Since early December last year I’ve been carrying around one of the Lifecharm shells with me every day. It was generated from personal biosensor data gleaned not just from myself but from two other studio members last summer when we were capturing a range of experimental data sets to generate prototypes with. Using the data, Stefan generated this particular lifecharm as part of our third iteration of prototypes in late July. This shell was one of several that we later chose to have 3D printed in different materials at Shapeways – this one in sterling silver, the others in glass, ceramic, resin and steel.
I have been carrying it around to see how I feel about it, what it means to me and how I weave it into my everyday life. Our original concept for the lifecharms was that they might trigger an entirely novel way of developing meaningful relationships to the kinds of personal health data gathered by sensors (such as Fitbit, Fuelband etc) that people are now adopting as part of the ‘quantified self’ meme. Our colleagues at Philips Research, David & Steffen, told us that the statistics of use of these kinds of sensors by healthy people tended towards abandonment after just a few months as interest and engagement fades. Their interest was in exploring motivations that might make self-monitoring of wellbeing and healthy lifestyle a thing someone would choose to do before they discovered a health issue that required monitoring.
Our approach to this was to think about the way such sensor data is relayed back to users – most commonly in the form of screen-based visualisations. We wondered if perhaps these simply aren’t arresting enough to weave themselves into the narratives of everyday life that people construct for themselves. I’ve long been interested in touch as a form of knowing and sharing, and Proboscis have been exploring physical outputs from digital experiences for many years (such as tangible souvenirs) so we started out by thinking about how we might embody the data in a physical form that could be carried around and used like a charm or talisman. Stefan has written previously about our research methods and the journey that led us to devise the lifecharm and its inspiration from nature. His Lifestreams film also explains the various technical processes we adopted and adapted to create the results.
What’s so special about these ‘data objects’?
Unlike data visualisations the lifecharms are generated through a process of data transformation that does not confine them to an instrumental purpose such as relaying the original data back to us as information in a simplified and easy to comprehend manner. Instead, they are embodiments of the data, transformed from the abstract and ephemeral into the concrete and present. They establish the potential for uncommon insights to be perceived into the conditions from which the data was collected (i.e. someone’s health and lifestyle patterns), prompted through a process of tactile and intuitive reflection.
A Lifecharm shell synthesises the intrinsic qualities of the data within its morphology (visualisations, on the other hand, make extrinsic interpretations of such data). It is, at one and the same time, both an informational object – representing a state gleaned from sensor data – and also a philosophical thing triggering intuitive reflection. It unites different traditions of investigation and meaning making: the scientific and the mythic, or magical, both ‘being’ and ‘becoming’. However, a lifecharm is neither an ‘icon’ (nor iconic) nor an ‘implement’ (tool) – it embodies a state without representing it banally. What it exemplifies is not knowledge in the form of a ‘transactable’ commodity or product but a path to knowing that arises from an ongoing process of continuous interaction with and intervention within everyday habits, in this case practiced daily through touch.
The Lifecharms are not rational, functional objects, they are magical, irrational, indeed talismanic things by which, through tactile familiarity we may come into knowledge or understanding by way of revelation. Like poetry, which is much more than the sum of words and their arrangement on a page, they are more than the sum of the data that drives their growth parameters.
Carrying a lifecharm and touching it everyday, both consciously and even as a displacement activity, causes you to develop a relationship with it over time. You become familiar with its materiality – the feel of the shape in your hand; the weight of the material it is made of, the textures of its surface. None of these reveal the patterns in the data that generated it directly, however this is precisely the point at which the lifecharm begins to operate in a mythic or magical capacity – as a performance of patterns of being and behaviour embodied and reified into a talisman. Its ‘magical power’ could be defined as the potential for revelation that it holds for you to come into an uncommon insight by handling it over time. In this way you might come to perceive new possibilities for change and adaptation in your own patterns and behaviours – triggering your own process of subjective transformation. The lifecharm is thus not just a thing of being but an thing of becoming.
