Embedded papercraft objects are better than embedded digital objects

Responsibility has yet to be claimed for the beautiful papercraft sculptures that have mysteriously popped up in Scottish libraries and arts centers, each accompanied by notecards featuring the Twitter handles of relevant authorities or personalities.

Tangible artifacts like these have so much presence. It’s hard to imagine augmented reality objects ever having this kind of impact.

This project is a great example of how “embedded” media objects and an active engagement with technology and network culture doesn’t always need to depend on glyphs, bar codes, scanners, cameras, or smartphones — as cool as all those things are.

Just because we can do something 100 percent digitally doesn’t mean that we should. All media forms are tools in the transmedia artist’s toolbox, and every tool has its place. How much less effective would these sculptures be if they had been objects that you needed to download Layar or some other AR app in order to view? How much less presence would they have? How much less mysterious and thought-provoking would they be?

Yes, it’s true, AR people: embedded papercraft objects are better than embedded digital objects.

This is what differentiates the true media artist from the technofetishist. The former adopts whatever medium or combination of media that suits the needs of their project and maximizes impact. The latter always adopts the highest-tech solution, regardless of other options.

Dokobots: findable, sharable virtual playthings embedded in real space

Dokobots looks to be a great little geogame, with clever mechanics that push pervasive location-based participatory entertainment into some exciting new territory. Here are some highlights from the January 4th, 2011 press release posted by design studio Dokogeo (creators of, among other neat things, 2009 Come Out and Play Technology Award winner Seek n’ Spell and the GeoSeek game engine):

Dokobots adds a digital layer to the real world in this global scavenger hunt. Using an augmented map interface, players search for the objects used in the game. A typical walk to lunch transforms into an adventure as players discover and collect rare and exciting items.

Dokobots travel with players as they go about their day and engage in fun activities. Players mark locations, take photos, and add notes to catalogue the travels and adventures of the ’bots. Dokobots appear in each photo, where players can fit them to the scene — perching them on a friend’s shoulder or posing them in front of a landmark.

Every Dokobot keeps a detailed record of its adventures in a travel journal. The journal automatically charts the ’bot’s route through the world, tracking map locations, host players and user-created photos and notes. Players can check out the photos taken by each of the previous hosts before adding their own, and a newsfeed keeps players up to date about the latest activities of their favorite Dokobots, highlighting new photos and other entries.

Sharing fun entries is easy as the app seamlessly integrates with social networks, email, and the web. “People have these robot pen-pals that keep them up-to-date as they travel,” adds Dokogeo co-founder Dan Walton, “and the game becomes a network of people sharing stories surrounding the Dokobots’ experiences.” (dokobots.com press release)

Subtlemob creator Duncan Speakman on “framing everyday realities”

Duncan Speakman’s Subtlemob project, “As if it were the last time,” will be taking place in Culver City this weekend as a part of the IndieCade Big Games program [sign up here]. The project immerses audiences in “the cinema of everyday life” by inviting them to quietly and anonymously gather at a secret location equipped with headphones, MP3 players, and customized sound files provided by the artist. By all accounts, the ensuing experience is a powerful one, something that “captures what it is to escape from the world for a little bit – and then to return and find that you see things just a bit differently.” In the interview below, Duncan talks about his trajectory as a media artist and the curious connections between locative art and the core impulses of documentary cinema.

Your work brings together locative media, social media, performance, interaction design, sound design, and something akin to real-time filmmaking (without a camera). How did you end up working in this heavily mixed space? That is, what’s your background as an artist, and what led from there to here?

I began as a musician, and an interest in technology led me to becoming a sound engineer. While I was studying sound enginnering at university I got turned on to to documentary production and post-production. At this point I moved to Bristol (partly led by the music scene that was around at the time, Portishead, Tricky et al). I soon got a computer and started teaching myself interactive software and became involved in developing prototypes for interactive television documentaries within the broadcast industry. It quickly became apparent that the ideas I had didn’t work on a 4:3 television screen and I found myself drifting into the art scene, where I could explore my ideas for interactive documentaries in an installation context. Over time my main work shifted into public spaces, while my sketchpad was a series of online videos that I considered to be micro-documentaries. Single take shots of everyday moments which I would present in slow motion and write a soundtrack for. Sometime after this I began working with GPS technology and located sound, there was a bit of an epiphany moment where I suddenly found myself walking around listening to my sound pieces, and seeing the films I had been making happening around me, te real world framed by the soundtrack. Previously I had shunned walkmans because of the way ey cut you off from your acoustic space, but I suddenly saw them as an opportunity to make people connect with the world around them by framing it in the same way I would create documentaries.

