We talked to James Patten of Patten Studio about interactive art installations during the pandemic.
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
James Patten: Our kids are both under the age of 2, so the pandemic is the only world they’ve ever known. I feel bad that they’re missing out on experiences that kids their age normally get to have, but over time we’ve learned how to have fun as a family outside while still staying safe. I’m also excited by how New York City is adapting to the pandemic. It’s become much more livable, with more places to walk and eat outside.
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded Patten Studio.
James Patten: I founded Patten Studio in 2006, right after finishing my Ph.D. at the MIT Media Lab. I wanted to work for a company that had a research-driven approach to building interactive experiences, and that was creating work that the world had never seen before. I didn’t find a company that was doing that, so I decided to start one. In the beginning, I had no idea how much I had to learn in terms of the day to day mechanics of running a business. The whole thing has been and continues to be an incredible learning experience.
How does Patten Studio innovate?
James Patten: We often have clients come to us asking for experiences for brand and retail activations that require certain challenging technology problems to be solved, and part of our innovation comes from the learning process of doing those projects. We also do a lot of internal R&D. Even if we don’t have a specific customer in mind at the beginning, our in-house projects allow us to develop new interactive concepts, techniques, and technologies. They also serve as great marketing for us. We share a video of a completed work online, and Reddit will pick it up, and then it’ll be on Mashable or Vice. We’re all about creating things the world has never seen before. When you do that, people get excited.
How the coronavirus pandemic affects your business, and how are you coping?
James Patten: We started the pandemic with everyone working from home, which was a challenge given the hands-on nature of what we do. Now, most of the team is back in the studio, which has really improved morale, but back when we were entirely remote, we came up with some pretty interesting hacks. This summer, we created an interactive installation for LaGuardia Airport that projects people’s silhouettes onto a LED media wall representation of the Manhattan skyline. In order to test it, we made an airport “crowd” out of cardboard cutouts—of Bernie Sanders. I maneuvered those around the empty studio and was able to test the installation’s tracking system.
Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?
James Patten: It’s always challenging to decide whether or not to accept a job that is not perfectly aligned with our studio’s mission or creative vision. The best long term strategy is to stay focused on doing the work that you’re excited about. Doing that is how you connect with the right clients.
How do you deal with stress and anxiety, how do you project yourself and Patten Studio in the future?
James Patten: My go-to for stress relief is yoga. Thankfully, my yoga studio has begun to offer outdoor classes. And as for the future of Patten Studio, we think that as the pandemic winds down, there’s going to be a renaissance in interactive experiences in retail and office spaces. We’re positioning ourselves to lead the way in terms of helping retail and office clients create spaces that people feel a connection to, where they feel safe, and are excited to be.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
James Patten: There are a lot of interaction design studios out there doing interesting work, but I think what sets us apart is the amount of in-house R&D we do. We’re all about using technology to expand the vocabulary of design, so as we develop new products and technologies, we’re increasing the number of tools at our disposal. We have a better sense of what’s possible than competing studios that outsource their software development and mechanical engineering needs, giving us significantly more latitude when designing interactive experiences.
Your final thoughts?
James Patten: COVID is accelerating a lot of trends that were already happening. One of those trends is the idea that brick and mortar retail should be about giving the customer an experience, rather than just facilitating a transaction. Companies were already starting to think about and implement retail experience design, but COVID has made it necessary. With everything available online, you have to give people a really compelling reason to put some clothes on and go to your store.
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