It's Monday and although everyone else is probably thanking Easter break for providing them with an opportunity to lay in bed until lunch time, i've been up early to give the final touch of my presentation about RFID and art at the RFID workshop that iMAL organizes this week in Brussels as part of its series of New Brave World events. You can follow the episodes of the workshop on its blog.

With Hidden Numbers, Meghan Trainor

Just a parenthesis: tomorrow at 8,30 pm Atau Tanaka will give a talk at iMAL about Mobile Music and his other locative media based projects. I wouldn't miss it if i were in a 200-mile radius.


Because rfid had kind of moved away from my radar over the past couple of years, i decided to sex up a bit the preparation of my presentation and share a part of the results with you.

Instead of my usual routine of "let's see what's available and what do i think of that?" routine, i interviewed 5 artists (Paula Roush, Doria Fan, Joshua Klein, David Kousemaker and Meghan Trainor) as well as our favourite expert from Tokyo (Konomi Shin'ishi) about their experience with RFID technology. What comes below doesn't reflect my presentation which was focusing on the ethical and cultural implications of the technology. I used these interviews as background research and thought they might be useful mainly for the workshop participants but also for some readers. So here they are:

1. Doria Fan

Doria Fan was on my victims list because of the sheer gorgeousness of her Medical Alert (RF)ID Bracelet. Technically: a rfid tag has been embedded into the medical ID tag. When the tag is read, the bracelet links the patient to his or her online medical history and automatically places a call to their emergency contact. It would let them know the patient is unwell, and that their records have been accessed.


How and why did you start using rfid in your own projects? What made its use necessary?

I started looking at RFID when I was a student at ITP, during the spring of 2006 for my thesis project, which was about object annotation (description). I was interested in how we relate to things, what these artifacts say about us, and how they often serve as proxies for relationships with people. I was taken by the idea that there is a story behind every object. We make and collect physical things -- artifacts-- that we attach a lot of meaning to. These objects often serve as memory triggers. I was looking at the role of objects (memorabilia, souvenirs, etc.) in storytelling and how digital media can mediate the retelling of memories. I was trying to "embed" personal histories into inanimate objects.

RFID provided a way to link, or embed, information to physical objects. RFID is an identification technology that is fairly discreet and can be embedded in most materials. Tags come in all sizes and shapes, and frequently require no power source, and are fairly indestructible. I considered other (automatic) identification technology, including bar code, semacode optical character readers, retinal scan, etc. I chose to use RFID because it is not a optical/visual identification system. It is physically discreet and less obtrusive. I felt that it was important that the tag didn't overwhelm the object it was identifying. I didn't want to put a large bar code on something of (sentimental) value. And, in the case of the bracelets, I didn't want the technology to overwhelm the aesthetic of the piece of jewelry.

One of the bigger challenges of physical computing and wearables is packaging the circuitry. Size does matter. It'd be hard to view that bracelet in the same way if it were tethered to a lot of wires and a breadboard.

0aashapingt.jpgHow much of Bruce Sterling's vision of spimes do you share? Did anything in your experience with RFID confirmed in any way his prophecies of an upcoming spime'd world?

I have read Bruce Sterling's Shaping Things, and also Julian Bleecker's Why Things Matte (PDF)r. I'll leave it to others to write manifestos. I'm happier when I'm making things. To me, RFID is another technology that is part of my suite of tools and materials to make stuff.

We have the technology to collect and process a lot of data. I'm more interested in the narrative -- qualitative than quantitative information. I'm more prone to remember a good story than facts and figures. My personal view is that of all the data we record, the most precious ones are stories. These are impressions --- real, reconstructed, or imagined memories -- that are a trace of our human experience. Ultimately, the network of things, that they both write about, is connected to a network of people.

There's a lot of controversy surrounding RFID, are you optimistic or worried about the way it is and it will be used?

I'm not any more optimistic or worried about RFID than any other technology out there. Humans are capable of great kindness and cruelty. That is independent of any technology. There will always be something newer down the line, and there will always be debates about the ethics. For people who are worried about the implications of any technology, the best way to allay your fears is to educate yourself about the technology. Knowledge is power.

Privacy, surveillance -- those are real concerns. A lot of people fixate on this for better or worse, when dealing with RFID. I chose not to. When I made the bracelets, my basic premise was that I was going to ignore the issue of privacy altogether, because it gets plenty of attention already. I wanted to deal more with other more pressing issues that are often ignored when designing for healthcare and personal well-being. I was more interested in issues of self-expression and identity, particularly in situations where the user has no choice in wearing a technology, i.e. for medical (assistive technologies be it for a physical or mental disability, etc.), safety, utilitarian reasons, where I find issues of self-identity much more pressing. A person's health affects not only themselves, but the people around them, so I thought it was important that this be a true networked object. The bracelet provides access to a person's medical history, and places a phone call to the person's emergency contact.

This is just one example. There are so many other cool ways RFID, and networked devices, can be used.

What were the challenges and glitches of RFID technology you encountered while using it?

Yes! Figuring out different protocols and getting different things networked can be hard. This is coming from someone who doesn't derive great pleasure in staring at manuals and code. However, the outcome makes it worthwhile. In moments of frustration, beer or a run help, too.

In of itself, I don't find RFID that exciting. When it's connected to a greater network (e.g. a database, the web, other intelligent devices, etc.) , that's when it can get really interesting. Dealing with the different protocols was the tricky part for me.

Any advice for artists who would like to use RFID in their projects?

Read the manual. Learn to read the manual and the spec sheets, granted they're not always user-friendly. All the info is there to get you started.

There are a handful of RFID readers that are available and affordable for artists, designers, and students to use for prototyping and proof of concept. There's a lot info online, too, from folks working on projects, who can write about their work and research in laymen's terms. I've found that people are very generous with their knowledge.

A bit unrelated. these bracelets are gorgeous. do you sell them? and did you do the design yourself?

Thank you. No, I don't think the question is "unrelated" at all.

Yes, I did design the bracelets. I think the design of the bracelet is very relevant and integral part of the project, even more so than the (RFID) technology behind it. The typical person engaging with a product/project is more interested in the experience, than the nuts and bolts behind it. Part of reason medical ID bracelets, and other "utilitarian" things out there are underused, is because they don't address some of the basic needs, such as self-expression and identity, of the person its designed for. Emotional, visceral, psychological needs are not to be underestimated in the success of a product or experience. While making it, I was just as interested in design of the bracelet than the technology (RFID, Asterisk) behind it. One of my requirements for this project is that bracelets had to be attractive.

No, currently, they aren't for sale, although I have received a few inquiries, which is encouraging. I'm guessing that the people inquiring about the bracelet are drawn more to the design of it than the technology.

Thanks Doria!

More info on the bracelets on Doria's website and on the course page.

2. David Kousemaker, Blendid

Next is David Kousemaker from Blendid.
He was one of the developers of iTea, an uncanny tea table that spilled "facts" of your own life on its surface during the Picnic conference in Amsterdam last September.


By dropping your conference Tag in an old porcelain tea cup, the system will search the internet for data about you. The information will start to appear on a flat projection underneath the cup. Sentences will appear as ripples and move out towards the edges of the center.

The system searches the Picnic social network for information about this person, it will also do a google search to retrieve even more "facts" on him/her. Together, these facts will blend and show the (hopefully) untrue image that person has been given by the community on the net. In fact, it is even possible to use information appearing on social networks like Flickr, hyves and hotmail. Be aware and beware of the global opinion about you!


