As we move into a society in which wearable computers become more commonplace, I thought it would be a good time to revisit an essay I wrote at MIT Media Lab in 1998 when I was a visiting scholar.
I was working occasionally alongside a young researcher called Thad Starner, who is now the technical lead for Google Glass.
The essay was suggested by the head of the Media Lab, Prof. William J. Mitchell.
3D “Augmented Reality” Signage Experiments at MIT Media Lab in 1998
Signage: a Historical perspective
By David Cox, Visiting Scholar, Media Lab, MIT March, April and May 1998.
The New Abstraction
As we move into an increasingly digitally mediated society, the continued overlap of daily life with the presence and use of daily media has resulted in a type of new abstraction Just as with the arrival of the industrial revolution, new ways of thinking about the world accompany The giant leaps in contemporary, largely information based cultural and technical innovation. The era ofsteam and early electricity ushered in whole new paradigms for interpreting and representing the world cubism, dadaism, and other avant guard art movements works were characterized by a new fragmentary disjointed fractured view of the world, where the process of interpreting the scene was itself as much a subject of the work as mere depiction.
With the pictorial representation of space in traditional terms of perspective handled largely by the recent innovation of photography, painters felt that the role of art was now to seek to encapsulate the spirit of the times rather than serve the narrow requirements of visual depiction. These changes in attitude were symptomatic of the times, and by the early 1900s with the arrival of new types of mechanized warfare and destruction, a bitterness and resentment fuelled innovation in both The arts and sciences coupled with moral outrage at the scale of wars fought between the new nation states. In the scientific world, The discovery of radium, the invention of heavier than air craft, the development of processes for mass production and so on occurred in a period of just under twenty years. The rapid speed of development had profound effects on those it affected.
In a sense, abstraction and the deliberate attempts to integrate the visual arts with the agendas of party politics, and social protest accompanied the developments in the scientific realm of such ideas as the theory of relativity. Itself something of an abstraction, Einstein’s famous theory revolved around a view of the universe in which point of view and perception were very much built into the equation. This radical new sensibility arrived in the late 1800s whose effect left no field of human endeavor untouched.
Abstraction and the deliberate attempt to incorporate the process of perception itself in the creation and development of new ideas became modernism’s visual and scientific hallmark. The cubist approach to the visual arts for example sought to engage the process of seeing itself as part of the visual message of a painting or collages construction.
Today the digital revolution is reaching a new peak the rate of growth of the Internet and the development of computers which are characterized by miniaturization, portability, personalisability and ubiquity are having profound effects once again on the way people view themselves and the world around them.
In the field of entertainment for example, the linear, direct ‘one to many’ paradigm of broadcast media like television and radio are now accompanied by the Internet. The proliferation of new types of media forms such as liquid crystal display screens cheap and small enough to be placed inside bus stops in major cities.
Signage and symbols dot the landscape of our cities, many of them electronic, programmable and instantly updateable with news, information, data and advertising. This plethora of electronically mediated urban signage is gradually affecting the role and function of architecture itself as buildings morph into signage
Las Vegas becomes the prototypical model for cities across the world whose fa�ade and signage then turn the buildings into vast displays and indeed in some cases such as Las Vegas, the entire city into one big sign.
Play and Immersion
Video games occupy children in many cases more than any other aspect of life. These self contained virtual worlds come complete with their own rules and “,”0”
“Signs and 2 characters, tasks and goals, where the mind and the body can engage directly with imaginary creatures in dazzling and inviting settings. The level of engagement itself is an index of the success of these games here game-play as it is known – is the abstraction. The actual process of playing the game is really that game’s ‘content’ rather than the audio visual elements which make up its animations, its underlying code and so on.
With the development of such innovations as the wearable computer, untethered and unrestricted computer use can now accompany the various functions of daily life. As a result, new design ideas are required which take into account the notion of such unbound pedestrian and vehicular image and sound use. The new abstraction is augmenting our daily views and visions of the landscape, and adding to the experience of daily life such innovations as dynamic and personalisable media shapes and signs, which change in ways pertinent to our feelings and our physical rate of motion and locale. Movies in this way have leaped off the screen and into our everyday field of view.