What are the big touchstones (artists, projects, movements, etc) for you?

From a visual perspective I think one of my biggest influences is Roy Anderson (‘you the living’, ‘songs from the second floor’). His films are detailed and heavily constructed fictions, but essentially appear to me as a series of individual framed moments of the everyday that come together to create a reflective picture of society, plus they’re funny. I haven’t managed to get the funny bit in my work yet, but I’m trying! Soundwise I find myself drawing inspiration from music that works well when listened to in public spaces, I guess this seems an obvious choice! What I mean is that there’s a huge variety of music in the world that blows me away, but some of it works better at a concert or on a home stereo. For walking the streets (and framing the world) I love Taylor Deupree, Fennesz, Godspeed You Black Emporer, Tool, and a bit of Maria Callas. Recently though my ears have been pricked by Ben Frost, his stuff has absolutely knocked me sideways so now I’m worried my next piece is going to end up ripping him off too much!

For text I find my influences in many places, aesthetically I love Ben Marcus at the moment and I’m beginning to understand Sylvia Plath, but in terms of what I’m actually making I think I’ve accidentasly become the protagonist in Tom McCarthy’s ‘Remainder’, a man who spends all his effort on getting people to renact the everyday world just so he can have a richer experience (sorry Tom, that is an incredibly dumbed down description of one of my favourite ever books!)

On your website, you speak of employing walking as “both a process and/or an outcome of my work.” What is it about walking and being in public space that’s so charged with meaning?

I guess it’s where I now locate the ‘interaction’ in my work. Although I’ve returned recently to using pre-recorded linear soundtracks (as opposed to GPS or other responsive systems) the audiences still have to interact with the world when they move through it. Forcing them to move through public space forces them to deal with an environment I can’t control, forget gestural interfaces, this is real interaction, ha! But there’s also something about the narrative of a walk that I enjoy, and I like relating it to musical dynamics. The relationship goes both ways, the speed of your movment is often influenced by the pace of the soundtrack you’re listening to, but also your sense of the music is changed depending on whether your moving through a crowd in a narrow street, or walking out on to an empty plaza. When I’m writing the music with Sarah Anderson our process is to sketch out a few ideas and then take them out and walk them. We note what they make us aware of, and how they influence our movement, then we adapt and rewrite and re-walk until they are creating the effect we’re looking for. Sometimes I think that the main reason I brought walking (which I enjoy for pleasure anyway) into my work was to ensure I didn’t spend so much time spent in a dark studio, and that now I HAVE to get outside to write the music.

Because I’m a fan of the NFB, I’m also a fan of John Grierson. I was pleasantly surprised to see a reference to him on your site. How is it that you see your work as a kind of documentary?

Grierson described documentary as ‘the creative treatment of actuality’, films like ‘nightmail’ and ‘coal face’ seem so far removed from the type of ‘documentary’ that fills our screens today. They took everyday realities and framed then within beautiful soundtracks, creative musical editing techniques, poetry and abstraction. I guess that’s the kind of documentary I’m trying to make, ones that show us nothing more than the everyday, but try and show us how beautiful it can be. When audiences in my work are performing instructions, those instructions have been derived from observed events, so really they are just the sort of ‘re-enactments’ that traditional documentaries use all the time. I suppose that even at a base level I’m just asking people to watch the world around them, I’m just giving them a soundtrack, a natural history voiceover for anthropological documentaries about urban life? That’s probably talking it up a bit too much!!

What are your thoughts about running a walking-oriented game in a car-oriented city like Los Angeles? Can you imagine a pervasive project that could work with the car culture instead of against it?

Oh, that’s a very tough question! I can imagine something that uses cars, maybe uses their windows as frames for the world in a cinematic style, but I don’t think I’d let the audience do the driving, imagine if they were so distracted by the experience they drove into a pedestrian who was taking part in one of my other works! that would ruin everything!

