Courtesy IBM

Designers have long embraced the role of computational tools when it comes to material and product fabrication and assembly, as they improve speed, uniformity, and precision of the results. But what if this technology was also applied to the ideation and research involved in design conception? IBM and New York–based design studio SOFTlab joined forces for an installation at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona this week to do just that.

Seeking to distill key themes from famed Spanish architect Antoni Gaudí’s work, the SOFTlab team employed IBM’s question-answering supercomputer Watson, which first aggregated thousands of images, historic articles, and even music relating to the history and architectural trends of Gaudí’s structures. The software then outputted key insights on his style by “analyzing and making sense of unstructured information,” says IBM Watson platform manager Jonas Nwuke.

Rendering of "smart" rings
Courtesy IBM Rendering of "smart" rings
Rendering of installation.
Courtesy IBM Rendering of installation.

While Watson identified materials and concepts iconic to Gaudí’s work such as tiles, ceramics, glass, waves, and arches, Watson also pinpointed less obvious elements and motifs such as crabs, spiders, shells, and candy that SOFTlab invoked in the abstract piece. After three months of planning, a team of six people took three days to construct the sculpture on site at the Mobile World Congress. The installation is suspended from the ceiling and made up of a structural aluminum net with more than 3,000 laser-cut, petal-like aluminum panels that are covered in iridescent dichroic film which “captures a lot of the colors that Watson suggested” says SOFTlab founder Michael Szivos. Programmed LED lights in changing hues of blue, violet, green, orange, and yellow give the sculpture a luminescent quality.

The installation has three primary funnel-like components—inspired by Gaudí’s Sagrada Familia—from which “smart” rings hang on gravity-driven cables. Each ring is synced and programmed to respond with a change in height based on key phrases on Twitter from Mobile World Congress-goers' responses to the installation. Using Watson's linguistic analysis Tone Analyzer technology, the rings react to complex concepts such as how open visitors are to artificial intelligence or the prevalence of sentiments such as passion, joy, excitement, curiosity, and encouragement at the conference.

While this is not the first time Watson has been paired with design, this is IBM's first collaboration for a project specific to architecture.