June 2005 Archives

Jim Mason recently asked me to participate in a show he was putting together at The Shipyard, the artist space he founded in Berkeley. The show was of work suspended from cables, as part of a larger punk show called "How to Destroy the Universe, Part 4," put on by Mobilization Records. The Shipyard collective is producing some of the best and craziest technology art work around (while being totally off the grid, powered entirely by WWII-era generators running on biodiesel--so Berkeley, in that Whole Earth Catalog way), so it was an honor to be invited to show something there.

I've been thinking about a project based on bass shaker technology for several years and decided that now would be a good time to make it. Bass shakers and sound transducers (such as those made by Clark and Feonic's small SoundBug) are a nifty technology that resonates sound through surfaces they're attached to, rather than through soundwaves. I used bass shakers to make a small piece at Burning Man about 5 years ago (which I think maybe 5 people experienced before my amplifier blew) and enjoyed working with them.

As an aging raver, bass is close to my heart. Bass, as a visceral sensation of something that's normally perceived only aurally, has been fascinating for me since I first felt sound through my breastbone, and removing everything but the feeling of bass vibration seems like a pure distillation of that experience. For this piece, I decided to try and bottle that sensation, while simultaneously exploring my interests in casemod and lowrider technology. I also wanted to do something about loneliness, since hanging on a wire seems like the literal expression of being emotionally exposed.

Thus, Bass Ghost.


The ghost is based on a wooden frame of 2x2 pine and Home Depot metal corners:

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Inside is an Aura Bass Shaker Pro and a Bazooka ELA150.1 subwoofer amplifier, powered by a Demon 480 watt power supply. Sound is supplied by a Rio Cali MP3 player playing Bing Crosby singing "The Star Spangled Banner" in 1939, pitch shifted to subsonic levels, and some bells:

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The outside is made of 1/8" plywood, painted with white interior paint.

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Here's how it looked installed:

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And here's what the show looked like:

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Thanks again to Jim, to Tim and Patricia for loaning me their garage and tools, to Liz for helping me think through the thing and for encouraging me to finish it, and to the Department of Homeland Security, for the careful repacking of it after their examination at the airport. [And, I almost forgot, to Tod for the last minute power supply telephone tech support!]

Matty Sallin, a former Interaction Design Ivrea student, and Greg Trefry have made a lamp that helps you visualize your pulse:

An ornamental lamp that detects and "echos" your own heartbeat in realtime. Just place your hands on either side of the lamp base and wait 6~10 seconds for it to detect your pulse, then watch as it throbs to match your heartbeat.

A nice visual design. I find it strangely reminiscent of the judge character from Pink Floyd's The Wall or a nun's hat thing, but that's just me and it is heart-shaped, which is what I think they were going for.

Lighting seems to be a common entrypoint into the augmented furniture world right now, which makes sense: there's nothing that has to move, it IS ambient display, and it's been established (by Ingo Maurer in high design, and Pottery Barn for a more traditional audience) that it can come in many forms and still be acceptable to a large audience (not so with the sofa, for example).

I'm always pleased to see people using smart home technology for something other than making a really killer, expensive simulation of the local $9 movie theater. The Gator Tech Smart House for seniors is a new construction house that's

designed to assist older persons in maximizing independence and maintaining a high quality of life. To this end we are innovating Pervasive Computing technology to create a supportive and assistive environment for the elderly and the disabled.

The house has a number of typical "smart home" home automation things in it--flat panel displays, remote controls, kitchen computers that pop out recipes--but there are also some nice innovations, since they're forcing themselves to think about the whole house, not just the living room and kitchen. There's a bed that monitors sleep patterns, there are floors that detect if someone has fallen, there's a pantry to warns you if some of the food in it is rotten (something that I could have certainly used in the past), there's a tub that prevents accidental scalding and adjusts settings based on whose in it (if they do it by weight--what seems the easiest way, to me--that would be way cool...or lukewarm, if that's your preference ;-). By creating a specific target market--the elderly--they've created an interesting set of constraints that's let them tune the capabilities of the technology to specific uses, which I think is great.

An interesting quote comes from a transcript of a TV show about the house. 78 year-old Minette Hendler says "It's the house taking care of me. I'm not really alone." Once again, this shows how people project human qualities onto technology. Minette really IS going to be alone, in the literal sense, but her hope is that some of the anxieties normally associated with being alone--being out of contact, no one being able to call for help on your behalf, no one watching your food and water intake, etc.--are going to be taken care of by the technology. That's almost certainly a good thing, but what still fascinates me is how 'smart' technology changes people's relationships with the inanimate objects in their lives. I was just thinking of the From Animals to Animats intelligent agent conference series, and how animat is an interesting term for something that's between the two worlds: animated, but not an animal. A smart house, in this definition (though not in the definition that the conference people would use) is a kind of animat.

I just submitted a paper(44K PDF) to a workshop on situated ubiquitous computing at Ubicomp 2005 in September. I just submitted it minutes ago, so it's hot off the presses and may be totally off-base, but I figured I'd share it anyway. Here's the abstract:

The assumption that the goal of ubicomp is to make technology disappear stems from a Modernist ideal of purely utilitarian design that creates social invisibility. In fact, everyday design is anything from invisible, as can be seen in how furniture and cars are designed and from the hotrod and casemod cultures that modify everyday technological objects. Ubicomp design can learn to understand the design of situated technology from industrial design and from the study of technology modification cultures.

In other words: the way that people choose and modify technology is testament to the fact that they're not interested in having that technology be solely in the background. Understanding the boundaries of choice and the directions in which modification progresses may help us understand how to make ubiquitous computing that feels natural, without necessarily trying to make it invisible.

It looks like LG has decided to get into the domestic technology space. Right now its vision of that has 4 rather vague components (as described here):

  • Convenient Life
  • Safe Life
  • Pleasant Life
  • Comfortable Life

Never mind that the last two seem like synonyms, their Flash demo (click the links on the left to see the demos, and use the back button to go back) seems to imply that a Home Network will be really good for getting email in every room and using the phone as a kind of super remote control.

[As an aside, this Flash is an interesting cultural artifact in terms of what it unintentionally communicates about its makers more than the ideas it's trying to sell: check out the implication of pirated MP3s and watching porn, not to mention the, uh, traditional gender roles. Or maybe I'm just projecting. I don't know.] ;-)

[Update: just looked at the 2001 copyright date--I suspect LG has changed their home strategy by now. Sorry. The Flash demo is still funny, though.]




A device studio that lives at the intersections of ubiquitous computing, ambient intelligence, industrial design and materials science.

The Smart Furniture Manifesto

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Smart Things: Ubiquitous Computing User Experience Design

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