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July Glowlounge: Intel Research Berkeley

We recently visited Intel's reserach lab in Berkeley for a one-day conference called "Street Talk" [see our first post with photos]. For the July Glowlounge column, we present a detailed look at the day's events by Glowlab collaborator and Street Talk-attendee Jesse Shapins.

street_talkOn July 16, 2004 "StreetTalk — An Urban Computing Happening" took place at the Intel research lab in Berkeley, California. Those arriving early to the conference were greeted by Marc Horowitz and his colorful mobile coffee unit directly outside the Berkeley BART station. Unfortunately, the local police put Marc’s gift of free coffee to caffeine-seeking pedestrians quite rapidly to an end. It seems that distributing free coffee violates the law.

The main organizer of the event was Intel’s research scientist Eric Paulos and he began the day with a presentation that laid out the ground rules for the event and introduced some of the main themes that would be discussed. In the interest of giving the maximum number of people the opportunity to present and the greatest diversity of topics to be considered, each presenter would receive 10 minutes of speaking time.

Eric spoke about his work with the Intel research team, and in particular, the project Urban Atmospheres, what he described as "an archaeology of emerging urban spaces." He spoke about the rapid growth of cities worldwide, and that by 2010 it is projected that 50% of the world's population will live in urban areas. In analyzing the question of new media technologies and urban life, Eric suggested that many of the spaces we commonly look at are in-between spaces or middle grounds, spaces that exist between the virtual and physical realm. One of the underlying questions of the day would be: what is the potential for these spaces? The four main themes that Eric introduced were "Place, Community, Infrastructure and Traversal." He made reference to the Situationist movement and their attempts to dislodge public passivity and to shake people out of conventional habits.

The next presenter was Ben Hooker from the Royal College of Art in London. A designer, he spoke of his projects over the years creating graphics for the very small screens of cellular telephones. He began doing design long before today's higher resolution screens, and showed images from a project in Helsinki that involved routes of stampeding reindeer as very simple, but elegant graphics overrunning the city's topography. He spoke of this early, and still persistent, dilemma in graphic design for cellular phones as a "low-res screen" and "hi-res city." He focused upon the concept of emerging technology actually reconfiguring the physical landscape of the city. He cited the mass warehouses that have sprung up on the periphery of London to hold the goods for online shopping services.

Margot Jacobs from the Play Studio of the Interactive Institute in Sweden was the next presenter. She spoke about "public play spaces" and the "sonic city," a wearable system for music creation that is embedded into clothing. She described designs for clothing that actually interacts with its environment, changing color and patterns according to the type of space it is in (office vs. home, public vs. private, etc.). She runs a new media arts collective in Gothenburg called "Fringe" that has frequent outreach events to bring people together to share and exchange ideas about new media, commercial culture and public space in the city today. "Tejp" is a project of Fringe that draws upon youth and graffiti culture to encourage playful ways for individuals to personalize territory in the city. The project uses "audio tags," small, actual physical devices that transmit and record messages. She described these "probes" as parasiting off existing public infrastructure, such as poles, walls and urban furnishings. In testing the project in Iceland, she was interested to find that the most popular tags were all the ones closest to actual, lively social spaces, and that the interactions that "Tejp" inspired in these environments were particularly unique because of the mixture of ages that occurred. She insisted that there is a real need for graffiti, that it is an important alternative avenue of communication.

Dennis Crowley, the creator of Dodgeball.com was the next presenter. He described Dodgeball as "location-based social software for mobile devices" and referenced the acronym MoSoSo that was given to this type of venture in a Wired magazine article. He described his work as about moving social software away from the desktop and onto mobile devices. Dodgeball is a platform that woks via text messaging, claiming "Tell us where you are, and we'll tell you what's around you." Dennis spoke about the option to have a "crush-list," a selection of maximum 5 people from the website that you choose to receive text messages concerning your whereabouts in the hope that you might be able to meet-up. Dennis described Dodgeball as connecting the dots on maps and that the dots are people. He spoke about some of the dark sides of the project, including "social bugs," "friendly stalkers," the "ex-girlfriend bug," "decoy tactics" and "intentionally not 'checking-in.'" He choose email-based text messaging because it is something most everyone has and can also be implemented independent of service providers. He said, "what we're doing is not the best way to do it, but it's the best way to do it right now."

John Canny from the Computer Science Division and Berkeley Institute of Design at UC Berkeley spoke about designing for urban activity and his ongoing research into "activity theory." To design for urban activity, he said that one must pay attention to user desires, motives and awareness, acknowledge that environment plays a central role, be aware of context–immediate and implied, and take into account improvisation and situated action. Examples of urban activity that he has generated from his research are: "hanging-out," presenting a persona, looking for bargains, looking for a partner/date, learning the environment by internalizing landmarks. His team is currently generating activity maps of Berkeley, using a native XML-database, and basic functionality terms such as people and places (nouns) and verbs like read, write, listen-to, stream-to, search-for. It is a model through which probes and querying generate actual maps.

