Weekending 21012012

Fabien and Nicolas went to Madrid for a workshop at BBVA innovation about Smart Cities. Organized by Urbanscale (and more specifically by Jeff Kirsh, Adam Greenfield and Leah Meisterlin), it focused on opportunities to use networked data for the client. It basically followed up on the previous work we have done with this bank last year.

The workshop went well, with a combination of short talks, field observations (qualitative and quantitative) and discussions. This workshop was followed by an open session entitled “Beyond Smart Cities” at BBVA’s Innovation Center, with Adam Greenfield, myself (Nicolas) and Kevin Slavin. My slides are on Slideshare. There’s a write-up of the event at the following URL. As described by Kevin on his tumblog, “As surely as it feels like a movement has a name (“Smart Cities”) it also feels like the critique of said movement is collectively more articulate and persuasive. Now the key is to find language to describe what it should be, to go beyond popping the balloon and figuring out what the party really needs.“.

Here in Los Angeles Julian has been hard at work puzzling over an incredibly simple problem of making a little audio device called an Ear Freshener avoid having a power switch and a volume knob. He thinks the solution was intimated by a generous comment poster who told him to slap a couple of transistors in strategic locations in the circuit. So he tried that. It seems to make sense. Hopefully it won’t destroy everything.

Related to this were discussions about the principles behind/between things that make sound — such as sound should just come out of them, rather than be all fussy with settings, configurations and network connections. And that tied into an ongoing thinking thing about latter day considerations about “simplicity”, “one thing done well” and skinny Williamsburg/Brick Lane 23 year olds with full beards who’ve done nothing to deserve a full beard but rock Holgas and fetishize film/vinyl/casette tapes fixed-gear bikes and the like. Thus, we’ve been working on a short essay on the topic of the Cult of the Analog Cult. Or something like that.

Meanwhile, on the East side of L.A. Jayne (with Kickstarter funding in hand) has been getting back to making new Portals. They’re still in the physical draft/sketch phase of things but making the upgrade from end-table-foam-core to mdf feels quite satisfying. The insides are still very rough and she’s still getting started with hooking up the magic/technology bits, but at least now a pair of Portal boxes exist in the world, ready to be filled with interactive goodies.

Continue reading Weekending 21012012

Weekending 09192010

Friday September 17 18:56

Okay. There was some more fussing about to pull together a reading list / viewing list for a new project I’ve been thinking about that is in and around augmented reality. The viewing list includes the usual suspects — Terminator 2, They Live (which I showed in the studio — and only three or four people showed up to, which is lame), Until the End of the World, Iron Man, and 2081, although that last one may be a stretch. There may also be some of the important “boot-up” moments from RoboCop that are relevant.The point is to look sideways at the topic from the get-go and not assume the outcome before things get started, which can happen very easily when the project is quite specific. ((It’s not broad at all — as a matter of fact, the name basically says what it wants to produce, which is the wrong way to do any project, I think.))

Friday September 17 17:06

I scrambled over to Art Center College of Design Friday afternoon to participate in their As If.. / Made Up research residency on a panel discussion with Norman Klein and Sascha Pohflepp, which was good fun and engaging and helpful for my own questions. I think I’m now more-or-less set on creating a catalog of genre conventions for design fiction, especially as it happens in film. Getting a copy of that book “Cinematic Storytelling: The 100 Most Powerful Film Conventions Every Filmmaker Must Know” (bleechh..these titles..)) made me think about how I might structure such a catalog and then of course I’m forced to think of why this might be useful. Part of it is just the process of forcing myself to identify what might be curious, useful or intriguing visual patterns and story telling techniques that make it possible to imagine the future, or some aspect of it. I was thinking this could make a curious DVD of some sort.

Get the flash player here: http://www.adobe.com/flashplayer

var so = new SWFObject(“http://www.db798.com/pictobrowser.swf”, “PictoBrowser”, “500”, “500”, “8”, “#EEEEEE”); so.addVariable(“source”, “sets”); so.addVariable(“names”, “2010 01SJ Biennial – Build Your Own World”); so.addVariable(“userName”, “julianbleecker”); so.addVariable(“userId”, “66854529@N00”); so.addVariable(“ids”, “72157625004848614”); so.addVariable(“titles”, “on”); so.addVariable(“displayNotes”, “on”); so.addVariable(“thumbAutoHide”, “off”); so.addVariable(“imageSize”, “medium”); so.addVariable(“vAlign”, “mid”); so.addVariable(“vertOffset”, “0”); so.addVariable(“colorHexVar”, “EEEEEE”); so.addVariable(“initialScale”, “off”); so.addVariable(“bgAlpha”, “90”); so.write(“PictoBrowser100921100902”);

Saturday, went up to 01SJ, ran into everyone and a barricade. It was fun, engaging a little scattered and far-flung and lonely in spots and great to see many friends and their peculiar provocative projects.

