The Blind Camera – Sascha Pohflepp's "Buttons" Series

Ever sense Sascha started talking, quite animatedly, about this project — ” The Blind Camera — I became almost as excited as he. A camera..that takes someone else’s photo. The semantics are tricky — it doesn’t take a photograph of someone else, but take’s (as in, borrows or copies or “snags”) a photograph that someone else has captured, somewhere else in the world, at that same moment.

So cool.

I mean..that’s kind of brilliant in a playful, thoughtful way. The project captures all the amazingly promising characteristics of a world of sharing and circulating culture and experiences. And the most engaging part of the project, in my mind, is that it’s an object, a tangible camera — an actual camera – and not just a bit of code, that you can download for free or whatever, and put on your laptop to play with for a few days and then discard or foreget about. It’s an object – a physical affordance or whatever you want to call it. And that makes all the difference in the world for this project.

And another reason why I think Things that are networked matter. The idea of a general purpose computational device like your laptop has much less appeal in this regard. Or even the idea of the mobile phone being the one device you carry with you.

How, conceptually, from the perspective of design or even practicality, can we expect that this idea of one mobile device will sustain itself? There are so many things wrong with the mobile phone as an address book, for instance, or a game interface, or even as a telephone. Even the simplest of annoyances seem beyond the capabilities of the common phone to avoid. For example, how can you get people to stop shouting into their phone? People talk louder than they do when they’re just having a normal human conversation — from inside my house on a nice pedestrian street, I can hear the phone conversations of neighbors walking their dogs as if they were sitting right here in my office.

Anyway, I am very fond of the idea of a diversity of devices at our disposal, whether or not we have them all the time. A baroque assembly of various instrumentalities, one of which is a camera that takes other people’s photographs, another of which allows me to carry my online persona out into 1st Life so it can interact with other, offline objects, another that reminds me how to get where I’m going, etc. One device for everything seems positively impossible to achieve, practically or even conceptually speaking. And there’s heuristic proof out there — my Treo is great because it has QWERTY. My Treo stinks cause it has Sprint. My Treo is great because it has a decent camera. My Treo stinks cause it weighs a ton and strains the seams of my pocket. My Treo stinks cause it has Sprint. This Nokia E61 I have is great cause it has QWERTY. This Nokia E61 stinks cause it has no camera. Etc. I think it is a conceit driven by corporate avarice and design hubris that there is One Thing that will embody all the interesting things we could do in our mobile lives.

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Why Games Matter?: Susana's Thesis Project

Susana Ruiz’s MFA thesis project – one of the projects from the 2nd class of thesis graduates to complete their MFA’s from the interactive media division’s, is an embodied explication of the intractable, miserable, life diminishing products of what happens when difference – political, ethnic, religious, skin color – is seen as a bad thing.

The hope here is that the moment of stepping into an experience wherein one is forced to experience that intractability, or to play the role of those who are engaged in the Darfur catastrophe, will bubble the crisis up at the local, individual level, so that it’s more than a news blip, at least here in the US. If you can “play” through the linkages of action and reaction, or live the life of a refugee, empathy and response may arise. The jury is still out on that point, but the motivation is decidedly spot-on.

If digital networks hold any promise for species evolution, I would hope it would be a hack to patch the bad code that makes us think that life can ever be cheap and that things that are different should be annihilated.

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Theory Objects, Pedagodgy and Practice-based Design

I’m liking this Theory Object business more and more.

Why? Because it’s helping me think through design practices – it’s becoming a way to frame what I think many design and change agents do already, or how many design/change agents think already. It helps me realize that what I do is always imbricated in a knitted pattern or flow of practice-based “conversations” around a set of shared goals, hopes and desires about making things for near-future worlds.

Hopefully, it will also become a pedagogical trope that unlocks the general reticence some have of participating in these conversations, firstly, and then recognizing that making things can achieve the shared goals/hopes/desires by making things public.

Making things public is the counterpoint to the problem the poor, poor camel suffers under by being the brunt of the old design/architect joke about a camel being the result of designing a horse by committee. Oooh. There are so many problems with that joke nowadays. It’s not about a committee collectively designing one horse, it’s about a networked public collectively designing more habitable and sustainable worlds. One group may have an idea for a horse – so they go do that. Another group may say that they need something more camel-like to take care of the micro-local environmental concerns over in this part of the world. Yet another group may scratch their head and say, we have a surfeit of these darn can we enroll a gaggle of them in helping us better understand the micro-local context? (Pierre, yeah, sure, we could go talk to Boeing about getting a few truck loads of quarter sized sensors to sprinkle from the sky to gather micro-local contextual sensor readings, but..those Boeing Arphid things are made of icky plastic, gum up some important waterways, cause a problem when they blow over the highways, and don’t fly themselves back home so clean up is a real hassle, excepting pigeon poo, which we have to deal with _anyway_. That’s one of the reasons that the pigeons that blog theory object “works” – it explicates the really annoying assumption that the highly instrumentalized technical object makes sense.)

