Few Washington events embody as much tradition as the annual holiday tour at the White House. There are at least a dozen bedecked trees inside, along with a nearly 20-foot white fir outside. There is the Neapolitan creche that has been in place for almost four decades and an official, annual White House ornament.
This year, all that tradition plunges into the digital age.
In addition to the gingerbread White House and tastefully decorated wreaths, there will be infrared motion sensors, crowdsourced lighting patterns and matching robot versions of the first family’s two dogs. And the Obamas have released what they call their “first-ever interactive White House holiday card.”
“Technology has always been an interest of this administration,” said William Bushong, chief historian for the White House Historical Association.
But the digital holiday tweaks are also a homage to the Maker movement, a high-tech, DIY philosophy that President Obama and his aides have embraced enthusiastically. It wraps into a neat package many of the attributes the administration has sought to champion: innovation, manufacturing, entrepreneurship and hipster geekiness.
In September, the White House appointed Stephanie Santoso, a PhD candidate in information science at Cornell University, as its first full-time senior adviser for “Making.” One bonus of that hire is that Santoso knows how to design a dog robot.
So last month, White House chief floral designer Laura Dowling and a handful of the administration’s science policy experts gathered around what could best be described as a robot skeleton, a chicken-wire version of Bo Obama, as the canine robot swiveled its head back and forth about once a second. They seemed pleased with the performance, especially given the White House’s previous attempt at a mechanized dog.
“We had a ‘smoking-tail Bo’ last year,” Dowling reminded the team. The mechanized dog in the 2013 White House holiday extravaganza had a little mishap: Its ribbon tail got caught in its motor and started to smolder. (“Luckily, that was the end of the season,” Dowling noted.)
“We’ve promised you that’s not going to happen,” replied Mark DeLoura, who serves as senior adviser for digital media in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. This year’s Bo-bot was created by Santoso, DeLoura and Laura Gerhardt, an OSTP intern.
The 2014 holiday decor, which will be unveiled Wednesday, includes not just dog robots but also an interactive digital snowscape that will capture the movements of visitors in front of it.
Five kinds of 3-D-printed ornaments — designed by Americans and produced in San Francisco — will be shown throughout the East Wing. The lights on the 56 trees representing U.S. states and territories in President’s Park will flash in patterns coded online by girls across the country, and the National Christmas Tree in President’s Park has its own Twitter handle.
Adding these more modern elements to the festivities “reflects culturally what Americans are doing,” said Bushong, of the White House Historical Association.
The Sunny-bot is the work of two Presidential Innovation fellows, Bosco So and David Naffis. Professional software engineers, So and Naffis are spending the year working at the Energy Department and the National Archives, respectively.
Rather than rotating its head at a set rate, Sunny-bot has eyes with infrared motion sensors that prompt it to turn in the direction of someone approaching it. Both robots use fairly basic software and hardware. Even Sunny-bot, she of the infrared eyes, uses rubber bands as ligaments to give her head flexibility.
According to So, he and Naffis “come from different generations of Makers. He works with beams and all the high-precision stuff, and I come from the hacksaw, hammer, rubber-band generation.”
The two teams worked in their spare time over the past month to create the virtual first dogs. They watched the “Let’s Move!” video in which the president and vice president run through the White House as Sunny and Bo whip their heads around to follow them; they pulled up videos of Portuguese water dogs barking to decide whether they should replicate the sound.
They passed on the barking, deciding it would be too loud. “We didn’t want to scare children,” Santoso said.
With the technology in place, Dowling and her staff had to wrap one mile of black polyester satin ribbon around the wire frames to create the illusion of coiled fur.
“I don’t think there’s a high-tech way of making that,” she said.
Dowling sparked the high-tech plotting when she approached OSTP officials this summer about how they might re-create a three-dimensional plaster wall she spotted in a Parisian macaron shop in January. While that wall will not be part of the festivities this year, because the staff wanted a more interactive display, Dowling's query led to a brainstorming session that spurred other changes.
The White House launched the first-ever 3-D-printed-ornament contest and selected five winners. The San Francisco firm Instructables created versions of the winning entries by printing them with white and clear plastic polymers.
In some instances, the administration is combining traditional techniques with modern ones. The digital snowscape — which was produced by Portland, Ore.-based Second Story and uses two 3-D cameras along with a projector — will be paired with a handmade woodland scene along the east wall of the Booksellers Room.
“We wanted this to be more than a one-way experience,” said Jillian Maryonovich, a graphic designer at the White House Office of Digital Strategy, who noted that visitors will be able to see their movements appear on-screen amid falling snowflakes.
Outside the White House, Google is sponsoring an initiative, along with the National Park Foundation, that will allow girls to log on to its Made With Code site throughout December and program the LED lights decorating 56 Christmas trees in President’s Park.
First-family holiday celebrations have always tried to reflect the mood of the nation, to some extent. Between 1800 and 1933, Bushong noted, “the real big holiday” was New Year’s Day, but Herbert Hoover put an end to that in response to public grousing from some that the president and first lady’s practice of greeting lawmakers, diplomats and others “started to resemble a bread line.”
Anita McBride, who served as then-first lady Laura Bush’s chief of staff, recalled in 2005 that the celebration that year “was a little scaled back” because Hurricane Katrina had devastated the Gulf Coast a few months before.
“Some congressional guests complained that there was no shrimp,” said McBride, now an executive-in-residence at American University. “Well, there was no gulf shrimp that year.”
And in 2009, during the recession, the Obama administration pulled hundreds of ornaments out of storage in federal warehouses and sent them to dozens of communities to be redecorated with local landmarks.
In 2010, the first lady’s team hung eight oversize wreaths made out of dried fruits and vegetables in the East Colonnade, a nod to her healthy-eating campaign and environmental sustainability.
“Lacquered potato wreaths? Come on,” recalled Ebs Burnough, who served as the White House deputy social secretary at the time. “They actually looked amazing.”
Michelle Obama has made honoring military families a central part of every year’s observance. Dowling said the first lady’s “overriding guidance is to make this a warm and welcoming experience for all Americans.”
And some ideas never see the light of day. During the Obamas’ first year in the White House, then-Social Secretary Desirée Rogers briefly entertained — then abandoned — the idea of moving the Neapolitan creche, donated by the Engelhard family in 1967, from its usual East Room spot. It has remained put ever since.
The current set of White House tinkerers has grand ambitions. The Bo-bot and Sunny-bot teams made their code open-source to encourage science students to experiment and “out-Bo Bo.” Next year, they want to build robots with animated joints that can move their paws and jump.
Maryonovich predicts that the White House visitor experience will be radically different in a matter of years. “The White House of the future will have holograms of past presidents, and you will vote using your brain,” she quipped. “That’s all down the line.”