Get the flash player here: http://www.adobe.com/flashplayer

var so = new SWFObject(“http://www.db798.com/pictobrowser.swf”, “PictoBrowser”, “500”, “500”, “8”, “#EEEEEE”); so.addVariable(“source”, “sets”); so.addVariable(“names”, “Silly Girl Pirate Bowl”); so.addVariable(“userName”, “julianbleecker”); so.addVariable(“userId”, “66854529@N00”); so.addVariable(“ids”, “72157624994149716”); so.addVariable(“titles”, “on”); so.addVariable(“displayNotes”, “on”); so.addVariable(“thumbAutoHide”, “off”); so.addVariable(“imageSize”, “medium”); so.addVariable(“vAlign”, “mid”); so.addVariable(“vertOffset”, “0”); so.addVariable(“colorHexVar”, “EEEEEE”); so.addVariable(“initialScale”, “off”); so.addVariable(“bgAlpha”, “90”); so.write(“PictoBrowser100921105429”);

Closed the weekend out with a fantastic Silly Girl skate event at the secret Iguana Bowl — Pirate Bowl, for talk like a pirate day!
Continue reading Weekending 09192010

Weekending 09122010

Saturday August 21 14:29

Last week was mostly spent in a here-and-there state in the studio. Cleaning things up from a busy prior week in which a very exciting, thoughtful bit of work — about three or four months — went out to be shared. It’s got a good story, a good set of principles behind it and I just love it to death.

There was some preparation for two new-ish projects that sit at the core of what people do when they and one design fiction-y project — or a project that’s super techie in principle and name and all that but that I’ve pretty much decided I’ll take more of an art-historical start at it. It’s basically a take on “augmented” reality and I’ve made my initial reading/viewing list as provocations to get things going, which consists of:

* Jonathan Crary’s Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the 19th Century (October Books)

* The entirety of “They Live”
* Scenes from “Terminator 2”
* Scenes from “Robocop”
* Scenes from “Until the End of the World”

Part of that is to push away from the knee-jerk obvious directions that this could go if it was taken as one of those projects where the name basically tells you what to do. And I think we should stretch our imaginations.

Just a process note to remind myself about why I got a little prickly along the way. If I remember I lost focus — there’s an entry in the increasingly relevant book “101 Things I Learned in Architecture School” that I keep forgetting to look up properly — but the entry basically says the thing you learn from good work in a good studio is how to do good work. It’s less about what gets tooled and manufactured; less about what gets built and all that. It’s learning how to do what you do better than before. I don’t know how that gets captured and how it gets turned into something tangible. Maybe it doesn’t in a pragmatic sort of way. But, especially working in a small studio in an enormous battleship that is in some aft-chamber, out of sight, under the bilge — your perspective changes and your expectations shift upwards toward, like — clarifying, simplifying and translating big lofty ideas. Why did I get prickly? Well — it’s just eagerness and earnestness and excitement bumping up against the need to be patient and remembering to be satisfied that, at the least, we’re doing all the right things.

Think that’s it. There’s more, but that’s it for now.
Continue reading Weekending 09122010

Design Fiction Chronicles: Robocop + Pre-Augmented Reality Augmented Reality

An update to the Design Fiction Chronicles. This one will be familiar to most science-fiction film fans out there — RoboCop being assembled and tested in the lab. The curious point-of-view shot — allowing us to see the various moments in which RoboCop is coming into being — sets up the anticipation about what RoboCop looks like. Seeing his point-of-view makes the transition to us assuming the role of the protagonist a bit didactic, but I would guess that this is Paul Verhoeven having good fun with the hubristic lab techs and the generally technofascism he so much seems to loathe in his films (cf. Starship Troopers and Total Recall, for example.)

Why do I blog this? There’s lots to say about this sequence, but what occurs to me right now is the way that the film clearly signals a particular kind of relationship between the engineers and executives. The engineers are willing to do the spectacular technical feats at the behest of the money-and-power grubbing executives, putting these interests in applying some sort of technical instrument and making it real, as opposed to working through the complexitiies of the larger contexts in which these things touch the real, real world. Which to my mind, right now, is a familiar protocol that sounds precisely like what not particularly clear-headed folks are doing with this *Augmented Reality mishegoss. They’re walking around with a *doorknob and trying to find some cool houses that *doorknob might look cool on. What is forgotten, largely, is the house, the neighborhood, the people in the house — and so on. When *doorknob is pushed to the background, thought less of, when it becomes mundane and ordinary to a sufficient degree (all houses have *doorknobs; practically and pragmatically speaking, doorknob-less houses are weird and out of the ordinary) — then you have nothing less to do but focus on the much more curious social practices that people engage in, and therein lie the — whatever *apps (bleech..) or experiences. It’s a source of endless amusement to see demonstrations of *AR where a camera is pointed at a box of cereal flakes and some well-intentioned bus-dev-tech-geek says — *see! this app can show you what’s in the box. It’s cereal flakes, for goodness sake. I’m not saying that pointing at something and opening up that gesture to be freshly inhabited with new signals and symbols and moments of goodness, but don’t start with what the technology can do, especially when it does so so exceptionally poorly. And if I hear about Tube Stop locators one more time, my head is going to explode. If I’m a guy walking around with a fuck-off $500 device I’d rather understand why I can’t (a) read a paper map; (b) ask someone; (c) self-navigate. This seems to be a much more curious social-technical challenge that may actually shape and inform how navigation is understood and works, perhaps with some technical whizzybangery discovered in the process of understanding why people today seem so fascinated with finding the nearest TubeStop, Pub, Taco Truck, &c.

