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 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 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

Design Fiction Chronicles: The Stability of Food Futures

Three ways observed recently to delivery food, in some sort of service stack hierarchy. Which got me thinking about food futures, generally. First, a sample of present food service and presentation protocols as depicted above.

First, catered in a way that provides the opportunity to pick and choose based on inspecting the available items.

Next, inspecting the descriptions of available items on a paper menu, that also conveniently serves two additional functions — as a place mat to sop up drinks spills and food that does not quite make it to the mouth (a distinct possibility when consuming noodle-y things with a fork). Second, it also serves as a marking pad with a number of unique attributes: to indicate when an ordering process has begun (the pink star) and when the meal is closed out and the check has been requested (the blue star); to indicate what is not available currently (item number written on the menu-mat and drawn when a “buster” mark — a circle with a line through it) which appears under my plate for item number 43 which, sadly, was what I wanted to eat; the menu-mat is also where one’s ordered items are written down in (to me) a barely legible set of chicken-scratches (upper right.)

Third, traditional, serif’d menu in a sit-down configuration, heavily serviced by waitstaff in a semi-formal, banquet setting. You wait for what has been determined to be your meal ahead of time. Interestingly, the young woman sitting next to me had to do a bit of dinner order off-roading, convincing the waitstaff to bring her the vegetarian plate. When you try and steer a pre-determined “on-the-rails” dinner service a bit off the tracks, things start grinding gears. This was possible to see in this context where the wiring had to be re-routed in various ways to accommodate this unexpected but relatively minor alteration to plans. (To those of you who have asked, the haggis was quite good, perhaps the formality of the context added something to an experience I genuinely feared. I thought quite seriously of deploying Mike Lewinsky’s powerful “Kosher Defense” which he painstakingly taught me after his experiences in China with the Rabbit Head appetizer. — I don’t think Mike’s China meal was in anyway a metaphor, btw.)

Ice cream from a street vendor amongst a small cluster of other vendors in a mini chocolate tasting/purchasing festival along the South Bank in London.

The dearth of street food in all of the cities I was in during that 12 days in the UK and Finland almost defines the Urban Scout’s conceptual boundary between countries in various parts of the world. There was street food during the day’s perambulation along the South Bank of a particularly pre-configured, organized and licensed sort. Despite that, the opportunity for Ice Cream in London in early April meant something. Besides these, the closest to genuine on-the-street food stalls was rather organized and festival-like. Which is fine. I mean — generally, I take the cautious Urban Scout approach to food consumption which is a minimum of experimentation, and smell but don’t ingest street-made street food.

A crowd of sweets taunting from behind a case at the delicious Indian restaurant called Tayyabs. Food taunting protocols. Display varieties in such a way as to evoke primal triggers for food consumption — like salivating and eye-widening. My restraint algorithm was employed to modest effect.

Thinking about food, and the future, and the future of food got me wondering about rather narrow future food imaginaries. It seems that there is basically food, also, in the future. Space foods of some sort or rudimentary staples. I collected a few science-fiction food future scenes from film that popped into my head right away. These are instances of rather stable food futures, consistent with today in a way that says, basically, food stays the same.

Zero-gravity space food as imagined in the late 1960s, right around the time that NASA in the United States was trying to figure out how astronauts would eat in their weightless journeys to the moon and back. Consistent with the rigor of his production design, Kubrick considered similar constraints on food and eating on long journeys, such as in his epic 2001: A Space Odyssey. Seen here are colored food products, delivered via straw to mitigate hunks floating off into the ship’s environment and gumming up the works. This is perhaps the most future-y food I could recollect in my own science fiction film library.

The future of the street vendor / outdoor noodle and sushi bar. Steamy, crowded, jostling, limited availability of specialty things, as seen in Blade Runner by Ridley Scott and P.K. Dick.


At the noodle and sushi bar in Blade Runner by Ridley Scott and P.K. Dick.