What might cities of tomorrow be like, where the population is able to augment their own private additions to the city? One person’s view of the city might make today’s Times Square look mild and restrained an orgy of dazzling signage might be accompanied by the loudest contemporary music available. Others may wish to augment the city with digital tags which via the head mounted display glasses, label buildings, trees and vehicles in such a way as to make them more of interest to that person.
A Japanese visitor to America might have the signage automatically translated for her. A historian might be able to view the city as it appeared decades or centuries prior by means of superimposed 3D graphics overlay, the whole time hearing testimony from people discussing memories about the specific place the person is standing or moving through. The hand held position sensitive device used by many museum patrons to enable them to hear a commentary about the picture they are looking at is a form of wearable computing which already exists.
The new abstraction thus takes the cubist notion of depicting (or trying to depict) the actual process of perception of the world and makes it a lived, augmented particularly late 20th Century experience. By embedding tiny cheap computers into every relevant architectural, urban or corporeal surface and then by connecting each via a network to the internet (or whatever system follows it), a piece of human interaction with a machine need no longer be impersonal. Each device will know something about its user and as such be able to intelligently determine that person’s specific needs.
When societies as a whole are immersed in such a wired world, where every machine and every person can communicate freely, what will happen to the social consensus? Will people become more alienated, less alienated? Will social and class distinctions be affected? If so how? If not why not?
Investigating in my recent research at RMIT and MIT the broad subject of the Electronically Mediated Urb (or city) I have chosen to specialize in what makes the experience of urban life unique to the times we live in. This is indeed a new and strange world where people drift around and within intelligent buildings and where appliances and people and clothes can communicate and converse with each other. In this ever increasingly alienating and yet somehow simulateously immensely community building process across countries, peoples and cultures translate into the experience of everyday life?
How it translates into Masters Program work at MIT Media Lab for 1999.
It is to this end that I hope to continue the work I have been currently undertaking in my brief visit to the Media Lab in the field of 3D signage design, where this signage has been organized to be considered part of a whole design principle. This design principle seeks to enable simple shapes and objects to be authored and built by users according to their specific needs and uses, which as most people would agree would vary wildly.
In addition, with my experience as a motion picture film maker and videogame designer, I plan to further investigate the ways in which notions of urban space and architecture find expression in the idea of game play in electronic entertainment forms. Characterized by immersion in and movement through electronic spaces, games which place the player in worlds with complete self contained cosmologies offer a basis for useful research. Particularly of interest is the potential in developing theories of the new abstraction as they might apply to entertainment forms which to some extent borrow culturally and thematically from each other. Computer entertainment forms often parallel linear media forms such as film, video and print. The game hit “Doom” for example makes many hip and knowing references to such films as the “Texas Chain Saw Massacre”, and “Alien”. Film also now borrows heavily from the world of video games such as the Terminator series which engage the viewer in complex chase sequences whose settings and pace and type of onscreen activity bear striking resemblance to side scrolling platform video games.
In the video game and the physical space alike, signs and symbols mediate passage through the environment. In computer games however often the sign to a place and the place itself are the same thing. This is true on the world wide web where a link to a site is embedded so to speak in the marked up Piece of screen text which forms that link. Video game “pick ups”, “spells”, and “tools” are usually small elements which appear periodically as a reward for game performance or as elements to help the player in her quest through the game space.
Such ‘sprites’ (the generic term for such dynamic game elements) which govern a person’s passage through a game environment are in an of themselves somewhat sign like. By engaging with these active elements in a game’s progress, a game player’s sense of achievment is reinforced. For example in many games, progress to another level or access to a secret area holding much needed ‘pick ups’ is made possible by
performing a series of activities or gestures in a certain sequence. This type of game play design could easily be combined with wearable computers in a digitally tagged environment such that by say opening a real kitchen fridge door, then the microwave door and then turning on the toaster, this sequence could then trigger a new process such as turning on the television or dialing a phone number.
By utilizing such paradigms in the development of signage for augmented reality
The Origins of Signage
In the beginning a sign was made by applying material on a surface. Illuminated by fire or by the sun or the sun’s light reflected off the moon, a painted or inscribed image on a wall of say a prehistoric cave could perform a range of functions. Many were probably ritualistic and ceremonial, others perhaps more closely associated with the social dynamics of very early tribal life. Structural symbolic ritualistic installations like Stonehenge, the Egyptian pyramids, and Easter Island’s rather cryptic massive carved stone heads to this day act as signs whose message, is powerful if to some extent only semi decipherable.
