Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The “ego-tag”, managing your identity
and eco mapping at PICNIC '09

PICNIC is an annual 3 day technology-art-business conference in Amsterdam
www.picnicnetwork.org | See my 2008 review
The 4th edition was held, 23-25 September 2009

This time I was one of the Mediamatic volunteers, so most of my experiences of PICNIC '09 involved one of their RFID projects.

There were 10 of these playful 'gadget-games' visitors could interact with using their “IK” RFID heart-shaped tags issued free to everyone.

“IK” means “I” in Dutch and these “I-tags” were the keys for interaction, not only for yourself but with others as well.

To start playing you registered yourself with the “I-tag” which then would identify you as the player, from the information gleaned from your profile on the PICNIC website.

Most of the games created at the week long Mediamatic Social RFID Hacker Camp (Link to introduction, blog and photos) were playful interfaces which then uploaded a score, a drawing, or webshots of you. So the “I-tag”, a type of 'ego-tag' was relatively harmless unless you were embarrassed by the webshots :).

On one level the games as games were simplistic, you won a point or lost to your opponent. On another level the simplicity allowed for social interaction: businesswomen run, catch and throw.

>> “IK SPIN” (a frisbee game for teams) by Mark Wubben & Eelco Wagenaar starts when you pass your “I-tag” over the reader. The screen shows your name (found on the PICNIC website) and links this with the others who then register as members of your team for the game.
A photo of the team is then uploaded to your profile on the PICNIC website. Then the goal is to pass the team frisbee over the reader under the flashing light. There are 4 of these and they flash randomly in succession and team members may only catch or throw the frisbee, not run with it.

<< Mark Wubben, one of the makers, passes a frisbee over the reader to start the game.

Like a game of basketball, members throw one of the two frisbees to their teammates until one can pass the frisbee over the reader underneath the flashing light and win a point for their team.

<< Here one of the makers, Eelco Wagenaar scores a point while the other player in the other team runs to the frisbee thrown to him.

More about this project is here.

Below: Overview showing 3 of the 4 lamp posts which flashed randomly during the IK SPIN game. Underneath each is a pink “IK” sticker. Players need to pass the frisbee over the sticker while that light is flashing to win a point.

ik-a-sketch made by Edwin Dertien & Neil Mendoza at the Mediamatic Social RFID Hackerscamp 2009.
This image is from Brady Forrest's blog which also has a review.

Then you could participate in a joint drawing on a metres-large screen with a stranger (or friend), one being the vertical influence and the other the horizontal influence, as in ik-a-sketch.
These drawings were then uploaded to your picnic profile page. It is a pity that it so easy to just make a mess of lines as you can see in the image below. As a gadget it worked if someone, such as myself was there to explain the concept but even then many people once they got the idea, found it too clumsy to manoeuver or not interesting enough to do something creative with it. Admittedly it probably served its purpose, as a fun thing for two people to collaborate with for a few minutes.

FRIENDSLICER is made by Eric Gunther, Andras Sly Szalai, and Jeff Lieberman.

Standing inside the FRIENDSLICER studio you were asked to dance or make a sound in front of a camera which I found silly, but the resulting video shown on the wall on the outside of the 'studio' was amazing. The way the video and sound were cut created aesthetic experiences. My advice would be to re-work some meaning into the instructions so that the process of being inside the studio resonates as part of the end result. Perhaps the instructions inside the studio could be related to the theme of friends and slicing rather than asking for a random weird sound or a dance. The title and the point of using RFID technology was that the resulting clip was made with slices of video and sound from other individuals connected to your PICNIC profile as well as from slices of what was previously recorded. That was part of the surprise in the resulting video as well which then played continuously -a music video with your social network- until replaced by the next recording.

Breaking The Frame” worked beautifully as a gadget, producing short (stop motion) films of you around the space from multiple viewpoints, which were then uploaded to your PICNIC profile page. I just wish there had been more in terms of a 'why' or perhaps some sort of question, assignment, or comment for the participants to do other than to just madly run around in the space. Perhaps some reference to staging, the panoramic image or even the photographic portrait, but of course, I'm projecting in ways not intended by the makers nor Mediamatic for that matter. And this is a criticism I have of many new media installations or gadgets. I missed some 'engagement.' A reasonable counter argument is that these gadgets were made in a week, so there was only time for 'play'. But how do we 'play' without engagement? Is entertainment actually play?