I was truly charmed by iTea when i saw it last year at Picnic in Amsterdam. I was also amazed at how fast you managed to imagine it, build it and have it working. Behind its playfulness there is an element of critique and awareness (i think!) Do you think that we should be more afraid than happy about new technologies and about RFID in particular?

Although I recognize its double face, on the whole I'm personally quite optimistic about technology's ability to improve our lives. Many of the concepts that inspire the fierce debate on RFID and privacy are part of scenarios we live through every day already. Most of us are probably aware the huge surveillance capabilities of mobile phone networks, yet few of us dare to be without our handsets. Having this privacy debate late might be better than not having it at all. I'm just not sure if narrowing the discourse to such a specific technology is that helpful.


What was the biggest challenge when building iTea and how did you overcome it?

The iTea was build with a group of designers/artists who initially didn't really know each other very well. It took us some time to figure out what direction we wanted to work in. On a 3 day project the clock is obviously one of the biggest possible challenges, but I think coming up with a concept that made use of our individual talents was the trickiest task.

Any other projects where you used RFID with success?

In the last year or 2, we've used RFID in a several different Blendid projects. We developed an interactive media playing straitjacket for 2 dutch artists (Straitjacket Embrace) with RFID tags and readers build in to trigger different audio and video samples. We also used RFID in Wixel Play, a very physical computer game we created for the Cinekid festival.

Straitjacket Embrace

More generally, what does RFID bring to a project that you can't achieve with any other technology?

Many people seem to think RFID systems can tell us the exact locations of particular tags. This is only partly true as(for the moment) RFID systems can only tell us if a particular tag is in close proximity of the reader (about 10 cm). We have used these boolean proximity signals as triggers for events in our games or installations. Being able to use objects with hidden tags or readers as a direct interface brings something both obvious and magical to our designs.

Thanks David!

3. Josh Klein

Next, i asked Joshua Klein (he of the Vending Machine for Crows) to tell us something about OwnYourStuff. Joshua and his wife made a site that enabled them to track everything they own. "The basic premise is that having both quantitative and qualitative metadata about your things allows you to more closely examine your relationship to those things. It's been our experience that this maximizes the quality and lowers the quantity of your stuff (and thus reduces the time, expense, and attention that stuff demands.) Right now this seems daunting as we've had to enter in everything by hand, but as RFID technology gets more pervasive this sort of examination is going to become available to everyone - whether we like it or not."

I read on the website of Own Your Stuff that you've been working on this project for several years. Was RFID part of the project right from the start? How and why did you start using it for OYS?

OYS isn't yet using RFID as we're working with several major manufacturers to find the best resource. We're really interested in using as open a hardware platform as possible so to analysis and code that we develop can be available to everyone. That means being able to read a wide range of tags, specifically.

Your idea was inspired by Bruce's spimes. How much of his vision do you share? Did anything in your experience with RFID confirmed in any way his prophecies of an upcoming spime'd world?

Yes and no. For example, I think that we'll see a huge rise in RFID'd goods, but I don't know that this will cause them to automatically start staffing themselves in our home. For example, a huge proportion of the items you buy are boxed, and the boxes are tagged with RFID. The boxes go out in the trash, but the goods stay behind.

This means that different classes of items are likely to be readable in the home, depending on the market, packaging, manufacturing, as well as local and individual trends. So while I think Bruce has a very solid handle on things the transition to the services he describes is going to be scattershot and erratic. Which is pretty much in line with what he describes, really. :)

There's a lot of controversy surrounding RFID, are you optimistic or worried about the way it is and will be used?

Certainly, although I'm pretty concerned about the lack of privacy concerns that exist now. In the US polls indicate that people are happy to give up freedoms in exchange for perceived security - hence the current state of airport theater. I'd rather worry about my online transactions being recorded before I worry about someone being able to tell how many cans of peaches I bought.

Since you've been working with RFID for several years, what were the challenges and glitches of the technologies you encountered while using it?

As I understand it the biggest problems with RFID are range and noise - specifically how many tags you can read at once. Conceptually RFID is very clean, but the reality of it is that, like any energy signal, it's prone to being disrupted by other signals, by proximity, by the number of items in a certain configuration or size of area, etc. We like to think that we could just aim an RFID detector at a room and be told what and where every item is, but it's hard to do that really reliably.

That's a big part of the reason why our own design is using doorways to limit the detection area.

Thanks Josh!

Rafael Macedo de la Concha, the first RFID'd attorney general

4. Meghan Trainor

Meghan Trainor was on the top of my list of artists to interviewed because she's been one of the first to investigate artistic uses of RFID.

How and why did you start using rfid in your own projects?

In 2004 I was halfway through getting my Master's degree from NYU's Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP.). I had a background in traditional visual art, but had come to ITP to explore technology as a medium, and had become increasingly interested in the aesthetics of ubiquitous computing. Computational media was interesting to me, but I wanted my audience to experience it outside of the standard computer screen keyboard interface. Tom Igoe's Physical Computing & Networked Objects classes had a huge impact in the evolution of these ideas. So in the summer of 2004 when I read Dumbing Down Smart Objects, an article by Bruce Sterling about RFID, I caught the RFID bug. He described a landscape that was going to allow data to seep into the physical word that really spoke to where my head was at already, plus as a bonus you could inject these things. What was different about RFID, as compared to other methods of bringing technology into physical objects, was that the cost of a single tag was exponentially less than using microprocessors or cellphones or bluetooth, so rather than a few devices making up a system, I could have dozens, if not hundreds of "dumb objects" within a system.

I also liked that the RFID allowed an object to become digitally augmented, rather than existing simply as a piece of technology. A rock with an RFID tag in it is still a rock, but a mobile phone is tied to a specific time and phone plan. In 100 years the rock will still be a rock, but the phone will be a relic that does not function. As an artist it was also important to have work, or tangible relics of that work, that would in some way exist long after the computer program it interacted with stopped working.

How much of Bruce's vision of spimes do you share? Did anything in your experience with RFID confirmed in any way his prophecies of an upcoming spime'd world?

Oh, I was tremendously excited by Bruce's vision, the idea the objects can become protagonists in a documented process was a key piece of poetry that drove my work. I think he did, and does, do a really good job of standing just past the present an imagining reasonably plausible outcomes. That's what makes a good science fiction author, right? And why this is important is that these changes may come quite soon, so how do we make decisions without getting to a place where we, as individuals, can sort of "feel" what the future implications of things are?

From a practical standpoint I've been a little frustrated at how hard it is to actually build even a small scale model of that spime idea. There was a lot more to it than just RFID, I mean I'm waiting for those household 3D printers to become a reality, at which point I fully expect to be sending little RFID embedded sculptures through the interweb to people on the other side of the country...I am ready!

I think one thing I don't focus on myself, but is an interesting part of Bruce's concept, is the potentially positive impact of RFID tags on the environment, I feel like that gets lost sometimes. I know there are a lot of privacy concerns, and I feel that some of those are quite valid and important to hold companies to task on. But the idea of sifting through dump and simply returning that crap to the manufacturer is a powerful idea. "Ok manufacturers, here's your crap back, now we have a playground." The consumer isn't the end of the product life cycle, he's just a renter.