The Functions of Signs
A sign or painted image could chronicle significant or important events of a hunter gatherer society for the benefit of members of a tribe and hence be informative. An sign could warn demonstrating, perhaps through clever use of a pattern or sequence of one image in front of another of say, the environmental danger associated with hunting. Signs could also entertain providing a community with amusement and in doing so simultaneously a shared sense of identity and group membership. A sign, particularly in the context of a group’s shared social and cultural values could regulate citing or reinforcing or simply reminding a person of a given law in written and or pictorial form. As such the regulatory sign could symbolically represent the broader value system of the community. An instructional sign perhaps in being also directional that is literally showing the way could also however in its placement and relationship to other aspects of the environment distil and pictorially abstract shared notions of propriety, territory and so on.
Signs can be divided into these main categories: directional/informative, regulatory, ceremonial, warning, and entertainment. The modes of display can be wide and varied from applied to inscription, from projection and structural, to both electric and electronic. Signs are everywhere and the nature and type of signage in society is, with the advent and rapid development of computerised image making, about to get a lot more complex and interesting.
The simple painted or engraved or embedded sign or marking made by humans on surfaces performed functions associated with the needs and values and behaviors of people grouped as communities. Signs enabled populations to share ideas and knowledge. In communicating important or pertinent information and experience, signs from their very inception helped design, define and shape the function of shared space.
Fire and Smoke
Signs have always utilized various phenomena of the natural world smoke signals for example took advantage of the fact that burning material gives off gases visible from long distances. Fire itself can be Shaped to form pictorial or text based signs. In simply burning a candle can become a simple signal Visible from a long distance away whose impart can be a warning, or other message. In any case a sign’s meaning must be understood by sender and reciever in advance to be considered a sign.
A reflective surface turned into a medium for reflecting light converts sunlight into a sign in the form of a bright directional reflected beam, suitable for warning or announcing one’s presence. The cat’s eyes in the middle of the highway perform an ideal role as directional guides for the night driver.
A sundial; even of the simplest stick in the ground variety is a kind of dynamic sign system which converts the passage of the earth around the sun into a meaningful and informative sign. Shadows also define The appearance of inscribed imagery carved into a surface the passage of the sun over time adds drama to the content and appearance of a sign which utilizes shadow in climates where sunsets are long and drawn out. Many ancient Egyptian and Mayan architectural forms relied upon shadows as a way of defining the structural layout of solar calandars. These elaborate and beautiful sites integrated mathematics, religion and ritual in symbolic structural forms whose meaning relied entirely on the prescence of solar shadow.
Flags and banners have often relied upon wind and air currents to convey in part their messages. Kites in China for example have been used as media to warn of invasion, or announce important events. Ritualistic objects like wind chimes, wind driven prayer wheels, and ceremonial smoke and flags also as signage rely upon the wind as means to convey content.
The relatively recent medium of semaphore relies upon the gestural activity of a group of people who share codes about the position and duration of positions held of flags held at arms length developed for nautical communication in the days prior to radio and telegraphy, Semaphore was the mode du employ of shipping for generations. As a form of dynamic signage the changing position and duration of the flags could be built into a syntax a system of codes which could be shared by different countries for the purposes of nautical communication.
Simple flags on their own however have always been associated with profound ideas of real or imagined territoriality a national flag is a nation’s international symbol in some countries the image is so profound in and of itself as to have built around it a dizzying array of laws which protect it physically and by extension symbolically from attack. This is often the case with republics, whose political structure is defined in theory at least by public concensus, if in reality most often by government and industrial might.
Airborne skywriting signage popularised at elections and public events converts the aerial dynamic passage of aircraft into emblems which can be read by many people. A variant on the smoke signal, a sky-written sign in utilizing the technology of heavier than air transport can be read by many people simultaneously but suffers the disadvantage of being ephemeral the wind blows the message away with time. Recent variations on skywriting have employed computer technology to turn the wings of a plane into a ‘dot matrix’ printer where the sign is made up of an array of smoke “dots”. This method obviates the need to physically turn the plane into a kind of aerial ‘pen’ or stylus which must be piloted directionally to ‘write’ the sign in the sky. Another variation on aeroplane signage is the aerial banner pulled behind an aircraft, trailing across a usually well populated city below.