Yet the Mediamatic gadgets were a valuable contribution at PICNIC as accessible and unpretentious entertainment or as playful experiments. The set-up was very open, so anyone could play, paying member or not, young or old. This openness, was an important element because it broke down barriers. And sometimes the simplicity of the games meant people would just spontaneously join in, such as in “IK TREK” a tug-of-war game where a rope moves one way or the other in response to the amount of friends each registered “IK”tag has). I was showing someone how this worked, and then a person with many friends on his PICNIC profile swiped his “IK”-tag on the other side, causing the rope to reverse and move in his direction. Suddenly those standing around swiped their tags on the reader to help our side and before many seconds had passed, 20 or so passing individuals were now standing on each side of the rope, yelling and laughing. What are the boundaries between entertainment and engagement and where do they matter?

IK WIN was first developed over one week at the 2008 Mediamatic Hackers club by Simon Claessen, Axel Roest and Mathias Forbach, for PICNIC 08.
For PICNIC '09 it was a beautiful machine. I rode up in the elevator a number of times, competing against my opponent in the other elevator. The winner is lifted highest into the air, if their name is linked to the RFID tag with the most google hits

<< The person on the right is wearing one of the “ikGNOME” hats by Tijmen Schep. People could wear a red or a blue hat while being photographed in front of one of the “ikCam" screens located around the displays, the idea being to see which colour would win by being the most photographed.

Then there was the IK WIN set of elevators. Someone small and as badly dressed as I am, standing in one could surprise the man in a suit or the nerd standing in the other elevator by soarng into the sky above him! I love the tongue-in-cheek title reminding us of the absurdity of 'competition' as an end. You won by having more google hits than your opponent. You won by being raised into the air. You won, by having your name announced as the winner. And then one of the phrases: a voice would boom out “Who is this person?”

And so from the extrovert to the inner: I sat in on some of 'The Privacy Paradox in Social Media' lectures.
Rene Hansen from UBC (A global biopharma company focused on long-term illnesses) gave an example of how what is normally considered private, one's health problems, were shared and exploited to help each other on the website: www.patientslikeme.com
Started in 2004 by family members of an ALS sufferer as a way to pool knowledge on treatment and experience, it is built for and around patients. It requires and relies on trust for individuals to supply the information themselves and from this the website generates all sorts of information which anyone who wishes can access, including healthcare charts that show individual conditions and treatments over time. With over 50,000 patient-reported outcomes, this was not only useful for patients but also for research institutes such as UBC, Hansen said. This system is entirely based on information and measurements of health as judged by the patient, rather than on the health professional. Results were made anonymous and aggregated. His presentation was a success story of how empowerment helps research in healthcare.

Benjamin Joffe's presentation: “Humans, Robots and the Digital Panoptican
(you can view this as a SlideShare presentation on LinkedIn) looked at the issue of privacy as an aspect of the mutable phenomena of just what is public and what is human.

It connected well with the presentation: “Forget Privacy, just manage your identity” by Christian van 't Hof (a researcher at the Rathenau Institute in The Hague). He gave examples of how digital gadgets were creatively 'hacked' by ordinary users, such as a tagging device used by parents to locate their children: the children then used this device as a way of meeting their friends. His focus was on using the digital as a form of empowerment rather than control or lack of control. He referred to the panoptican, the Big Brother idea of a central control, as being replaced by a synopticon, where your information about anyone also means they could find information about you. In a sense this is already happening with various social networks that people fill with data. The issue is knowing how to manage, how to use the data that is collected about you as a tool for negotiation, and to develop systems that empower: that assume individual choice.

On the final morning I listened in on the “Ecomap Lab: THINK!” lectures organized by de Waag Society. Six speakers presented various types of mapping and interpretations of environments. Drew Hemment (www.futureeverything.org) discussed a few examples of participatory projects in which technology was used to encounter the environment in innovative ways and were the data collected could help change people's behaviour. He stressed the need for simplicity, transparency and reciprocity to engage people. “Climate Bubbles” involved masses of individuals blowing bubbles in Manchester where they recorded the wind speed for 10 minutes in 'micro' climates. The data was to be incorporated into a map of Manchester's winds. “Biotagging,” another project at the May 2009 Futuresonic festival, went a step further in incorporating individual input. Individuals were invited to classify plants, animals and fungi along a particular route in their own ways. This folksomic approach was used to build a bottom-up taxonomy of an area which could help a city council see how residents relate to this area. Drew Hemment's talk focused on a list of design principles for such projects. For me, all the points related to issues of engagement, who are the people this affects, why, and the meaningfulness of the non-standard and how this can be useful for projects involving masses of people.

