All posts in research

Urban Immunology

prototype image


LAB have undergone a few changes recently. Following our run of workshops throughout Sideshow, our activities and practices were changing and together with a new commission, we decided that it was time for a new name and identity. LAB has now become The Institute for Boundary Interactions, and while the LAB activities and ethos will continue to be a part of what we’re doing, we will also be concentrating on our own creative output.

So, the big new is that we have been awarded a commission by the Broadway Digital Innovation initiative Making Future Work, to undertake our proposed project, Urban Immune System Research. Here’s the opening blurb from our proposal:

Urban Immune System Research [UISR] is a critical design project exploring parallel futures in the emergence of the ‘smart-city’ and the appropriation of humans as data-agents in urban systems.

“Our cities are non-living and yet our cities are growing and we are covering every square inch of this planet which means that we are going to engineer things that we can live with, that give us some value and purpose.”
– Andrew Hessel – The Internet of Living Things

LAB will design, prototype and produce a range of speculative future technologies that will take form as a mixture of wearable and portable devices, mixing consumer electronics, couture fashion, ecological systems and organic components.  These will constitute strategies for creating more fluid interactions between humans, technology and both the built and natural environment .

Re-imagining the urban environment as a multi-cellular living organism, what might threaten or support the health of the city?  If the economy is our digestive tract what is it trying to feed?  If communications networks are the nervous system what is the city trying to feel?  How might we design more sustainable and healthy futures by modelling our cities, peripheral devices and interactions with technology on ecological systems?

We’re really excited about this project as it gives us the chance to further develop our collective practice, and to explore an area of research that we feel has real potential.

Our new site is currently under development, but there’ll be much more information and regular updates on the project available soon, and we’ll be blogging our activities and progress on the Making Future Work site too. There will also be a more comprehensive archive of all the activity from the Sideshow Open Laboratory residency.

Check out the MFW site soon to see the other commissions – there’s going to be some great work coming out.

Project LiloRann

[Original Photograph © Anurag Agnihotri]

Back in the summer I spent a great 3 months or so doing an internship with Superflux where I worked on a few new projects that they were starting up, some of which I will continue to be involved in over the coming months.

One of those projects, LiloRann, has just recently been launched. Here’s the elevator pitch:

Could we reverse ecosystem degradation by growing organic structures from unruly, invasive plants?
This is just one of the many possibilities Project LiloRann will explore in the deserts of North Gujarat, India; an area that exemplifies some of the greatest challenges posed by climate change, while being rich with the potential for ecological regeneration and resilience.

Rather than focusing too heavily on outcomes and final products, the project will instigate and maintain a set of processes that enable the combination of local knowledge and more advanced technological practices, such as bio engineering, to tackle the effects of desertification in locally sustainable ways. To do this the project will operate on two levels. Firstly, it’s an ecology project that aims to help local communities in the Gujarat region of Northern India build sustainable resilience against ecosystem degradation, and to see tangible benefit as a result.

Achieving this with any level of success requires an approach that is sensitive to, and takes full advantage of the knowledge, expertise and ability of local communities. So, secondly, the project will create the opportunity for collaborative, interdisciplinary knowledge sharing.

This test-bed for experimentation and collaboration between a unique, interdisciplinary team and local citizens aims to find ways of addressing the global issues of environmental degradation by empowering communities to take on the effects of such changes at a local level. Ultimately, it is our hope that by sharing knowledge in this way, those most at risk from climate change can be better equipped to counter its effects.

Rather than a top down imposition of expertise, the project will aim to create the conditions for emergent forms of new knowledge and ecological practices to be developed through collaborative experiments between members of the project team, local farmers, ecologists, and anyone else who’s interested.  By monitoring and documenting this process, the team hope to derive a framework for how such projects might be conducted more efficiently and sustainably in future. While interest in collaboration to engender emergent practice has been around for a while, it is still something very difficult to  achieve, especially when the project requires the combination of very disparate sets of knowledge. The hope is that these difficulties can be somewhat overcome by working within a very focused region, allowing new strategies for effective knowledge sharing to be generalized from the examples provided during the project, while still  seeing real, tangible results in the ecology of the region.

It’s only just beginning, so its difficult to say too much about it yet, but I think it’s an exciting project and I can’t wait to see what happens next. As well as more detail about the projects aims and approaches,  the LiloRann site has a lot of information, which will including updates as the project progresses and details about how potential sponsors and collaborators can get involved.

Oh, and some other projects that I worked on with Superflux are also under way – I’ll post more here about them as and when.

Generating Contextual Narratives

Generating Contextual Narratives: Test_01 from Mark Selby on Vimeo.

Generating Contextual Narratives is a project, made in collaboration with Mike Golembewski, about exploring ways of generating more experientially and contextually appropriate narratives. The broad concept here is that current technological trajectories suggest a future where all data is captured indiscriminately and profusely, and so it will become harder and harder to engage with records of experiences in personally meaningful ways. Rather than ‘total capture’, the recording of everyday experiences might be tied more closely into the enactment of those experiences through the objects that we use to do so. The resulting data (photos, texts, sounds etc) are contextually specific to the events that they depict, allowing for more meaningful narratives of those events to be constructed and consequently, enable more meaningful encounters with memories of experience in the future.