Michelle Chang, a graduate of the ITP program at NYU and currently an Intel researcher in Portland, presented Urban Asphalt Game, a collaborative project with Elizabeth Goodman. The game was introduced as a tool for ethnographic research, to better understand what people are actually doing in relation to gaming. The game itself consists of occupying territory in the city through playful, performative gaming practices. These practices are exaggerated "urban situations," creatively manipulated versions of things that people commonly experience. It is a means of getting away from "heads-down computing" and getting people to turn out and look up. Their research has taught them that people want to be challenged in their urban environments and that they want to express themselves and explore the city. They also found that people want to be able to highlight their pride and skill in gaming.

Howard Rheingold, much-acclaimed author of Smart Mobs, focused his talk upon collective action. He acknowledged that right now he has no new work to present, but gave an interesting anecdote about how the Madrid train bombings spurred the translation of his book into Spanish. Text messaging, it turned out, became the main form of organizing counter-protests during the time of the bombings and organizing those who were skeptical of the government's immediate blaming of ETA. Now, the Spanish population is very interested in Rheingold's work about text-messaging and collective action. He spoke about how often 15 year olds are the real innovators on the planet, being at an age when they are moving focus from family to peers, and that their unexpected appropriations of technology are what we really have to look out for. He said that it is very important to simply watch what is happening and try to detect emergent effects of new technologies on social life.

Arup Gupta from the Consumer Electronics Group at Intel spoke about the future of the wireless house. The end goal he spoke about was ubiquitous access to all the digital media content relevant in our lives, from DVDs to the Internet to digital photos to DV-recordings.

Christina Ray of Glowlab spoke about the Glowlab project and its fostering of a psychogeographic community. In particular, she focused upon the recent Conflux that was organized in New York City by Glowlab and the most recent Glowlab project OneBlockRadius.

Anthony Townsend from the Taub Center for Urban Research spoke about how cities function as human settlements and why people should care about the fact that urban planners don't know what they're doing in relation to technology. He gave the example that GPS doesn't and probably never really will work in the high-rise canyons of Manhattan. He said that urban space is about 20 years behind ubiquitous computing. He introduced the idea of Digital Media and Urban Space generating a new design profession. This new profession, he argued, would; 1) help focus research on ubi-computing on problem solving and improving life, instead of simply always reaching for the next level of technological possibility; 2) help bring in the lessons and tools that urbanists use on a daily basis such as political science and sociology into the urban computing discussion; 3) involve people who think about space as they live and breathe constantly.

Jane McGonigal from Berkeley Performance Studies introduced her presentation as a meditation, intended to be evocative and not necessarily informative. She is interested in massively collaborative levels of play, and organized many flash mob events and the Go Game that drew over 700 people. She sees these forms of urban gaming as a means of recoding urban space. She spoke about her work in developing "search terms." Her five search terms are: 1) public pareidolia; 2) site-specific superhero; 3) benevolent conspiracy; 4) transparent spectacle; 5) desire spots. Pareidolia is erroneous perception, the misperception of things as signs, and she sees massive multi-player misrecognition as an opportunity for interesting experiences and insights into urban life. Site-specific superheroes are "the people who answer ringing payphones," people who are alert and responsive to opportunities for interaction in everyday life, that go beyond social constraints. Benevolent conspiracy inspired the group "Snap Out of It' (www.sooi.org), that attempts to the lower the threshold to participation and get people to work together on something. Transparent spectacle is the opposite of "dark-play." Instead of creating spectacles that are only accessible to a group of insiders, transparent spectacle creates public performances where everyone knows exactly what you are doing and there is no veiling. An example was a massive game of duck-duck-goose in a San Francisco park. Desire spots are hot spots worn over time; they are the convergence of hot spots and desire paths. They reveal what we really want to do.

The next phase of the conference was a break-out session during which we discussed the issues raised in small groups. The main question that people sought to answer was "what is being left out," and many people came to the same conclusion: discussions about the socio-economic side of urban computing, its relevance to the world at large beyond the wealthy West and its real scale within the developed world.

The first presentation after lunch was from Cassidy Curtis about his work in graffiti archaeology. He sees his project as an "urban time machine." His collection and archiving of graffiti walls in San Francisco is a means of using time-lapse footage to take something you normally can't see (the layers of change over time) and to make it visible. He spoke about how graffiti had always been a part of city life, that it has always taken different forms, and that it will never go away. He said that graffiti writers wouldn't write if it wasn't publicly visible and that it is an urge "to create something beautiful and to destroy something ugly."