Fireworks, rockets and pyrotechnics can be used as simple signals and are often converted to form signs the famous fireworks suite by Bach was written to be performed to a fireworks display which would often finale with a representational sign made up of burning fireworks. Though expensive and ephemeral a Sign made up of fireworks is sometimes used at large scale public events, and rock concerts.
During wartime, the psychological effect of spotlights, airborne lights, flares and air dropped paper leaflets represent signage which in using the sky as its medium can coerce a population to surrender or mobile another population to follow a leader to war. The famous vertical corridor of spotlights designed by Nazi propaganda chief Goebbels for the Nuremberg rally in 1939 is a good example of one medium being used in a new symbolic context light as both sign and architecture in the service of mass hypnosis.
At Olympic games ceremonies such as the one held in Beijing in 1984 thousands of trained participants held up signs whose message were formed by the careful co-ordination of these surfaces in different orientations. By effectively turning the crowd into the automatic system for one giant sign, the real message was perhaps the coercive nature of the host country’s system of government more than anything the giant sign actually conveyed as its content.
When a crowd carries banners in a public demonstration the individual hand held signage is designed to convey in short and simple terms the demands or concerns of that gathering. A demonstration is a public display of numbers and so the duplication of individual signs in that crowd buttresses the overall message of the crowd by repeating it in theme or in subject matter but also in the simple fact of being duplicated in public en masse.
Graffiti, as old as history itself is characterized by its ephemeral nature and its territoriality. Whether the anonymous scrawlings of a lonely public toilet user, or the impassioned spray-painted slogan of a self styled revolutionary, public and private walls once graffiti-laden signal as much about the status of their author in relation to the graffiti-ed space as they do via the content of the message itself. Humans need to leave marks on surfaces and the primal territoriality of most graffito is often an index of the nature of the urban space in which it takes place and it almost usually is urban space. Graffiti is most often associated with urban space as cities afford anonymity as well as an abundance of surfaces which the graffiti-st can be confident will be passed by his fellow citizens.
With the arrival of systematized urban electricity, signage began to couple itself with the demands of mass production. Advertising and signage of every description accompanied the expansion of cities whose rate of development, scale and breadth left no one untouched. Signs became part of the conversation between Architectural forms, urban spaces and the people who en masse, traversed these dazzling environments on a daily basis. As the painting and collage work of the cubists and the futurists demonstrates, life in early 20th Century cities was mediated by a plethora of signage whose pervasive ubiquity was literally dizzying.
With the growth of industrialized urban space entirely new and previously unimagined modes of transport were developed to handle the ever increasing number of pedestrians, and commuters. For the first time city dwellers were able to traverse distances which would have been unthinkable merely decades prior. Signage was rapidly evolved to find positions along the routes themselves into the interiors of these new modes of transport – trains subways, trams, cable cars, elevators and so on.
The communications technology of the telegraph made the railroad possible. The railroad was the primary basis for the modernization of regions previously untouched by the industrial world. With telegraphy and later telephony connecting cities, signs required to be seen at different speeds, distances and from different modes of transport. The railroad and roadside billboard evolved. Alongside the new industry of commercial advertising signage, fashionable pseudo scientific methods based on Taylorist, rationalist ‘time and motion’ studies were utilized to determine the placement and regularity of signs throughout the city.
Cities and Signage.
Cities are not just buildings, roads and signs any more. They are vibrant, energetic spectacular display devices in their own right which show text and animation on the outside, and on the inside can interpret a person’s movement and needs and so on.
With the arrival of the Renaissance, itself the offspring of a revolution in shipping and navigation signs served as an adjunct of new societies whose wealth and privilege stemmed from a new secular consideration of the world as a kind of global store house. Signage reflected in the heraldry and banners of mediaeval society by contrast reinforced and buttressed notions of family based, land oriented power, itself the result of the conquest and control of economic and physical space. With the arrival of the Renaissance, the new economies based around Florence, Venice and Sienna dedicated themselves to the mastery (in symbolic terms at the very least) of space itself.
