Digital placemaking, where location-specific digital services contribute to more meaningful destinations, is reaching new heights as cities find innovative new ways to connect digitally with residents and visitors. London’s exciting Wembley Park neighbourhood is at the forefront of digital placemaking, utilising digital signage to showcase a series of interactive digital PlayDays events which turned the physical urban landscape into a playable surface.
On 16 and 17 August 2023, in a first for London, visitors to Wembley Park were able to use custom joysticks and jumbo buttons to enjoy a series of short games played on two 9m tall, 360° wraparound digital screens on Olympic Way, directly opposite the iconic Wembley Stadium.
The concept was developed, in partnership with Wembley Park, by creative exec Iain Simons, Director of the Walt studio, which has experience from across the arts, technology and entertainment sectors. Simons has previously worked with the BFI, OKRE and Spitalfields Music Festival, as well as being founder and creative director of northern England’s acclaimed GameCity Interactive Entertainment Festival and co-founder of the National Videogame Arcade in Nottingham.
“Wembley Park is a hugely exciting area and we’re thrilled to have been able to work within, and with it. While the new neighbourhood is full of impressive technology and beautiful digital assets, it’s built upon a site with incredible history – all around one of the most iconic buildings in the world, Wembley Stadium. With PlayDays we aimed to bring something new to Wembley Park, taking the first steps in creating original ways for people to experience and play with the space they’re in.”
The PlayDays event concept followed a workshop earlier in the year in Wembley Park’s community hub The Yellow, where children and young people focused on game creation and making controllers from a variety of household objects for the public realm. Their vision came to life on the digital canvas of Wembley Park through PlayDays. Walt’s Iain Simons comments:
“We were inspired to create an experience that could involve players of all ages – and one that wasn’t just for gamers but for all those living around and visiting the Wembley Park neighbourhood. The goal was to turn Wembley Park into a giant outdoor arcade using its digital signage assets. We used digital placemaking to connect people to the urban landscape in new ways.”
During the PlayDays events, players were able to interact with a collection of digital ‘creatures’ in a series of 90-second games. Very young players made the creatures jump around and tickled them, while older players guided them through mazes to find their friends and completed colour memory, balance and speed-count challenges. Players could digitally collect the creatures they met and even had the opportunity to name some of them. Simons comments,
“The big practical and technical challenge here was to create an interactive framework that makes the smallest possible demand on the existing teams and infrastructure – AND can be easily used by artists and the community. We developed a new framework called ‘Gene’ that can operate entirely autonomously, allowing real-time reflection of users’ input without needing any physical access to the devices. A combination of low-voltage interfaces, low-bandwidth messaging and a variety of video game frameworks has resulted in it being hugely flexible, extensible and easy to use.
“On the input side, we worked hard to create a framework that can accommodate a wide variety of interfaces, that can be embedded almost anywhere in the neighbourhood itself. For the first PlayDays events, these have been simple, wireless buttons – but the framework is in place to receive input from anything. What excites us most is starting to explore new ways of playing that can work with those. Empowering community groups to be able to use the place they live in creatively in new ways is the goal. For us, the most exciting digital signage isn’t about creating the most exciting visual display – it’s about transforming the signs into something reflective of the action going on around them. Less like signs, more like mirrors.”
As Wembley Park’s Cultural Director, Josh McNorton, echoes Simon’s views commenting, “Digital placemaking is creating fresh ways of experiencing and interacting with the Wembley Park neighbourhood. Our PlayDays events showcased a new way to interact with digital assets in the neighbourhood, such as the digital totems. We want all residents and visitors to enjoy the environment in different ways, making the most of its urban digital infrastructure.”
The partnership between creative exec Iain Simons and Wembley Park is part of the neighbourhood’s wider digital placemaking strategy and follows the popularity of a range of digital assets delivered in Wembley Park. Examples include the Shadow Wall from Jason Bruges Studio, where passersby can dance with their digital shadow as they traverse the 29m-wide Royal Route Underpass courtesy of the custom printed circuit boards (PCBs) specifically developed by Jason Bruges Studio for use inside the artwork.
The neighbourhood is also currently home to a range of digital artworks delivered by acclaimed multi-disciplinary artist and poet Claire Luxton, whose captivating ‘Messenger’ installations are presented across digital screens along Olympic Way, White Horse Square and the 21m wide Bobby Moore Bridge.
In addition to the free public art on display on the digital signage, the lighting system along Olympic Way has also been utilised for cultural placemaking in a range of ways. The banners along the walkway are capped by programmable lights that can change colour and brighten or dim the banners’ illumination. The use of the banners and lighting was integral to the sequential artwork ‘A Guiding Light’, one of the Wembley Park Art Trail’s winter 2022 exhibition installations. Created by light artists Douglas Green and Louisa Smurthwaite, the artwork, which depicted the 12 hours of the moon rising and 12 hours of the sun setting across the 34 seven-metre-tall banners, was supported by projections of a star field on the ground below.
Digital lighting systems have also been developed to great effect in other parts of the 85-acre estate with Brent-based light artist Yoni Alter creating an immersive walk-through experience upon the Flanagan Lawrence-designed acoustic Sound Shell stage, adding thousands of LED lights to form a beautiful, ever-changing light installation as part of Winter at Wembley Park in 2022. A dazzling Christmas tree made of light also wowed yuletide crowds in Wembley Park back in 2021, when 100,000 low-energy kinetic lights pulsed in rhythm, while younger visitors played in the neighbourhood’s light maze. Digital components also played a major role in Wembley Park’s 2020 RISE event, which celebrated the impact of Brent on London’s culture, from its music and activism to its rebellious spirit.
Josh McNorton continues, “Many neighbourhoods already make good use of traditional signage for promotion and wayfinding but so much more can be achieved when that signage is digital. It can be repurposed to underpin cultural and digital placemaking activity, as we’ve shown with the PlayDays events in Wembley Park. Digital signage is a major asset for driving interaction and engagement with residents and visitors. That’s something that cities are beginning to understand and embrace, and we are proud to be leading in this field.”