Canopy team

London designers want to outfit the Tube with a real-time scrolling display showing the sky passing by above.

Riding the metro underground can be boring as dirt. Pretend all you want that you're tiny and zipping around a giant human's circulatory system, a la Fantastic Voyage eventually the blah concrete surroundings, lights whizzing past in a sleep or nausea-inducing monotony, and hermetic A/C hum forces many riders to reach for a book or iPod.

But a band of London designers at the Royal College of Art believes that traveling under the earth can be a lively jaunt, with a little technological help. They've birthed a concept called "Canopy" that would turn the ceilings of train cars into real-time reflections of what's passing by overhead: towering buildings, frizzy trees and all. There would even be clouds and rain to show the current weather conditions. And a few advertisements, of course, to help fund the unusual project.

Turning the tube into a walk in the park relies on electronic paper, which the team chose over OLEDs and smart slab displays for its unobtrusive and non-reflective nature. Wanting to know more about the whys and hows of Canopy, I reached out over email to one of the creators, Amrita Kulkarni (also involved are Emma Laurin and Matt Bachelor). Here's what she had to say:

Do you ride the metro in London constantly, or something? Do you think subway cars are inherently boring? London's in particular, maybe?

Yes we do! Riding the tube is the fastest way through the city. We conducted most of our research and observation on the London underground, and compiled all data and insight onto a sensory deprivation map. We believe that commuters on the London underground today are detached from their environment: the city, the movement of the train, communities and events surrounding them. We want to add a new visual reference within the train to restore this sense of movement and place. Additionally, being an interdisciplinary team, we brought our earlier experiences from other urban cities such as Mumbai, Tokyo and Barcelona.

Is this concept specific to London, or any world city?

Since London's subway system is the oldest in the world there is a major difference in travel experience from other cities. Having said that, it still doesn't change the sensory deprivation on a typical metro anywhere in the world, which means Canopy could be adapted to any city.

Are the scenes scrolling? Or do they pop up more like a slideshow? Are all buildings above going to be represented, or just the major/large/significant ones?

The e-paper panels are fixed to the ceiling of the tube car, but they render a scrolling imagery of the environment above. The display moves to mimic the movement of the life above ground, but at a fraction of the actual speed of the train. The speed of the movement of this display is such that it does not disrupt the mind of the passenger viewing the graphic. This means only a selection of the environment above, i.e., buildings, trees, people, etc., will be illustrated in the display. Artists are invited to illustrate the environment according to their aesthetic, fitting nicely into TFL's Art on  the Underground campaign.

The weather conditions are a neat addition. What made you think to include that?

During our research, we realized that a lot of commuters miss dusk/dawn during their commute – entering the train during daylight and exiting in the dark – and this made us realize that including this unconscious connection to nature will help make the underground experience much more comfortable. We developed the idea to graphically include stars at night, and raindrops during the day and night.

Have you estimated the cost per train of this technology? Have you talked about Canopy with any transit employees/experts, or anybody in the government? If so, what's the response been?

Yes, we have a skeleton for a business case. There has been interest in the project, but the main concern currently is the single investment cost. We are currently working to develop Canopy on a less-expansive scale using alternative display systems.

(All photos used with permission from the Canopy team. H/t to Rain Noe at Core 77.)

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