Satellite Lamps is a project that reveals one of the most significant contemporary technology infrastructures, the Global Positioning System (GPS). Made with Einar Sneve Martinussen and Jørn Knutsen as part of the Yourban research project at AHO, it continues our project of revealing the materials of technologies that started in 2009 with RFID and WiFi.
GPS is widely used yet it’s invisible and few of us really have any idea of how it works or how it inhabits our everyday environments. We wanted to explore the cultural and material realities of GPS technology, and to develop new understandings about it through design.
“Satellite Lamps shows that GPS is not a seamless blanket of efficient positioning technology; it is a negotiation between radio waves, earth-orbit geometry and the urban environment. GPS is a truly impressive technology, but it also has inherent seams and edges.”
We created a series of lamps that change brightness according to the accuracy of received GPS signals, and when we photograph them as timelapse films, we start to build a picture of how these signals behave in actual urban spaces.
The project is documented in an extensive article that thoroughly details how it was made and why. You can read more on how we explored GPS technology, how the visualisations were made, and about the popular cultural history of GPS.
My PhD thesis called ‘Making Visible’ was submitted in December 2013 and successfully defended on 12 June 2014. The thesis reflects upon the design material exploration research from the Touch and Yourban projects. It uses these explorations to situate design research with technology as a cultural, material and mediational practice:
In Making Visible I outline how interaction design may engage in the material and mediation of new interface technologies. Drawing upon a design project called Touch, that investigated an emerging interface technology called Radio Frequency Identification or RFID, I show how interaction design research can explore technology through material and mediational approaches. I demonstrate and analyse how this research addresses the inter-related issues of invisibility, seamlessness and materiality that have become central issues in the design of contemporary interfaces. These issues are analysed and developed through three intertwined approaches of research by design: 1. a socio- and techno-cultural approach to understanding emerging technologies, 2. through material exploration and 3. through communication and mediation. When taken together these approaches form a communicative mode of interaction design research that engages directly with the exploration, understanding and discussion of emerging interface technologies.
The thesis is made up of four peer-reviewed journal articles accompanied by a ‘meta-reflection’ document that reflects upon and situates these publications through theory, concepts and models.
This document develops the concept of mediational material that focuses attention on the material and communicative practices in interaction design. These are used to explore, develop and share knowledge of technologies as design materials.
I’ve made it available in a number of different digital formats:
It will also be available through AHO’s open-access archive ADORA.
The four included articles have been published in peer-reviewed journals.
Article 1: Exploring ‘immaterials’: mediating design’s invisible materials
This article takes up the issues of so-called ‘immaterial’ and ‘seamless’ technologies and asks how designers might explore them in order to consider them as design materials. It situates interaction design as a sociocultural practice that is concerned with culture, critical approaches and with engaging the technocultural imagination. It concludes by analysing its mediational strategies, such as the use of documentary formats, online film and weblog writing, and the ways in which new material perspectives have been shared, discussed and developed by others.
Article 2: Visualizations of digital interaction in daily life
This article explores how visual signage may make aspects of ubiquitous computing technologies visible and how digital tools and platforms impact that visual design and semiosis. It looks at a range of ‘identification’ technologies such as barcodes and rfid, that only become ‘visible’ or ‘interactional’ through a designer’s intervention in physical or visual expression. It finds that designers should emphasize the bindings and distinctions between design processes and visual mediations, and symbols and signs, in engaging with emerging technologies as material for creative and communicative composition.
Article 3: Satellite Lamps
Satellite lamps is a project about using design to investigate and reveal one of the fundamental constructs of the networked city: GPS – the Global Positioning System. It extends the concepts of ‘mediational materials’ to an investigation of the ways in which GPS technology inhabits urban spaces. The article takes up how a discursive and reflexive interaction design practice can contribute to new perspectives on networked city life. Importantly, Satellite Lamps is a multimediational web text, involving different media (film, media, notebooks and a host of images) allowing for the richness of the work to come to the surface in a way that would not have been possible in traditional means of academic publishing.
Article 4: Depth of Field: Discursive design research through film
This article is about the role of film in interaction and product design research with technology, and the use of film in exploring and explaining emerging technologies in multiple contexts. It concludes by looking towards the potentials for a discursive design practice, where the object of design and analysis is the discourse that is catalysed by new artefacts, and the emphasis of design research is on communication.
Internet machine is a multi-screen film about the invisible infrastructures of the internet. The film reveals the hidden materiality of our data by exploring some of the machines through which ‘the cloud’ is transmitted and transformed.