*That’s just me. I’m being snarky this morning largely because I want to find the way to invert these sorts of design discussions and lead first with experiences and practices and histories of what has become *AR rather than start with a silly discussion that begins with – *AR is inevitable; there are billions of devices with screens and cameras and CPUs.* I’ve heard all this before with *Virtual Reality — and it really doesn’t play out well for creating intriguing, engaging, habitable near future worlds.

The Week Ending 080110

Sunday September 20, 12.53.26

Markings for repair or warnings to mitigate accidents? Seen in Seoul, South Korea.

Whilst technically still on holiday, there were some things done as usual and *holiday* is never entirely just not doing nuthin’.

There was a quick visit to the studio to begin to finish the second of two commissioned Trust devices, which is looking simultaneously quite insightful and lovely. I hope some day that this becomes a lever to torque the rudder if even ever so slightly.

Jennifer Leonard’s interviews in Good Magazine’s Slow Issue (*Perspectives on a smarter, better, and slower future*) with Esther Dyson, Jamais Cascio, Bruce Sterling, John Maeda, Alexander Rose and myself appeared online. The topic of the short discussions? “We asked some of the world’s most prominent futurists to explain why slowness might be as important to the future as speed.”

And, prompted by Rhys’ clever insights into a richer, smarter less ROI-driven vector into thinking about this whole, you know..augmented reality mishegoss, I’ve been reading a fascinating history of linear perspective that has been helping guide more meaningful thinking. (I have yet to see anything that leaps much further beyond flags showing where something is by holding up a device in front of my face, which just seems momentarily cool and ultimately not particularly consonant with all the hoopleheaded hoopla.

I’ve started The Renaissance Rediscovery of Linear Perspective, which has a number of curious insights right off the bat, particularly ones that remind us that linear perspective is only a possibility and not necessarily something to be thought of as “realistic” from a variety of perspectives. In fact, it merely makes renderings that remove experience and abstract points-of-view, something that I recently learned from Latour’s Visualisation and Cognition (which, not unsurprisingly, led me to this Edgerton book via a reference and footnote.)

Configuration A - Binocular Form Factor

A Laboratory experiment from 2006 — *Viewmaster of the Future* — using a binocular-style form factor. ((The lenses are removed in this photo.))

And, the follow-on, which I haven’t started yet is the enticingly titled The Mirror, the Window, and the Telescope: How Renaissance Linear Perspective Changed Our Vision of the Universe, which immediately caught my eye as I am drawn more to the history, imagery, rituals and *user experience* dimensions of telescopes and binoculars as affordances for, bleech..*augmented reality* than this stupid hold-a-screen-up-to-my-face crap. ((cf. this stuff below — the screen-up-to-my-face configuration — never felt as good as the second iteration of this *Viewmaster of the Future* experiments we did a few years ago.))

Continue reading The Week Ending 080110

Showing And Telling: Some Notes On Visualisation and Cognition

Saturday December 19, 12.58.43

Reality augmentation instruments, designed with more than a suggestion of the now-canonical handheld device footprint. These are practically those sort of *kids’ toy* editions of adult devices, you know? I’ve become recently consumed by what a reality augmentation device might be and, as pertains the topic herein, how changes in the way we see changes the way we think.

A few notes for the notebook on this essay Visualisation and Cognition by Bruno Latour. In it I found a few points relevant to this idea of *design fiction* — the imbrication of design, science fact and fiction to help imagine and materialize new kinds of near future worlds. The essay certainly isn’t about this directly, but there were some aspects of it that relate ideas to their materialization via visual techniques, specifically *immutable and mobile* visualizations — ways of making ideas travel from one place to another. Film is a means of mobilizing ideas, enrolling more and more allies through an immutable inscription.

Below are my own notes, mostly to myself. I am most interested in what might be extracted from this essay regarding the significance of *visual inscriptions* to change and innovation; and the relationship between *props and prototypes* — are they in a sense one and the same? If they are meant to stand in for *what could be?* This relates to Latour’s points indirectly — he emphasizes the capability of linear perspective and drawing because of their ability to capture an idea and move it from place to place in order to enroll allies and make things happen. It becomes possible to have an idea, render it and effectively bring people to where you have been, by bringing that place or that idea to them without them having to go through the trouble of making the journey on their own. Film, I *think*, can do the same thing and is perhaps the contemporary equivalent of the more historical points Latour makes. This might be a stretch, but drawing and film might be performing similar functions in this regard — allowing an idea to be rendered and to travel without too much hassle.

