When you step into the Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum in New York City, you encounter a world of tactile, physical stuff. You might come across an Austrian coffee service from 1902—including a milk jug and sugar bowl—ringed at the base in a pattern of burnt-orange circles. Or check out the atomic-age styling of a 1959 Philco television, the ovoid screen posed like a head on a swivel. Range further back in time and there’s a silver-plated match safe from 1885 Britain—a pocket-size box for holding a smoker’s matches.
In the article you’re reading right now, however, the Cooper-Hewitt is announcing the unprecedented acquisition of an artifact you will never find encased in a plexiglass cube or sequestered in a climate-controlled storage facility. In a physical sense, it doesn’t even exist: It’s a piece of software, an app called Planetary, and it heralds the museum’s first foray into intangible items.
Introduced for the iPad by the software firm Bloom in 2011, the Planetary app offers a dazzling portal for navigating an iTunes collection—visualized as celestial objects. When you launch it, a spherical, 3-D galaxy appears. Swiping across the screen, you can spin the galaxy on its axis, viewing it from all angles. Each star represents an artist. Tap a star; the screen zooms in to a series of planets orbiting the star that represent individual albums. Tap a planet and zoom in to a series of orbiting moons: Each moon is a song on the album. Tap a moon, and the song begins playing—as the moon revolves around the planet. It’s a mesmerizing galactic experience—which is why more than two million users have downloaded it.
“The impetus for the acquisition,” says Sebastian Chan, Cooper-Hewitt’s director of digital and emerging media, “is that software has become one of the most significant arenas of design.” Code, the underpinning of any app, may be digital and insubstantial; you can’t touch it. Yet we interact with apps daily and their design affects our behavior. When Facebook, for example, created its “News Feed” feature, users encountered a stream of their friends’ status updates. “No one quite knows what it means to collect design artifacts in a world where design is increasingly intangible,” says Aaron Cope, Cooper-Hewitt’s senior engineer.
The first step, Chan says, will be to exhibit Planetary when the museum reopens in 2014 after renovations. It will be displayed on iPads so visitors can interact with the software. The next step will be to modify Planetary for new purposes. The app visualizes connections among pieces of data, at the moment focused solely on music. Cooper-Hewitt curators plan to create a new version of Planetary containing information on the museum’s 217,000 artifacts. A majority of the holdings are in storage, about half of which are viewable as images on the museum’s website. Chan foresees Planetary as a tool allowing visitors virtual access to the entire collection.
“When you look at the collection as a whole, you see connections,” he says. “You can map social connections between people and things. Why did that person donate so many things in the 1930s and then stop? When did chairs start becoming so popular? That zooming in and out gives scholars new questions to answer, and the public a new way to experience the collection.”
Planetary also symbolizes a significant trend in software design: It resembles a video game. “There’s a drift toward things that are gamelike,” says Ben Cerveny, one of Planetary’s inventors. “We’re moving away from rigid grids of icons.”
At the same time, Cooper-Hewitt also is acquiring the problems inherent in software—including planned obsolescence. Sure, Planetary runs on today’s iPads. But what happens when Apple moves on? The company has a history of abandoning old hardware and operating systems; your old apps may not always be supported on Apple’s newer devices. “I don’t pretend that we’ve figured it out,” says Cope. “The truth is, nobody has.”
Perhaps the most innovative part is that Planetary will belong to the world: When curators release it August 27 (coinciding, just by chance, with the planet Neptune’s closest approach to Earth), they will offer it open source—the first time that a design museum has made current software available. Geeks worldwide can then download and modify it—visualizing collections of books, perhaps, or a constellation of genomes. Public-minded nerds years from now will be able to create “emulators”—software that runs on modern computers but emulates today’s iPad, so people eons from now can see how Planetary appeared in 2013.
The Cooper-Hewitt will own it— but so will everyone. As a result, Planetary will become an infinitely evolving piece of design.