Internet machine (showing now at Big Bang Data or watch the trailer) documents one of the largest, most secure and ‘fault-tolerant’ data-centres in the world, run by Telefonica in Alcalá, Spain. The film explores these hidden architectures with a wide, slowly moving camera. The subtle changes in perspective encourage contemplative reflection on the spaces where internet data and connectivity are being managed.
In this film I wanted to look beyond the childish myth of ‘the cloud’, to investigate what the infrastructures of the internet actually look like. It felt important to be able to see and hear the energy that goes into powering these machines, and the associated systems for securing, cooling and maintaining them.
What we find, after being led through layers of identification and security far higher than any airport, are deafeningly noisy rooms cocooning racks of servers and routers. In these spaces you are buffeted by hot and cold air that blusters through everything.
Server rooms are kept cool through quiet, airy ‘plenary’ corridors that divide the overall space. There are fibre optic connections routed through multiple, redundant, paths across the building. In the labyrinthine corridors of the basement, these cables connect to the wider internet through holes in rough concrete walls.
Power is supplied not only through the mains, but backed up with warm caverns of lead batteries, managed by gently buzzing cabinets of relays and switches.
These are backed up in turn by rows of yellow generators, supplied by diesel storage tanks and contracts with fuel supply companies so that the data centre can run indefinitely until power returns.
The outside of the building is a facade of enormous stainless steel water tanks, containing tens of thousands of litres of cool water, sitting there in case of fire.
And up on the roof, to the sound of birdsong, is a football-pitch sized array of shiny aluminium ‘chillers’ that filter and cool the air going into the building.
In experiencing these machines at work, we start to understand that the internet is not a weightless, immaterial, invisible cloud, and instead to appreciate it as a very distinct physical, architectural and material system.
This was a particularly exciting project, a chance for an ambitious and experimental location shoot in a complex environment. Telefónica were particularly accommodating and allowed unprecedented access to shoot across the entire building, not just in the ‘spectacular’ server rooms. Thirty two locations were shot inside the data centre over the course of two days, followed by five weeks of post-production.
I had to invent some new production methods to create a three-screen installation, based on some techniques I developed over ten years ago. The film was shot using both video and stills, using a panoramic head and a Canon 5D mkIII. The video was shot using the Magic Lantern RAW module on the 5D, while the RAW stills were processed in Lightroom and stitched together using Photoshop and Hugin.
The footage was then converted into 3D scenes using camera mapping techniques, recreating the perspective by hand (a kind of low-tech, traditional photogrammetry) so that entirely new camera movements could be created by animating a virtual three-camera rig within this new virtual space. The final multi-screen installation is played out in 4K projected across three screens.
There are more photos available at Flickr.
Internet Machine is produced by Timo Arnall, Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona – CCCB, and Fundación Telefónica. Thanks to José Luis de Vicente, Olga Subiros, Cira Pérez and María Paula Baylac.
The Immaterials project is concerned with the increasing invisibility of interfaces and infrastructures. The systems we interact with everyday such as WiFi and 3G networks have a profound impact on how we experience the world. As Adam Greenfield says:
the complex technologies the networked city relies upon to produce its effects remain distressingly opaque, even to those exposed to them on a daily basis. […] it’s hard to be appropriately critical and to make sound choices in a world where we don’t understand the objects around us.
And as James Bridle has eloquently and disturbingly observed:
Those who cannot perceive the network cannot act effectively within it, and are powerless.
The project set out to expose some of the phenomena and mechanisms of technological infrastructures through visual, photographic, narrative, animated and cinematic techniques. Over the last five years I have worked with Einar Sneve Martinussen, Jørn Knutsen, Jack Schulze and Matt Jones towards a body of work that is now brought together in an exhibition for the first time.
From 2004–2008 I speculated about the ways in which wireless interactions inhabited physical space, through my work on a Graphic language for touch, and also through films such as Wireless in the world. Some of my students made beautiful but fictional speculations about the physical qualities of different kinds of radio.
Jack Schulze and I also made a short, playful film called Nearness about action at a distance. In the film, a series of simple reactions are set off by immaterial phenomena, such as radio waves, mobile networks, light, magnetism and wind.
In 2006 we ran a Touch workshop with BERG where we became concerned about the invisibility of RFID technology, and the effect that had on our ability to design with it. We found it extraordinary that a technology that was defined as a proximity or ‘touch’-based interface, was so opaque in terms of its physical, spatial, gestural materiality. How do we as designers make these materials visible, so we can have reflective conversations with them?
We developed Experiments in Field Drawing as a method of revealing, literally drawing, the physical presence of RFID interactions. We revealed these fields in a much richer, multi-dimensional way using photography, animation and light painting in the film Immaterials: Ghost in the Field.
