Can something as small as a can of soda start a global conversation?
In early 2013, Coca-Cola teamed up with creative agency Leo Burnett and The Supergroup, a digital agency based out of Atlanta, in an effort to find out. Despite a shared border and many cultural similarities, India and Pakistan have a fraught history marked by years of conflict. So the company set up two interactive vending machines—dubbed Small World Machines—in Lahore, Pakistan and New Delhi, India, with the goal of opening up a live communications portal between the two countries.
As Director of Creative Technology for The Supergroup, Digital Media (now Digital Arts & Design) grad John Preziotti was part of the team responsible for making the Small World Machines a reality.
“When Leo Burnett pitched this idea to Coca-Cola, they thought that this was something that already existed. You see it all the time in sci-fi movies, where you have someone coming out of a hologram screen and they’re able to talk to each other eye to eye or touch hand to hand. But the truth is the technology wasn’t there yet. So they approached us to develop the technology.”
Over the course of three months, John and his team worked tirelessly to bring Coca-Cola’s vision to life. This was no small feat, considering that the whole project hinged on participants being able to make natural eye contact and “touch hands” through the screen. The creative team at The Supergroup tried placing a camera on the front of the machine. They set up a series of two-way mirrors to create the illusion of two people standing in the same room. They even used multiple cameras to film the subjects from all angles. While these methods technically worked, none of them produced results that felt truly personal. Finally, the team settled on a unique approach. Why not place a camera at eye level behind the screen?
“We ordered screens from all over the world,” says John. “We had to find one that was transparent enough to see through, but also opaque enough to hold the projected image.”
In order to solve the problem of shooting a subject through a projected image, John and his crew turned to 3D active shutter technology. Active shutter systems allow viewers to see two images at once by alternating slightly different images between one eye and another at a rate of about 60 frames per second. This tricks the brain into compositing the two images into a single, three-dimensional picture.
The team took all the components of an active shutter system and broke them down into individual parts. First, one lens displayed the image of the person on the screen. The second lens, which was placed in front of the camera, displayed a blank frame. Meanwhile, the projector displayed both the blank and recorded frames at the same time. The lenses prevented the frames from ever interfering with each other, essentially allowing the machine to film subjects through a clearly projected image. The result? An interaction that allowed participants to look each directly other in the eye and touch hands.
“The prototype was made out of foam core and duct tape. Once the clients signed off on it, we fabricated it, and then we shipped everything over to India and Pakistan,” says John.
The project was a success, with hundreds of people on either side lining up for a chance to indulge their curiosity. John, who was positioned in India during the initial run, recalls one teenage boy he met in line.
“I asked him what he was looking forward to the most, and he said he really wanted to see what they were wearing over there,” laughs John. “And so he goes up and does his interaction, and when he was done I asked him what he thought. He said, ‘They look just like me!’ There hasn’t been a whole lot of interaction in the last 60 years, so there’s a whole generation of young people who don’t know the other side of it. It was really cool to see them make that connection.”
Today, the Small World Machines video has racked up over 2 million views on YouTube. And while John admits that the impact of the project was relatively small in the grand scheme of things, he says he’s hopeful that many small changes can add up to something bigger.
“Coca-Cola wasn’t trying to create world peace with this one. The goal was to start a conversation. And that’s exactly what happened.”