Push Button (2010)

“You press the button, we do the rest”
This slogan, used to sell Kodak cameras is defining of the anticipation that, if we press a button, something will happen.

Ever since people used technology, the button stands for a simple action that triggers mechanical or electrical functionality of various complexity. Push Button is a series of three installations in public space that play with this anticipation.

While Push Button is intended for installation in public space, it is currently installed as a prototype at the MIT Media Lab in buildings E14 & E15.
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First Iteration

In the first iteration a simple red button is installed in a public location, without specific context. The button counts the number of times it is pushed, but does not communicate the number back to the operator. It investigates the button as a magic device, the simplest of all interfaces. It plays with our relationship to buttons in our everyday life in which every interaction with them is met with a physical reaction. This button though, is an interface to something we do not see and have to imagine.

Second Iteration

In a second iteration, the Button is linked to a display that shows the amount of times the button was pushed. Here, the situation inherently changes, as operators will have direct feedback and the button itself and it’s operation are not the focus of the piece anymore. Instead, motivation and anticipation are shifted to the context of numbers. Will people press the button more often if the numbers ascend or descend? Will they anticipate reactions when appraching certain numbers

Final Iteration

A final iteration connects the button pressing and the counting by adding social context. Multiple buttons are placed in public places defining specific areas like Harvard, Cambridge and Central Square. The counters now not only display the number of times each button has been pressed at its current location, but also how many times the buttons in other locations have been pressed. This additional layer of context lends itself for competition and connects this simple interface with reasoning about one’s surroundings, feelings of home and place and personal relationship to public space.

An inter-district game that involves pushing buttons

Competition and competitiveness is very much part of our everyday. We frequently use numbers in order to compare competitive results. Such as the number of goals scored in a soccer game, the number seconds it took to run 100 meters or the number of votes it took to win a seat in congress.
Push Button is an inter-district game that involves pushing buttons and increasing scores. Buttons are mounted in different districts and every time a button is pushed, the number associated with the area it is located in increases by one. This number is displayed on a screen that is mounted in sight of the button. Current numbers from all locations are displayed on this screen.

There are no rules to the game and no instructions. This setup allows for an interactive pubic game that works simply by providing a scoreboard for inter-district competition. The numbers themselves don’t imply anything, they are an extremely reduced form of information. Yet the relationships between the numbers and the locations they represent address our competitive nature, insuring that they will be interpreted with meaning beyond the pushing of buttons.
No matter where you live you develop relationships with the districts and areas in which you spend time. You might live in one district, work in another, have friends in another and go for walks in yet another. With each of these districts you associate different feelings and are attached to them for different reasons. So what if these districts were to compete against each other? If things became serious and you had to pick sides, which district would you support?

The interface is reduced to the basics necessary for the game to work. The red button and the display are mounted on a street signpost. Inside the display box there is a small computer with WiFi capability. The computer transmits and receives information about current scores to a central server so that all displays show the same scores simultaneously.
The game aims to reach a population that has ties to the locations “participating” in the game. Our current choice of districts are: Harvard campus, Central Square and MIT campus. In addition to displaying the current scores from each district on the displays on site, the scores will also be displayed on a website. The installation lasts until the first district reaches the max score which is currently set to be ten thousand. We expect to reach this score within two weeks of installation.


This work was created in collaboration with Friedrich Kirschner. It was developed during the Spring 2010 course titled Dialogues in Public Space lead by Antonio Muntadas of the MIT Visual Arts Program. It was supported by the MIT Media Lab High-Low Tech research group and funded (in part) by a Director’s Grant from the Council for the Arts at MIT.