It's a little early to weigh in on a prophecy coming true or not, but I will say this. My conception of RFID, how it works, what it's capable of, changed radically once I started actually working with it. Based on my early research I was envisioning a scenario in which objects could be tracked in space, sort of like an inverted form of virtual reality, where a computer is mapping the physical world into a model it could understand. But this notion of "tracking" in the sense of say, GPS or something like that, is not really how RFID functions. RFID tracking is really most like the way UPS tracks your packages with a bar code. It can tell you when an object passed near a specific place, like a toll booth or a checkout counter. In the UPS scenario you know your parcel left the warehouse, but you won't know where it is again until it hits Tulsa. Now with more powerful systems and other tools you can start to make specific spaces that function like the GPS tracking model, but this is pretty technological intensive, and by that I mean expensive. That also doesn't mimic how it's used in its natural environment. RFID in the wild is used as a momentary switch; you unlock a door with a keycard, you buy groceries with a keyfob, you pay for your toll with EZ Pass. So for me as an artist, I also use RFID this way, although my work generally involves different sets of objects that impact each other's behaviors. At the end of the day I'm not so much interested in RFID itself, but rather, how to build environments in which computational capabilities are experienced in a new and tangible way. Right now I'm doing research into creating objects using brainwaves and 3D printers, which doesn't involve RFID at all, but does involve new and tangible ways of interacting with, or more accurately in this scenario, creating objects.

Transmission at NERD, image courtesy of Meghan Trainor

There's a lot of controversy surrounding RFID, are you optimistic or worried about the way it is and it will be used?

I would say I'm less worried than that average human and that that is primarily a result of working with this technology for years. While I wouldn't put my concern at zero, I would say there are a lot of other things I worry about first, like our government's investigation of citizen phone records, torture at Guantanamo, my credit card data, people posting pictures of me on Flickr without me knowing about it.

I think there are really bad design choices that can be made with RFID and those design choices can lead to problematic scenarios. Writing actual sensitive data onto the tags is just stupid, to which I say...don't. If you look at the design changes to the US Passport and ID cards you can see the transition from a bad design, in which actual personal data was to be stored on the RFID tags, to current designs in which the RFID tag is a key to remotely stored data, which is how most function. The RFID tag in my arm doesn't have anything on it but a long number, so you can skim my arm all you want but it just doesn't tell you anything. Well if you stored the number, it could tell you I'm in close proximity to you, but you probably could smell me at that point, or I could wear a shirt with metal threads in it to block the signal.


So there are quite a few different concerns about RFID, there are consumer concerns about privacy, there are security concerns about hackable keycards, there are human rights concerns about injected tags, the list goes on. But if your concern is privacy, I think there are a lot of other technologies out there that just do a much better job at tracking you than the tag in your jeans, so yeah if the systems get more robust and/or ubiquitous and the tags get smaller and/or cheaper negative scenarios could come to pass. But today, right now at this very moment, the police can locate my cellphone using triangulation, which is just about the same as locating me.

I think part of the concern comes from it being a novel way of transmitting data, although this technology has been around for a long time and radio itself is hardly new. But RFID can seem sort of magical, and it's hard to understand what data is actually being sent and how far that transmission range is, and because there are so many different kinds of tags and use scenarios it gets complex. A passport broadcasting your social security is different than a library book spitting out a random number that only identifies the book as number 5 of the 10 copies of Moby Dick in circulation to the library system.

I think another thing we all have to just sit down and think about it that this is just the tip of the iceberg as far as emerging technologies and the ramifications of ubiquitous computing. We do that by thinking about it and writing about it and at some point we have to start building little scale models of the future and testing our hypotheses.

Since you've been working with RFID for several years, what were the challenges and glitches of the technologies you encountered while using it?

Initially my greatest hurdle was how do I design for readers that can only scan at a few inches? How do I create a scenario where the audience will trigger the objects embedded with tags? And how do I create the objects so that they can be read no matter how they are orientated? This immediately informed a very specific size range for my objects.

The other challenge is to create a scenario that is rich enough to help my audience envision a world of objects that have changing properties in both the digital and the physical world, but isn't so muddled that everything just seems random. In performance this is easier because I control the interaction and can slowly build up the audiences understanding of what they are observing. In interactive scenarios I have no way of determining what my audience will do or how long they will participate, so every possible interaction has to be accounted for; the interaction needs to be immediately felt or understood, but also has to be rich enough to be explored over time. In the beginning I was trying to create a networked "Internet of Things," but for the user, just getting used to the idea that an objects was a trigger that could change properties was about the limit of new information, so I began to focus on just that aspect of my original ideas.

Transmission at NERD, image courtesy of Meghan Trainor

Any advice for artists who would like to use RFID in their projects?

Design your projects after you've played around with an actual RFID system first. Gaining a real concrete grasp on what RFID can and cannot do can have a huge impact on the design of your project. Sometimes RFID isn't actually the right technology for your goal, maybe you need video tracking equipment or you need to combine RFID with something else to get the desired effect. Get a reader, get some tags, build a mock-up and test it. Also I would encourage user testing too once you've got something built, audiences can be great at showing you what is actually being communicated and challenging your assumptions. Performance with RFID can be easier, because you've determined what happens when, but in an interactive scenario you've got to design for every possible interaction. How does the user know what to do? What should the user make of this interaction? Is there a "right" way to interact? One of the most challenging things is that once you cross over into art that is interactive, whether it's made with RFID or not, art that can be touched, is that people will test it, and that can often mean they will break it. So either you have to design with this in mind, control the interaction closely or surrender to the experience.

Thanks Meghan!

5. Paula Roush

The London-based media artist ih is probably the first who have explored the sonic properties of RFID.

From the project page: "Arphield Recordings is a project documenting impromptu arphid sound performances produced by people scanning their oysters cards in the daily routine of access control to the London tube stations.

The methodology of field recordings (documentation of site-specific soundscapes through audio recording equipment) is, in this case, focused on the sampling of sounds produced by the use of arphid (rfid) technology (cards and readers) complemented by digital processing involving sampling and synthesis from the source, speculating on the ad infinitum convergence of arphid tags and readers into an endless symphony of sound surveillance and compliance.

The project started with the idea for an arphid mob, inviting friends to join me at a designated tube station for a semi-coreographed sound jam using our oyster cards. The main question was 'when and where' as a major impediment would always be the heavy security at all the gates. It was decided I would do some observation and this would eventually indicate the best timing and location for our arphid mob. Observing the familiar tube's access control gates, initially with no equipment and later with a camcorder, I realised that people were already engaging in impromptu sound performances. My documentation led me to discern varied patterns and even participatory scores, with mass arphid soundscapes punctuated by silences, glitches and cracks in the system, all warped up in a circadian rhythm of work-rush hours.

The first arphield recordings - documenting the impromptu sound performance of people moving through the London tube access control gates were done in Brixton, Kings Cross and Caledonian Road tube stations during march 2006 for the TAGGED one day event at SPACE Media Arts (NodeLondon March 2006), when cds with the tracks and locational tags were distributed.

The second arphield recordings- the stockwell sound/jam memorial happened on Saturday 10th of June 2006 when people in london were invited to gather in the Stockwell tube station and scan their oyster card for 30second sync periods accompanied by a podcast of pre-recorded oyster beep tracks.

Image courtesy of Paula Roush

The project remains open to contributions. One way of doing this is downloading the arphield recordings and visiting the station gates with the sounds on a portable music player to experience a mix of live and prerecorded oyster beeps.

Another way of participating is by contributing arphield recordings from a tube station access control gate. You can do this by opening an account and uploading your recordings , tagging them as arphieldRecording followed by the number unique to your oyster card (as in arphieldRecordings-0503266130-03)"

I sent Paula my questions and she almost immediately emailed me an interview she did for Armin Medosch in the framework of the Tagged exhibition by Space Media Arts (btw, don't miss his text about RFID: The Spychip Under Your Skin). She authorized me to reproduce it below:

Why did you decide to propose an RFID project? What was your specific motivation in this case?