Like poetry, the lifecharms are also diachronic – we can experience and relate to them across time, whilst the meaning or data they embody is fixed in time (i.e. the shape of the shell or the words of the poem do not change). Dynamic data visualisations may often be synchronous – i.e. driven by live or recent data streams – but the way we experience and relate to them is more likely to be mediated (through devices such as smartphones, tablets or computers) and determined by our behaviours and patterns of using the devices they are mediated through. This makes the lifecharms intrinsically different to screen-based visualisations of data. The information that we may glean from them is less to do with an instrumental replay in visual form, and much more to do with how we begin to learn about the patterns they embody through a growing familiarity with their physical form. This difference becomes an opportunity to augment our means of understanding the phenomena recorded in the bio sensor data – an opportunity to explore meaning making through a relationship to complexity and intersubjectivity.
I came to my own uncommon insight – that the shells were in fact, tactile poems – partly as a result of my stay in Reite village in Papua New Guinea and the conversations I have had since with anthropologist James Leach, and also with poet Hazem Tagiuri. The villagers of Reite lead a traditional ‘kastom’ lifestyle in the jungle with a fairly minimal exposure to a ‘modern’ existence predicated on patterns of consumption and mediated sociality. (Although the modern world of industrially produced goods and telecommunications is slowly but surely encroaching and making an impact on their lives and culture). They were traditionally a non-literate people and remain highly skilled makers, carving and weaving many of the things they use. Touch is a powerful sense through which they acquire information, as it could be said to be with highly skilled artisans and craftspeople of our own society. But coupled with the incredible sense of presentness in everyday Reite life and the intensity with which they conduct social relations that is so unlike our own society of discontinuous being, I felt that their physical knowledge of materials connects at a deeper level and is more attuned to detail and granularity; whereas in our own western culture it has been debased as a lower form of skill and social standing – such as the negative way manual labour is contrasted with intellectual labour, or how craft is ‘lesser’ than art.
Since returning from PNG my conversations with James have often turned on this intensity and presentness – the form of radical continuity with being that life in the village feels like. I have, in turn, attempted to convey my experiences to friends, to describe how utterly different I felt whilst in the village. During the course of one conversation with Hazem I described watching a man ‘conjure’ fire from cold sticks in a firepit without using any form of tinder, ember or fire-lighting materials. What seemed like magic was a demonstration of the uncanny power and knowledge this man had in knowing how to feel for residual warmth within the sticks, and arrange them in just the right way that would amplify the heat enough to stimulate combustion. A skill and power I have not witnessed nor even heard of before. Hazem wrote a poem about my description of this act which he sent me as I was grappling with writing about the lifecharms and what they are. His poem helped me to connect the lifecharm’s talismanic nature to poetry. It helped kindle the spark of revelation that, like the way we come to know a thing through poetry, so the kind of knowing that resides within our hands and sense of touch is not just symbolic knowledge, but practical; that we may truly come to know something through touch alone. And that, like in poetry, the precise, elusive moment in which we come into the knowledge that the lifecharm offers us remains on the edge of conscious thought; a sensation we intuitively call revelation.
Invoking Fire by Hazem Tagiuri
We talk of his time in the jungle.
He describes one marvel in particular:
how a fire was conjured from cold sticks,
as if heat swelled in their fingertips.
No tinder, hot coals; embers a day dead.
“It’s not that it seems like magic, it simply is.
Their magic. These are not illusions.”
No sleight of hand. Smoke, but no mirrors.
What we mimic through tools,
these men of power can summon,
with quiet majesty. No incantations;
they save their breath for the flames.
A new film to explain some of the technical aspects to our Lifestreams project and how we created the Lifecharm shells.
Our colleague at Philips R&D, David Walker, was kind enough to have some more shells 3D printed in metal for a small experiment we’re planning to run in the new year. Here are some photos he’s taken of them.
Our collaborator at Philips R&D in Cambridge, David Walker, was generous enough to have some of the Lifecharm shells fabbed in a range of more exotic materials than our initial prototypes using Shapeways (a 3D printing firm spun-out of Royal Philips Electronics). The materials used range from metal/silver, ceramic and frosted and transparent glass.
Many thanks also to Dipak Mistry, our collaborator on Visualise Lifestreams at Arts & Business Cambridge who dropped them by the studio this morning.