Advances in technology had made the conception of the world as a complex system of inter related elements possible. The heavens themselves were thought to be the “signs” of the gods for generations stars and constellations were thought to be direct symbols of the workings of supreme beings. The horoscope and its accompanying ‘signs of the Zodiac’ were thought to show the heavens as a system of signs based on animals where by connecting the points of the brightest stars one could create simple imaginary line drawings of recognizable creatures and objects. This effectively turned the night sky for the seafarer and land wanderer alike into a giant nocturnal directional navigation aid. With the sun as a guide for navigation no longer available, elaborate systems evolved over time to harness the symbolic potential of the stars above. With the discoveries of Copernicus and Galileo, the true nature of the night sky gradually came into focus, with for the latter scholar, wholly unforeseen political consequences. For merely offering a differing point of view of the nature of the world in relation The world was now something to be measured, understood and scientifically defined. Artistic inquiry and scientific endeavor were locked together in mutually supportive spirit of inquiry.
Signage began to reflect these rapid changes. Maps and cartography in the 1600s became an industry as the thirst for information which could lead to distant riches became the subject of bitter dispute between nations. Signs and symbols whose messages were deliberately confused and encrypted by elaborate processes heralded the arrival of information war the world of industrial and political espionage.
The notion of perspective evolved whereby the viewpoint of a single person surveying the world before him could be formalized into a means to depict the world. The development of telescopes, precision lenses. optics, and advances in shipping and trade all stemmed from entirely new approaches to an understanding of space, the world, and the relationship of these things to the individual.
Renaissance man prided himself on having unshackled the world from ignorance, darkness and mystery, and although the church presided over matters of state and wielded immense influence (able to enforce legally its political control of the new nation states) its days of uncontested authority were coming to a close.
The triumph of technology, mathematics, art and industrially sponsored commercial and cultural endeavor resulted in the gradual replacement (in the western world at least) of agriculture with navigation, and shipping and global trade. The signage of the Renaissance and the worlds it sought to conquer and subordinate, including the New World of America was that of the merchant ship’s banner, the nation state’s flag, and the various signs and symbols of the cultural, religious and technological means the new nations used to signify and enforce their new position. These included the cross the powerful sign of the Christian church, but which worked much more effectively as pure political symbol of the Roman Catholic Church.
Other archetypal Renaissance signs were perhaps the heraldry and emblems of the powerful families, the trade marks of the new guilds on an ever increasing range of manufactured and semi manufactured goods. Currency itself had long been a form of exchangeable signage, bearing evidence on coins and tokens of their maker’s political and economic largesse. To this day, methods of payment and forms of currency are powerful symbolic referents to the host country’s or host personality’s international standing and reputation. Electronic currency is this eras abstracted variant on the bead, the salt bag and printed
Piece of paper with the king or president’s picture on it. Nation states and currency are often completely intertwined as are economies with the power and reach of the country minting the currency. In this way, money has always been literally and symbolically a form of signage of commercial and cultural value. Nicholas Negroponte’s idea of the worldwide electronic currency form the ‘globo’ seeks to sweep aside the cultural and political boundaries which currently obscure in his view the free exchange of trade. But in a world where national boundaries and geopolitics are very real barriers to most countries equal andactive participation in global change an Esperanto of money will do little to affect the relative worth and value of a poor country’s economy in relation to a powerful one’s no matter what you name the new electronic form of currency. Bits may fly free, but generally only between countries and economies and organizations and individuals wired enough to participate. Signs have always had different meanings in different countries.
Spices and herbs at one time were considered to be of immense intrinsic value (cloves were thought to cure the Plaugue) and fortunes were spent in attempting to unlock the secret of longitude the means to locate one’s position in the world in relation to the poles (as opposed to the equator). There was a new interest in the workings of the body and Leonardo da Vinci for example developed a comprehensive system of signs and symbols associated with warfare, tactics and strategy.
Medieval signage had been perhaps best typified by the ubiquitous symbol of land based familial power, the heraldic banner. Hung in strategic positions to this day in parts of the British Isles such as Balmoral in Scotland where local shops bear such medieval signs as small but very ornate carved and painted wooden storefront shields to demonstrate, if only to each other the fact that royal patronage And the very idea of monarchy itself is very much in place.
