Public Space and Theater

How can computing and portable sound devices change the way we communicate in public spaces? This team explored that question relentlessly, posing and critiquing several location-specific augmentations.

Annie Berman and Francisco Javier Molina
Annie Berman and Francisco Javier Molina

The team came to be captivated by the Whispering Gallery at Grand Central Station. This space has a natural acoustic property that emerges from the arched ceiling architecture. If you stand in one corner and speak, somebody way over in the other corner can listen and hear you clearly - even though those people standing in-between cannot.

A concept emerged from the idea that these ‘hidden conversations’ need not be lost to time. A small, portable microphone, speaker, and small battery-powered computing device could allow people to leave messages behind that can be experienced after-the-fact by those on the opposite wall.

In a way, this evokes Grand Central Station’s rich history. Countless conversations, lives, hopes, dreams and desires have passed through this space. This team’s work will allow a little of that to be captured and remembered, even for a few moments longer.

Technical Challenges

The team learned to set up a Raspberry Pi, a small, low-powered computing device. The Raspberry Pi/Python combination is well-supported online, and one of the team’s insights is that all that was needed was time and patience. Patience to read forums and follow examples, download and unpack libraries. Time to try, experiment, communicate online, and try again.

Working with a low-powered device means learning about constraints. These were met by using a powered USB external hub, and USB input devices (keyboard, mouse, microphone) that were compatible with the Pi (less than 1mA of current and 3.3V).

Logistical Challenges

The team were set on utilizing the Whisper Gallery at Grand Central Terminal and knew that they needed to secure the necessary permissions. This is because mounting unattended electronics in such a high-profile public space would be considered a security risk.

In order to simplify the application process, the piece was designed to be portable, offline, and battery-powered with a light technology footprint.