Back in February Proboscis was commissioned by Andy Robinson of Futurecity, with the assistance of Dipak Mistry of Arts & Business Cambridge, to undertake an Art+Tech collaboration with a local industry partner in Cambridge as part of Anglia Ruskin University’s Visualise programme. This strand seeks to engage “leading Cambridge technology companies to collaborate with contemporary artists on the creative use of technology in public life.”
Over the past few months Stefan and I have been meeting with David Walker and Steffen Reymann of Philips R&D (based in the Cambridge Science Park) to establish a creative dialogue. The initial topics for our creative exploration were suggested by Philips based on research subjects being explored in their lab – Near Field Communications and health monitoring technologies. Our discussions quickly began to revolve around personal motivations for monitoring health and lifestyle –
- Why do people routinely lose abandon using health monitoring technologies?
- What might inspire new habits that actively involve monitoring?
- How could we create delightful ways for people to make connections between personal data and Quality of Life?
- How could we rethink the nature of data collection away from the purely rational towards the realm of the numinous and speculative?
Our initial thinking suggested that perhaps the problem with data collection is that it is often too crude and reductive – trying to make impossibly simple connections between phenomena in a complex system. Data visualisations are often barely more than pretty graphs – but our lives, our environments and the ways we live are so much more than that. How might we make tangible souvenirs from the data generated by our bodies and habits that could help us discern the longer term, harder to perceive patterns?
As our discussions have continued we have begun to explore how we might generate talismanic objects – lifecharms – from personal monitoring data using 3D fabbing. Things which could act as everyday reminders about patterns the data suggests, which are at once both formed of the data and yet do not offer literal readings of the data. Objects which are allusive, interpretative and perceptible, but still mysterious. What would it feel like to have an object in one’s pocket that was generated from data gleaned from one’s own body and behaviours? How might this help us maintain a peripheral awareness of the things we eat, how much we exercise, our general state of happiness and perceive the subtle changes and shifts over time?
Stefan is writing elsewhere how we have been inspired by shells – excretions produced by creatures that tell (in a non-literal way) the story of the creature’s life – what minerals it ingested, what environmental factors affected it. For the lifecharms we’re experimenting with using personal data to drive 3D morphogenetic algorithms that can generate unique shell-like forms which we’ll then render into tangible souvenirs.
As a more macro counterpoint to the micro of the personal lifecharms we have also been considering how local public health data could be translated into forms which could be experienced as a group in a public setting – we’re investigating making a ‘fly eye’ geodesic dome with a light source to throw light upon the patterns in the data.
We’ll be continuing our discussions with Philips for another 3 months or so, gathering some test data (from ourselves) then making some prototypes and maquettes of our ideas for an event in Cambridge in the Autumn where we’ll present our work.
A few days ago we deployed a simple but exciting design change to bookleteer.com, namely we have added QR Codes and Short URL links to every Diffusion eBook’s back page. These link directly to the online bookreader version of the eBook – a web-based version that makes it possible to read the eBooks directly on mobile devices such as smartphones (Android, iPhone, Blackberry etc), tablets (iPad, Galaxy tab etc) or any computer.
What’s so exciting about that you may ask? Well, we have been thinking about ‘tangible souvenirs‘ for a few years now – exploring ways of capturing and sharing aspects of ‘digital experiences’ into physical forms such as the Diffusion eBooks and StoryCubes. This might be data visualisations or digital assets such as photos, tweets etc arranged to act as mementoes of ephemeral experiences which are primarily mediated through digital technologies. Conversely we have also been thinking about how to share these ‘tangible souvenirs’ digitally as well as physically. This thinking originated in a small project we helped take place between schoolchildren in a village in rural Nigeria making and sharing eBooks with schoolchildren in Watford, north London. In parts of Africa computers, printers, paper and internet access were (and remain) scarce – yet mobile phones were proliferating fast. If people who had never before had access to low cost publishing technologies through the simple tools we had created (Diffusion eBook format and bookleteer.com) could use these to publish their own knowledge and experiences how then would they share them when the means of production (computers, printers, paper etc) which we take for granted in the industrialised world, were still scarce?
