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Sensors and the City: IBM Exhibit Visualizes Today's Urban Problems--and Potential Solutions [Slide Show]

The IBM "Think" exhibit analyzes data to create virtual representations of wasted drinking water, solar-energy potential, traffic snarls, air quality and credit card transactions in and around New York City
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Courtesy of IBM

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At first glance the mammoth screen running down a former parking ramp at Lincoln Center looks like something on loan from Times Square, about a dozen blocks to the south. But this 37.5- by 4.3-meter digital data-visualization wall, parked in the heart of Manhattan, is offering much more than enticements to buy snacks or the latest cologne.

Watch the animated screen a little longer, though, and you will learn something—about the city's largely untapped potential to collect solar energy, the amount of water from New York State's reservoirs wasted before it ever reaches urban residents, and the patterns in traffic and air quality that change hourly. You are seeing data that have been harvested by IBM from 100 sensors throughout the city, analyzed for patterns and rendered into visualizations to create a more complete picture of the city's oft-ignored problems and potential solutions.

"Think," a free exhibit on display at Lincoln Center through October 23, consists of three parts: At the lower end of the ramp, visitors move past the digital wall into a small theater filled with 20 massive video columns, each 2.4 meters tall and 1.2 meters wide. The columns are covered front and back by video screens that, when dark, resemble the primordial monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey. They are arranged in clusters that immerse the audience for a 10-minute film highlighting scientific and technological progress in areas including space exploration, personalized medicine, traffic management and agriculture around the world. At the conclusion of the film, all 40 video screens convert into large interactive touch panels. This lets the audience drill down on different topics via maps, timelines and images.

View a slide show of IBM's Think exhibit.

As visitors leave the theater they can see the final part of the exhibit—a timeline of key IBM milestones from the past century. Starting with the events leading up to Thomas J. Watson's founding of the Computing-Tabulating-Recording Co. in June 1911 from the merger of four firms to the company's name change to International Business Machines in 1924 all the way through the recent success of the company's Watson artificial intelligence program on the game show Jeopardy!.

Think is one of several ways IBM is celebrating its centennial anniversary this year. The exhibit however, is curiously light on advertising for "Big Blue"—as the company was previously  nicknamed—and focuses more on what the company's technology is doing behind the scenes to address health care, resource conservation, food production and other 21st-century concerns. Short interactive videos in the exhibit's theater feature IBM researchers such as David Ferrucci (who led the development of Watson) as well as scientists such as Howard-Yana Shapiro, global director of plant science and external research at Mars Inc.

"We wanted to do something that would be open to the public," says IBM's Lee Green, vice president of brand experience and strategic design. "IBM hasn't done anything like this since probably 1964 when Charles and Ray Eames designed the IBM exhibition at the World's Fair in Flushing Meadows, New York." That exhibit, much less subtle, featured a dome resembling a company innovation, the electric typewriter ball, albeit with only the letters I, B and M.

"What they did so well was take the complexity of math, science and technology and simplified it," Green says. "We wanted to do the same thing, [telling] stories about what it is possible to achieve today through science and technology." IBM plans to tour the exhibit to science museums and educational institutions when it completes its stay at Lincoln Center.

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