Arphield Recodings was conceived as a probe into the practice of sousveillance and a more general understanding of the the arphid surveillance/equiveillance of public space and transport. It also foregrounds itself into the field of networked performance and possible notions of community, interaction, and connectedness among participants.

The emerging field of personal sousveillance - the capture, processing, storage, retrieval, and transmission of an activity from the perspective of a participant in the activity (i.e. personal experience capture) using camera phones, and wearables has been mainly focused on the visual. See the dominance of weblogs as photo- and video-blogs. Surveillance studies as well have given a proeminence to the visual. However, "The history of surveillance is as much about a sound history as a history of vision" / "we need a sound history of surveillance" / "the polyphony of sounds increasingly regulates and is regulated by us" as Michael Bull and Les Black write in the intro to the Auditory culture reader (2003).

'eavesdropping, censorship, recording, and surveillance are weapons of power' writes Jacques Attali.

'The technology of listening is on, ordering, transmitting, and recording noise is at the heart of this appparatus...who among us is free of the feeling that this process, taken to an extreme, is turning the modern state into a gigantic, monopolising noise emitter, and at the same time, a generalised eavesdropping device (Attali, 1985)

Heritage: back to the initiator of urban field recordings Pierre Shaeffer's Etudes aux chemins de fer (1948), first example of musique concrete he also employed a variety of manipulation techniques because for him the sounds remained too recognisable which led him to define it as sound-works but eventually reject as music.


Into the present where collage and field recordings in the electronic age include Dialtones (A Telesymphony) (Golan Levin), data noise (Ryoji Ikeda).

In 'sync or swarm' -improvising music in a complex age, David Borgo (2005) positions music-sound as an excellent site for the study of sync in performances and in the dynamics that shape a musical community.

'coordinated rhytmic activity ' crucial to social life /"muscular unison" collective bonding are as much at at play in improvised musicking as when people are moving through the arphid gates, sharing a sonic experience there is some sort of group interactional synchronicity/ observing one can see an underlying modulation between sync and swarm, order and chaos mediated by the network.

Michael Bull / Les Back / Jean-Paul Thibauld have all described the ordinary experience of moving through the city with mobile sound devices: walkmans, car radios, ipods and how new sonic territories are created in the course of this journeys. Similarly. The experience of public space is transformed as users move through with their oyster cards / the daily regulation of city walking/journeying through the beeping of several electronic devices as oyster card users (oycus) engage with sound-technology use / jean-paul thibaud in The sonic composition of the city (The Auditory Reader) uses te term 'sonic bridge' to refer to the way music links the inside and outside of social experience into a seamless web

What do you think about RFID in terms of its cultural-political significance?

The oyster card has an added layer due to the arphid's identity features the processes involved include:

1-the registration of the card with one's id and a product identifier ( unlike the barcode the unique id number inserts one into a traceable network that can map you in space/time >spime). Id technologies, such as passports, national id cards, have been designed to facilitate identification by binding identity to the body, by associating w/ other identifiers such as the name, address, signature, but crucially arphids bind the body to a unique identification number, that will be associated with a database allowing for all sorts of correlations between data and other personal/social identifiers

2- the second step is connected to topophonic knots (Thibauld's term), the interference point between media listening (in this case sound-producing) and architectural space/ is the one of access which leads us to think of the traveling space as one of doors (bus), gates (tube/trains), with the transition from the motion of walking into the one of being transported; the gates of the tube station or the readers inside the bus are sonic doors/or outposts intermediary between two ways of traveling the city in the case of the tube even more accentuated by the shift in verticality from the underground space into the street level.

Also the space where regulation is more visible and the identification of the body becomes audible and thus public and de/re/territorialised.

Image courtesy of Paula Roush

How does this (your thoughts about RFID) fit into a bigger picture about a digital and network culture? For instance do you think we experience a real paradigm change from industrial to information age? What are the key aspects of this change? Where are highly developed countries heading?

Towards a network of things. For me Shaping Things (2005) is an inteseting speculation into the way our relationships with the objects in our environment is changing. For the first time we start to be surrounded by objects that have an identity which can be associated with our own identity and that being traceable in space and time spread that traceability to its users.

Bruce Sterling dates this techno-social change to the dawn of spimes to 2004 when the United States Department of Defense demanded that its suppliers attach arphids to military supplies. You could add to that the WalMart demand for its suppliers to add arphids to the commodities in order to standardise stock inventory. The full implementation of EAN_UCC (which might take from one to three decades) will bring a technosocial change which we are are already experiencing.

Arphid became almost synonymous with the internet of things and with ubiquitous computing, with its tendencies to use centralised proprietary systems, sharing information between authoritarian structures of commerce, policing and control but creating a form of segregation by excluding the surveilled from access to this data.

What is the role of artists working with 'new media' vis-a-vis the ICT industry and commercial creative industries? I would like you to answer this question in a personal way. What is 'your mission' as an artist working in this environment?

The most interesting position one can take now is to expand or enlarge on current studies of surveillance. On one hand, metaphors that describe our current state of surveillance as panopticon are now well established and there is also an acknowledgment that people are starting to use the panopticon tools for playful, entertainment and tactical purposes. On the other hand, unlike surveillance that isolates and dis-connects, there is a feeling that today's personal sousveillance technologies like camera phones and weblogs might help to connect and build networks or a sense of community.

The work of Humberto Moran addressing the role of free open source software and privacy-friendly technologies as a way of maximising the social and environmental benefits of RFID is also relevant.
Crucially, equiveillance -the balance between surveillance and sousveillance- which allows the individual to construct their own case from evidence they gather themselves, rather than being subjected to surveillance data that could possibly incriminate them, remains the more viable road.

For example, one of the most disputed events following the 7/7 attack, following the murder of Jean Charles Menezes in the Stockwell tube station is the narrative surrounding the use of oyster card by Jean Charles and whether he jumped over the ticket barrier running down the escalator to jump onto the train. This was registered in the post-mortem report but later the police briefed the family that he had actually used the travel card to pass throught. According to the leaked IPCC documents, Menezes passed through the barrier normally using his pre-paid Oyster card. Police initially refused to release CCTV footage while the IPCC investigation was ongoing, even to the family. It had been suggested that the man reported by eyewitnesses as jumping over the barrier, may have been one of the police officers in pursuit. Even more chilling than this slippage, is the fact that such technology is already in place that allows for the tracing of public transport users throughout the city as a centralised database to which its subjects cannot themselves have access.

In March 2006 the BBC reported that Oyster data is 'new police tool' and that the Police are increasingly using the unique serial number identifier built into the by now familiar Oyster Card travel smartcard, to track criminals' movements, according to new figures.

The smartcards, used by five million Londoners, record details of each bus, Tube or train journey made by the holder over the previous eight weeks. The figures disclosed under the Freedom of Information Act show that In January, police requested journey information 61 times, compared with just seven times in the whole of 2004. In total, 229 of the 243 requests made by police to access records were granted.

Remember that the Oyster Card itself stores the travel / payment history for the last few transactions (up to the capacity of the memory on the chip), but that Transport for London have the entire history of any particular Oyster Card on their centralised database systems.

Note that this statement by Transport for London does not preclude bulk transfers and "fishing expeditions" for "national security" or for "the prevention and detection of crime" loopholes in the Data Protection Act.

Similarly, there is no mention of the combination of CCTV surveillance and Oyster Card monitoring of millions of innocent people, rather than just the minority of criminals who are under specific criminal investigation.