If I had to summarize the points here, I would draw from this moment in the film Jurassic Park where the high school science film *Mr. DNA* in which a complicated, technical process of extracting dinosaur DNA is explained in an entertaining narrative film. It is a complicated phenomena that is summarized in a compelling visual story. As a function in the film itself, this allows the audience to go on this journey that scientists (curiously, both in the film and external to it, because this hypothesis explicated in the high school science film is an active concept by *real* scientists) are making themselves. Once taken on this journey, the audience can at least temporarily comprehend the possibility that dinosaurs can exist today.

There are two points argued in Latour’s Visualisation and Cognition essay that are relevant for the work here in the Laboratory: the invention of mobile, immutable, presentable, legible objects and; creative visualization — not the data viz stuff that’s all the craze these days (although this is relevant), but new/evolved ways of describing and presenting, not just graphs and tables that visualize *complicated* or *hidden* phenomena that can now be rendered legible because masses of realtime data exist in public databases. But, what I mean more specifically is to leverage an old trick of optical consistency — making impossible places, impossible things realistic, or to make possible objects more probable than other possible objects.

1. The first point Latour makes is to emphasize the significance of writing and imaging craftsmanship in the work of what I will call — innovation. Rather than economic (materialist) or intellectual (mentalist) historical perspectives — the big, overarching views used to describe the specific characteristics of modern technoscientific cultures — the ability and deployment of descriptions and drawings is what allows ideas to evolve in a specific way which is this: not only does writing and imaging allow an idea to move from precisely that — an idea in someone’s head to more material form — it allows that idea to travel without changing; it becomes what Latour calls an “immutable mobile.” However clever or insightful one might be alone, the ability to “muster on the spot the largest number of well-aligned and faithful allies” is the way to win, for example, a confrontation, or to win a decision in one’s favor. (“We need..to look at the way in which someone convinces someone else to take up a statement, to pass it along, to make it more of a fact, and to recognize the first author’s ownership and originality.” [p.5])

As simple (thankfully!) as drawing a map of an island and being able to bring it back to Versailles across a vast distance in order to enter it into the bureaucracies that will debate, decide and declare the best ways to sail to, or attack or colonize that island is far more significant than *only* being able to get to the island in the first place (via the commitment of capital to fund the journey, the ability to navigate via the stars, etc.). One must bring these two perspectives together. It is not enough to be able to do the extreme journey on its own if the extreme journey does not help mobilize and muster new resources.

“..it is not perception which is at stake in this problem of visualization and cognition. New inscriptions, and new ways of perceiving them, are the result of something deeper. If you wish to go out of your way and come back heavily equipped so as to force others to go out of their ways, the main problem to solve is that of mobilization. You have to go and to come back with the “things” if your moves are not to be wasted. But the “things” you gathered and displaced have to be presentable all at once to those you want to convince and who did not go there. In sum, you have to invent objects which have the properties of being mobile but also immutable, presentable, readable and combinable with one another.”

So..there’s that. It’s not enough to be clever — one must also effectively communicate, in all sorts of ways, beyond only rhetoric.

2. The second relevant point for the Laboratory tails on to the first point: if we want to show possible near future worlds that might tend away from convention, or lean towards speculation we must do so simply, visually and with as effective a description (narrative) as possible. This is the reason why we’ve been very interested in the production of visual stories — not just the stories themselves, but the *how* of their making, specifically the creation of visual stories that may show things that cannot yet occur outside of a visual or written fiction. (c.f. The Reality Effect of Technoscience) Why is this significant? Why does *design fiction* — the imbrication of design, science, fact and fiction — need to show (in the plain sense — visualize, render, draw)? Because “[h]e who visualizes badly loses the encounter; his fact does not hold.” [p. 16-17]

In summary: some things are best shown in order to be thought-through. This is relevant to the point of designing with fiction because we are trying to obtain in a real, material way a near future world which needs a way to compellingly enroll *allies* — supporters, interests, the imagination of people — in order to bring this world into being. This won’t just happen “cause” an idea is a good one. It has to be made good through the enlistment of participants who can be taken on the journey to that near future and then come back with the commitment and belief in this near future.

Two further notes from the essay.

The first is a point that starts the essay out — Latour is looking for another set of characteristics particular to *scientific modernity* (which I rephrase as *technoscientific culture*) that is something other than materialist or “mentalist”. That is, characteristics that are not about the accumulation or attributes of capitalism or economic growth; and not about brains that have grown with the times to allow us to be smarter. (The reasons we make aliens with huge heads.) What he is looking for is a simpler, less controversial (and perhaps less racist) character of technoscientific culture. Rather than the unyielding accumulation of more machines, intellectual property, wealth and so on to support the creation of new technical objects — what is it that allows ideas to generate and propagate? In a word, he looks to drawing — the ability to capture an idea and then mobilize it immutably.

