Columbia GSAPP Digital Screens

Screen shot 2017 10 19 at 1.25.172 pm
Screen shot 2017 10 19 at 1.25.17 pm

Screens throughout Columbia GSAPP’s buildings act as clocks and as reflections of the life of the school. They periodically show the time, in a different typeface for each time of day. And they automatically draw content from the website’s database, such as new books, student work, Instagram posts, events, exhibitions, and more.

The screens are sequenced multidimensionally using a unique probabilistic authoring interface within the website’s own CMS, Economy. The screens’ editors can sequence different screens to stream mixes of different kinds of content (or share the same mix). By sequencing content modules and adjusting min/max probability sliders within each module, these mixes can be more random or more definitively programmed, and probabilities can be weighted in various ways per screen. One screen might emphasize exhibitions and sporadically show Instagram posts, and another screen might show this week’s events, student work, books, and the occasional future event. This blend of sequence and improvisation reduces the experience of repetition as students move through the school’s physical spaces, but still allows each screen to establish a rhythm or beat.

Daily cycle
As the time and the typeface changes with the hour of the day, the mix of content on each screen changes too, because editors can dial in different content weights for morning, afternoon, evening, and night. The screens’ visual language and tempo also changes with the hour. In the morning, the screens are bright and move very quickly. At night, they use a dark color palette, become very slow and dreamlike, and tend to include abstract test patterns in the mix. Day after night, the screens hint at the performance of canonical hours for a kind of secular abbey.

The screens model the life of the school. They also recapitulate the school’s dynamic visual identity, which is also modeled on the life of the school, and they place that identity back into the environment from which it’s derived. They animate the system’s database, giving it a visible and organic life in space.

The screens may be placed throughout Columbia GSAPP’s several buildings and programs at Columbia, as well as in its other locations in New York City and globally. Screens at one geographic location can be configured to emphasize content associated with that location, and to occasionally show content from elsewhere. In this way the screens also link a diaspora.

Flexibility and resilience were paramount in the design of the system. Each distinct content stream (like the one at the top of this page) has its own web address, so any web browser – often a Chromebit – can become a screen, of any size from a tablet to a large projection. This approach encourages organic growth of the hardware network itself over the years, and staves off obsolescence.

The screens use React and Progressive Web App technology, boot automatically, and are remotely managed. As long as wifi or ethernet is available, they continually display realtime content. During a network outage, they continue displaying the last available content, varying it parametrically and discarding expired content such as past events. After some hours or days when no available content remains relevant, they may become pure clocks until the network connection returns, at which point they automatically reconnect.

Effect on campus life
We’ve noted a significant effect on campus life, and on the intersection between physical and digital campus life. As one example, students, staff, and faculty often contribute content to the website by saying they’d like to contribute content “to the screens.”

Year: 2017  Client: Columbia University
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