A little while ago, I wrote a post about an interactive website Google made in collaboration with Lego. Towards the end of that post, I said it’d be very interesting to see what Google and their collaborators came up with next. Since that time, another collaboration has surfaced which I think is very worthy of a follow-up. The website in question is the Chrome Web Lab.

Chrome Web Lab

Chrome Web Lab's front page

The front page at www.chromeweblab.com

The Chrome Web Lab is a collection of five ‘experiments’ made in collaboration with The National Science Museum. Upon loading the site, we’re greeted with a simple splash page inviting us to ‘Enter The Lab’. If you stay on this screen for a few seconds, you’ll see a steady stream of composite geometric shapes begin to arc across the page from top to bottom. These seem arbitrary at first, but after entering the lab, you’re assigned your own compound shape which becomes your ‘Lab Tag’. More on these later.

It’s not immediately obvious what the site’s all about, so the only thing to do is to dive in and get started. Once you’ve got your lab tag, you’re presented with the five experiments available; Universal Orchestra, Teleporter, Sketchbots, Data Tracer and Lab Tag Explorer. I opted to start from the top with Universal Orchestra and with hindsight, I think this is the most interesting of the five.

Choose an experiment

Choose a Chrome Web Lab experiment

Launch the experiment and you’re given two options, ‘Play in Museum’ and ‘Play Online’. It’s hard not to be tempted by the option to ‘Play in Museum’, which shows a live feed of a musical installation within the walls of the National Science Museum. The installation is made up of a collection of eight percussive instruments being struck in time by mechanical arms.

This experiment allows you to take control of one instrument of your choosing for three minutes. During this time, you control when and where the instrument is struck. The fascinating thing about this is that you’ll find yourself playing along with visitors to the museum as well as other visitors of the website. The geographical location and lab tag of each participant is shown beneath the live video feed of the instrument they’re controlling.

Playing the crotales

You become aware of all this while hearing and seeing the installation react to the instructions given by you and the other participants. It’s this social, collaborative aspect of the experiment which makes it so enjoyable. It’s odd to think that the subtle changes you make to the rhythm might influence what other participants are doing, and vice versa.

When your three minutes are up, you’re given the chance to save a video recording of your session to a section of the site called ‘Lab Report’. You can save everything you create throughout the site and it’ll all appear here when you login in at a later date.

All in all, this is some really impressive web technology. Everything worked smoothly and without hitch on my desktop, although things were a little slower on the Chromebook (yes, Google again, no, I’m not affiliated with them!) I’m typing this on. It’s the social aspect of these experiments which makes them so interesting – not only the fact that you can interact with other internet users, but also that visitors to the museum, within touching distance of that physical object you’re controlling from so far away, can interact with you too.

We’ve got used to interacting with one another in a virtual sense on a daily basis – sites like Facebook and Twitter give us the means to do this. What’s exciting about these experiments is the way they humanise our experience of the internet by bringing us the real world. Even though you can’t see the people controlling the installation, there’s something almost tangible about being able to see and hear the results of their actions. I accept without hesitation that the person ‘playing’ the Marimba is from the Russian Federation and that another person inside the museum is ‘playing’ the vibraphone. That’s amazing.

The lab tags I mentioned previously crop up throughout the website and the five experiments. They’re an interesting touch and act as a ‘face’ for each user on the website, again, serving to humanise the experience further. There’s something magical about being able to ‘see’ your fellow visitors in the Lab Tag Explorer experiment. Again, the lab tags flow across the site, this time from left to right. Hovering over the tags displays the geographical location of that user, clicking them lets you explore that user’s creations.

The Chrome Web Lab Tag Explorer

The Lab Tag Explorer, each compound shape represents a user

The Sketch Bots experiment lets you upload a photograph of your face, this is then converted to outlines and sketched in sand by robots. Using the Lab Tag Explorer it’s therefore possible to view portraits of users who’ve saved their Sketch Bot creations. The Lab Tag Explorer is a brilliant device for unmasking the anonymity of the internet. There is something mesmerising about seeing these graphical representations of your fellow visitors bobbing across the screen, knowing that yours is among them. If there’s one thing to take away from all of this, it’s that engaging with the web does not have to be an anonymous and solitary affair.

My son's face sketched in sand

My son’s portrait sketched in sand at the National Science Museum

There’s a real spirit of adventure to this project and I think it’s a massive asset to the National Science Museum. It’s odd to think that children seeing and playing with these experiments, both online and in person, will regard this as normal – ‘here’s what you can do with the internet’. Who knows what they’ll be building for us twenty years from now. How will our conception of the internet as a virtual space have changed by then?

Visit www.chromeweblab.com

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