UPDATE: Photos from ‘as if it were the last time’ at IndieCade here.

Another City for Another Life: the unforeseen games of the city of the future

ARGs, pervasive games, and location-based social games echo and reiterate a range of earlier experiments in ambient and locative art. Graffiti, sticker art, mail art, and other kinds of analog methods for creating distributed narratives paved the way for the kinds of practices that are today exploding in number and purpose thanks to ubiquitous computing and the real-time web. Lettrism and Situationism redefined urban space as a canvas for experimentation, play, and collaborative production. In 1959, Dutch architect and artist Constant Nieuwenhuys wrote “Another City for Another Life,” for the third issue of Internationale Situationniste. This text, which calls for a city “harmonized” by “unforeseen games” that make “inventive use of material conditions,” surely must be one of the founding documents of locative art and pervasive gaming. I include it here in its entirety:

The crisis in urbanism is worsening. The construction of neighborhoods, ancient and modern, is in obvious disagreement with established forms of behavior and even more so with the new forms of life that we are seeking. The result is a dismal and sterile ambiance in our surroundings.

In the older neighborhoods, the streets have degenerated into freeways, leisure activities are commercialized and denatured by tourism. Social relations become impossible there. The newly-constructed neighborhoods have but two motifs, which dominate everything: driving by car and comfort at home. They are the abject expression of bourgeois well-being, and all ludic preoccupations are absent from them.

Faced with the necessity of building whole towns quickly, cemeteries of reinforced concrete — in which great masses of the population are condemned to die of boredom — are being constructed. So what use are the extraordinary technical inventions the world now has at its disposal, if the conditions are lacking to profit from them, if they add nothing to leisure, if imagination is wanting?

We crave adventure. Not finding it on earth, some men have gone to seek it on the moon. We prefer to wager on a change on earth. We propose creating situations, new situations, here. We count on infringing the laws that hinder the development of effective activities in life and in culture. We are at the dawn of a new era and are already attempting to sketch out the image of a happier life, of unitary urbanism (the urbanism intended to bring pleasure).

Our domain, then, is the urban nexus, the natural expression of collective creativity, capable of subsuming the creative energies that are liberated with the decline of the culture based on individualism. We are of the opinion that the traditional arts will not be able to play a role in the creation of the new ambiance in which we want to live.

We are in the process of inventing new techniques; we are examining the possibilities existing cities offer; we are making models and plans for future cities. We are conscious of the need to avail ourselves of all new inventions, and we know that the future constructions we envisage will need to be extremely supple in order to respond to a dynamic conception of life, which means creating our own surroundings in direct relation to incessantly changing ways of behavior.

Our conception of urbanism is therefore social. We are opposed to all the conceptions of a ville verte, a “green town” where well-spaced and isolated skyscrapers must necessarily reduce the direct relations and common action of men. Conurbation is indispensible for the direct relation of surroundings and behavior to be produced. Those who think that the rapidity of our movements and the possibilities of telecommunications are going to erode the shared life of the conurbations are ignorant of the real needs of man. To the idea of the ville verte, which most modern architects have adopted, we oppose the image of the covered town, in which the plan of roads and separate buildings has given way to a continuous spatial construction, disengaged from the ground, and included in which will be groups of dwellings as well as public spaces (permitting changes in use according to the needs of the moment). Since all traffic, in the functional sense of the term, will pass below or on the terraces above, the street is done away with. The large number of different traversable spaces of which the town is composed form a complex and enormous space space [in its place]. Far from a return to nature, to the idea of living in a park as individual aristocrats once did, we see in such immense constructions the possibility of overcoming nature and of submitting the climate, light and sounds in these different spaces to our control.

Do we intend this to be a new functionalism, which will give greater prominence the idealized utilitarian life? It should not be forgotten that, once the functions are established, play will succeed them. For a long time now, architecture has been a playing with space and ambiance. The ville verte lacks ambiances. We, on the contrary, want to make more conscious use of ambiances; and so they correspond to all our needs.