What will the final output, in terms of an exhibition, feel like, look like, etc. Please try to give me a sense of what exhibition visitors actually will see, hear, experience.

I will perform the arphieldrecordings in the Space and we may do it as an arphid sound/jam at the nearest tube station (Bethnal Green). I am planning on putting a proposal forward to Platform for Art (agency managing art projects in London's tube stations) to make a sound installation in a tube station activated by the daily use of arphids by people moving through the gates.

Thanks Paula!

6. Shin'ishi Konomi

Last but not least, Shin'ishi Konomi, a nomadic computer scientist with international and interdisciplinary experiences, who currently lives in Shimokitazawa, Tokyo and works as a research scientist at the University of Tokyo. He used to update regularly the blog RFID in Japan.

Do you know Bruce Sterling's idea of spimes?
In August 2004 he suggested a type of technological device (he called it "spime") that, through pervasive RFID and GPS tracking, can track its history of use and interact with the world.
How much of his vision do you share? Did anything in your experience with RFID confirmed in any way his prophecies of an upcoming spime'd world?

I like his discussions about SPIME. It sounds very relevant to the RFID technology.

As a person who was heavily influenced by Mark Weiser's vision of ubiquitous computing, I view RFID as one of the most important first generation "disappearing" computing devices ( RFID tags are not merely improved barcodes.)

To make computing "disappear," one would have to make devices physically small, like Hitachi mu-chips, but it is also important that we embed computing in the right way, into people's activities and their environments.

The discussions around SPIME are interesting to me because they suggest that fitting RFID into existing practices is NOT enough. Bruce Sterling's historical reflection about technological artifacts suggest certain paths RFID and users (or wranglers) may coevolve. It's thought-provoking and could help us understand how things could be in the future, and envision alternative kinds of RFID-based systems.

Things seem *slowly* changing towards "the SPIME world" -- for example, in the consumer electronics arena, major Japanese companies have been discussing RFID-tagging appliances at different levels: parts (e.g., circuit boards), products and packages for better recycling.

Authorities have been discussing RFID tagging building materials for similar purposes. And there are food traceability systems (QR Codes are more likely used for tagging food packages -- they are cheaper than RFID tags)

One thing I notice here is that parts (such as circuit boards) are also RFID-tagged. So, a thing can have many RFID tags.

Also, when people talk (or wrangle) about a thing, they may be actually talking about a class of things (e.g., "iPod" rather than "this iPod") or even relevant other things (e.g., Nike iPod shoes) or people (e.g., Steve Jobs).

So the correspondence of the objects we wrangle (perceived by humans) and RFID tags (perceived by machines) may not be one-to-one. Some RFID tags are mutually closely related, others are not.

Can you give me a few examples of the latest advancements in terms of RFID in Japan?

To be honest, I haven't been checking RFID-relevant news so diligently these days. After browsing a few Japanese RFID information sources, I don't see so many unique ideas.
They are mostly about small improvements and slightly different applications. I don't see so much stuff about small readers, phone integration, sensor integration, etc. as I expected.

That said, there may be some early stage explorations that may eventually lead to something interesting. Recycling is one thing. Another is "place tagging" -- RFID tagging
physical spaces and use them as location reference points (and complement GPS).

I am involved in a "place tagging" project and one of my colleagues in that project use a hybrid tagging device -- a package that contains multiple RFID tags with different communication ranges and capabilities.

For example, by combining long-range read-only tags and short range read-write tags, users can sense the presence of a tag using the long-range signal and walk up to the tag for full read/write communication. Another device my colleague developed is an active RFID tape. That's a tape that can be pasted on a floor for example. Active tags (that provide much longer communication range than passive tags -- e.g., 10 meters) are embedded in the tape at some fixed intervals providing location information to pedestrian devices. Only one battery is needed at the end of the tape making it easier to change the battery.

It's also easier to maintain location-tag mapping database -- if you determine the position of the two ends of the tape, positions of intermediate RFID tags can easily be calculated.

Since you've been working with RFID for several years, what were the challenges and glitches of the technologies you encountered while using and/or studying it?

One of the challenges was the deployment cost. Even though the tags are cheap, it can be expensive to embed the tags in things and places. The way you place RFID tags can greatly affect radio communication characteristics of the tags. But it is often difficult to place tags at best places because of physical, legal, and social constraints.

Another major deployment cost is the database cost. In many applications, you need some data that are linked to RFID tags. It is expensive to manage the data about a large number of RFID tags.

And there are issues about who can read/write the data -- this is also related to privacy and security.

In our project, we are trying to use the tags' radio signal strengths to estimate the positions of the tags. But this is quite challenging as the radio signals are affected by many environmental factors. UWB devices may allow more accurate position estimation though expensive.

Any advice for artists who would like to use RFID in their projects?

There are things that are technically possible but not available just because we don't have good usage scenarios.

For example, Japanese mobile carrier KDDI developed a cell phone with an integrated long-range (active) RFID reader. But they wouldn't make commercial active-rfid-phone products without a good application scenario.

Artists' works could possibly inspire the novel usage of not only existing RFID technologies but also possible-but-not-available-yet technologies. RFID tags are simple devices but embedding them (if we must embed at all; in places, things, processes, practices, and relationships) requires creative spark as well as deep reflection enabled by critical and challenging proposals.

Thanks Konomi!

And i'll leave you with my favourite interview. The video was made by Drew Hemment, director of the Futuresonic festival. While he was in Barcelona a few years ago, eh went to the Baja Beach Club, the first night club to swap VIP cards with an injection of RFID chip. Drew talked with the owner of the club, Conrad Chase:

Sponsored by:

In January, i was in Hungary to visit Kitchen Budapest. Before i head to a review of what i've seen in the geek alcove, i'm going to list a few surprises i encountered while i was walking through the capital:

I don't know what is the matter with their public statues but some get tortured with fierce cruelty (must have something to do with the moustache):


Workers have some really classy hats:


Santa has more fun there than anywhere else in the world


On January 26, the KiBu lab was opening its doors for a Kibu.Projects.Social event to present all Kitchen Budapest projects, get feedback on their work from visitors, drink hot chocolate and end the evening with performances.


Kitchen Budapest, a new media lab which opened its doors in June 2007, invites researchers, designers and artists to explore the convergence of mobile communication, online communities and urban space but also their impact on our society. Its director is Adam Somlai-Fischer whose work with Aether Architecture you probably know.

Some of the prototypes presented in January were developed over several months, others took only a couple of weeks to form. KiBu is sponsored by a telecom company but that doesn't mean that its projects stop at the end of the phone antenna: the KiBuists are having fun with blenders, lamps, games, plants, gym, etc.


They work in team of people coming from very different backgrounds who mix and teach each other their passion and knowledge.

Now about (some of) the projects:

Eco Gym made me laugh out loud.

First you have this home bicycle which belonged to the mother of one of the KiBu designers. Well, i think that this bicycle is gorgeous, it belongs to a museum. Not that the KiBu people care that much, they simply dragged it to the lab and turned it into an eco-conscious experiment (a bit like Myriel Milicevic's Human Powered workshop in Antwerp last year).


The bicycle is the first prototype of a group of projects which will harvest the energy of its user's own activity and use it to power the light for example. The idea is to have a whole gym where energy wasting does not exist. The energy of users sweating on a training machine would power the whole gym: light, sound system, air-con, etc.


The same team of designers is also working on MOMO, a series of smaller applications which would motivate you to engage in physical activities during your daily routine. They were showing the Scroll-Muscle machine (image above), a system which forces you to flex your arm and exercise your biceps/triceps each time you scroll down a webpage.

