Tucked away downstairs in the Science Museum, Chrome Web Lab, an interactive series of exhibits by Google, is a hands-on exposition of the inner workings of the Internet, consisting of five interactive experiments that focus on different aspects of the World Wide Web.
Upon arrival, visitors are presented with a personal Lab Tag, while the first exhibit, ‘Universal Orchestra’, greets them with the sound of vibraphones, marimbas and drums – all of which can be programmed by visitors as well as online guests (who visit chromeweblab.com). Just nearby, ‘Teleporter’ offers the chance to watch a live feed from Hamburg, Cape Town, or North Carolina via web-enabled periscopes. Next are the ‘Sketchbots’ – the Web Lab’s most publicised experiment – which involves visitors having their pictures taken and watching in amazement, as the image is edited, step-by-step, before finally being drawn in sand by a robotic arm.
Another exhibit, ‘Data Tracer’, displays an assortment of pictures hosted by different servers around the world, allowing visitors to uncover the locations of the images and highlighting the tremendous speeds with which data can be transmitted across the Internet. Finally, ‘Lab Tag Explorer’ allows guests to peruse the database of contributions made by previous visitors to the Web Lab; each Lab Tag acting as a save card, allowing the results of any creative tinkering with the experiments to be viewed online.
Each experiment asks a different question – “How can we see something that isn’t here?” “How is data transferred across the globe?” – and is accompanied by a short video explaining the mechanism which drives them. ‘Universal Orchestra’ showcases the potential that two-way communication offers for remote collaboration, ‘Teleporter’ explains the process of compression and its importance in the transmission of data, while the ‘Sketchbots’ are an example of the link between software and the physical world. It can seem, at times, that the short videos bite off more than they can chew: attempting to incorporate a large amount of information into a two-minute film, all the while trying to keep it accessible to the general public. Yet they remain clear and enlightening for the most part.
Offering a range of familiar examples of what web technology is able to achieve and illuminating the processes behind them, Web Lab leaves the impression of an informative exhibition that deals with an increasingly important part of modern life in a remarkably lucid and attractive way.
Chrome Web Lab runs to June 20, 2013 and can be found on the Lower Ground Floor of the Science Museum, London. Admission is free.