Economic growth and new paradigms of signage have always developed alongside each other. Over time the relation of people to the environment around them changed. Cities grew, communications systems spread across urban space and architecture alike. The modern city was a fundamentally new type of environment compared to the large town and agrarian village of the pre-industrial era. With steel manufacturing, large scale shipping and mass production, signage was called upon to perform an ever increasing range of roles in tandem with the ever changing form and nature of society. No longer the simple bearer of information aimed at a limited number of people of fixed mobility, signage developed to embed ideas and information into almost every available surface where a potential customer, might walk. Signs which warned of the dangers of the industrial environment peppered the city inside vehicles, buildings, on roads and in shops and public spaces. Signs which reinforced the mass of regulations which dominated a newly bureaucratic society found their way into circulation.
Signs have always had the function of communicating something pertinent either to the place they occupy, or to the culture they are based within. With the arrival of the industrial revolution for example, signage began to accompany the development of mechanized modes of production. Companies which advertised products made billboard placement a kind of pseudo science.
Where the position and frequency of the sign throughout the city was thought to reinforce the image of the product in the mind of the person passing the image repeated throughout the city. As more and more products became mass produced and sold via elaborate and far reaching modes of transport and communications, advertising signage, designed to promote products to a growing consumer base (itself a product of industrialization) competed for space on ever growing roads connected ballooning towns and cities. Signs became themselves mass produced objects billboards, plaques, illuminated by electric light, and with time, actually made up of lights. Advertising signs could be playfully through electric motorization become animated cigarette ads for example could display gigantic mouths “smoking” cigarettes which gave off real ten foot long plumes of smoke. Waving hands and seductively swinging legs could attract passers by and compete with other signs for attention in major cities. Signage became a form of mass culture art an art unique to the 20th century major city.
Neon signage enabled new modes of expression – the tubular glass form enabling curvacious lettering and often elaborate pictures to be made up out of lengths of self illuminated glass. The ability to sequence such signs in terms of the ‘on’ or ‘off’ resulted in the possibility of animated signage where motion added humor and and even narrative to sign activity.
The famous ‘ticker tape’ news ribbon of lights in Times Square in New York announced the latest news breaking events to the Manhattan population as far back as the 1930s, resembling in its urgency the ticker tape of the New York stock exchange and mirroring in its urban context the role of New York as a major economic hub the sign to this day dominates that part of New Yorks now dense and incredible never ending sign concentration.
Entertainment forms relying upon motorization and electricity such as the theme park and the amusement arcade shared with the restaurant and the hotel the need for engaging people in activity which distracted and entertained. Signs, embedded with automatic devices, electrical forms of display and representation blurred the distinction between the role of building facades and the information panels place upon them. “Vernacular” architecture in cities like Los Angeles in the roaring 1920s were often playfully shaped into popular culture emblems like bowler hats. Later motels and drive through food stops also expressed a kind of ‘sign architecture’ whose primary aim was to attract customers driving along the ever increasing number of roads. Speed limits were much less enforced the United States between the wars, and it was possible to drive from one end of the country to the other and not have to stop at a traffic light.
Communications technologies and the relationship these played in terms of urban and architectural development determined strongly the nature of signage and its proliferation across the industrialized world. Even the phenomenon of transportation signage, such as traffic and rail signals developed alongside the conventions of communication such as telegraphy, and later telephony.
Airships in the 1930s for example were considered very much the future of mass transportation. Consequently, spires and docking bays were built into the tips of the new skyscrapers, such as the Empire State Building whose customs and duty free area for zeppelin arrival is now that structure’s observation deck and gift shops. Today an airship’s likely primary function is that of a kind of floating billboard (though apparently the zepellin company is building a new line of airships for mass transit) while the Empire State Building serves more as a symbol of the golden age of modernism and art deco architecture a sign and powerful symbol of its time and its setting than it does as a structure housing offices.It is also in itself something of an amusement ride as it still is one of the highest man made structures in the world, it performs beautifully the task of presenting people with a view of Manhattan which effectively turns the whole city into a display or sign. Just as the Eiffel Tower is a medium for neon signs and is itself a sign, buildings become semantic ‘stand ins’ for the ideas most closely associated with the setting they inhabit and the cultural history of the region they occupy. Only New York can have the Chrysler building, except in Las Vegas where a whole hotel is today made up of 1/3 scale replicas of that building and all the others in Manhattan (more on Las Vegas later).