The future cities we envisage will offer an original variety of sensations in this domanin, and unforeseen games will become possible through the inventive use of material conditions, like the conditioning of air, sound and light. Urbanists are already studying the possibility of harmonizing the cacophony that reigns in contemporary cities. It will not take long to encounter there a new domain for creation, just as in many other problems that will present themselves. The space voyages that are being announced could influence this development, since the bases that will be established on other planets will immediately pose the problem of sheltered cities, and will perhaps provide the pattern for our study of a future urbanism.

Above all, however, the reduction in the work necessary for production, through extended automation, will create a need for leisure, a diversity of behavior and a change in the nature of the latter, which will of necessity lead to a new conception of the collective habitat with a maximum of space space, contrary to the conception of a ville verte where social space is reduced to a minimum. The city of the future must be conceived as a continuous construction on pillars, or, rather, as an extended system of different structures from which are suspended premises for housing, amusement, etc., and premises destined for production and distribution, leaving the ground free for the circulation of traffic and for public messages. The use of ultra-light and insulating materials, which are being experimented with today, will permit the construction to be light and its supports well-spaced. In this way, one will be able to create a town on many levels: lower level, ground level, different floors, terraces, of a size that can vary between an actual neighborhood and a metropolis. It should be noted that in such a city the built surface will be 100% of that available and the free surface will be 200% (parterre and terraces), while in traditional towns the figures are some 80% and 20%, respectively; and that in the ville verte this relation can even be reversed [20% and 80%, respectively]. The terraces form an open-air terrain that extends over the whole surface of the city, and which can be sports fields, airplane and helicopter landing-strips, and for the maintenance of vegetation. They will be accessible everywhere by stair and elevator. The different floors will be divided into neighborhing and communicating spaces, artificially conditioned, which will offer the possibility of create an infinite vaiety of ambiances, facilitating the derive of the inhabitants and their frequent chance encounters. The ambiances will be regularly and consciously changed, with the aid of every technical means, by teams of specialized creators who, hence, will be professional situationists.

An in-depth study of the means of creating ambiances, and the latter’s psychological influence, is one of the tasks we are currently undertaking. Studies concerning the technical realization of the load-bearing structures and their aesthetic is the specific task of plastic artists and engineers. The contribution of the latter is an urgent necessity for making progress in the prepatory work we are undertaking.

If the project we have just traced out in bold strokes risks being taken for a fantastic dream, we insist on the fact that it is feasible from the technical point of view and that it is desirable from the human point of view. The increasing dissatisfaction that dominates the whole of humanity will arrive at a point at which we will all be forced to execute projects whose means we possess, and which will contribute to the realization of a richer and more fulfilled life. (notbored.org)

More on Constant Nieuwenhuys: Texts, Photos, and Paintings at notbored.org, profile at DADA and Radical Art, “Constant Vision,” by Lebbeus Woods

Try to remain invisible: Subtlemob

Duncan Speakman‘s As if it were for the last time is a soundwalk and street performance wherein audiences are “invited to download an MP3 and turn up at a secret location to listen to the track at a specified time.” Speakman calls this a “subtlemob”; in contrast to flash mobs, participants in subtlemobs are urged to “try to remain invisible” throughout the event by blending into the normal flow of a busy urban space. Consequently, much of the power and poetry of projects like As if it were for the last time lie in their ability to make participants hyper-aware of their surroundings and their roles in the performance of everyday life. As one participant put it, “it was like you were given permission to look — at the people who weren’t doing it.”

From the project’s page at subtlemob.com):

When you put on the headphones you’ll find yourself immersed in the cinema of everyday life. As the soundtrack swells people in the crowd around you will begin to re-enact the England of today. Sometimes you’ll just be drifting and watching, but sometimes you’ll be following instructions or creating the scenes yourself. Don’t worry, there will be nothing illegal or embarrassing, sometimes you might be re-enacting moments you’ve seen in films, sometimes you’ll just be playing yourself. This is no requiem, this a celebratory slow dance, a chance to savour the world you live in, and to see it with fresh eyes. (subtlemob.com)

Playwright and tech enthusiast Hannah Nicklin‘s writeup:

