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Tetrabins combine Tetris and recycling for Vivid Sydney

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Joel Meares

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Sam Johnson (left) and Steven Bai (right) install their Tetrabin ahead of the launch of Vivid LIGHTS.

Sam Johnson (left) and Steven Bai (right) install their Tetrabin ahead of the launch of Vivid LIGHTS. Photo: Walter Peeters

Steven Bai had his 900 LED light-bulbs moment while walking on George Street near Myer: what if, he wondered, Sydney’s bins were somehow interactive? 

Bai, who is in his honours year of his bachelor of design computing degree at the University of Sydney, was poking around for ideas for an assignment when inspiration struck. 

‘‘I thought of a feedback system so that when a person disposed of some rubbish into the bin, the bin would give feedback saying how much they had contributed to the environment,’’ Bai says. ‘‘It would be like data visualisation.’’

But Bai had a second light-bulb moment then: that plan sounded pretty boring. Data visualisation was hardly going to get Sydney's tossers changing their behaviour. And so the idea of the Tetrabin – a marriage of ’80s video game Tetris and waste removal – was born. 

The concept is simple; the technology less so. Bai and fellow student Sam Johnson, with whom he worked on the project, created replicas of the city’s bins with 300 LED lights on each of the bins' three side panels. When rubbish is deposited into the opening, sensors that Johnson built detect the incoming object, then relay the message, and a similar-sized Tetris-style digital block appears on each external panel and falls to the bottom. The block stays there until the next people deposit their rubbish and one row of the digital panel is filled. Then, just like in Tetris, the row will disappear. 

‘‘We grew up playing games like Tetris and Super Mario,’’ says Bai, who was born just outside of Beijing and came to Australia as an international student in year 11. ‘‘The thinking was to use basic game mechanics and game thinking to create something joyful that people can interact with.’’ Make putting rubbish in the bin fun, and more people will do it. 

Bai and Johnson developed the project for a class taught by Dr Martin Tomitsch, who specialises in the study of how tangible computer interaction can be applied to everyday life. A similar kind of ‘‘gamification’’ of the public space made a splash in 2009 when Volkswagen installed a ‘‘piano staircase’’ that played different notes on each step next to an escalator in a Stockholm train station and filmed the results. The video, which went viral, showed 66 per cent more people than usual chose the fun way to ascend over the easier way, when the option was there. 

Bai and Johnson will install two of their Tetrabins near Circular Quay for Vivid – one near the train station and one outside the AMP Centre. The bins will compete with a neon-lit Harbour Bridge, sparkling ferries and a splashily lit-up Opera House for the public’s attention, but Bai says his project is less about drawing eyeballs than ‘‘encouraging a sustained change in people’s everyday behaviour’’.

Does he envision that one day the city will be populated with interactive game bins? Costs are prohibitive for now, he says, but one day maybe.

‘‘Hopefully one day we can use solar energy to create a complete cycle so that we wouldn’t need power from any other sources. It’s more a vision.’’ 

That’s what he likes about his field, he says. ‘‘It trains people to think in a special way – I get to think about what’s going to happen 12 years later.’’

The lights go up for Vivid Sydney this Friday.

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