Ridley Scott’s production design and extrapolation of Los Angeles downtown (?) into the future fiction of the film has been praised for the way it captured something that was visually articulate — it is an evocative projection into a legible future world. Spoken language mash-ups, bustling crowds, density and thickness of all sorts — weather, advertising, etc. It’s worth a quick look of this food futures scene, which only serves as a prop to turn the drama a bit toward Deckard. The production design here, though, captures an imaginable setting and atmosphere.

Blade Runner by Ridley Scott and P.K. Dick. (Blade Runner Noodle Bar — Food Futures).

Eating in the future, family style. Some grains and salads. From Alien by Ridley Scott.

A future instance of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer or something. Enjoying a cigarette. Quite consistent food futures. From Alien by Ridley Scott.

Box, sweetened, kid’s breakfast cereal. Suitable for snacking without milk by pouring directly into the mouth. Very familiar food and eating practice, projected into the year 2050. From Minority Report by Steven Spielberg and P.K. Dick.

An advert from the year 2050, where there is still Guiness, thank goodness. From Minority Report by Steven Spielberg and P.K. Dick.

There are some future food imaginaries where we find quite stable futures. We still eat in the future, it seems. I left out the future imaginaries like Soylent Green where “we” (people) get eaten or are alien food. That’s for another consideration.

Why do I blog this? Curious interfaces between people and their food and meals observed while out and about as an Urban Scout. I t is interesting to think about the stability of food, despite the high-end explorations with various delivery mechanisms like aerated food products and other delivery protocols and fancy concoctions.

Distinctive future imaginaries for food are few and far between, best as I can tell just thinking about it. Food is delivered. Space food becomes the same food as today, only constrained by the limits of things like preparation, weight and, bleech..consistency. Food becomes, in the future imaginary, quite instrumental in its consideration of necessary intake and so forth. It seems strange to me that there are not more design fictions that shape design practices that are directly concerned with what food might become. Maybe it’ll be closer to athletic food gels, formulated by food scientists. Bio-chemical genetic foods and the like, taken to their logical and insane conclusion.
Continue reading Design Fiction Chronicles: The Stability of Food Futures

Follow Curiosity, Not Careers

A pair of chairs, a pair of coffees. About as good a way you’ll find to start a conversation, ask questions, answer them. Learn. Teach. Less than $10. At the Doughnut Plant, New York City. Around about here.

I’m feeling somewhat vindicated by the NYT opinion piece “End the University as We Know It” — a call for restructuring the old, creeky ways of the graduate university. The trajectory from graduate school to teaching positions is serpentine, at best. Specialization creates smaller and smaller communities of practice who talk to all seven or twenty or fifty of the other specialists. Ways of knowing become increasingly limited, confined to these small communites. Interdisciplinarity — worthwhile in spirit, certainly — often means getting some disciplines together in a room, rather than transcending the notion of the discipline all together, something that would allow more focus on problems from the top down, rather than as sub-problems of, say, economics or history or whatever.

Mark Taylor’s opinion piece is worth the read, positioning a long-running crisis in graduate eduction as “te Detroit of higher learning”, the allusion of course, to the crisis the automotive industry feels in the current credit crisis. Kids are paying way too much to go to school to become skilled up to perform in industries and job sectors in a way that prepares them to be calcified rather than agile. The ability to know how to learn is far more important than any one nugget of knowledge delivered in a lecture by a tenured professor who’s been teaching the same thing decade after decade.

This idea Taylor has of 7 year departments is quite provocative, as well as 7 year teaching appointments. I’ve thought about 3-5 year cycles — 3-5 years seems about right for me, personally, to shift areas of interest and practice. Maybe that’s just the way things have unfolded professional — sometimes consciously, sometimes the decisions delivered from elsewhere.

In any case, this idea of shifting ones practice and area of activity is quite important. Following your curiosity rather than a career path/ladder/trajectory seems incredibly wise. To do otherwise, seems naive and thoughtless. Yes — the practicalities of life intrude. You need (more likely want) nice things that money buys. Money comes from jobs. More money comes from certain kinds of careers. (Or it did, leastways.) You’ll certainly be nudged strongly toward that career ladder to cover the $150,000 of education you now have to pay back. I’m sure that one would learn much more following one’s curiosity for that same $50,000 a year you’d spend at the football university..which costs that much so that the football team’s jet stays maintained and fueled..but I’ve gone over this before.