This evening I took part in a sound walk-come-performance called ‘As if it Were the Last Time’. It was devised by Duncan Speakman and was put on by subtlemob. It took place on a small number of streets near Covent Garden. It was a (performance? Experience? Neither of these words do -) for two people. We were provided with a map, an mp3, and told to set it going at 6pm on the dot. My critical vocabulary is already struggling with this piece, because it really was very individual. That was the point. For each and every person who took part, the performance (for want of a more accurate word) was theirs. Entirely. And not, in staged theatre, as each audience member receiving the piece from a different perspective. This was each participant doing. The movements, the characters the gestures, the reflection in the shop windows and puddles, and the touch of someone’s hand on a shoulder, were all completely yours. Of your making. (Hannah Nicklin)

News of subtlemob events: http://twitter.com/subtlemob

Locative media resources

A collection of supplementary readings and resources for my presentation, “Locative Media and Responsive Environments.”

Pervasive Computing

  • Rise of the Network Society — Manuel Castells’ excellent book about the economic and cultural implications of pervasive computing. Writing about nanotech, Castells notes that “…experimental programs seem to indicate that molecular electronics is a possible avenue to overcoming the limits of increasing density in silicon chips, while ushering in an era of computers 100 billion times as fast as a Pentium microprocessor; this would make it possible to pack the computing power of a hundred 1999 computer workstations into a space the size of a grain of salt. Based on these technologies, computer scientists envisage the possibility of computing environments where billions of microscopic information-processing devices will be spread everywhere ‘like pigment in the wall paint.’ If so, then computer networks will be, materially speaking, the fabric of our lives.” (53)

  • Cell Phone Usage Worldwide — There are over 2.1 billion cell phones in the world today.
  • Hitachi RFID dust — These tiny RFID chips look like powder, measuring just 0.05 millimeters (0.002 inches) by 0.05 millimeters (0.002 inches), and are thin enough to be embedded in pieces of paper.

The Semantic Web

  • Tim Berners-Lee: “I have a dream for the Web [in which computers] become capable of analyzing all the data on the Web – the content, links, and transactions between people and computers. A ‘Semantic Web’, which should make this possible, has yet to emerge, but when it does, the day-to-day mechanisms of trade, bureaucracy and our daily lives will be handled by machines talking to machines. The ‘intelligent agents’ people have touted for ages will finally materialize.” (Weaving The Web, ch. 12)
  • TED Talk: Tim Berners-Lee on the next Web of open, linked data –  “20 years ago, Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web. For his next project, he’s building a web for open, linked data that could do for numbers what the Web did for words, pictures, video: unlock our data and reframe the way we use it together.” (TED)
  • Linked Data — Tim Berner-Lee’s original article on the subject.
  • Cool URIs for the Semantic Web — W3C article on standards for concept and data URI (Universal Resource Identifiers). Abstract: “The Resource Description Framework RDF allows users to describe both Web documents and concepts from the real world—people, organisations, topics, things—in a computer-processable way. Publishing such descriptions on the Web creates the Semantic Web. URIs (Uniform Resource Identifiers) are very important, providing both the core of the framework itself and the link between RDF and the Web. This document presents guidelines for their effective use. It discusses two strategies, called 303 URIs and hash URIs. It gives pointers to several Web sites that use these solutions, and briefly discusses why several other proposals have problems.”
  • Related projects and associations: dbPedia, Friend-of-a-Friend (FOAF), SIMILIE, SIOC

Internet of Things

  • Shaping Things (.pdf) — A pdf copy of Sterling’s 2005 book wherein he describes the concept of the spime. From the product description: “The future will see a new kind of object—we have the primitive forms of them now in our pockets and briefcases: user-alterable, baroquely multi-featured, and programmable—that will be sustainable, enhanceable, and uniquely identifiable. Sterling coins the term “spime” for them, these future manufactured objects with informational support so extensive and rich that they are regarded as material instantiations of an immaterial system. Spimes are designed on screens, fabricated by digital means, and precisely tracked through space and time. They are made of substances that can be folded back into the production stream of future spimes, challenging all of us to become involved in their production. Spimes are coming, says Sterling. We will need these objects in order to live; we won’t be able to surrender their advantages without awful consequences.” (Amazon.com)

