – and if you have, ping me for the name of a good psychologist – should book it down to Bristol this summer. Around then the city's post boxes, lamp posts, bus stops and trash cans will become fully sentient, aware of what they are and able to hold discourse with members of the public.
This eccentric public-art project, called "Hello Lamp Post!," is the work of London creative firm PAN, who recently won Bristol's "Playable City Award." The contest challenged designers to forge a technological system that can "inject a sense of wonder and meaning into public space." PAN's solution was to allow pedestrians to use their phones to chat up inanimate features of the urban landscape, like a bunch of nearsighted Mr. Magoos.
Here's PAN explaining how it will work (more details available here):
Objects are "woken" by texting the 'Playable City' phone number with the object’s reference number (take a look – everything has a number on it) and saying hello. The conversations people have are later available online through the Hello Lamp Post! Website – having been converted into audio with a text-to-speech program. A radio-like interface allows users to "tune" into the various objects around the City, giving a sense of how people across the city are talking with its objects.
The potential is there for player-fueled narratives to emerge, and for ideas to have their own lifecycles throughout the project.
If you're asking yourself why every single thing in Bristol is numbered, it's because the mayor is severely anal-retentive. No, actually it's because the codes help public-works employees find specific lampposts with burned-out lights, storm drains that are clogged up, bollards that need polishing and the like.
So what might these receptacles for our waste and correspondence say? PAN is playing that close to the vest, answering the question with even more questions: "Will it be pleased to see you? Irritated at having been left in the rain? Or will it tell you a secret?" Oooh – could that dumpster's secret be that it's harboring a week-old dirty diaper?
“Hello Lamp Post!” should truly make life interesting in Bristol this year. Here's hoping that some of the other projects on the competition's short list resurface in future years – like the "colossal crowd-controlled device" that is the "Balloonometer," for instance, or digital songbirds perched in trees that sing out people's tweets. (H/t to Wired.)
Top photo courtesy of PAN.