How do you follow your curiosity? I dunno — you just do. What’s a plan? A template? Maybe something like this:

Spend a year listening, reading, learning about a new practice. Find out who the thought leaders are and why. Ask everyone who is in the particular practice community three questions: (1) what’s your story? how’d you come to be who you are and do what you do? (2) who’s your hero in your field? (3) who else should I meet? Go to the trade conferences and dive deep. Listen to everything. Read everything. Filter by simple keywords. (I do design now. That’s my filter, design. If there is design in the title/abstract/conference, that’s my criteria for reading/attending/giving a talk.)

Spend the next year helping out and apprenticing. Be a humble servant, asking questions but also getting hands dirty and trousers scuffed. Be active, modest and become a learner. Move about, but focus on the nuances of the craft aspects of the practice community.

Another year making/creating/building on your own, whatever the field might be. Prepare to be a contributor in a more active way. Find a voice of your own. You would’ve created a network that knits you into the community by this time.

And subsequent years, refining and polishing that “voice.” Keep moving, refining, finding ways to continue to learn and bringing all the other bits of learning, the other “fields”, the other ways of knowing and seeing the world, all the other bounded disciplines — let them intrude and change things. Let things get rather undisciplined and a bit unruly. Disciplines are self-satisfied, with is akin to apathy, which never solved any problems.

Anyway. Give it a read. Anyone who’s spent more than $50,000 a year getting educated should take heed. Anyone who’s getting paid about that much to teach those who pay that much should take extra heed. Anyone who thinks University style learning has hit an ivory wall will feel vindicated.

Mark C. Taylor, End the University as We Know It, New York Times, Opinion Section, 4/27/09.

By the by, Marcus Jahnke, designer, creator, teacher in the Business & Design Lab at the University of Gothenburg, Sweden, who briefly taught me about how he transcended construction fashion norms in Sweden (and just about anywhere, I would guess) by introducing a well-received kilt called the Hantverkskilt for construction workers, spoke this phrase — you follow your curiosity, not a career — to me a few weeks ago after a kind of long biographical introduction to a talk. It made perfect sense and gave me a new perspective on why I do what I do, even when I get in trouble for it. He sent me a kilt. I’m mustering the courage to wear it. It’s quite Near Future Laboratory-y, as it turns out. Thanks Marcus, and thanks for the kilt.

Related is this post by Alex Pang: Want to reach your goals? Be oblique

Which points to this: Obliquity Strange as it may seem, overcoming geographic obstacles, winning decisive battles or meeting global business targets are the type of goals often best achieved when pursued indirectly. This is the idea of Obliquity. Oblique approaches are most effective in difficult terrain, or where outcomes depend on interactions with other people.

Continue reading Follow Curiosity, Not Careers

However, as Lacan taught us

Sunday March 29, 13.25.20

Swerve, or invert. Look behind, a common strategy I employ for being more certain of whence I have come. Nothing fancy, other than I get lost easily in new places, and know that returning, hopefully, to where I have come from will present an entirely different landscape and skyline than the one I see when setting forth.

..when we are confronted with an apparently clear choice, sometimes the correct thing to do is choose the worst option, so that the thing may redeem itself, shedding its old skin and emerging in a new unexpected shape.

Why do I blog this? An informal lobby for inversion as a design strategy. Lifted (briefly wordsmithed for local context) from the introduction to the new edition of Zizek’s The Sublime Object of Ideology. The possibility that doing the opposite of what seems the clear choice may lead to deeper, richer, creative insights into a question or problem is a persistent theme here in the Near Future Laboratory’s Bureau of Creative Opposition. It’s a strategy for untactful sideways glances at things. Provocation to make the very normal seem very strange. Often enough, it is the Laboratory that appears strange, which is just fine with us. We’re wearing Swedish workman’s kilts these days, and being confused by the family for janitors with our Dickies work shirts. Etcetera.
Continue reading However, as Lacan taught us

Who Will Make The Bricks?