Moviolas, penny arcades, amusement parks borrowed machinery and ideas from other Areas of industrialization such as rail transportation (roller coasters) the military. The business of attracting attention and entertainment became increasingly the concern of people other than Showground proprietors and circus owners. Entertainment and engagement as disciplines became the preserve of a new breed of entrepreneur the advertising man, and his close cousin the snake oil salesman. Advertisers were quick to seize upon the potential of using electrically generated light sources as forms of signage in and of themselves.
Electrical signage enabled new types of alpha numeric displays such as the familiar form in 1970s airports made up of many rapidly flipping squares each showing half of a number or letter of the alphabet. Programmable and mutable these types of signs enabled rapid updating of information, albeit limited to Single line display. These types of signs were perfect for environments where specific types of constantly changing information were needed by large numbers of people in spatial contexts where time was of the essence. Airports and even contemporary American train stations such as Penn Station in New York.
These types of signs needed to be centrally controlled however and as such reflected the types of environment where information revolved around linear, specific timetabled events like the arrival and departure of vehicles. This type of sign would not have been as appropriate for say advertising shoes,
As the primary defining characteristic of such an ad would be details about the shoe, its pictorial appearance etc. A sign made up only of rapidly up-datable numbers and text is most useful in settings where rapidly up-datable numbers and text are most needed.
With the development of motion picture technology, the notion of projecting movies onto buildings grew in popularity, especially in societies where the technology of motion pictures was strongly associated with radical shifts in the social base itself as in the very early Soviet Union. In a society where mass education was considered a high priority, cinema played the role of agitational propaganda.
Banners blur the distinction between signage and architecture as structurally banners rely usually upon a built environment to work properly. Banners need to be supported either by a pole or some other construction. A building is perfect for a banner as the length and breadth of an architectural structure lends itself to a banner’s dimensions. Banners continue to evoke festivity, a function perhaps of their lingering association with their status as ceremonial media.
The kiosks designed by Architect Aalto for example and those by such artists as Alexander Rodchenko Display massive banners, which often dominate the structure. Are these buildings architecture with large signs on them or large signs with architectural features? This dichotomy will re-emerge with an examination of entertainment architecture such as that in Las Vegas and Times Square, so beautifully Deconstructed by Robert Venturi in his books “Learning From Las Vegas” and “Iconography and Electronics upon a Generic Architecture”.
Display and trade show architecture such as that designed for the 1939 world’s fair in Queens, New York often developed into ‘imagineered’ structures acting as 3 dimensional signs of things to come companies and governments would each put on display its own version architecturally of what its country or company stood for. These were often wildly ambitious structures such as the General Motors “world of tomorrow” exhibit a large Hemisphere containing in miniature whole cities where roads and cars which used them dominated a future city in America of 1960. The theme park idea found its zenith of course in the completely controlled and Artificially manufactured space of Disneyland. The theme park idea today finds expression most in the building of shopping malls. In such environments, space and the control of motion through space is the designer’s primary objective in these settings the twin needs of attraction and repulsion find expression In the layout and design of interiors whose effect is largely that of turning the whole space into a sign.
Many examples of the early Russian Constructivist architecture specifically recommended the use of Movie projection, such as in the case of Vladimir Tatlin’s “Monument to the Third International” where Movies it was envisioned would be projected onto Moscow clouds. Signs could now be movie projections, or simple slide projections popularized in comic books of the 1930s with the ‘bat signal’ the symbol of the bat projected onto clouds letting the caped crusader know he was needed.
Projection signage today finds expression in the form of signs thrown onto the pavement drawing the passer by into a storefront. many of them animated. These are relatively rare however, as are laser signs, found in nightclubs which when manipulated by programmable mirrors can be made to form animated pictures on the walls.
Signage thus prefigures the act of seeing in ways that the wearable computer now personalizes. It renders the message adjacent to the place. It associates an idea with a locale.
Copyright, David Cox 1998.