Jack Napier from The Billboard Liberation Front was the star of the conference. Since the 1970s, the Billboard Liberation Front has been utilizing negative spaces (abandoned lots, freeways, empty billboards) in the urban environment to foster communication. They have also "improved" many existing billboards to create a more democratic experience of outdoor media. They love advertising and recognize it as the language of our culture. The problem today, however, is that not everybody can create advertising — in their dream universe everybody would have their own personal billboard. In the meantime, Jack spoke about how we can change advertising in our mind by simply choosing to see different things when we see common logos. His example was that when we see a Nike swoosh, we could say to ourselves that we are looking at a dildo.

Melora Zaner-Godsey spoke about her research for MSN into Neaten, those people 12-24 who have grown up with the Internet always available. She presented a model that broke down the process of innovation and idea transfer in this age group. She classified 5% as losers, stoners, druggies, 10% as explorers, those who push the envelope, 30% as visibles, 25% as the status quo, and 15% as geeks and dweebs. It is the explorers who generate new ideas. Their ideas are then transmitted to the visibles, who are the key group in facilitating mass adoption. If an idea has broad resonance, this group will take it up and it has potential to then filter up into the status-quo and the adult-world. Other ideas cycle through this group into the end of the line, the geeks and dweebs, where many ideas that never achieve popularity end up.

Anne Galloway from Carleton College asked questions of mobility and stability. Regarding everyday mobility, she asked us to consider "who gets to be free? free to do what? free to become what?" Regarding everyday stability, she asked, "who gets to be secure? secure to do what? secure to become what?"

Anthony Burke from the Architecture Department of UC Berkeley asked the question "what is not urban these days?" He saw the current reality television series "A Simple Life 2" as an excellent urban probe, in the end proving the total urbanism of the United States today. The urban, he argued, is culturally ubiquitous and suburban paradise is now a myth. He introduced the concept of "urban coolers," places where certain people's desire to always work is met in public, such as certain city cafes and airports.

Anthony LaMarca from the Intel PlaceLab in Seattle spoke about his group's work to develop a location-based computing system that works for everybody, everywhere, unlike GPS. The PlaceLab system runs off of WiFi beacons for positioning.

Ken Anderson from Intel PaPR arrived from Boulder, Colorado and presented his beat-inspired "A Poem from Manhattan."

Greg Niemeyer spoke about his creation of a Center for New Media at UC Berkeley. The new program is interested in multidisciplinary work that uses media to show the invisible in the hope that this knowledge would lead us to make more thoughtful decisions. He asked: “are we developing new values and we develop new technologies?” His answer was that each new media has new values; for example, the photograph brought in the value of the visual document.

Paul Dirsch from UC Irvine spoke about "Data Diversity, BioDiversity." He mentioned how in the field of biodiversity it is easy to raise money to protect charismatic "mega-fauna" such as bison, whereas it is hard to generate interest for beetles. He drew the parallel to interest in "mega-urbs" like New York City and San Francisco, at the cost of other urban environments. In his work, he is concerned with people's experience of urban settings, in particular, the layering of many different types of experience with the city as a nexus. Those different layers are physical dimensions, history and social experience. He referenced the great work of Kevin Lynch in "Image of the City." His main points were that: 1) we must think architecturally in terms of boundaries, spatial distinctions and transitions; 2) new technologies cause people to re-encounter spaces, to encounter spaces in a new way; 3) layering of infrastructures, practices and spaces are not given, but rather they are being created and reproduced by people, and that we need to be open to the new meanings that are being imposed upon them.

Peter Lunenfeld from the Media Design Program at Art Center in Pasadena was the final presenter. He chose to focus upon the term "cosmopolitan." Great city cultures breed cosmopolitans, those who strive to free themselves from the cultures into which they were born. Cities are about migration, even within the city. To be cosmopolitan is to engage complexity. A cosmopolitan version of play engages with cultural production instead of cultural consumption. After recognizing such great urban thinkers as Walter Benjamin, Paul Auster, W.H. Whyte, Christopher Alexander and Rem Koolhaas, he chose to focus upon the work of Jane Jacobs. Jacobs analyzed what worked in cities; she saw the city as an opportunity instead of as an obstacle. She recognized the greatness of urban vitality, and its economic significance, a train of thought that has been furthered by Richard Florida. What the city offers is working out the difficulties of living together, solving the challenge of coexistence by continuously and contiguously being together. He ended with the medieval proverb: "City air makes free."

In the end, the conference was a phenomenal combination of people from wildly different backgrounds. It was great to have people with serious computer science backgrounds, artists, architects, urban planners, ethnographers and social activists all sharing together. The range was the most striking strength of the event. There was a real sense of a growing community of shared interest and it is crucial that we deepen our contacts and further our collaboration.

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