John-Rhys Newman’s exploration of New Measures of Things in a series of conventional measuring instruments that act as kinds of epistemological wrenches, changing perceptions and confusing the traditions of quantification. Very intriguing objects. I’m curious about the history of measurement and quantification. There’s lots there. I find myself knee deep in the muck of Medieval history. More to come. Want one?

The Near Future Laboratory’s Overseas Bureau of Avuncular Insights and Apropos Turns of Phrase found this clattering off the network’s teletypes — a wonderful short dispatch from Bruce Sterling referring in high-style to the challenges confronting our forward-facing resources for imagining new, near future worlds. Science-fiction has a history; hasn’t always been around. It participates in imagining the future — the title of the essay is this conflation of Design and Fiction, suggestive of this point that fiction can participate in design. But, ultimately, the science-fiction-design trio results in imaginary things. Things that are never hewn beyond the words and the story and the imagination. They are, therefore, fantastic “crap.” Design fiction sits somewhere in between science-fiction and the materialization of the imagination. It is tied more closely to the stuff that appears in the world. You can tell because it resonates closely with either things now, things about to happen, or things that are discussed and activated. Or, the design fiction becomes a reference point — a way of describing something that, oh — some geeks are tooling in the laboratory.

What truly interests me here is the limits of the imaginable.

Design fictions of the best sort are like design & style manuals for making things. They lead to conversations like this — “Yeah, it’s kinda like that thing? The reputation servers in that book, um…Distraction? Oh, you didn’t read it? Well, you should. It’ll help us talk about what we’re trying to do. It’s got some cool things in it.”

What are the constraints to imagining new kinds of future worlds? Writing is constrained by language, which may have been the literati’s excuse for not creating a future imaginary worthy of our time, money and attention to materialize.

Design, by contrast, is less verbal. Design is busily inventing new ways to blow itself apart. Design is taking more risks with itself than literature. That is why contemporary design feels almost up to date, while literature feels archaic and besieged.

Design and literature don’t talk together much, but design has more to offer literature at the moment than literature can offer to design. Design seeks out ways to jump over its own conceptual walls-scenarios, user observation, brainstorming, rapid prototyping, critical design, speculative design. There is even “experience design,” which is surely the most imperial, most gaseous, most spectral form of design yet invented.

Now, talking again? With a more common landscape brought to us via digital networks, digital data, digital communications and sharing? Could that be the effective culture of the Internet? To bring together language and material? Expressive of both in a way. Not just stories, but their material, lived in the world?

Perhaps apropos of the recent Milan Design Week chatter, the way I read this nice compact essay is that the vector cross-product of a failed capitalism with an inability of (design/engineering/science/technoculture-writ-large) to imagine a future-forward equals variously trouble or opportunity. The opportunity being — new kinds of “bricks.” New units of assemblage to create more habitable (broadly — sustainable, creative, articulate, mindful, generous, etc.) future worlds. We need new measures of meaning. New systems of quantification that do not ultimately, in the end, result in an unbalanced equation.

Read the whole thing here. I’ve excerpted my favorite part below. (Well, it’s short enough of an essay that the whole thing can be a favorite part, but this is what this morning’s coffee-sit-down favored.)

We have entered an unimagined culture. In this world of search engines and cross-links, of keywords and networks, the solid smokestacks of yesterday’s disciplines have blown out. Instead of being armored in technique, or sheltered within subculture, design and science fiction have become like two silk balloons, two frail, polymorphic pockets of hot air, floating in a generally tainted cultural atmosphere.

These two inherently forward-looking schools of thought and action do seem blinkered somehow-not unimaginative, but unable to imagine effectively. A bigger picture, the new century’s grander narrative, its synthesis, is eluding them. Could it be because they were both born with blind spots, with unexamined assumptions hardwired in 80 years ago?

There is much thoughtful talk of innovation, of transformation, of the collaborative and the transdisciplinary. These are buzzwords, language that does not last.

What we are really experiencing now is a massive cybernetic hemorrhage in ways of knowing the world.

Even money, the almighty bottom line, the ultimate reality check for American society, has tripped over its own infrastructural blinders, and lost its ability to map value. The visionaries no longer know what to think-and, by no coincidence, the financiers can no longer place their bets.