The answer was to find another bridge between the digital and the physical – enabling people to share their Diffusion eBooks not only through the PDF files and printed formats, but also via mobile phones. In 2007 I wrote a post on diffusion.org.uk (our free library of eBooks and StoryCubes) speculating on how we might in future use visual barcodes to make sharing the eBooks simpler. At that time we didn’t have the online bookreader format, so there was still the problem of how someone with a mobile phone could print out and read the book. However, with the implementation of bookreader (a fantastic piece of open source software created by the Internet Archive) we have been able to realise this in a remarkably simple but potentially crucial way. If someone has a printed or handmade copy of a Diffusion eBook then they can share its content with anyone else simply by letting them use their mobile device to scan the QR code (there are multiple free QR readers for most types of phone or tablet device). Or they can take a photo of the back page and email it or send it via MMS to someone who can then scan it in themselves.
By placing the Short URL link alongside the QR code we have also provided a human-readable alternative to the QR code. This way anyone can simply type the URL into a web browser on any internet-connected device to begin reading the eBook. The URLs are also short enough to send via SMS, Twitter or any other social messaging system.
Over the years we have described the concept behind the hybrid digital/physical nature of Diffusion eBooks and StoryCubes as being about creating ‘Shareables‘ – things which can float between these states, which can exist in more than one place at a time as both physical and digital objects. We have collaborated with friends, colleagues and partners to explore the affordances of capturing unique handwritten and handmade books and StoryCubes and being able to share them directly with others, almost without restriction. This simple addition linking the physical PDF/printed versions to their online bookreader versions amplifies this rippling effect between the physical and the digital in ways we can only begin to imagine.
We think this could be a step change in the uses and usefulness of bookleteer.com and the Diffusion eBook format – we’d love to hear what other people think too.
This year we will begin a major new programme of projects exploring the intangible things we value most about the people, places and communities we live in : Public Goods. Through a series of projects over a 5 year period we’ll be making artworks, films, events, exhibitions and publications in places across the nation (and hopefully abroad too) working in collaboration with both other creative practitioners and local people.
In this first year we’re planning a series of smaller research projects to help us meet and engage with collaborators, identify places and communities, themes and activities. We’ll be using our City As Material format for collaborative urban exploration and zine-making as a method of investigating new places with local people, and also focused projects, like Alice’s As It Comes, in both urban and rural settings exploring other knowledges and experiences that are often overlooked or are being swept away by the fast pace of social change. We also plan to continue our research collaborations into new technologies for public authoring, play and sensing the world around us (such as Urban Tapestries, bookleteer and Sensory Threads).
Our aim is to build up an archive, or archives, of the intangible goods that people most value and want to share – transmitting hope and belief through artistic practice to others in the present and for the future. In the teeth of a radical onslaught against the tangible public assets we are familiar with (libraries, forests, education etc), Public Goods seeks to celebrate and champion a re-valuation of those public assets which don’t readily fit within the budget lines of an accountant’s spreadsheet.
We’d love to hear from communities, practitioners or organisations who’d like us to work with them around this theme – do get in touch.
We are very excited that bookleteer now offers a service for users to order their eBooks professionally printed and bound as A6 saddle-stitched books on high-quality 100% recycled paper in short runs of 50 copies or more. StoryCubes can also be printed on die-cut card in runs of 200 cubes or more.
We are making more test accounts available for people wanting to create their own eBooks and StoryCubes and try out the PPOD service – email us at firstname.lastname@example.org to receive an invite.
Proboscis is very excited to announce bookleteer.com – our forthcoming service for creating eBooks and StoryCubes which uses the latest version of the Diffusion Generator. We are planning a private beta test of the service in early October, with a public version launching in 2010.
Bookleteer will allow individuals and organisations to create personalised eBooks and StoryCubes under their own identity (the front covers of Bookleteer-made eBooks can contain a logo image) and with a cover image to make each publication more distinctive and recognisable. Bookleteer supports all 4 types of eBooks (classic/book ; portrait/landscape) as well as single and double-sided StoryCubes. It will additionally support eBooks created in many other languages and non-Roman alphabets (Hindi, Chinese, Greek, Russian etc) and will enable Right-to-Left eBooks to be created for Right-to-Left languages (Arabic, Urdu etc).
