did the iphone kill interactive environments?

At some point around the turn of the Millennium, it felt like we were at the precipice of a different future than the one we got. Yet 20 years later, there has been no widespread adoption of interactive digital/physical spaces. Instead, little black mirrors took over the world.

In the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, there were many experiments into adding digital interactivity into physical space. Personal devices were chunky, awkward things, the Internet and WIFI but a dream. At that time, as a young architecture student with a vibrant imagination, I believed that interactive environments had huge potential – far more potential, in fact, than cell phones did at that time for connecting people to the exploding possibilities of the Internet and World Wide Web.

Cutting edge research groups like the Tangible Bits group at MIT’s Media Lab demonstrated incredibly innovative ways to connect data to physical objects and space.

Interactive art installations using the MIDI interface were all the rage, with artists creating ground breaking fusion of media and physical space that long predated the explosion of low-cost computing like Arduino, Raspberry Pi or IOT devices.

Large format LED screens where just introduced, and right away the massive, architectural/urban scale of such devices was demonstrated during the U2 Popmart Tour. Sci-fi no more, all of our walls and surfaces would surely become digital displays.

Then in 2007, Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone, and of course we know how that turned out: Little black mirrors took over the world. People walk through life staring at their phones like total zombies.

Why? Fetish for tangible gadgets. Personal vanity of photography and selfie culture. Extroverts’ incessant FOMO on social media. The drip of social noise, so carefully designed by companies like Facebook to be highly addictive. Scaleable investments in the app store. There are endless reasons. The end result however, is a pathetic global addition to tiny touchscreens and a nearly complete lack of investment to make our built environments interactive.

There have been many wildly creative, beautiful experiments into interactive environments, especially in the past decade using the explosion of digital projection and large format digital screen technologies. Look at the success companies like teamLab and Moment Factory have achieved. YET…there is no scaling here. Every project that teamLab and Moment Factory construct are highly specialized entertainment projects for specific locations.

There have been some extraordinary visions put forth for how to add data to and turn the objects, surface and zones that surround us into portals to the virtual world. Of course Microsoft created a stunning vision, but the potential is so obvious even Corning Glass made a super compelling technology vision. Such videos have been eagerly viewed by tens of millions of people.

But our built environments, ranging from our homes to our offices to retail to our cultural institutions all remain just as un-interactive as they were in 1999, with any actual interactive concepts remaining pathetic, isolated attempts not much better than kiosks running Windows 95. When will architects and the other designers responsible for creating our built environments ever really embrace the potential fusion of the virtual world with the real world?