  • Spimes and the Future of Artifacts (video presentation) — An entertaining 35 minute presentation elaborating on six key technology trends (RFID, GPS, visual search, CAD, rapid prototyping and “transparent production”) that are changing the way that we relate to objects. He defines a spime as an object that is “plannable, trackable, findable, recyclable, uniquely identified and generates digital histories.” (5:33)
  • Flurb #6: Computer Entertainment (text) — A signature Bruce Sterling rant posing as a lecture given to a 2008 SXSW audience by a time traveler from the year 2043. Representative passage: “This is my General Electric Pocket Mediator. This one’s about five years old, it’s a student’s model. Personal mediators are a stable technology in my time, we don’t have to fuss with them much. Unfortunately it doesn’t have full functionality here in 2008, because we don’t have the cloud yet. As soon as I reached here, my Mediator reached out for the cloud to reload its apps and OS… and it tapped into something called “Window-Vista.” Then it just plain gave up. It’s gone completely limp now. There’s nothing left here but this frozen screen-saver pattern.”
  • Four Stages of the Internet of Things — Former Wired editor and all-around whiz Kevin Kelly riffs on this article by Tim Berners-Lee to construct a succinct description of what he thinks “the Semantic Web” or “Web 3.0″ is all about. In short, his four stages are: 1) Linking computers, 2) Linking documents, 3) Linking the data in (and about) documents, and 4) Linking things.
  • The net shapes up to get physical — Guardian article by Sean Dodson. Good general description. Excerpt: “Most people, if they bother to think about it at all, probably view the internet as an agent of profound change. In the 15 years since Tim Berners-Lee invented the world wide web, the life of almost everyone in the industrialised world has been touched by it. But just as many of us are getting to grips with its second stage, the mobile internet, very few are prepared – perhaps even aware – of the third and potentially most revolutionary phase of all: the internet of things.” (guardian.co.uk)
  • RFID — Wikipedia article on RFID tags. Includes many interesting examples.
  • Organizations: World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), semanticweb.org, IPv6, IPSO Alliance, Zigbee.org, Pachube.com

Responsive Environments

  • How smart does your bed have to be, before you are afraid to go to sleep at night? — Rich Gold critiques the notion of the “smart house” in this hilarious and thought-provoking essay. “Can an intelligent house fall in love with the house next door,” asks Gold. “Can they have baby houses? Is an architect a trained “womb” for houses, or more crudely, is an architect how a house makes another house? Does an architect feel like she/he is violating fundamental forces of evolution if she/he does not include the latest new technology in the house she/he next gives birth to? Do you believe in progress? Is a suburban house of today better than a terrace house in London in 1850 which was better than a thatched country cottage in 1700 which was better than the tepees and mud huts that Columbus found in the New World? Is the house that Donald Trump lives in better than the house you live in? If you were an architect and you designed an intelligent house, would the house’s own happiness matter to you? If the couple that bought the house you designed got a divorce, do you think you should be libel for damages?”
  • Orchestrating your surroundings — A project proposal for a “smart house”-type environment by by Pau Giner, Carlos Cetina, Joan Fons and Vicente Pelechano.

Imagined Futures/Imagined Presents

  • Ubik – A novel by Philip K. Dick treating themes of intelligent environments, resurrection and shifting ontologies. Research only: torrent here.
  • Spook Country — A novel by William Gibson about locative media artists and shadowy private intelligence contractors.

See also: Ambient storytelling resources

Locative Media and Responsive Environments

This presentation explores the evolution and trajectory of ubiquitous computing technologies that enable designers to embed media artifacts and computational systems in physical space. By placing custom bar code glyphs, GPS/Google Earth markers, sensor systems or other smart-phone-readable triggers in physical locations, designers can create hyperlinks connecting real-world objects or places with a wide variety of media — from video, audio and text content to dynamic data feeds and opportunities for interactions with both human and non-human agencies. Crucially, however, this layering practice does not stop at the level of the hyperlink or the traditional notion of Augmented Reality. Rather, designers are beginning to perceive opportunities for embedding responsive computational power in physical space, enabling environments to track, profile and communicate with their inhabitants, providing customized, adaptive and anticipatory user experiences.

(see also: USC IMD)