A Project to Promote Public Authoring in the Wireless City
In this multi-media talk I'll describe and show examples of our ongoing progress in building a system to let people read and leave multi-media annotations on the fabric of the city, using their mobile phones or PDAs.
The goal of the Urban Tapestries project is to design toolsets and skillsets that will allow people to annotate the urban spaces that they inhabit and pass through every day. Our premise is that, given half a chance, lots of people would like to "leave their mark" on the city in some way - whether that means leaving notes for friends, devising their own walking tours, developing in-place information resources, or any one of dozens of other possibilities. In short, we have a strong group hunch that the best path toward enhancing the geography of the city necessarily involves designing a way to allow contributions from a broad section of the population.
We approached this premise by using one research method that is technologically-agnostic, and one method that involves no (electronic) technology at all. First, we explored the desirability of urban annotation, and the possible approaches to it, with a series of "Bodystormings". During these sessions, we laid a huge map of a central London neighbourhood on the floor, gave the participants a stack of coloured post-it notes, and sent them out on the map in their sock feet to create whatever string of annotations that they fancied. We found that almost every participant was interested in creating multiple annotations, and many created dozens. This was true not only among the denizens of the usual high-tech demographic, but
among multiple groups of seniors that we worked with at a local community centre.
In a parallel research track, we designed a public authoring tool for the "wireless city". Not wanting to tie ourselves to a particular technology, we designed a version of this tool for a PDA (to be used with Wi-Fi
networks), and a version for mobile phones (to be used with GPRS networks). We designed the bulk of the information architecture from a level abstract enough to be adapted to almost any mobile device. This approach led us to some findings that run counter to some conventional wisdoms, including
- GPS and other location technologies do not really need to be any more exact than they currently are; in fact, they are often superfluous, because the urban user often knows (generally) where they are; and
- Although security and privacy concerns are often voiced in the abstract, they are rarely encountered in the particular.
In addition to these research tracks, we conducted a set of ethnographic interviews in conjunction with the MEDIA@LSE Department; and we conducted a public trial of one of the prototypes last December, where 100 participants created annotations and described their experiences in a group blog [see links below].
(Urban Tapestries is an ongoing research project led by Giles Lane with a core team of: Alice Angus, Daniel Angus, John Paul Bichard, Katrina Jungnickel, Rachel Murphy, Zoe Sujon and Nick West, with assistance from Paul Makepeace, Nigel Palmer, Huw Jeffries and James Wilkes.)
Nick West is an information architect and researcher who focuses on the interplay between interactive technologies and the surrounding physical environment. Currently he is working with Proboscis, a London-based think tank and creative studio, to develop Urban Tapestries. This software will allow people to create annotations of any spot in the city using text, pictures and sounds. Anyone passing these spots can then read the annotations using wireless devices like mobile phones or PDAs. A second trial of this system will be starting soon in Central London.
As an Adjunct Professor at New York University, Nick managed research projects for Viacom and Verizon on geoannotation and creating online communities through interactive television. As a Visiting Scholar with the National Fine Arts Museum in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Nick designed traveling museum exhibits utilizing GPS technology. He presented his research results at several conferences throughout Europe and North America.
Nick has a Masters Degree in Interactive Telecommunications from New York University, and is studying towards a PhD in Cultural Studies from Goldsmiths College, London, studying the effects of new media technologies on our evolving conceptions of urbanism.