Wired ways over calm cities

September 2004

Teresa Dillon, Futurelab (Web Article)

The recent spate of mobile-based projects across the educational, arts and business sectors has led to a growing body of work that explores the possibilities of portable, wireless and ubiquitous computing. So what do these forms of computing mean? What kinds of work have been developed within this area and what kinds of experiences can they lead to?

Ubiquitous computing is a term that generally refers to the methods which are used to make computers available throughout the physical environment but invisible to the user. Alan Kay, President of Viewpoints Research Institute Inc and Senior Fellow at Hewlett-Packard (HP) Labs, considers ubiquitous computing as part of the ‘third paradigm’ of computing, where ‘calm technology’ is embedded and integrated into our daily lives. The first paradigm can be identified as the era when computers whizzed and frizzed and mainframes were the size of rooms. Currently we are in the period driven by the desktop model. The ‘third paradigm’ promises to bring the day where computers will no longer crash out in an undignified manner before our eyes; instead they will live seamlessly, invisibly and in harmony with us. Or at least that is the ideal.

The ‘third paradigm’ of ubiquitous computing has its beginnings in the research carried out at Xerox PARC between 1988-1994, where the application of Tabs, Pads and Boards were tried and tested; the Pad was a prototype pen computer, the Tab was a prototype hand-held computer, and the Board was a prototype whiteboard. For some of us, at least, these interfaces have become part of our everyday digital experience. For example, think of PDAs (Personal Digital Assistants) and spin-offs such as the iPod, or the DfES agenda to spend £25 million to ensure that every classroom has an interactive whiteboard. In this respect, ubiquitous technology has helped to kickstart the recent boom in mobile computing and, in many ways, Tabs, Pads and Boards are now part and parcel of the mobile technology tool kit.

So what does mobile technology refer to? In general it refers to portable devices, such as mobile phones and hand-held PDAs, using a variety of networks and technologies that make them aware of where they are. A variety of programming environments are used to create applications that involve group communication using various distributed multimedia and time or safety critical information. Although there are several steps being taken to make it simpler and more efficient to produce programs and client applications, there isn’t a clear winner yet and the ‘killer applications’ are still to be discovered.

Most mobile phones have micro browsers that use WAP (Wireless Application Protocol) and Java based on J2ME, whereas PDAs generally use a richer subset of Java and HTML to run applications. Because of efficiency concerns programs are often written in a more device-specific way, which of course hampers their portability and distribution to a large number of platforms. Currently mobile environments consist of a heterogeneous mix of wired and wireless networks and end-systems. In the future these systems will become more advanced, pervasive and invisible, and it will be as easy to create mobile services as it is to write a web page.

What is now emerging at the front-end of WAP applications is a movement within the educational, arts and business sectors to apply more mobile approaches to work, pleasure, leisure and learning. Evidence of the work in this area can be seen from the numerous events (from conferences to industry showcases to digital art festivals) that have critically, technically and humorously examined or demonstrated the impact and implications that mobile technologies will have on our lives. To consider all such events and outputs would be exhaustive, so for the current article mobile projects based in cities and their implications for learning will be discussed.

Within the UK one of the major research labs in the area of mobile technologies is Mobile Bristol, which is part of the DTI City & Buildings Research Centre. Founded by HP Labs, the University of Bristol and the Appliance Studio, its aim is to develop, test and evaluate research in pervasive mobile media. According to Mobile Bristol’s website, their vision is ‘to provide a digital canvas over the city onto which rich situated digital experiences can be painted and new commercial ventures can be explored’.

