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Interactive art: ‘Public Radio’ installation lets you pick the music

Public Radio on display at District Hall
Public Radio on display at District Hall (photo credit: New American Public Art)

Standing 10 feet tall, elegantly sloped along its front face with the soft light of rainbow LEDs glowing behind half inch of frosted acrylic, “Public Radio” is a unique art installation you’ll find at District Hall’s outdoor plaza in the Seaport, Boston’s home for innovation. Turn the metal-rimmed dials to tune to a different station as the corresponding LEDs light up on this giant radio, powered by a tiny but mighty BBC micro:bit computer, inviting the public to play with and listen to the latest broadcasts and music. Built by New American Public Art in the Microsoft Garage at the New England Research and Development Center, Public Radio is an interactive art installation with microprocessor parts and a futuristic look that encourages a spirit of community, working and grooving together.

A sense of community, inspiring movement and spontaneous interaction

Somerville-based New American Public Art (NAPA) is a multi-disciplinary art studio that builds interactive projects and installations. NAPA answered the 2016 Public Space Invitational Digital Challenge put forth by Boston’s Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics in collaboration with Microsoft. After 6 months of fabricating and building, the larger-than-life radio was ready for show. It has been living in The Garage at NERD as a centerpiece that demonstrates how technology and art can converge.

“When you scale up a common object and place it in the public, you often get uncommon and surprising results. How will the public decide among themselves what to listen to?” says Dan Sternof Beyer, Creative Director and Co-Founder of NAPA.

From NAPA’s original project proposal, the idea is “Music inspires movement, creates a sense of place, and provides an opportunity for spontaneous interaction with other people.” NAPA designed the project in collaboration with creative engineer Andrew Ringler. Chris Templeman, Microsoft Garage program manager, had connections with the local studio prior to joining Microsoft. Templeman introduced NAPA to the bevy of hardware and fabrication tools in the Garage maker lab. “The Garage at NERD has embraced local artists since we opened our doors last year. We’re constantly inspired by art and how that creativity and imagination can help make better products and spark new ideas.”

Public Radio in The Garage at NERD

Public Radio in The Garage at NERD (photo credit: New American Public Art)

“I think people will be excited to experience the Public Radio because it’s an innovative way to activate a public space using a combination of interactive art and technology,” says Aimee Sprung, Director of Civic Engagement at Boston’s Microsoft office. “The build-out at Microsoft Garage has been both an educational and exciting experience and we’re proud to have sponsored this program as part of our commitment to driving civic engagement in Boston.”

More than art – bringing technology to life

Public Radio was freshly installed outside District Hall on April 5th and will be on display for the public to interact with through September. For the past year, however, it has stood as a compelling example of innovative tech-meets-art in The Garage at NERD, showcased in interactions with the community and local schools. “We often use micro:bit in workshops where we invite local STEM students,” explains Templeman. “When we have students come in and learn how to program on the micro:bit, we use the Public Radio to illustrate what you can do with it to run such large and interactive projects. It brings the tech to life in a creative and tangible way.”

Employees from Microsoft’s Education Windows and Devices team have also been engaging public schools and collaborating with The Garage to bring students in to engineer escape rooms. “We are teaching kids engineering by building escape rooms using the micro:bit.” Tisha Nguyen, a Solutions Professional on the Education team explains. “This hands-on experience outside the traditional classroom setting is extremely valuable as we continue to prepare the next generation of Data Scientists, Engineers, and Statisticians.” The effort was made possible with the help of engineers from Office who designed the escape room experiences, Jean-Yves Ntamwemezi, Arthur Berman, and Eric Frackleton.

Public Radio outside of District Hall

Public Radio outside of District Hall (photo credit: New American Public Art)

With Public Radio now leaving The Garage space and headed to its new home, there are still plenty of creative sources for inspiration left. The recent collaboration of MIT, The Met, and Microsoft has spurred new relationships with other art institutions such as the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. “We are thrilled to work with local artists and museums to figure out different ways tech can help push the boundaries of creativity,” says Linda Thackeray, Director of The Garage.

The details and specifications of the Public Radio are all available open-source on Github, including how to get the micro:bit connected with the radio boards, sensors, and LEDs. Learn more about the Public Radio from the official press release.

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