And this is the second point. Perspective drawing is particularly relevant, he argues convincingly. It’s simple — perhaps too simple a description for some people — but compelling. Once something like, for example, a map can be drawn that captures a place and that map can show a place from a vantage point that allows the vantage point to move without changing the place, because of the rules and techniques of linear perspective), one can *move that place, taking that map back to Versailles to show the traders and politicians and aristocracy and bankers — and then..* Similarly with drawing a mechanism for a machine or press or siege weapon, etc. The idea can travel, because the flatness of paper makes this possible, and it can travel without changing because of the techniques of linear perspective — even if you change a viewport, the *thing* does not mutate.

Simple, Not Grand. Perspective over Capitalism.

Latour looks for explanations as to the specific underpinnings of our technoscientific culture in this essay. He describes a rather useful alternative to the two most common and tiresome (because they are so common) descriptions of the origins and special characteristics of modern technoscientific culture: the materialist and the “mentalist”, as he refers to them. The alternatives have everything to do with being able to project in a simple way through *visualization*

“The two-dimensional character of inscriptions allow them to merge with geometry. As we saw for perspective, space on paper can be made continuous with three-dimensional space. The result is that we can work on paper with rulers and numbers, but still manipulate three-dimensional objects “out there”.”

Are we really a technoscientific culture because we have become smarter? Or richer in ideas, resources, capital — both financial and intellectual? Rather than the hackneyed descriptions that rely on either a materialists (it has to do with the availability of resources, the unyielding *push* of capitalism to create more, better, faster, smaller), or a “mentalist” (we got smarter and smarter with time, ideas and *innovations* stacking up on top of each other, increasing the *up and to the right* curve of *progress*), Latour starts by wishing to obey the principle of Occam’s razor:

Hypotheses about changes in the mind or human consciousness, in the structure of the brain, in social relations, in “mentalités”, or in the economic infrastructure which are posited to explain the emergence of science or its present achievements are simply to grandiose, not to say hagiographic in most cases and plainly racist in more than a few others. Occam’s razor should cut these explanations short…The idea that a more rational mind or a more constraining scientific method emerge from darkness and chaos is too complicated a hypothesis.

With this set up we are able to look more closely at the simple, less-grand, less dichotomous divides between what was and what follows. Rather than “great divides” between prescientific and scientific cultures that force binaries and strong asymmetries which are useful for children’s bedtime stories (good versus evil; then versus now; us versus the others) but of little use for understanding the evolution of innovation and change, we should find simpler, more subtle explanations that do not strain credibility for their overarching, impossibly broad perspectives that are simultaneously simple. Simple and overarching don’t go well together and do not hold things together very well. They move too far away from the hand, from what people do in the everyday. They do work well for historians and their stories, but not particularly well for the work of craftsmen doing what they do.

Why is this a difficult point to start from? Why are “grand narratives” of innovation and evolution difficult to give up? Is history really a sequence of *disruptions* that suddenly appear from nearly nowhere? As Latour says, “The differences in the effects of science and technology are so enormous that it seems absurd not to look for enormous causes.”

How do you maintain an adequate description of the *scale* of effects but without explaining it through similarly scaled explanations like the history of human consciousness, the development of reason, unyielding accumulation and creation of capital of all sorts? What we want to do is avoid these usual explanations in order to describe innovation in a more empirically precise way, one that does not ignore the practice and craftsmanship of knowing, one that pushes aside omniscient economic and intellectual histories.

Inscriptions Mobilize Immutably

The mobilization of many resources through space and time is essential for domination on a grand scale. Latour proposes “immutable mobiles” as those objects that allow this mobilization to happen and that the best of these had to do with written, numbered or optically consistent paper surfaces(!).

1. Inscriptions are mobile. Things can’t move to other places, but *inscriptions* can.

2. They are immutable when they do move, as much as practical. Perspective enforces this. “..specimens are chloroformed, microbial colonies are stuck into gelatine, even exploding stars are kept on graph papers..”

3. Inscriptions are made flat, two-dimensional. “In politics as in science, when someone is said to master a question or to dominate a subject, you should normally look for the flat surface that enables mastery (a map, a list, a file, a census, the wall of a gallery, a card-index, a repertory) and you will find it.”

4. The scale of inscriptions can be modified. From billions of galaxies in a photograph, scale models of oil refineries the same size as a plastic model of an atom.

5. Inscriptions can be reproduced and spread.

6. Inscriptions can be reshuffled and recombined. (Metaphor and metonymy.)

7. Inscriptions can be superimposed as a result of their ability to be recombined/shuffled.

8. Inscriptions can be made part of a written text. (Captures from instruments merge with published texts; a present day laboratory is the unique place where the text is made to comment on the things which are already present within it. It is not simply “illustrated”, it carries all there is to see in what it writes about. Through the laboratory, the text and the spectacle of the world end up having the same character.)

9. The two-dimensional character of inscriptions allow them to merge with geometry. Space on paper can be made continuous with three-dimensional space.

