Encounter Amsterdam, The Netherlands

Project commissioner Het Nederlands Instituut voor Beelud en Guild Project advisor Gijs Gootjes, Coordinator, MediaLAB Amsterdam Project collaborators Atossa Atabaki, Shreya Kumar, Orlando Cabanas, Nikhil Banerjee, Lisanne Binhammer

Keywords Public screens; conversations; engagement; interactive content; context-awareness; sensors

Research paper and project blog

Research poster

How can the emergence of public screens in urban environments engage the active citizen?

In partnership with Het Nederlands Instituut voor Beeld en Geluid (the Dutch Sound and Vision Institute), this project investigates how, through subverting the commercialized approach to urban screens with meaningful and location-specific content, interactions between city dwellers can be transformed in an inspiring and refreshing way.  

MediaLABAmsterdam Studio

For this collaboration, I worked at MediaLABAmsterdam with a team of diverse players: an architect and urban planner from Mexico, a researcher from the Netherlands, and mechanical engineer and a user experience and product designer from India. As a group, we followed SCRUM — an agile approach — which guided our process and, ultimately, our final output. Here, we explored different types of fieldwork such as experimenting with different types of mapping, attending hackathons and speaking with experts and, as well as utilized desk-based research methods from the MediaLAB Toolkit. SCRUM is an iterative process, so, after an immense amount of user testing and feedback, we designed a solution that demonstrated its usefulness in locations such as a library and a hotel. The design is a visual remix of archived footage and stimulating phrases, which are revealed on a screen in relation to interactive sensor-driven content.


At top: Concept sketching, From left to right, top to bottom: The Toolkit, Concept sketching, Persona design, Storyboards, Focus group, Project models

MediaLABAmsterdam’s Design Method Toolkit is a collection of a wide range of design and research method cards which enrich the design process. For this project, our team made use of methods such as Concept sketching, the creation of Personas and Storyboards, Video prototyping, Focus groups and Project models. This methods encouraged us to rapidly generate and prototype ideas, as well as taught us how to communicate and edit concepts according to our users. 

Collaboration sessions

One key method that we fell back on, time and time again was one-on-one interviews, or, collaboration sessions. For this project, we worked with three stakeholders: the Dutch Sound and Vision Institute (our commissioner), the Volkshotel (a multifunctional hotel) and the Openbare Bibliotheek Amsterdam or OBA, the city's library. In working closely with these stakeholders, we were able to thoroughly grasp the needs of each group and develop our work accordingly. We also interviewed those without any affiliation to our project, from architecture firms with a passion for urban interventions, to authors concerned with the future of the digital city.

From left to right: Hacking projects at STRP, the Waag Society hackathon and projections

Our team also experimented outside of the Toolkit: we attended Integrated Systems Europe, a showcase of the latest AV technologies to communicate with experts, participated in the Waag Society's annual hackathon, hosted by Europeana Space and took part in a projector hacking workshop at the 2015 STRP Festival in Eindhoven to enrich our process and final solution.

Key Learnings


STRP Festival

Digital immersion is moving into public space. Screens and other forms of digitized public displays are deployed in urban environments, from train stations to shop windows, enabling new forms of multimedia presentation and new user experiences (Muller 2010: 1285). The digitization of these spaces adds to the commercialization of the public domain; these displays tend to feature ad-based content. Public screens therefore demonstrate that city inhabitants are, more often than not, treated as consumers rather than citizens.   

This approach alienates urban dwellers from their cities, and from each other. In response, artists and media activists have attempted to subvert this commercialization, through manipulating the technologies themselves, as well as through generating meaningful and interactive content (De Waal and De Lange 2013: 3).

From left to right: Outside and inside the Volkshotel and the OBA

The Volkshotel and the OBA Linnaeusstraat (located in Amsterdam Oost) are both home to large-scale screens. The placement of these screens is, however, quite different: at the Volkshotel, the screen is “semi-public”, as it is located inside a restaurant within the hotel. Here, viewers remain in the landing zone, or area where users may view the screen from, for a substantial amount of time (eating, drinking, etc.). The screen at the OBA is “public”, insofar as it faces out onto the street and is viewable to passerbys. Here, users are more likely to remain in the landing zone for a short amount of time. These factors shape a person’s ability to digest and retain the content on the screen. It should be noted that the owners of both of these entities want their screens to, in someway, facilitate conversations between their users, the neighbourhood (Oost) and the city as a whole.

The users of the Volkshotel and the OBA Linneausstraat cover a wide demographic base, however, expressed similar sentiments when it came to finding a place outside of the home to relax, work or socialize in: they want to feel a sense of ownership of and connection to the space.

Points of intervention:

· There is a need to rethink the current commercialized and often alienating approach to urban public screens

Points of opportunity:

· Design a solution that can be tailored to different types of urban screens

· Extract location-specific data from the surrounding neighbourhood and city to trigger on-screen content in order to connect users to the space that he or she is in

· Create meaningful and interactive content that inspires users to have a conversation with one another


Solution demo

In order to address our key learnings, we designed Encounter, a solution which aggregates location-specific data from the Cloud (such as social media streams coming from landmarks), and then uses this data to trigger on-screen content in the form of historical videos and catchy phrases.

Technical flow chart

For example, a tweet from a museum in the area might cause footage from the museum’s time of construction. Here, the viewer is given an extra-sensory awareness of his or her environment: the space where he or she is located in, and the city itself. The catchy phrases instil viewers with different emotions, and subtly act as conversation starters. The user is encouraged to connect with other users of a space. 

User testing at the Volkshotel

After designing our solution, our team set out to test and determine its effectiveness. Here, we drew on user testing methods from the Toolkit, such as Wizard of Oz, where we observed and recorded the reactions of the users of our design at the Volkshotel and the OBA, hidden from view. In this way, we were able to get an authentic sense of the effectiveness of our solution. We also designed and handed out surveys to garner a statistical sense of how users felt towards the design. 

From left to right: Documented results from user testing, survey sample

The results that we gained through user testing demonstrated that Encounter has the ability to transform interactions in large cities in an interpersonal and refreshing way. In the future, our team hopes to transfer the design of Encounter to other cities, using archived footage and catchy phrases to motivate urban inhabitants to become active citizens.