Bicyclopse (working title) is the first (rough)  prototype in a series of devices that investigate how we might use technologies to achieve this. It’s a camera made with an arduino controlled iPhone running a custom application mounted on the front of a bike. The iPhone’s camera is triggered by a tone sent fron the arduino everytime a reed switch attached to the bikes fork is closed by a magnet on the front wheel.  This means that one photograph is taken for every revolution of the front wheel.

These still photographs are then compiled to make a film. Visual and temporal distortions of the video narrative are determined by the function of the bike – as the bike speeds up, the rate of capture increases and so the footage appears to slow down.  Visual distortions occur when the bike turns a corner or is ridden over a rough patch of road. This is caused by the quick movement of the camera, and the  way that the iPhone camera’s CCD is scanned from side to side (See Wikipedia for explanation). In combination, these effects give a point of view specific to the bike and the way in which it is ridden.

Camera Explora at Territorial Play

camera explora_territorial play

Camera Explora recently appeared at Radiator’s Territorial Play , the opening event of their Tracing Mobility programme. Unfortunately I didn’t get much chance to publicize this fact in the run up to the event as I was too busy trying to work out what kind of string would give the most friction on a rubber pulley.
Embroidery cotton is quite good.

There were two main elements – activity and installation. The activity bit involved people going out and exploring the city using the camera, which is now a repackaged Google G1 phone running a custom made Android application. That bit was programmed by Sam Meek, who’s done a great job in spite of the somewhat … ‘limited’ hardware.

Those that took part seemed to respond well to the experience. A few said that they found it frustrating at first to be so constrained in what they could take photos of, but eventually began to resist the urge to photograph the first thing they came across and took the time to have a proper look around first.

camera case prototype

The second part – the installation part – was an arduino controlled CNC plotter (hence the business with the string) that drew lines onto a paper map of the city between  the locations where each photograph was taken, as they were being taken. Each photo represents, in theory, something the photographer found interesting or noteworthy. Physically connecting these instances on a paper map ties them all together. It links them in memory and space, as well as providing a tangible, non-photographic mnemonic of those experiences.*

The aesthetic of the plotter is quite rough. Although it’s absolutely a work in progress this was, for the most part, intentional – because it was an installation rather than a product design I wanted it to look like the kind of eccentric, unrefined, but very personally engaging and valuable machine that someone might have built for themselves. The details of that were worked out by just building as much of it as possible out of stuff that I had lying around. Whether or not that was the best strategy is up for debate.

plotter closeup

The projects is about exploring new places, so one concern leading into the event was that because most of the participants would be from Nottingham, the intended experience might be somewhat diluted. However, even those that were familiar with the city enjoyed actively seeking out things that they might not have seen or noticed before, which certainly seems to suggest more attentive exploration of the city. Some even requested to keep the photos they had taken, as well as the route map that had been drawn, when they returned. It’s nice when things like this come out in testing.

Anyway, not an especially in depth write-up just yet – think I’d need to run it again to do that. There were also a few minor technical issues that we couldn’t iron out in the time available. So although things didn’t run quite so smoothly as we would have liked, it helped us see exactly what was and wasn’t right about the prototype both technically and in terms of the design. There’s nothing that can’t be fixed.

Not bad for a first go. Fun too – it’s always good to see people using and enjoying something that you’ve made.

* This is not to say that tangible things are necessarily, or inherently any more or less valuable than digital things. One of the aims of the project is to investigate ways of generating meaningful records of experiences, and the play between digital and physical things is just one way of looking at how to do that.

My Work Here is Done.

Photo from Dumbledad

The photo above shows Tim installing his version of the code to test the Photobox project that we’ve been working on before they are given out to our research volunteers.

Last Monday was my last day at MSRC, and my part of this project is done. The Photoboxes (I need to think of a better name) will be sent out soon under the watchful eye of Dave Kirk in what will hopefully be a valuable learning experience that teaches us a few things about excavating digital archives.

Seeing a project through from conception to the stage where it will actually be used by people is still very exciting and immensely satisfying even though (or possibly because) it’s not a commercial product, and there are only 3 of them.
I’ve worked on commercial and professional projects before, but they were never things that people would regularly engage with physically and emotionally. They were more things to be looked at and cherished as desirable objects. There’s value in that of course, but it’s great to be involved in a different way of doing things.
I can’t wait to see how the study turns out. It’ll be interesting to see how people respond to a piece of technology that operates so slowly, and whether or not the participants will experience the emotional reactions that we’re going for.
Who knows.

Anyway thanks to Tim, Dave and Richard for giving me the opportunity to see the project through, and to everyone else at MSRC. I had a great time.
Hopefully I’ll be back some time!