Making things public as a kind of approach to design practice is effective because the conversations that are of consequence circulate and raise design challenges of concern. Design challenges of concern are those that will yield more habitable worlds, worlds subject to the desires of social practices rather than business practices, worlds that have some hint of sustainability, worlds in which it is less likely that operational efficiencies that help one “make the quarterly numbers” drive research and development, etc. Networked publics such as those just now drooling out of the primordial ooze called the Internet are able to bring about worldly change by virtue of linking up their common concerns, sharing their ideas, their How To’s, their design documents, code nuggets, FAQs, calls for participation, sketches, prototypes, and next iterations. When I see that others in the public network are asking, answering, reframing and contesting the same questions, and designing for similar shared goals, I see hope for making things happen because I can see things happen.

I can understand, or empathize, with the design to not engage in the Theory Object business because it means that you have to engage in making things, and making those things public. It could be potentially embarassing. You may become deflated because you find out that someone else somewhere did the exact same thing you did and, for most of us humans, that’s a terrible ego blow. (“What? But my mom always said I was unique individual! If someone else is making ‘my’ thing, I must be a robotic clone..”)

Why do I blog this? It’s time to accept ourselves into the collective of networked public “making of things.” (Ew. That’s a horrid formulation. I’ll have to work on that.)

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Theory Objects & Design Patterns

This “Theory Object” business — I’m trying to work out what it might mean through practice, through the activity of making things. As Bruce Sterling said in his wonderfully rabinical talk at SXSW just the other day, “A Theory Object is a kind of Theory Object.” It’s got that geeky recursion, like GNU — GNU is Not Unix.

I’m going to try and parse that for a spell — A Theory Object is a kind of Theory Object.

I think there’s a good reason for a Theory Object being a kind of Theory Object, and it’s about design patterns for design itself, another recursion. But this isn’t a recursion puzzle land for the sake of geeky fun. There are important stakes in this approach, that operate at a number of levels, but mostly around the area of creating a world that won’t ruin itself any more than it already has. How do you do that? Maybe there’s a design pattern that’ll help — an approach to making things that matter.

Jystar, a computer science grad student down at UC Irvine, wrote a post on the topic of Theory Objects that made me think about the “frameworks” used to make things, like software-based systems. In the software engineering idiom, where I have some stakes and a bit of background, one often hears about frameworks or design patterns as models to help get things done. They’re super useful, and they help move from an idea to an articulation of that idea because some of the larger pieces of the software design as well as the small glue have been throught through in the form of “design patterns” and such all.

Design patterns create standard frameworks for solving problems. They provide a common language for sharing approaches to work , which makes getting things made easier. You can convey a whole lot of information by referring to patterns when your colleagues know what you’re talking about.
Continue reading Theory Objects & Design Patterns

A Manifesto for Networked Objects — Cohabiting with Pigeons, Arphids and Aibos in the Internet of Things

One of my pieces of “output” from the workshop on Blogjects/Networked Things that Nicolas and I put together is the document contained herein. (BTW, we’re very close to having our more formal workshop “write-up” completed.) It started out as some scribblings on what I learned from the workshop, seeing the groups’ projects, and so forth. It then grew into more of a polemic as I recognized what were some consequential stakes — why things would matter, or help, if Things were networked? Why would I want a world such as that? And how would I design interactions for such a world?

I didn’t want to lay low and play the engineer who might just geek out on the technology behind networked Things (I do.) I didn’t want to lay low and play the social scientists and just geek out on theorizing or studying how engineers make and how social beings interact in a world of networked Things (I do that, too). I wanted to start by creating a near-future kind of technology fiction about one particular set of design goals for a world in which networks pervades space and social practice and in which networks are co-occupied by slightly differentiated social beings — us and Things.

What would I want from such a pervasively networked world? A better bead on what the state of that world is that is impactful. Hence, my stumbling about trying to describe a world of networked Things that aren’t only around to help track packages, but are around to help create a world-wide accessible register of various real-time “feeds” of macro and micro states of the social and ecological environment.

This is not complete and the translation of my ideas to a progression of articulate words sometimes feels like someone who slips on the ice for about 20 minutes and refuses to give up the struggle and just fall down to save themselves the mounting embarassment.