Two recent pieces have been developed with Bristol’s Arnolfini arts centre. The commission supported Zoë Irvine (an artist and audio producer) and Dan Belasco Rogers (a visual and performance artist), to each create an interactive work. Within the project the artists explored the potential of Mobile Bristol software and processes in relation to their own practices. Both artists used Mobile Bristol’s techno kit, which consisted of a backpack that stored a battery which powered HP’s hand-held computer, an iPAQ and a GPS (Global Positioning System) receiver unit. Attached to the iPAQ was a pair of headphones, which played an appropriate sound or visual file, depending on the location; this was picked up by the GPS receiver unit attached to the iPAQ, which enabled the ‘viewer’ to trigger positioned audio and image files as they moved around Queen Square in Bristol.

Both artists created pieces that married in some way the location’s current uses and memories through sound and voice. Irvine chose to appropriate the square’s use as an open-air cinema to inform her piece, which composed of elements of blockbuster movies previously shown in the square, while Belasco Rogers captured various actors’ personal stories and experiences of the square, supplementing them by visual images of the area. To trigger both pieces the ‘viewer’ was invited to navigate their way around the square wearing the backpack kit, which allowed them to listen to the compositions and see different images as they travelled through the space.

Highlighting an international selection of mobile-based art and technology was this year’s Futuresonic event, held in Manchester, UK. One of the main strands was ‘Mobile Connections’, which aimed at looking ‘beyond the technologies themselves towards issues concerned with participation, perception and process’. Showcased at Futuresonic was Japanese multimedia artist Akitsugu Maebayashi, who also utilised the trusty backpack, which stored a G4 laptop and sampler. Maebayashi’s low-fi piece ‘Sonic Interface’ invited participants to walk through Manchester with the backpack, which picked up live audio, remixed it, and played it back out through the wearer’s headphones. This wonderfully executed piece, warping spatial and auditory perception, was one of a selection of works at Futuresonic which traded commercial input and slick production for a DIY kit that proved to be just as efficient in creating the transformation of experiences that other more hi-tech kits failed to achieve.

Also at Futuresonic, Rupert Griffiths’ piece ‘Telenono’ transformed the concept of a telephone box into an apparently sealed off radiation unit, which protected the user from devices such as mobile phones, televisions, radios and Bluetooth signals. Once inside, the booth forced the participant to search for alternative communication methods, such as resorting to the age-old method of hollering. Griffiths’ work taps current debates on the positioning of mobile masts in urban and rural settings, and their associated heath risks, which are still largely unknown. His work gives pause for thought amidst an onslaught of works that question little the impact such technologies may have on our lives and environment.

On the other side of the Atlantic, in Toronto, Canada, a project that has captured the imagination through its focus on collective history and memories of place is [murmur]. [murmur] is also a city-based project, with a twist, as it directly utilises mobile phone technology. Gabe Sawhney, Jame Rousell and Shawn Micallef (whose backgrounds span the disciplines of fine and graphic arts, as well as the written and spoken word) conceived the project while on a residence at Habitat, the Canadian Film Centre’s new media lab. Essentially [murmur] is an archival audio project or installation accessible to anyone with a mobile phone. Location is key to the project as the stories collected reflect the collective and personal histories of a particular area. For example, within a given area there are a number of locations at which a [murmur] sign (denoted by an ear) marks the availability of a story with a telephone number and location code. These allow participants, via their mobile phones, to listen to the story of that place while engaging in the full physical experience of being there. In this respect the experience, elegant in its realisation and execution, plays with the construction of history as the project peels back the layers of the city through the art of storytelling, revealing in the narration a neighbourhood’s collective memoirs.

From the first prototype, the project grew into a more complete public version, funded by terminus1525.ca, and launched in Kensington Market, Toronto in August 2003. Further developments saw installations in Vancouver’s Chinatown, (where listeners could hear stories told in Cantonese, as well as a translated English version), and a French version along Montreal’s St Laurent Street. This year, the project returned to Toronto for a new installation in the Annex neighbourhood. This latest leg of the project was funded by the Toronto Arts Council and various community and business organisations, with the intention to develop [murmur] in new neighbourhoods. Additional features to the experience were also tried and tested, such as creating a function that allowed users to leave their own stories. What is unique about [murmur] in relation to the other mobile projects discussed here, is that the project has been successfully sustained and implemented in a variety of contexts beyond which those for which it was originally designed. It is an interesting example of a mobile technology project that utilised a mass-produced mobile device in an innovative way by capturing the imagination, vibrancy and transformations of the multicultural metropolis.

