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Walk into the bar at Alain Ducasse’s Adour restaurant in New York City, sit down at a special table, and let your hands fall on the surface. Suddenly it lights up. The table is now a coolly-designed digital sommelier that can make suggestions, teach you about the origins of a wine and even fetch you a glass.

Welcome to the world of Potion, the unassuming experts of digital space augmentation. Founded in 2004 by MIT Media Lab grads Phillip Tiongson and Jared Schiffman, the firm is known for its ability to turn anything—or more correctly any­where—into a digital interface. But unlike projection-heavy shops that completely transform objects and spaces, Potion advocates a more subtle type of intervention.

“When you walk into a room,” explains Tiongson, “you already know 80 percent of how you should act from the way the space communicates to you. Where Potion started was to enhance those spaces with digital information in ways that you expect so that they behave the way you want.”

The roughly fifteen-person firm occupies a wide, open office off Manhattan’s busy Canal Street, a neighborhood perhaps better known for its many shops hawking counterfeit hand­bags than the many digital agencies with offices above them. At first glance, Potion looks like any other medium-sized design firm: rows of desks topped by enormous monitors, exposed ductwork and bare light bulbs suspended on long cords from the ceiling. But there are touches that are clearly different. The sign on its thick glass door is a projection, and one of its walls has been outlined in black tape to demon­strate the size of an enormous screen.

All this began roughly eight years ago, when Tiongson and Schiffman met up at a talk by MIT Media Lab associate director of research John Maeda, who suggested they work together. What was it they shared? A desire to merge architecture and digital design, particularly through multi-user, multi-input interaction. This may sound a little old hat today, but in 2004 it was emphatically not. Back then, almost the only people doing that kind of thing were in labs (some of them very likely at a place called Apple).

Tiongson and Schiffman presented their work to a number of design firms and agencies, and found a ready client in museum exhibit designers Ralph Appelbaum Associates (RAA). At the time RAA’s team was working on an interactive table for the National World War I Museum in Kansas City. They were intrigued by one of Schiffman’s projects that featured a seamless multi-touch surface and asked if it could be done on a large scale.

Potion said yes, and its eventual solution was one of the first publicly-available multi-user, multi-touch experiences. The tables attracted plenty of attention and, as often happens in the digital world, the phone started ringing.

Browse Projects

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Since then Potion has largely followed a similar recipe (or some would say philosophy) for enhancing objects and spaces. The first step, discussed above, is to allow the object to set the expectations. Next, you need to remember that the experience is almost always social. If you’re augmenting a space, more than one person will likely be in it. That means you can sometimes provide ways for them to interact, and other times you allow the experience to fade into the back­ground so that people can enjoy a conversation. The last part of the formula, and arguably the most important, is that you have to tell a story through technology.

“We take pride in using, inventing or inte­grating new technology as a medium to express our client’s stories,” says Tiongson.

The best place to see their full approach in action (though far from the most convenient) is the NOVIY restaurant in Moscow, Russia. Unlike most Potion projects, where it brings interactivity to a small part of a room, the NOVIY experience takes place across the entire space, with 40 projectors and interaction that builds off body movement.

From a narrative standpoint, NOVIY begins with concrete-laden architecture of Alexander Brodsky. As you enter, shift­ing gray floorboards light up with orange (a color associ­ated with the restaurant’s brand). When you sit down, the tables have a plain concrete surface. As the dinner goes along, the concrete slowly appears to crack and disintegrate, allowing grass and flowers to grow through. You can also use the table to send messages to other diners, order food, change wall projections and even create watercolor-style pictures. Or you can just enjoy your meal.

Anything a human does that a computer can recognize can be interaction.” —Jared Schiffman

“We were trying to envision an interactive experience that is not five minutes long or a piece of software,” says Schiffman. “We had to design for the three-hour process of going out for drinks and having dinner.”

In addition to more traditional projects like NOVIY, Potion is also branching out into new areas. Most visibly, it has spun off a product called Perch, a sleek silver box that sits on a wall and can turn any retail surface into an interactive inter­face. If a customer picks up a shoe, for example, a table can be bathed in information about it. If you grab a sample bottle of perfume, the organic ingredients of the scent—leaves, flowers, fruit—can flitter about.

“Anything a human does that a computer can recognize can be interaction,” says Schiffman. “With Perch, we realized that interaction can be picking up a product. That’s the first thing you do, and it’s the moment when you are most open to receiving information about it.”

But probably the most interesting new direction for the firm is also one of the more predictable: the iPad. With so many years of multi-touch design under its belt, its work for the platform is decidedly fresh, ignoring many of the conventions that have grown up around the device. For example, Biblion, an app created for the New York Public Library, is a bold rethinking of the conventional e-reader.

When you walk into a room, you already know 80 percent of how you should act from the way the space communicates to you."—Phillip Tiongson

“The physical space of the library provides so many oppor­tunities for serendipity,” says Tiongson. “You’re looking for one thing and you find yourself running into something else. Currently in apps there isn’t much opportunity for that.”

And so, Biblion is more like a reading room than a book. It provides a 3-D interface that makes it easy to find things but also brings randomly interesting topics to your atten­tion. The rotation of the app is also interesting: In straight-up orientations, it shows text; in landscape, it becomes an image viewer. The result is an exploratory experience that will leave you wondering where all the time went. And don’t just believe us. The app has something like 550 5-star ratings in the Apple App Store, and only 15 or so other ratings.

With all the recognition Potion is getting for projects like these, Tiongson and Schiffman are often asked if they have plans to scale up, perhaps hire more people, or even open additional offices. Their answer seems to be not so fast.

“People who work with us have to be unique,” says Tiongson. “Potion started out with just Jared and me, and now we are almost twenty. We’ll keep growing, but one person at a time.”

For the future, they certainly see more iPad applications on the way and, they hope, a retail take-off for Perch. But if the taped-off wall in their office is any indication, they are also up to their old projection tricks and may quite possibly be coming to an upscale space near you. ca
Joe Shepter is a freelance writer specializing in travel and interactive media. He has worked with Adobe, Oracle, Whirlpool and Coca-Cola, among others.

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