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Tuesday, November 8, 2011

MOVERS AND SHAKERS: James Patten, Interactive Designer, President of Patten Studio LLC, Sponsored by Geoffrey Bradfield

James Patten

Sponsored by Geoffrey Bradfield

James Patten is the President of Patten Studio LLC, an interaction design firm based in Brooklyn. Patten Studio merges award-winning art and design talent with in-depth technical knowledge to create magical interactive experiences for clients in retail, entertainment, education and consumer products. While the word "interactive" often conjures up images of websites, all of Patten Studio's projects are experiences that exist in the physical world: in storefronts, museums and galleries rather than online.

Recently Patten unveiled two sets of kinetic installations for the windows at Barneys New York. The first set, entitled "Carine's World", was created in celebration of Carine Roitfeld, the former editor of French Vogue.  This has been featured in our column, New Window: 
 For these windows, Patten constructed several machines to manipulate images of Roitfeld in unexpected ways. In one, a motor created ripples in a water tank placed above a video of Roitfeld, superimposing the ripples onto the video image itself. Most recently, Patten created "The Chase", an installation in which two pairs of shoes by Christian Louboutin engage in a pursuit through one of the Barneys storefront windows. Patten created an intricate mechanism that uses magnets, motors and custom electronics to move the shoes.

Patten uses technology not as an end in itself, but as a tool to expand what is possible in the world of design. Another example of this approach is the Gravity Harp, which Patten worked on for Björk's Biophilia tour. Designed to extend 25 feet into the air, the Gravity Harp uses a series of four pendulums to pluck harp strings, playing the song “Solstice” from Björk's most recent album. The robotic pendulums that make up the Gravity Harp are electronically controlled by Björk on-stage so that she can improvise or even create new songs.

In 2010, Patten's "Create a Chemical Reaction" exhibit at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago received a MUSE Gold award from the American Association of Museums. This exhibit lets visitors physically grab chemical elements off of the periodic table and bring them together to experiment with chemical reactions. The exhibit uses an interactive technology developed by Patten's firm that tracks the movements of objects on a tabletop surface, providing visitors with a tactile interactive experience instead of a purely digital one.

Patten's interactive works have also been exhibited or performed in the Venice Biennale of Architecture, the Museum of Modern Art and the Museo Guggenheim Bilbao among others. Patten is a TED Fellow and his work has been recognized in several international design competitions including the International Design Magazine's Annual Design Review, and the Industrial Design Excellence Awards. Patten also consults for companies that are looking for new ways that customers can interact with their products using the sense of touch. While most interaction with computers happens on a screen, Patten works to bring that interaction off of the screen and into the physical world. He became excited about this approach to rethinking the way people interact with technology during his time at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media Lab, where he completed his Ph.D. in 2006.  We are so pleased to present James Patten as our latest Mover and Shaker.

Peachy Deegan interviewed James Patten for Whom You Know.

Peachy Deegan: How do you define interactive and what is the difference between a regular interactive experience and an extraordinary one?
James Patten: 
An extraordinary interactive experience is unusual, surprising and playful. It needs to immediately draw people in and reward those who explore it with a continuous stream of thoughtful details. Last year we made an interactive table about chemistry for a science museum and one of the challenges was "how can this be a fun experience even for people who don't care about chemistry?" We worked a lot on the graphics and software to make them visually engaging and responsive to what visitors do, so that even if someone wasn't interested in the science behind the exhibit they would still enjoy the experience on a purely visual level. Making it possible to relate with the experience on both a shallow and a deep level is important. 

What kinds of toys did you play with as a kid?
Mostly building toys: Legos, erector sets, etc. 

What is the most challenging project you've worked on and how did you confront the challenges it presented?
My most challenging project was the Gravity Harp we built for Björk this summer. The budget and schedule were very tight and there were a lot of technical challenges to be met in order to achieve the aesthetic result we wanted. Fortunately the team on that project was very talented and dedicated, and we were able to make things come together in the end. There wasn't really a trick to it, just lots of late nights and early mornings in the studio to get it done. 

What project that you worked on did you enjoy the most and why?
The windows at Barneys New York for Carine Roitfeld were a lot of fun because the team at Barneys were really open to some crazy ideas and provided a lot of great feedback during the entire process. 