We’ll be developing some pilot projects over the next 6 months to demonstrate Bookleteer’s uses and capabilities, especially around its new API which will allow other websites and systems to call its services to generate eBooks and StoryCubes from external content and datasets.
The environment around us is a mass of sensory information, some of it easy to detect, playing on our visual, aural, olfactory, gustatory and tactile senses, while others are less perceptible – electro-magnetic radiation, hi-lo sound frequencies, infra-red light etc – and yet these imperceptible streams interact with us regularly as we go about our everyday lives.
Back in September 2008 Proboscis devised a one day workshop for Dislocate08 in Yokohama, Japan to “engage artists, urbanists, designers, technologists, musicians and dancers in an active investigation into the sensorial patterns and rhythms to be found in our environment”. The workshop was one of our first research activities for Sensory Threads, which we hoped would inspire some critical reflection on the project’s aim to create a playful instrument for exploring imperceptible phenomena in the world around – translating them into sound and touch.
The ‘foreigness’ of Japan to the team of 3 who went to run the workshop (Giles Lane, Karen Martin & Frederik Lesage) was an important consideration in deciding its location. We felt that such an unfamiliar place, people, culture and language might present interesting challenges that would mean we would have to be keenly aware of the environment all the time. Once there it reminded us how easily we become de-sensitised to our surroundings through habit and familiarity: the smells of places, air pressure, humidity etc. Those things which pervade us constantly so that we rarely notice them, except when they change or are absent. In Japan we noticed the extraordinary cultural emphasis on paying attention to the details, the small pleasures and experiences of everyday life, which appears to be preserved in mainstream culture and society there through rituals, practice and patience at so many levels, from seasonal food to street decorations.
Returning to London and discussing the event and our experiences in Japan with the rest of the Sensory Threads team it helped shape our conception of the soundscape that the wearables would create – that it would be designed to act as a means of alerting the wearers to subtle changes in ourselves and the environment so that they could experience a sensitivity to their relationship with it. The choice of sensors would be ones that could be tuned just beyond or at the fringes of human perception, giving us a new means of ‘listening’ to the world and how we are part of it – acting with and acted on. The Rumbler too was shaped by these considerations – making imperceptible phenomena tangible through the media of touch, translating sensor data into vibration as well as sound.
Taking the project forward after our prototype demo at the Dana Centre last month, we plan to explore new levels of participatory and collective sensing, richer sonification and making tangible souvenirs for participants more seamless with the experience.
Sensory Threads combines sound, touch and electronic sensing to create shared soundscapes that reveal phenomena at the edges of human sensory perception. It uses music and vibration to ping our consciousness to barely perceptible changes in the environment, making tangible articulations of our relationships to each other and the environments we move through. It is a playful platform for exploring what happens when we overlap data from one place to another and brings a unique musical and group perspective to mobile participatory sensing.
A work-in-progress, Sensory Threads allows groups of four people to create a collective soundscape of their interactions with each other and the environment. Carrying wearable sensors which detect phenomena at the periphery of human perception as well as the location, movement and proximity of the wearers, they can explore their environment whilst listening to a soundscape generated from the sensor data. Variations in the soundscape reflect changes in the wearers’ interactions with each other and the environment around them.
The data is simultaneously fed to the Rumbler where it can be experienced remotely as vibration, sound and image. The Rumbler acts as a stand alone installation allowing people to playback the sonic/sensory explorations; a tactile interface to otherwise ephemeral and intangible experiences. Other Tangible Souvenirs are generated from these experiences in the form of the microprinter’s sensographs and Diffusion eBooks.
The Sensory Threads prototype will be demonstrated at the Science Museum’s Dana Centre in London 23rd June 2009.
View all content about Sensory Threads
A Sensory Threads Sensograph printed by the Rumbler
Team: Demetrios Airantzis, Alice Angus, Dia Batal, Nick Bryan-Kinns, Robin Fencott, Giles Lane, Joe Marshall, Karen Martin, George Roussos, Jenson Taylor, Lorraine Warren & Orlagh Woods.
Partners: Proboscis, Birkbeck College’s Pervasive Computing Lab, The Centre for Digital Music at Queen Mary (University of London), Mixed Reality Lab (University of Nottingham) and the School of Management at University of Southampton.