I scarcely know what to do about this. As Charles Eames said, design is a method of action. Literature is a method of meaning and feeling. Hearteningly, I do know how I feel about this situation. I even have some inkling of what it means.

Rather than thinking outside the box-which was almost always a money box, quite frankly-we surely need a better understanding of boxes. Maybe some new, more general, creative project could map the limits of the imaginable within the contemporary technosocial milieu. Plug that imagination gap.

That effort has no 20th-century description. I rather doubt that it’s ever been tried. It seems to me like a good response to events.

The winds of the Net are full of straws. Who will make the bricks?

Continue reading Who Will Make The Bricks?

Recto & Verso

Here a curious corner in a typical urban strip mall. First, the ubiquitous nail salon, this one in a roughly hewn, bumpy corner of Los Angeles. Immediately adjacent, not quite recto & verso, is the Live Scan “salon”, or shop of some sort for obtaining fingerprints. One side, the finger’s nails. The other side, the finger’s prints. Opportunity for synergies, herein, if not already established. Have your nails buffed & polished with a free fingerprinting? Or free nail buff with every fingerprinting? The combinations are extensive.

Why do I blog this? An observation on an urban scout mission. I find the strip mall disorienting to the Urban Scout in many ways. They’re all basically the same, with slight variations depending on where in the city you are. They all have a nail salon. Probably a donut guy. A kiosk floating in the parking lot for the locksmith. Often enough a Pay Day loan guy. Etc. Confusing places. Micro villages.
Adam Greenfield speaks more on the semantics of these things in the context of another kind of urban block, here.
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Design Fiction Chronicles: Found Futures Image Testaments

I don’t regularly read Wired, but I will occasionally flip to the “Found” back page which, according to words on the networks, is moving to the inevitable user-supplied content/contest model. In the meantime, our avuncular net BFF bruces found a collation of them, which are actually quite nice to look at all in one scrolling column. More of them are hyperlinked via this metafilter page.

Why do I blog this? These “Found” pages demonstrate an intriguing sort of visual story telling, breaking through the road blocks to future imaginaries. They provide a rather techie continuity — most Found futures are driven by the technical designed futures, showing how today’s science columns and news and Wired-style prognostications of various inevitabilities (in the eyes of Palo Alto / Bay Area cultures). They appear variously scary or humorous or sarcastic, and always extrapolations that one hears abuzz amongst the alpha geeks today. Many of the image testaments fall into, inevitably, the “wouldn’t it be cool if..” sort of future worlds.
What I find intriguing here from the design fiction side of things are the way an image can tell the story of the speculation. We find a compelling way of activating the imagination through the power of a single image, whose story is there to be read. There is certainly a kind of literacy necessary to see these images and construct the story. Not everyone would get it without the context of Wired, I imagine. But the objects themselves and the context surrounding it create this sense that this thing/device/scenario lives amongst us and is possible.
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More Than One Degree

No one should be allowed to do what they’re diploma (or whatever..) says, especially if they have three of those diplomas — e.g. BS, MS, Ph.D. all in Computer Science or whatever. Should be a law. The other law? Switch what you do every 3-5 years..really. Versatility & variety & polymathic approaches to doing things. Depth through expanse and experience beyond chasing the same stuff for an entire education, or an entire career.

Why do I blog this? A CV received from a willing candidate in a topic area I am curious can do one thing quite well, but only one thing. It made me think about how flexibility and agility can be expressed in education and skilling. How do you retool yourself in a context such as the current crisis (trust, credit) we are in? Especially as the discipline in question — three degrees all told — becomes increasingly commoditized with overseas South, East and Southeast Asian “knowledge” workers (the new blue collar) willing to work in their local economies for 30, 40, 50, 60 percent less than their counterparts in North America or Western EU. (Partially because they can afford to, but also because the expectations for materializing one’s wealth are a quite strong — or were — motivator in the western contexts.)
Continue reading More Than One Degree

Gradually Undisciplined. Stories Not Titles.

Life: A Game. Played that evening in downtown Los Angeles.