Landprint is a really really really nice project I mentioned earlier but i was glad to finally be able to discuss with its designers.

The work is still very much in progress.


The main idea of Landprint is to develop a program-manipulated plant cultivation system, it would reproduce subtle patterns and photos by combining various species of plants with programmed robotics.

They prototyped an impressive Textmower, a modified lawnmower able to cut a pattern into the grass. While pushing the lawnmower, the robotic device switches on and off small blades as necessary. The final image is made up from the cut and uncut grass surfaces.


One of their plan is the "Sheep decide". In this version, instead of a robotic device, it's a sheep which would make a pattern.

The designers discovered that there are some kind of grass which sheep like and other they do not like. Their plan would be to seed a field with two different hayseeds, the latent picture would emerge and become visible as the sheep eats its way through the field.


The idea made me think of this video of sheep being "re-programmed" in order to turn grazing animals into self-powered weeding machines.

autoCut is a sound-based "self-editing" video application still in development but already quite impressive. The system would make use of the many short videos shot by mobile devices which usually remain on the hard disk, or are uploaded to a video-sharing portal without any editing.


The autoCut program selects and edits the videos according to a certain music. Moreover, autoCut can handle the videos in real time, based on the rythm of live audio input.

this cut-up is made with a pd/pdp prototype, there is no after-editing, it cuts itself based on the beat of the music (crunch). there are 9 small clips, and the program chooses between them, while modifying the clips speed, position, and image composition (rotation).


Mllamp was sick while i was in Budapest. The project experiments with emotions simulation and putting minimal intelligence into everyday things. The robotically-enhanced desk lamp has been suited up with anthropomorphous character which induces the audience to see human or pet gestures in the object's every moves. Mllamp is an experiment for simulating emotions with putting minimal intelligence into everyday things.


Light Arbour is a lighting system which reproduces natural phenomena of light and provides an alternative and subtle communication facility between places and people. The aim is not to transmit a clear image of the landscape you see to your partner or friend but rather to send them an atmosphere, an ambiance, an impression of the intensity of the light in the mountain or at sun set for example.


Arbour Light would be supported by a website, which would allow users to upload and use an ambient database made of the videos of Arbour Light owners and "phenomena-collectors".


Animata is a real-time animation software for live performance. To create and move virtual characters, you load an image and attach a skeleton to it. By placing them in different depths of field, they get a 3D effect.


Screenshot from a video showing Reverse Shadow Theatre using Animata

The designers demo'ed the latest version of the project where characters' movements of a shadow character animation were controlled by the movements of live actors. Furthermore, Animata allows a multi-user collaboration via the internet, thus providing an opportunity for the collective editing and creating of the performance.

Further development include:
- the animation of the characters, camera movement, and other special visual effects will be controllable by cell phones, or through multi-touch-screens or sensors.
- connecting Animata with widespread programming environments (Max/MSP, Pure Data, EyesWeb) to make use of the possibilities of these applications in the fields of image editing, sound analysis, or motion capture.

All the projects.
Image on the homepage by Kitchen Budapest.

Animals have senses beyond human experience, they instinctively feel approaching tsunamis through low frequencies, communicate through pheromones or can navigate through magnetic fields.


Students of Design Interactions Chris Woebken and Kenichi Okada, in collaboration with MBA students from the Oxford Said Business-school, have been developing a series of sensory enhancements toys for children to experience "animal superpowers." Each prototype allows the kid to change perspective or feel empathy with animals.


At the work in progress show of the Royal College of Art in London a few weeks ago there were showing 3 of their prototypes:


The ground as seen through the "Ant" apparatus

Ant - feeling like an ant magnifying your vision 50x through microscope antennas on your hands
Bird - gaining a sense for magnetic fields
Giraffe - a child to adult converter changing your voice & perspective

They are also developing Elephant shoes that pick up transmitting vibrations from fellows and a head mounted Theremin (!) to provide children with an enhanced spatial vision similar to the one of an electric Eel.

I played with the ant and giraffe devices while visiting the RCA show and found out that the objects do exactly what their description says: i felt humbled by the ant devices (i could not see anything of what was around me but could perceive all the tiny cracks and details on the surface of of the table i was exploring) and while doning the giraffe helmet i could only perceive the head of the tallest people in the room. Anyway, time for a few questions to Kenichi and Chris:


How does the Bird device work?

K&C: Birds find direction through sensing geomagnetic fields to find their way migrating from their summer territory to where they are spending the winter months.

Rather than translating the sense of geomagnetic fields literally, we designed a device that can be set to basic children's needs sensing the direction of home, icecream-shops or your friends.

Tiny motors in the device create a haptic sensation on the skin when you tune into the direction and create a new relationship to your environment. It not just creates a haptic sensation for yourself but as part of the superheros it also displays the direction and visualizes it to your friends.

0aadagirfff.jpgWhich technique did you use to change the voice in the giraffe helmet?

K&C: We are using a telephone voice changer to make a kids voice sound like an adult.

Has working on this project taught you something you were not expecting about body perception and possible future body extensions?

K&C: All the devices in this series are working experiential prototypes so we could test the devices with kids. We were quite surprised how extreme the ant device changes the children's behaviors. Even a hyperactive kid moves very slow because the new 50x scale makes you feel sick if you would move at normal speed.

We are interested in perception and sensory enhancements for the body and we are also considering a series of toys that uses bio-sensors and can tune into biochemical animal communication.

C: The animal project inspired me to explore new ways of interacting with our instinctual animal-self, taking it from the toy level to an adult training tool. Our senses evolved to operate in a networked information age and the sense of smell for example is currently degenerated because we have fire-alarms. Evolutionary our emotions are still controlled with the reptile part of our brain. I am exploring how networked technology and human augmentation training tools can create a new awareness, augment instincts and train new reflexes and for today's survival.

Thanks Chris and Kenichi!


Images by Chris Woebken.

0aarabitearss.jpgJim Rokos just told me about a low-tech device that, although it does not enhance our sensory range like the Animal Superpowers project, alters a user's perception of the space (in this case Kensington Gardens in London) by giving the sensation of being a rabbit.

Designed by Rokos in collaboration with in collaboration with Kathrin Bohm and Andreas Lang, the object lowered your vision to ground level, and outwards, by the use of periscopes. The device was set off centre on a wheel to create the sensation of hopping.

The device comes with ears and a tail, so that onlookers can also understand the product's purpose.

Antony Hall's projects explore the way we interface with technology, and how our interactions with it influence us creatively and socially. Often collaborating with scientists and technologists, Hall is currently focusing his talent on the investigation of biological and physical phenomenon. Some of his recent experiments involve communication with an electric fish, the creation of life through growing crystals electrically on volcanic stone, hunting for Moss bears and training Planarian worms.


He gained fame in the media and media art festivals with his electro-acoustic sound art devices and performances. Together with Simon Blackmore and more recently Steve Symons, Hall is a founding member of the Owl Project, a group which combines woodwork with electronics to create performances, musical instruments (iLog , and Log1k) and other physical computing projects.

Let's start with one of your most popular projects: the iLog. How did you get the idea of making it?

0aa4ailllog.jpgThe iLog was created as collaborative project with Simon Blackmore and Steve Symons, we are the Owl Project. We developed the Log1K in 2001 as a performance tool to attempt rival the laptop in electronic music, shortly after this apple started pushing the iPod and we had to make a response, something which related more to the trend for portable, mobile hand held technologies. We wanted our devices to be a synthesis of craft and technology, as well as functional instruments. The Log1ks were getting increasingly heavy, among other things they used nearly 30 AA batteries, short circuits and fires, and blown-out speakers were becoming common place. iLog 01 came out in 2003. After we started collaborating with Steve Symons, we reinvented the electronics inside the iLog and started pushing the whole project to a new level; the M-Log is out later this year.