All of the above projects show how artists and technologists have begun to apply mobile technologies to play with notions of location, place and everyday conurbation encounters, by distorting and augmenting our perceptions and revealing our cities’ complex, interwoven histories. The projects demonstrate how mobile technologies are creating new psycho-geographic terrains for navigation and social potentials for shared understanding. As media and cyber theorist Sadie Plant noted in her keynote speech at Futuresonic, 2004, mobile technologies reawaken a sense of geography, precisely because they are not fixed in place and therefore create new forms of social flux and organisation.

Despite the mobile technology movement, however, their potential for use in education, and the implications for how we structure our school-based learning, have yet to be fully and widely realised. One attempt to address this has been Futurelab’s collaborative project with Mobile Bristol, BBC Natural History Unit and Nottingham University’s Mixed Reality Lab. Created earlier this year, Savannah was a strategy-based adventure game where a virtual space was mapped directly onto a real space. Children ‘played’ at being lions in a savannah, navigating the augmented environments with a mobile hand-held device; the school football pitch was turned into a virtual savannah on which they would walk and run around, roaming the plains, killing for food and protecting their young. Back in the ‘real’ school classroom the children could reflect on and analyse their game play by playing back their movements in the virtual savannah on a whiteboard. Results from the Savannah prototype showed that mobile learning environments have the potential to create different forms of social interactions and power relations between teachers and pupils. Consequently their identities within the virtual, mobile and ‘real’ spaces need to understood and supported.

In considering the Savannah project, there is the potential that mobile technologies can tap into what Professor Howard Gardner (in his concept of ‘multiple intelligences’) has called ‘bodily-kinaesthetic intelligence’. This relates to how actors, dancers and athletes apprehend knowledge directly through the body. An interesting possibility that has yet to be explored is how the application of mobile technologies within education may support individuals whose preferred way of learning is bodily kinaesthetic; the connection between this form of intelligence and the freedom to move about the physical environment, to collect or listen to information, may be an interesting avenue to explore. Also it has yet to be considered how the use of mnemonics, such as the method of loci, could be used in relation to mobile learning. The method of loci refers to how learners recall information learnt in a particular physical environment, by recreating a mental picture of that location and associating particular information to objects within the space. In a forthcoming Futurelab literature review on ‘Mobile Technologies in Learning’, which will be launched at BETT in January 2005, further information on the application of mobile technologies within education will be discussed.

In sum, this article is part of an ongoing interest in the application of ubiquitous and mobile technologies within art and education. A number of interesting questions remain around the issues of simple versus advanced mobile technologies. In addressing these we have to ask ourselves about the extent to which the interactions with technologies overpower or enhance interactions with the environment. These questions pose interesting challenges as to how and whether we want to live up to the ideals of ubiquitous computing and how best we can achieve accessible, seamless technological experiences.


Useful links

Akitsugu Maebayashi: www2.gol.com/users/m8
Alan Kay: www.hpl.hp.com/about/
The Appliance Centre: www.appliancestudio.com
Canadian Film Centre: www.cdnfilmcentre.com
Dan Belasco Rogers: www.planbperformance.net/dan
Futuresonic: www.futuresonic.com
Mobile Bristol Centre: www.mobilebristol.com
Murmur: murmurtoronto.ca
PARC Research Lab: www.parc.xerox.com
Zoë Irvine: www.imaging.dundee.ac.uk/

Note:  Web resources developed by Futurelab prior to 2011 used to be hosted by NFER, UK but were decommissioned, hence this is a reproduction from the archive.