Not directly in conversation, but in the topics that happen between people, especially when they share the same studio space (as well as the same city), Mr. Chipchase’s posting about his ACM CHI keynote had me dig this dispatch out of the “pending drafts” depot of the blog (where it’s been sitting since last year, pondering itself and fermenting..) Between re-re-reading Jan’s post, and being asked last weekend at a family gathering by a friend of the family who I had never met — what do you do? — and thence answering by getting another beer and telling a short story about a guy, justified in his over education, wearing a janitor’s shirt with his name and Near Future Laboratory emblazoned on the back, with a diploma signed by The Terminator an iPhone in his pocket and a paycheck from Nokia, etc. — I thought it was time to ask myself again — what have I become?. Perhaps the sort like Jan, myself and the countless others who operate in between things, the question is better put in the more ontological tense — what am I always becoming?. The answers for me are always the stories, not (job) titles.

Crossing into a new practice idiom, especially if it offers the chance to feel the process of learning, is a crucial path toward undisciplinarity. The chance to become part of a practice — with all of its history, ideology, languages, norms and values, personalities, conferences — is an invigorating process. Embodying multiple practices simultaneously is the scaffolding of creativity and innovating, in my mind. It is what allows one to think beyond the confines of strict disciplinary approaches to creating new forms of culture — whether objects, ideas or ways of seeing the world.

I’ve been an engineer, working on the Motorola 88000 RISC processor at Data General back in the day. I studied how to think about the “human factor” as an engineering problem while I was working at the Human Interface Technology Lab at the University of Washington where I got my MSEng. The human factor has a less instrumental side, I discovered — it’s not just median heights and inter-ocular distances. So, I went to study culture theory and history of ideas at UC Santa Cruz where I got my Ph.D. I wanted to understand how people make meaning of the (technology-infused) world around them. Shortly after that, and quite accidentally, I entered the art-technology world when I recognized that I could do a form of “research” that was simultaneously technical and cultural. Four years in academia on the other side of the lectern provided a useful opportunity to try a different way of circulating knowledge, and a different set of constraints on what can and cannot be done in the area of practice-as-theory.

Upcycling materials in a street trade cobbler, Chinatown, New York City.

These disparate practices actually have a satisfying arc, in my opinion. It’s a combination of instrumental and practical skill, together with a sense of the meaning-making, theory and aesthetic possibilities of mostly technical and engineered objects.

Objects, I have learned, are expressive bits of culture. They make meaning, help us understand and make sense of the world. They are knowledge-making, epistemological functionaries. They frame conversations and are also expressions of possibility and aspiration. In many ways, they are some of the weightiest and expressive forms of culture we have. Being able to make objects and understand them as expressive, as able to tell or start or frame larger conversations and stories about the world is very satisfying.

Objects express the cultural, aesthetic, practical knowledge of their making — in their “design”, and in their crafting as “art”, or also in their “engineering.”

This is not a revelation for most of you, of course. For me, though, it has been a revelation to understand this kind of statement from the perspectives of multiple practices or disciplines.

Objects and culture are reciprocally embodied, certainly. But what object? And what culture? Certainly not one solidified, rock-solid meaningful object. If I take a phone (there are lots around me nowadays) and try to understand it, it matters from what “culture” (or discipline, or community-of-practice) I study it. At the same time, making an object, and how it is made, and what it will mean, and when I will know it is finished — all of these things depend on what culture or practice or body of knowledge from which you choose to look at it.

Put an engineer, a model-maker, an industrial designer, a marketing guy all around a table, staring at a phone. What will they see? Where will they agree on what they see and where will they look blankly and wonder — what is that guy talking about? How much time is spent — minutes? months? — negotiating what is seen?

What practices fit in the middle? Is that inter-disciplines? And what practices run across many? Is that multi-discplines? Do trans-disciplines work above and beyond? What about undisciplinary? What way of seeing that object will make it into something new and unheard of? What way of seeing will materialize new objects, innovative ideas and conversations that create new playful, more habitable near future worlds? (And not just smart refrigerators and clothes hangers that automatically dry clean your shirts, or whatever.)

What are your stories?

Continue reading Gradually Undisciplined. Stories Not Titles.

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