There's now a series of iLog models. Why do you think people buy the iLog? Mainly as a beautiful and quirky piece of art which they would not use too much fearing that it might be damaged (although you provide technical support.)? Or have you found that people use it extensively as any other kind of musical device? Were you expecting your project to have so much success?

I suppose people want the iLog for its quirkiness, something as an alternative to the mass produced items. We had no idea that it would become so popular - people blogged it like mad at the start and like a Chinese whisper it suddenly became what people wanted it to be; typically some kind of alternative to the ipod - But in reality its something quite different. It is intended to be an instrument for performance.


iLog signal

Our problem is that although there is demand; making them is still very difficult, and time consuming, so our focus is making them better rather than faster. At the moment we are looking at lending these to artists and working in collaboration to develop the iLog further. When we launched them for sale in London at DWB it was a real learning curve. Simple things like which way up it should be held, were completely un-obvious! We had to create extensive instructions regarding use, as well as repair and maintenance. The 24 hour support is most necessary! Its important that its more hands on than your average mass produced plastic device.

The iLog is something people can use, rather than living all its life in the art gallery. The new series, *M-Log, launching this year, looks like an iLog, and is a USB connective interface. So there is scope for programming your own sensor based instrument, which you can use with your own customized patch. The iLog is more of a stand alone sound generator. We are planning an event in Manchester during Futuresonic where other performers (including Leafcutter John) will be using the iLogs & M-Logs. *The M in M-Log stands for 'muio' as in "muio interface", the chip based interface inside which Steve's invention in his words "The muio interface is a modular system for sensing and controlling the Real World".

The wood is quite resilient and very repairable if damaged.

I love The Sound Lathe, a performance which explores the sonic properties of wood. Do you have any video of it?

There is some video here:

It does look like a very physical performance. Did you have to master new skills in order to be able to do these performances? How does each performance go? Are they all different from each other? Does working with wood creates situations and results you wouldn't have expected?

Yes its been really interesting - my self and Simon ended up sleeping in a kind of bivouac deep in the forrest as part or the "R&D" for the project, learning the skills of traditional "green woodwork", (electricity free) with Mike Abbott, master crafts-person. Mike invented a competition for Bodgers (the name for people who use the 'pole Lathe') called 'Log to Leg' (as in chair leg) so this is the new format for our performance - I think the record is 9 mins; transforming a bit of tree stump, into two perfect chair legs! It takes us a couple hours, but then our lathe is connected to copious amounts of sensor interface technologies. Quite a distraction, if like for our last performance at Lovebytes, it rained torrentially for the whole thing. In the documentation you will see a tarpaulin underneath that are 3 laptops and Simon.

Image Lovebytes

I think for all of us it's a welcome change from sitting behind a screen the whole time - these physical processes are a great compliment to programming and electronics; and they still require a similar kind of focus and discipline. It is quite exhausting, you need a lot a focus to keep the beat in time as well as make a good carving, in this way it becomes quite mediative. Sharpening the chisels and preparing the timber are all equally demanding skills to learn.

Can you tell us something about the wooden objects produced during the performances? Which kind of objects are there? And what do you do with them once the performance is over?

We have a box full of various objects; ranging in description from 'chair leg' to 'fire wood', or specialist 'rolling pin'. Occasionally we have a look inside & discuss what we should do with them. We did make a chair with Mike about the only truly useful thing we ever made. The latest idea is to make some kind of flat pack, or player. Watch this space. You can see what we decide to do with them at The Piemonte Share Festival, 11 - 16 March 2008.

Documentation of first ENKI event at the Museum of Science and Industry Manchester, 7th October 2006

You are also interested in bio-digital medicine. That sounds very different from a project like iLog. Can you explain us what it is and how you started to be interested in this field?

Well this is my own personal project, although I have always working with biology or technological experimentation in some way; with ENKi I decide to humanize what I do. This was a decision to move into medicine and treatment technologies. Really its the same things that we work with in the owl project; looking at how technology is consumed and sold. The notion of bio-digital medicine is just one example in hundreds, of how science, or even the suggestion of science is used, and misused to sell ideas. Faceless corporations feed on our anxieties, our basic need to feel contentment or feel complete. I find it interesting that, just as some people turn to religion, others will look to technology or science to provide answers and solutions.


ENKI uses the bioelectric information from an Electric Fish to trigger human Brain-wave Entrainment. It generates sound and light pulses to induce a state of relaxation similar to the way traditional relaxation systems work, but the electric communication signal comes from an electric fish rather than a chip.

Did you test the system on other people? How do they react?

So far we have tested it on about 40 volunteers,most of them members of the public who had no prior knowledge of the project. We did this in the context of the Manchester Museum of Science and Industry; people enjoy the experience generally. I was surprised at the range of people who were up for it!

By this point I had started working with Greg Byatt as a collaborator. He has experience of using this kind of technology and administering similar treatments professionally. Greg has equipment which can monitor your physiological state and a brain-wave visualiser (EEG); we were trying to measure results this way. We only really came to one solid conclusion. We had to do more tests.


Isn't the idea of putting one's "brain-wave entertainment" into the fins of an animal scary? Do you feel that people would trust any other electronic device more than a fish or any other type of animal?

That is a good question. It's an exciting notion this whole idea of "wet-wear" interfacing - but not something that should be taken lightly. I don't like to be on my own if i am doing a test run, and yes I find it very unnerving. I never quite got used to the idea of connecting strangers up to electrodes and the fish. I also worry about the fish. The fish needs to be content and 'happy' for this to work.

In my opinion that most of these commercial devices are made by various humans all of whom have different intentions and issues, namely cost efficiency; and so effectively using quite crude means; cheap microchips. The Black Ghost knife fish is the result of millions of years of evolutionary refinement; but you could still say the same of micro chips.

A Down poker

Is that project completely developed or is it still a work in progress?

It's in progress. I started working with "electrogenic" fish in 2005; ENKI technology was the title I gave it in 2006 when I was in residence at ENSAD in Paris. This was the point I realized I could create a treatment technology that might actually be functional. I had a bit of pressure to actually finish something and so launched the basic concept of ENKI technology. The funny thing was that reflecting on it now - that just marked a new beginning. (It took a year just to convince the director of Pepiniere that it was in fact a real project and not some conjecture in science fiction!). Coming to think of it I have never really finished anything, I am much more excited by the notion of continued experimentation. I don't want to finish discovering. The more I work on ENKI - the more things there are to do and try, it keeps opening up. There are always more questions.


What is there left to achieve? And how much have you learned about cross-species communication?

There is still a lot to achieve. The 'treatment' side is just one layer of the onion. I started the project with the aim of communicating with the fish, generating an electrical signal and transmitting this in the fish in the tank, to the fish. Then I watch the the fish, looking for behavioral 'interactions' with the electrodes - generally if there is an electrical (connective) change to the electrodes, the fish is aware of this and investigates the electrode by swimming near it and around it (motor-probing responses). I also listening for a 'chirp' response. The 'chirp' response is a subtle modulation of the Electric signal, a specific fluctuation in the wave. The 'chirp' is used during like species interaction and communication. This is closer to the idea of language we have.