Why Things Matter or A Manifesto for Networked Objects — Cohabiting with Pigeons, Arphids and Aibos in the Internet of Things

Abstract: The Internet of Things has evolved into a nascent conceptual framework for understanding how physical objects, once networked and imbued with informatic capabilities, will occupy space and occupy themselves in a world in which things were once quite passive. This paper describes the Internet of Things as more than a world of RFID tags and networked sensors. Once “Things” are connected to the Internet, they can only but become enrolled as active, worldly participants by knitting together, facilitating and contributing to networks of social exchange and discourse, and rearranging the rules of occupancy and patterns of mobility within the physical world. “Things” in the pervasive Internet, will become first-class citizens with which we will interact and communicate. Things will have to be taken into account as they assume the role of socially relevant actors and strong-willed agents that create social capital and reconfigure the ways in which we live within and move about physical space.
To distinguish the instrumental character of “things” connected to the Internet from “things” participating within the Internet of social networks, I use the neologism “Blogject” — ‘objects that blog.’

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Co-location and the Familiar Stranger

Nicolas pointed me to some work that Jamie Lawrence and his colleagues have been doing on the topic of what they refer to as “co-location”. It’s a neologism tied to [w:Stanley Milgram]’s [w:Familiar Stranger], someone who is observed repeatedly over the course of time, but with whom there is no interaction.

Familiar Strangers is a recurring theme in the mobile designed experience world, particularly since Goodman and PaulosFamiliar Strangers project. It’s also topical for a more tragic reason. In 1964 [w:Kitty Genovese] was murdered in the middle of a busy apartment courtyard in Queens, New York City. Many people were “witness” to the event — overhearing it — yet did absolutely nothing. Another side to the promise latent within the idea that, even though we may all be strangers, we may not want to become involved in each others’ lives. (One of my favorite radio programs, Dean Olsher’s The Next Big Thing broadcast a drama called “Ten After Eleven” based on that event. I highly recommend it! Great radio play.)

This is the other side to the promise latent within the Familiar Strangers concept: even though we may be amongst lots of familiar strangers, we may not want to become involved in each others’ lives. We may have familiarity with the strangers we see, but what are the design implications for that phenomenon in the age of social software? How much do we really want to involve ourselves in the lives of familiar strangers? What are the social practices in which a networked public can comfortably engage through the use of mobile, networked terminals? Dating? Sharing? F2F exchanges? Finding someone who speaks your language when in a foreign country?

Lawrence et. al. use the term co-location because “..the meaning of ‘familiar stranger’ is subjective, and highly dependent on the observations of the individual..” There are three essays that I read this afternoon, Exploiting Familiar Strangers: creating community content distribution network by co-located individuals, Making use of Insignificant Interactions, and Communities of Collocation. They describe how the occupancy of physical/geographic space at the same time may be a fruitful site for interactions to occur, or to be considered.

Making use of Insignificant Interactions describes how it may be plausible to use:

“Conventional social relationships fail to capture the incidental interactions that exist between weakly cohesive social groups. Peer-based wireless networks facilitate the exploration of these localised social ties without any explicit intentional behaviour on behalf of the participants. This proposal presents a plausible method to utilise these almost non-existent and seemingly insignificant, social interactions to disseminate localised information and allow us to explore the patterns in daily life.”

Here “weakly cohesive social groups” are the ones that are co-located — occupying the same space — but are probably anonymous in the sense that one individual likely does not know anything about the other individual(s), other than that they are a familiar stranger. Tracking these kinds of social relationships might be interesting — providing some sort of visualization, such as Goodman and Paulos did with their Familiar Strangers project.

Tag/Pin projects do similar, such as Payley, Hahn and Kennard’s Trace Encounters (which, parenthetically, I might be working on for its ISEA06 iteration) and Borovoy et. al. and their Meme Tags, and Paulos’ recent RFID-based Urban Atmosphere’s experiment at SFMOMA.


Conveying that information to users in such a way as to provide them with something that enhances their social well-being is still TBD, I think. In other words, the “making use of..” part of the paper is a candidate research vector that’ll require lots more than good technology. What do people want to do with a familiar stranger? Is a stranger going to take the weak social link and do more than nod recognition? What is the digital, mobile equivalent of that nod of the head that makes sense, but doesn’t necessarily go so far as to get someone a job or take them out on a date, both of which seem a bit hinky.

Communities of Collocation is a short piece that fleshes out what the researchers mean by “co-location.” The challenge for them is to move from the highly subjective character of the “Familiar Stranger” to something that can “ defined or captured by digital technologies.” So, how do you capture “a man in a wheelchair” using digital technologies and anchor them into your Familiar Strangers system? How do you create a visualization of that so that something useful can be done with that encounter? Hence, “co-location.” With it you can measure when and perhaps where intersections between individuals occurs and represent that digitally. Using such things as Bluetooth fingerprints, or the MAC address of wireless network interface cards — some unique attribute of devices individuals carry with them when they occupy space — should allow one to capture “collocation events.”