The summary conclusion here is that writing and inscriptions are crucial characteristics of the technoscientific modernity — these are deceptively simple characteristics and not as grand as the creation of trade, or the invention of fungible currencies, or the invention of the telescope or perspective or a particular war or even the printing press. It is these things, certainly — but together with this ability to describe and to draw and to do so in a way that is mobile and immutable — that can travel back. You can go to the far reaches of the world or the imagination and then come back to show what you mean. And, the simpler, the better. No grand, esoteric explanations.

Why do I blog this?I like this perspective of coming back to simple explanations of things. It seems that complexity or quantity often rule in situations. More words; more data; more user study data; more pages in the PowerPoint. More and more stuff to hide behind before making a decision…and so on. I’ve been more intrigued by the power of a compelling visual description, even for awkwardly speculative perspectives or propositions. This is very similar in my mind to these moments in the design fiction idiom, especially the moment in science fiction films (which may as well be journey’s to other possible worlds) where something fantastical is revealed and the *how* is brought back to us as viewers to allow us to enjoy the film without questioning the *science* that belongs properly to the fiction.
Continue reading Showing And Telling: Some Notes On Visualisation and Cognition

Beyond Public Toilet Maps — Prehistoric Augmented Reality Devices

Saturday November 28 12:35

Saturday November 28 12:55

Saturday November 28 12:52

Saturday November 28 12:55

A small collection of historic augmented reality devices, found during a rake through a flea market in Paris with fellow Urban Scout Nicolas Nova last Saturday. Mostly bashed up, broken things — but evocative devices that, when run up against all the excitement surrounding “Augmented Reality”, suggest more to me than the more typical, canonical — hold-my-flat-screen-mobile-device-up-in-front-of-me mode of operation.

Tactically, the evolution of mobile practices like this might learn from the everyday pre-historic rituals, such as gazing through a telescope which, in its infancy, was probably quite close to a kind of augmented reality. It allowed merchants to gaze to the horizon while sitting at port to see what ships were coming in, with what loads. The more speculating merchants could foresee shifts in the local markets because cotton was coming in and eek out their profits with the foresight brought to them courtesy of their expensive, privileged optical devices. A kind of future-seeing device used to their advantage.

Today’s augmented reality has none of that sparkle and magic. The visions of the AR future as best as I can tell is overturned by the fetish of the technology. This truly is a bad approach to making new kinds of worlds. The instrument comes first — a display, compact electronics, embedded compass and network connectivity — are what guide the vision and the “scenarios” (if you can call them that) entail something that basically is an expensive way to ask someone standing right next to you, who probably speaks a language you speak anyway — where the nearest public toilet is. Or where the metro stop is. Or in what direction the museum is. All of these things are problems that have been well-solved and need no tax imposed upon them like data roaming fees, or the inconvenience of a [[bad network/crap GPS signal/annoyance of dropping your $500 toy//&c]].

Augmented Reality in this mode of “design” is a bit like finding a nice door knob…and then looking for the house that looks good around it. Starting with the door knob — the instrumental technical stuff — is a really bad way to design a house, I think.

Why do I blog this? Poking and prodding at a more satisfying set of metaphors, language, histories for what a looking glass / viewmaster / binocular of the near future might be and what lessons it might learn from its prehistoric kin. I’m curious about the possibility of learning from the evolution and development and cultural valance of these earlier devices — considering them in the mode of a magical, exciting bit of technical kit from their time. But what did they do and how were they used? How much of the device and technical characteristics guided what they became, like today? Was someone walking around with some carefully, expensively constructed optics, not entirely sure what to do with them? Or not sure how to sell them to people? How were they to be assembled, technically speaking? What was the level of knowledge of combined optics — was it similar in its sophistication and arcane incantations like programming embedded devices and mobile phones today? What did it take for someone to use the telescope as something other than a device for starring at the moon or constellations? And other questions like this…what can be learned from shifting contexts, moving to historic moments, fictionalizing alternative possibilities for those histories, or fictionalizing the near future of these weird “augmented reality” speculations.

What might “augmented reality” augment besides directions to a public toilet?
Continue reading Beyond Public Toilet Maps — Prehistoric Augmented Reality Devices

Design Fiction Chronicles: The Augmented Reality Near Future Imaginary Par Excellance

A still from John Carpenter’s They Live, set, appropriately enough, in the near neighborhoods around downtown Los Angeles.

Well, the recent round of chit-chat about augmented realities and their current canonical motivations, design prototyping and concepts has leveled-up in my own mind. On the 12th floor of the Laboratory complex, we’ve decided to fill up the vacant cubicles and set up some bits of kit, post-it notes, fiducial-filled sheets of paper, and set up our new Bureau of Inquests Into Reality Augmentation & Alteration.

