From the other side of the wall, we can hear giggling and squealing, and then — a brief pause in the cacophony. We wait, and in a moment, the joyous shrieking begins again, and so it goes, again and again.
My friend, Wanda, and I know what’s going on. A few minutes earlier, we were exploring the same exhibit, one of many within the labyrinths of the WNDR Museum in downtown San Diego.
This particular exhibit/experience, called “Untitled by You,” demonstrates how computers learn to use neural networks, similar to the human brain. The word artificial intelligence (AI) is not used, but the resemblance is there.
Visitors suggest a picture to the computer, however ridiculous. We proposed a surfer on a banana, then waited for the computer to generate an image on the first of five screens. The image continued to morph as it appears on four additional screens, one after the other. The final image can be anything from the ordinary to shriek-producing bizarre.
“This is addicting,” I heard one visitor say.
Mind-blowing and eye-popping are other adjectives Wanda used to describe our experience at the WNDR (pronounced wonder) Museum, which opened in January.
The venue combines art, technology and the imagination of visitors to provide an encounter that is fun and sometimes a bit challenging.
“WNDR is unique in the way that the experience truly depends on your input,” said Andy Grantz, general manager, who left the world of spreadsheets to work for museum founder Brad Keywell, also co-founder of Groupon and an industrial AI software provider and art collector. His philosophy is shared through a bright, red neon sign that proclaims, “We are all artists.”
San Diego’s WNDR museum is one of four; the other three are in Chicago, Seattle and Boston.
“I love giving tours through here and seeing the museum through other people’s eyes,” Grantz said. “Reactions have been overwhelmingly positive. San Diego has a vibrant art community and we think we fill a niche that was vacant. It’s thrilling to hear the oohs and aahs when guests step through the curtain and onto our light floor to start their experience.”
The opportunities to create art and participate abound. (I had estimated a 60- to 90-minute visit when we entered the museum. We emerged onto Market Street nearly three hours later.)
At one exhibit titled LSD (“Lake Shore Drive, as a nod to our roots in Chicago”), we planted our feet on a designated spot, then used our body movements to alter the designs on a large digital screen covered in what looks like pink spaghetti on a deep blue background. The possibilities are endless.
At another station, we entered a darkened room filled with what resembles circular shower curtains, crafted with strings of multicolored LED lights suspended from the ceiling. Moving through the light curtains and watching the colors change is an ethereal experience.
Multiple mirrors and complex lighting effects are used in several exhibits, creating a challenge when it comes to figuring out where the ceilings, floors, halls and walls begin and end.
Some experiences are low-tech but still thought-provoking.
At one stop, lettering on the wall asks, “What do you know for sure?” We wrote our answers on small squares of paper and posted the notes on a rack with thousands of others. Some of the contributions: “You don’t know until you try”; “You only live once”; “You can’t blend in when you were born to stand out”; and “the cereal always comes b4 the milk.” (Do some people really put milk into the bowl first?)
Perhaps the most sensory-challenging exhibit was “Insideout” by Scottish artist Leigh Sachwitz, an “immersive 360-degree video, light and sound experience” that mimics a thunderstorm as visitors sit in a Glasgow garden shed. It is so convincing that, at one point, I grabbed the table, sure that we are sliding away.