An analysis of these collocation events, over a suitable period of time, can reveal the patterns of collocation and the existence of collocation relationships. Since an individual may belong to many different communities (their local neighbourhood, work, sport clubs), these relationships can be seen as a representative cross-section of people from the individual’s various communities. Even transitory, but regular, encounters during the morning commute imply that the individuals are both members of a common community: users of public transport or a particular public space.

The research goal of this theme of representing social co-location relationships is to build a software app to share information within “Communities of [in?] Collocation” and deploy that application experience in a limited field trial, but the researchers note that in making an informed decision about the “dissemination protocols” (how things are shared, what do people do with the shared “stuff”, how to represent the collocation events? etc..i assume) “ is necessary to understand the characteristics of collocation relationships in the real world.” I wonder about that — how much can be derived from instinct, and how much has to be derived from rigorous understanding “collocation relationships in the real world”? I mean, I really wonder about this balance. Many of the projects that come to mind are often derived from instinct, and they may even get executed, but they’re not well anchored in the experiences of the real world. And for that they may become illegible to a large audience, despite being, perhaps, fun to think about and fun to create. (Hmm..maybe I operate in the hinterlands of the mobile experience design Long Tail?)

Small Town
This paper also made me think about the way mobile designs of this sort often explicitly are designed for urban experiences, which is fine. But I wondered what happens outside of urban space? This led me to think about the following scenario in which the representation of Familiar Strangers were rendered as a small town — maybe the idyllic small town — in which everyone knows everyone else. Create avatars for those familiar strangers, even though you don’t explicitly know who they are or what they are doing “co-located” or “co-pathed” with you. Your screen would show them as one of the cast of characters from the idyllic small town.

Why do I blog this? The Familiar Strangers theme is a powerful one, with lots of potential for mobile designed experiences. I’m also trying to think of a way to flesh out my taxonomy of mobile designed experiences in the “proximity-based interaction” category. Reading these papers helps generate some ideas for that exercise.

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Projects & Provocations

  • Flickr Photos
  • Some things The Laboratory did in 2009
  • Design Fiction: A Short Essay on Design, Science, Fact and Fiction
  • An Apparatus for Capturing Other Points of View (Camera on a Pole)
  • Writings & Essays A few written things.
  • Presentations A few presentations.
  • Flavonoid
    Small time-motion-touch sensing device that translate physical activity in the real world into digital form. An investigation in how 1st life and 2nd, online life can be linked in various playful ways.
  • Slow Messenger
    Messages sent are revealed through a pocket device based on how much time you have spent holding and carrying the device. An investigation in various strategies by which the digital age can consider the spirit of affinity from pre-digital correspondence. Part of The Near Future Laboratory’s Ironics line of lifestyle mobile devices.
  • Drift Deck The Drift Deck (Analog Edition) is an algorithmic puzzle game used to navigate city streets. A deck of cards is used as instructions that guide you as you drift about the city. Each card contains an object or situation, followed by a simple action. For example, a situation might be — you see a fire hydrant, or you come across a pigeon lady. The action is meant to be performed when the object is seen, or when you come across the described situation. For example — take a photograph, or make the next right turn. The cards also contain writerly extras, quotes and inspired words meant to supplement your wandering about the city. For Conflux 2008 Psychogeography Festival.
  • Projects Briefly Brief descriptions of several select projects.
  • MobZombies is a hand-held video game in which zombies are chasing the player and the player is a human joystick. By running and turning, the player controls the on-screen avatar. The game uses a custom sensor board, Bluetooth and runs as a J2ME application. An experiment in post-GUI interaction, and less about augmented reality.
  • PSX is a game controller designer for the PS2. The controller must be “fueled” before play with the use of an attachable Flavonoid. By carrying Flavonoid with you, you generate fuel for the controller. The controller will “play” only as long as there is fuel available. When the fuel begins to run out, the controller behaves sluggishly and finally gives out completely. Part of The Near Future Laboratory’s Ironics line of lifestyle mobile devices.
  • PDPal An experiment in new interactions around exploring geography, urban space and landscape using alternative mapping and map-making strategies and devices.
  • Battleship: Google Earth is a provocation for new forms of digital play where the board game “Battleship” is played using the world as the game grid, integrating digital environments, GPS devices and geography, landscape and the normal human world.
  • Early Work and Art-Technology Projects