It’s early days, but we’ve found one near past design fiction of a possible augmented reality prototype in John Carpenter’s camp-fantastico film They Live. If you haven’t seen it, you know nothing about Augmented Reality. I’m so serious about that, my hands are shaking. A few years ago, when I was teaching a lecture class that ran four hours and was about as painful as you could imagine to prepare, until I realized it was four hours because it was a film class that was meant to show films – I had They Live pulled from the vaults or whatever for a viewing. I was really surprised that only one or two students had ever seen this film. It’s not superb as a film, but it is superb enough to have a cult status and to be evocative of the things college kids get into if their on the left side of the fence – Naomi Klein-Noam Chomsky-Barbra Krueger style stuff. Good 70s media theory McLuhan-y things. Plus, you get an excruciatingly long, wrestle-y, award winning fist fight featuring Rowdy Roddy Piper.

“They Live” in my mind is the canonical, defining vision of what any sort of Augmented Reality should start with. Sort of presenting an “anti” world — the world made strange so that we see it in a different way. Reconstructed. No Pink Pony scenarios or anything that makes the engineer-accountants get eager, sweaty palms. Weird stuff to invert things and better see the alternative possibilities beyond way-finding, tour-guiding, and informatic overlays of measured data. Something like Julian Oliver’s “Artvertiser” concepts for a reality altering set of binoculars that turns public advertising displays into canvas’ for public art, if you so desire. That is, transforming the landscape with user-generated content or new “preferences” to the world. These worlds that you see in the worst of prototypes – with hideous post-its floating all around the world or something. Pop-ups and arrows pointing out the names of buildings and stuff like that? That, I predict, will be the epic fail of reality augmentation.

A still from the Institute for the Future‘s wonderful, somewhat tongue-in-cheek prototype of a possible Augmented Reality experience, delivered at the “Blended Realities” workshop. The prototype world is very informatic, but I think it also pokes a bit of harmless fun at some of the curious/bizzaro conclusions to this, and to where it might go, and how it might inflect quotidian social practices. The glasses are pretty Elvis Costello, tho.

Check out They Live.

Why do I blog this? A strong, avuncular urge to think about other possible augmentations of reality and an allergic reaction to the ways engineer-accountant led designed things turn out.

But wait..there’s always more…this video, found by pheezy on the Twitter and created by Anatoly Zenkov (wow..), is another useful instance of a proper AR experience. I mean..one that makes a lot more sense in that it exhibits the kinds of reality I’ve come to know and love and appreciate and understand from first principles.

Me too (doing some AR stuff)! from Anatoly Zenkov on Vimeo.

…and even more, more..this thing has come in from the Bureau’s phalanx of data scouring agents..an AR-y miniature house maid, done in the fine, Japanese style of Lolita Maid-o!


Continue reading Design Fiction Chronicles: The Augmented Reality Near Future Imaginary Par Excellance

Reality Augmented: Birdsong Identification Tour

Augmenting reality at The Forest, an installation exhibition at Machine Project here in Echo Park, Los Angeles. I attended the Birdsong Identification Tour.

More photos from the Birdsong Identification Tour can be found on my Flickr site, or stream or whatever.

Further to augmented reality and its discontents, I wonder if this sort of augmented experience might not suffice in many situations. Human-to-human interaction of some sort, high-fi, low-tech, or material that makes rough use of digital interfaces and technologies without fetishizing the technology and its inevitable hiccups.

I suspect many people might not be prepared to count this sort of puppeteering as an augmentation of reality. There are too many “wires exposed”, as the saying goes. The magic disappears because you can see the lovely puppeteers moving the birds around — and the birds are cardboard cutouts attached carefully to bits of branch. There are no screens to oogle, or databases to query and extend with feed mashers, and the like. No intellectual property opportunities here. Just an opportunity to immerse oneself into an media experience where the only computational device is an iPod Touch playing bird calls.

Here I and my fellow tourists obtained, in an hour, a quite wonderful introduction to birdsong identification, given by the engaging Jordan Biren. Each of the birds to be identified were flown about the room by puppeteers dressed in stage blacks. The birds were quite obedient and almost tame because, of course, they were representational puppets. This made it quite easy to look at them closely and listen to their songs, which were high quality audio generated by an iPod Touch affixed to their backs. It was a bumper day for bird watching and birdsong listening. I didn’t have to put on goggles and gloves, nor look at a screen or some sort. I could move about and make jokes with our tour guide. I got a little itchy from the chips and shavings and dirt that made up our forest floor. There were some sort of flying insects lazily circling in shafts of sunlight, undoubtedly enjoying the augmentation themselves. There was a soft blast of air conditioning from the AC unit that hung above the entrance to Machine Project, which was welcome, especially given the scorcher LA day that Sunday.

Sometimes the birds morphed into other species when the iPod’s would run over into another track — hazards more of touch technology than anything else I suspect what with the bird handlers moving about amongst the trees and foliage. But, this is okay. There’s a larger story told in such instances of bird species evolution and so forth. Failure turned into opportunity.

Update: See Will Carter’s visual juxtaposition of the previously referenced WoW project by Aram Bartholl and this new weird, terrifically blundered visual design of a possible augmented reality meant to run on the appropriately named Android platform in precisely the ham-fisted seasick style that will cripple all of our eyeballs. It’s called Wikitude. May it die by cudgel. As the saying goes — we will get the future we deserve.