How do you come up with your ideas and how do you connect a concept to the literal interactive translation?
My favorite way to come up with ideas is to chat with friends over drinks. Ideas will bounce back and forth and gradually become more and more ridiculous until eventually one of the ideas crazy enough to be worth trying! When I come up with ideas on my own I don't always understand how I came up with them or where they came from. They just sort of pop into my head. Figuring out how to create something interactive around a particular concept depends on a bunch of different factors: the target audience, the context etc. It's sort of like a jigsaw puzzle where you just try to find the best way to fit all of the pieces together. 

Is there anything someone's asked you to design that was not possible, and how do you get people to reinvent their ideas when you know that from a technical aspect, their idea will not be successful in real life?
I get asked to build a lot of things that are impossible, and I generally try to explain why and often that explanation leads the client to a similar idea that is possible. I try to engage clients as collaborators whenever possible because I think that creative process leads to the best work in the end.

In our column New Window, what windows do you like aside from the ones you personally did?
I liked the Paul Mayer windows. Very imaginative and playful yet precise. 

What is your PhD in and did you go to Daisy Buchanan's or Atlantic Fish Company in Boston? 
My Ph.D. is in Media Arts and Sciences. It's an interdisciplinary program at the boundaries of technology, design and art. Alas, I never made it to Daisy Buchanan's or Atlantic Fish Co.

What are your favorite spots in Boston?
My favorite bar is a place called Miracle of Science. For food I love the Blue Room and Central Kitchen. 

How do you like Boston compared to New York?
On a daily basis I much prefer New York, though at times I miss Cambridge. 

What or who has had the most influence on your pursuit of excellence?
My teachers, including Hiroshi Ishii, John Maeda, Chris Csikszentmihalyi and Randy Pausch. Also, being a part of the TED Fellows program had a big influence on me. 

What are you proudest of and why?
I'm proud of my company Patten Studio. We have a great team that is passionate about what they do. 

What would you like to do professionally that you have not yet had the opportunity to do?
I'd like to work on new ways to help disabled people interact with technology. 

What honors and awards have you received in your profession?
I've won awards in design competitions including ID Magazine's Annual Design Review, the Industrial Design Society of America's design awards and the Designing Interactive Systems competition. This year I was selected as a TED Fellow, and won an award from the American Association of Museums for Best Interactive Kiosk. 

What is your favorite place to be in Manhattan?
Central Park

What is your favorite shop in Manhattan?
Kiosk in Soho

What is your favorite drink?

What is the funniest thing that has ever happened to you at a cocktail party?
We hired a DJ for one of our parties and she asked for a picture of the space where she would be playing. Our office has a large green and white metal sculpture in the middle, and the DJ came dressed to match the sculpture in a green and white metallic bodysuit!

What is your favorite restaurant in Manhattan?
Tia Pol

What is your favorite Manhattan book?
The Works: Anatomy of a City by Kate Ascher

Who would you like to be for a day and why?
Someone in the Obama cabinet. I'd like to see what things are like in that administration from the inside. 

If you could have anything in Manhattan named after you what would it be and why?
A library. They're an under appreciated part of what makes the american dream possible. 

What has been your best Manhattan athletic experience?
Taking a friend to Central Park for a picnic on my two-seater bicycle. 

What is your favorite thing to do in Manhattan that you can do nowhere else?
Have a fancy dinner out at 4am.

If you could have dinner with any person living or passed, who would it be and why?
Thomas Jefferson. Such an amazing guy on so many different levels. 

What has been your best Manhattan art or music experience?
I'm a big fan of the Bitforms gallery in Chelsea. 

What do you personally do or what have you done to give back to the world?
As much as possible I try to do projects that make the world a better place, either through education or simply making technology less frustrating and more fun. For example I built an ethical shopping aid that lets people scan the barcodes on products and get information about the ethical and environmental records of the companies that make those products. I also support charities that promote entrepreneurship and sustainable economic development through loans and education programs. 

What do you think is most underrated and overrated here?
Underrated: the people. They're outgoing, friendly, diverse and doing so many interesting things
Overrated: The weather. I'm not ready for another cold winter! 

Other than Movers and Shakers of course, what is your favorite Whom You Know column and what do you like about it?
I like "Peachy and the City." There's so much going on in the city that it's hard to keep track of everything. This column has some great tidbits. 

Have you drank The Peachy Deegan yet and if not, why not? 
Looking forward to trying it!

What else should Whom You Know readers know about you?
You can see a lot of my past work here:

How would you like to be contacted by Whom You Know readers?

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