Matt Jones coined the term immaterials to describe the project and gave a great talk about some ways of understanding the immaterials of interaction design. Matt and I also looked at machine vision, another phenomena that increasingly becomes a material for design in Robot Readable World.
In 2011 at AHO, as part of a research project called Yourban, we extended the investigations to WiFi, using similar light painting techniques we revealed the enormous scale and pervasiveness of ad-hoc WiFi networks in urban spaces in Immaterials: Light Painting WiFi.
Finally, over the last two years we’ve become increasingly interested in the Global Positioning System (GPS), that has become a central part of both the vision and the implementation of contemporary interfaces.
We have built a series of Satellite Lamps that sense the presence of the 24 GPS satellites in orbit. The lamps change brightness according to the strength of GPS signals they receive, showing how the technology itself is messy and unpredictable, and revealing how GPS is a negotiation between radio waves, earth-orbit geometry and the urban environment.
The visual languages that we’ve developed have ended up in advertising, on the BBC and Discovery Channel, and the techniques have been extended in research at MIT and CIID, and by many designers, enthusiasts and hackers. It’s exciting that both the subject and the methods are being taken up and used broadly by other people, and we’re looking forward to seeing more.
the truly pressing need is for translators: people capable of opening these occult systems up, demystifying them, explaining their implications to the people whose neighborhoods and choices and very lives are increasingly conditioned by them. — Adam Greenfield (2009)
The Immaterials project emerged from the humble preoccupations of a few designers dealing with some of the invisible, immaterial, intangible stuff we had in front of us. These small experiments led to larger and more visually and narratively communicative work. In the end what I think we’ve developed is an approach to technology that revolves around material exploration, explanation and communication. Because images and language, as well as materials, form our understandings of technology, Immaterials has shown how we can use ‘design and playful explorations to shape or stir the popular imagination’.
All the Immaterials projects are on display at Lighthouse in Brighton from 5 September until 13 October 2013.
Satellite Lamps and Robot Readable World are on display at Dread in Amsterdam from 7 September until 24 November 2013.
This is a short film, an experiment in machine-vision footage. It uses found-footage from computer vision research to explore how machines are making sense of the world.
As robots begin to inhabit the world alongside us, how do they see and gather meaning from our streets, cities, media and from us? Machines have a tiny, fractional view of our environment, that sometimes echoes our own human vision and often doesn’t.
Still from the film xXx from Mark Coleran‘s portfolio.
The idea that Apple is grasping at real-life objects because they support effective visual storytelling is very interesting:
In Movie OS, visual storytelling is used to make the system’s important, critical reaction to a user’s action abundantly clear. In Movie OS, you know if you’re logging into Facebook.
I’d argue that visual storytelling doesn’t exist – if it does, it hardly exists at all – in computer or consumer eletronics user interfaces. The entire palette of visual storytelling in terms of interface, through accident of history, is purely engineering and control-led.
This is where, I’d say, Apple is grasping when it says that interfaces should sometimes look toward real-life objects. Real-life physical objects have affordances that are used in effective visual storytelling – and animation – that can be used well to make clear the consequences of actions. It’s more complicated than that, though, and it can go horribly wrong as well as right.
From Dan Hon at Extenuating Circumstances – The future is Movie OS.
“While Charles & Ray were frequently contracted by corporations like Polaroid, Westinghouse, and IBM, they never made films on demand. Nearly all their films represent a symbiotic relationship between the artist and the client, and they only made films when there was genuine interest. Witness Westinghouse ABC (1965), which is essentially a montage of the Westinghouse product line (note that the Westinghouse logo was designed by Paul Rand). Even here there is a spirited interest in the subject. In the film, Charles & Ray focus on the technology and typography at a break-neck tempo and transform what would otherwise be an incredibly dry subject into something rich and lively. Also, in SX-70 (1972), intended as a promotional film for the newly released Polaroid SX-70 camera, the Eames’ take advantage of the opportunity to discuss optics, transistors and to display their own polaroid photographs.
A good overview via The Films of Charles & Ray Eames.
Things I’ve noticed today:
Lovely new exploratory homepage at Thinglink.
There is clearly a very well curated user-base at SVPPLY creating a continuous navigation of want.
“VOLUME 5a May 2009 Part one of Volume 5 explores the connections between the moving framed image and…”
Part one of Volume 5 explores the connections between the moving framed image and geography, offering author-created videos and movie clips to supplement textual materials.
Part two of Volume 5 engages a range of media from televisual and cinematic spaces to altporn’s Suicide Girls to the use of place in transnational news..