Why do I blog this? A real curiosity of the small (large for this blog) bit of boxing about on my previous post that was a liquor-store-hold-up style criticism of augmented reality. I’m also wondering what techniques make for more or less engaging or legible forms of augmentation. What sorts of arguments from the pro-tech crowd would be leveled on this curated experience? If money is being spent on creating augmented reality sorts of things — and I know it is — would this count as eligible?

Here, an art installation that becomes a learning experience augments the world. The gallery is far from any sort of woods, yet the vicinity is augmented to support the transformation into a woodland.

Further to another area of augmented realities I am interested in, for the maps-and-places augmentation of reality, what kind of mapping techniques serve to augment a place over and above its reality? If you take those tourist-y commercial maps — the free ones you can often find that highlight commerce zones, tourist sites, Starbuck’s and other things — is that an augmentation of reality? Is the Thomas Guides I have in the back of my car an augmentation — or is it the map of the place? What about the Not For Tourist’s guides I collect of Los Angeles? They parcel the city up into various neighborhoods and explicitly highlight the things that normal, human residents care about — dry cleaners, public libraries, hardware stores, etc.

The questions then are — how do we want our reality augmented? To what ends? With which techniques?
Continue reading Reality Augmented: Birdsong Identification Tour

Design Fiction Chronicles: Aram Bartholl's Vision of Augmented Reality

Still moment from Aram Bartholl‘s workshop and project WoW an “intervention in public space that uses computer play-worlds as a means of calling attention to the changing ways people deal with privacy and identity in the public sphere.” In my mind, this is one of the better depictions of what the widely anticipated but really super deflating future of “augmented reality” will be like. It’s funny, but I think this vision embeds an obvious critique of some sort.

In discussions these days about Augmented Reality — really vintage high technology if there ever was such — I am reminded of Aram Bartholl‘s workshop and project WoW, which is quite relevant. For some reason — I suspect Freemason conspiracy of the highest order — Augmented Reality is making some sort of bid to regain its previous stature as “the future” of, well — something. What gives? (I really want to know.) It had a chance in 1995 or something, as well as lots of half-baked promises, popular magazine articles, and crappy overpriced plastic eyeglasses that’ll enhance your movie watching experiences that you could buy out of those catalogs you find in the backseat pocket on airplanes.

Why has it come back? Okay — now I’m asking the question seriously because it seems like people are spending serious money hiring people and setting up things to get back into this “hold-up-a-screen-and-be-told-what-you-could-read-in-a-tour-guide” kind of high technology. There must be a better way to spend money to create a better world, no? (Answers to this inquiry will be taken seriously. I’m only snarky because the afternoon coffee has taken hold, but good.)

Aram Bartholl’s WoW project explores public space depicted with some of the interface elements of many multiplayer role-playing games. The name derives from World of Warcraft, perhaps the canonical such game. I tried it once, for about two hours, maybe? It just didn’t take hold in the least, but that’s a personal judgement. I don’t necessarily go for that sort of thing.

Besides this point, which is perhaps an allergic reaction to all the hype that surrounded the game a year or so ago — with it being the new golf and crap like that, which I would not wish on any earnest creative effort — there was lots of attention paid to the bloated interfaces of the game. It’s nearly illegible as far as I can tell. But, literacy is learned and in the eye of the literate. If the literacies of the future force one to adjust to “reading” the world as a “dashboard” of this sort:

Joi Ito’s crazy, over-the-top WoW dashboard screen thing. Legibility taken to a whole new territory.

Well, then it will be a weird world of data points, avatars, 140 character conversations and emoticons.


Friday April 03, 15.42.33

A weird secured box — a database of physical materials or something — found without trying on the streets of Aberdeen, Scotland. How much more augmentation does reality really need? I mean..

Aram’s project, in my mind, playfully pokes at the vision of a near future world of such things augmenting our daily, pedestrian realities. I’m a bit skeptical when it comes to the levels of alteration to quotidian life by glasses that tell you compass bearings or map sites of interest. All that kind of stuff that would turn spatial experiences into some kind of database inquiry seem very much different from what I enjoy about the world when it is mixed with humans — curious interpretations of objects and moments that are not salted with uniform resource locators, pop-ups, soft synthesized voices telling me that I’ve got mail or to turn right at the next intersection. Sometimes, I like getting a bit lost, or learning my way about a new place. (That might be my own rationalizing — I get lost with such a frequency that lost is my new found.) I enjoy doing the urban scout adventures in places to look at the world slightly differently, and in a way, I am afraid, no algorithm in some augmented reality telephone-glasses can enhance.

Here’s a video that Aram and his workshop attendees produced for their activities in Gent, Belgium. (Thanks Aram, for the lovely and perpetually relevant project.)

WoW from aram bartholl on Vimeo.

See also Mixing Realities.
Continue reading Design Fiction Chronicles: Aram Bartholl's Vision of Augmented Reality