Five presenters then focused on project they had or were developing. Daniel Kaplan (click to view his slideshow) presented the Green Watch (La Montre Verte) which records Ozone and Noise levels which are shown real-time on a mobile phone and on a website. It had two aims. to multiply the amount of urban sensors and make individuals aware of these two variables in their environment. I borrowed one of these watches for a few hours but found it heavy, and the mobile phone around my neck was overkill, but as a prototype it functioned well and required no maintenance to do its work.

Because the Dutch government had claimed that it wasn't feasible to distinctively measure the noise of airplanes, in 2004 Rene Post and others set up 23 monitors around the Schiphol airport area, establishing a noise monitoring system on a budget of 10, 000 euros. The system, Geluidsnet, also produced data that could be understood and more importantly accessed by a lay person. As a result, aircraft noise became a political issue, and the value of independent monitoring was made evident. The law was eventually changed so that producers of noise, such as airports, were obliged to supply data rather than to say it wasn't possible.
Screenshot made on 14 October 2009 at 13.53.
See: www.geluidsnet.nl. The numbers and colours indicate raised noise levels. If you click on a number, more information is available from that sensor, including levels over a period of time.

Geluidsnet works brilliantly even today using multiple independent small monitors, displaying real-time and data over time, which can be seen by everyone on a website. It has also meant that noise level agreements, for example with contractors, can be monitored or, on a more personal level, that the noise level from a dance party is transparent. People can also subscribe to an email digest of this data, so Geluidsnet is certainly a success story in using technology as a means for empowerment and awareness.

London-based artist, then Usman Haque gave an outline of the Pachube project, a web service which 'patches' data in realtime from sensors (which can be objects, devices & buildings) from anyone around the world. Any device that is connected to the internet (wired, wireless or via SMS gateway) can store, share, graph and distribute its datastreams in real time using Pachube. So the pachube website can show, for example, that today (Oct 14th 2009) someone in Dipton, (a town about 30 km north of Invercargill in New Zealand) is sharing some data from a sensor measuring carbon dioxide levels. This page has a list of ways Pachube could be used: from farmer to scientist to designer.

Shane Mitchell introduced Connected Urban Development (CUD) organized by Cisco in partnership of 7 cities (Amsterdam, Birmingham, Hamburg, Lisbon, Madrid, San Francisco, Seoul) which works at reducing carbon emissions while enhancing the quality of urban life in these cities. He then showcased the San Francisco urban eco map.

Nerea Calvillo presented In the Air a visualization project for the microscopic and invisible agents in the air of Madrid (gases, particles, pollen, diseases, etc). She showed a number of prototype visualizations where the various elements changed a little like cloud formations in the air in real-time, and in a sense raised the profile of the intangible space of the city. 15 sensors feed information about 5 pollutants into the system which was used to make the dynamic visualization. The aim of the project is to provide a platform for individual and collective awareness and decision making, which it does via the website and displays in public spaces. They also run workshops using low-tech elements for the same purpose such as tagged balloons.

I also participated in the afternoon session, called “MAKE.” chaired by Frank Kresin and others. One of the exercises was to work in small groups to come up with an approach to creating systems that affect human behaviour. The group I was in had the theme: 'engage everyone', and we chose to view the environment as an interface so that individuals not only didn't need any gadgets to facilitate interaction, but rather individuals were needed to look or listen to the environment around them for input or output. Some examples we came up with were sensors that could read the speed of a passing mass (whether you passed by car, by foot or bicycle) which would affect a display on a board, in a tree or a shop. Some displays could be made so you could only see them if you cycled or walked, while perhaps for a driver, if they passed a point, the display went blank. In looking at ways to reward rather than punish, we thought that on days when pollution was high, buses would be free, and cycle lanes widened. Other ideas included using planning in the way plants or pathways or shelter-ways were made, so that walking or cycling to work was more stimulating as well as easier.