Experimentally there are factors which make this difficult to measure - The fish learns to associate the vibrations created by me entering the studio & opening the tank with a food reward. So any approach to the tank needs to be made silently, and the fish needs to be 'conditioned' to learn this over a long time. As the project progressed I became more interested in communication as something closer to an idea of commune. For the fish I see the communication signal they make more as a deep expression of self; a projected physical extension of the fish body, rather than 'language' in an anthropological sense. This communication is happening at a more primal level. In terms of the ENKi project I am thinking about this as a biological, or physiological connection between living organisms.

I recently discovered that I might be having a problem with what is known as 'superstitious' behavior in the fish; if I was a scientist in the academic sense, this would be a serous flaw in the project; something to fix, but for me it was a fantastic turn, giving the project a new angle all together. Its now becoming an experiment into animal Psychology, not just electro physiology. I don't want to say too much about this next phase but next year the project will look quite different.


You recently developed the Opto-acoustic modulator and used it for an interactive work at FACT and Liverpool John Moores University for the National Science and Engineering Week. Can you give us more details about this interactive piece? How does it work? What were you trying to achieve with this project?

The commission was to create and interactive art work that used something other than keyborad or mouse. I was determined not to use a video camera either. The the Opto-acoustic modulator basically turns sound-waves into light-waves. It can take 10 audio channels and convert these into "AM" transmissions through 10 Light Emitting Diode arrays. I am fascinated by the notion of 'Amplitude Modulation' sending data using light waves. The idea was to use 'Hyalite' salt crystals, to broadcast sound through their 'ionizing' ambient glow. You interact with the light and can detect the data as sound using wearable sensors. Additionally, using Steve's 'muio' interface again, 8 light sensors detect movement around the crystals using a lens and light sensor (based on the idea a simple biological 'camera eye') these feed into MAX MSP controlling a soundscape.

I read on your statement page that you are currently "working on new experiments relating to the creation of life through growing crystals electrically on volcanic stone, hunting for Moss bears (Tardigrades; Fresh water extremophiles) and training Planarian worms. " Could you already tell us a few words about these experiments?



I have been researching the work of William Cross for quite a while, and finally decided that I needed to recreate his experiments (with a few modifications) It's quite interesting trying to work out what he did - the only way to know is to recreate it. In 1837, he found these creatures "Acari electors" as he called them infesting an experiment, he believed that these things "spontaneously generated" within his experiment, several eminent scientists of the time recreated the experiment with the same results! My experiment is basically a recreation of this experiment, augmented with a little more technology - with the aim of capturing this phenomena of electrochemical abiogenesis. The only problem is the experiment has to run for many months.

I am interested in all sorts fresh water microscopic life; its a great 19h century tradition. With a decent microscope, you can take any roadside moss cluster and explore the interstitial oceans of liquids trapped between damp moss filaments. Here you might be lucky enough to find a Moss Bear ( "Tardigrade" ) an obscure form of extremophile that lives in moss. Believe it or not, it really does look like a bear! This in its self was a reason for laboring days over a microscope just to see if it was real! They don't fit into the zoological classification system, and have been given a phylum of their own. It is believed it is able to survive space travel, and at this moment a small space capsule orbits the earth containing some "Tardinauts" (its hard to compete with that) I simply enjoy looking for them. I like to go looking for moss growing in all kinds of areas, from urban waste lands, to the Peak District. "Tardigrades" are able to survive about 120 years in a dehydrated state; I was sifting through very old moss samples from Manchester Museum to see if I could reanimate 100 year old dehydrated Moss Bears. apparently it is possible. I had a lot more luck looking for the living ones. Unfortunately my one Planarian worm recently went missing in the tank. It is 8mm long, and I dont have the heart to keep it in a petri dish. I am not sure where it is.

Is there any artist or researcher whose work has been particularly inspiring for you?

I don't know where to start! Louis Bec for sure. I am really into what SymbioticA have been doing over the past few years, and what they are doing for the "Bio-art" movement. Otherwise, at the moment I am looking at the work of William Bebe. To be honest - I have been trying to read a lot more science fiction lately, particularly 19th century science fiction, and science writing. Often the science fiction tells you a lot about the popular understanding of science at the time. More importantly, its a good antidote ploughing through contemporary research papers.

Thanks Antony!


Related: El Niuton has a slideshow dedicated to the work of Simon Blackmore.

The theme of Susanna Hertrich's thesis at the Design Interactions department, RCA, in London, is a reflection on humans and animals in the context of "Human Enhancement": How much do we want to borrow from animals and what are the risks this would involve? How much of the animal is still living inside us? How much of the original animal that we once were has been has been lost in the evolution process?

0aaaalertdetal.jpgThe project that Susanna was showing at the work in progress show a few weeks ago is the Alertness Enhancing Device.

The risks we fear the most are often the ones most unlikely to be encountered. The human animal has lost its natural instinct for the real dangers. When worn directly on your skin, the Alertness Enhancing Device will act as a physical prosthesis for a lost natural instinct of the real fears and dangers that threaten us - as opposed to perceived risks that often cause a public outrage.

The idea is it stimulates goosebumps and shivers that go down your spine and make your neck hair stand up, waking up the alert animal inside. You become more alert and ready for the real dangers in life.

Before / after

Why would we need such device? Studies on risk perception show that many people are seriously afraid of terrorist attacks and their anxiety is heavily exploited in media and politics. A look at statistics shows that the probability of becoming a victim of terrorism is quite small. Meanwhile other real hazards are perceived as rather uninteresting and raise far less fear, for example environmental pollution or car traffic.


While we consciously know what are the things that really threatens us, we tend to dedicate much more of attention to spectacular disasters with many deaths.

That's when the Alertness Enhancing Device comes in. If you feel dispassionate and bored when reading news stories about another environmental pollution scandal, it's probably time to turn the dial of the device on.


And since it's a wearable device, you can even alert yourself in any situation, even in public contexts.

"The project is pretty much in a work-in-progress state," explains Susanna. "What I've shown in the exhibition was "just" a form prototype, but I have been experimenting with micro-current stimulations. This is quite unpleasant if placed between your shoulder blades and on your neck, but not as "in your face" as a plain electrical shocks. allows you can alter the current, so you can decide how much you can take for now. Which is how I intend this first prototype to work."

How is the project going to evolve?

"For the next version I plan to work with much more sophisticated sensations on the skin than microcurrents. The project now has shifted more into "skin as interface" and I plan to play with "apparent movement" sensations and "somatosensory illusions" as beeing explored in haptic research. I'm currently in touch with scientists in London and Tokyo to get an insight into how these things work and how I can use those techniques.
I'm not sure if the second version will work the same way as the first prototype. Probably the second version will be triggered automatically by data that is collected from some other place. I see it rather as "desktop device" than a wearable, and maybe it is something next to your door that you want to check before leaving the house. But I need decide on all the details during the next weeks..."

Thanks Susanna!

All images courtesy of Susanna Hertrich.

Ticker Tape is an internet radio for people who suffer from Euphobia, "a persistent, abnormal and unwanted fear of hearing good news". Designed by Will Carey, it was exhibited at the work in progress show of the RCA in London a few weeks ago.

Ticker Tape is a working prototype that simulates the interaction but as this was a project done in only two weeks some details are still to be fixed. Using RSS feeds, Ticker Tape scans for light-hearted news stories from around the world broadcasting them to the listener who can manage the content via the Ticker Tape website (still in construction).

Activating the radio

Pulling the cord allows the user to choose the duration of the broadcast.

Tuning direction

The origin of the news stories can be selected by the dial on the top of the radio.

This project explores playful interfaces for the future of digital radio, and is part of wider ongoing research.

As Will was in Tokyo when i visited the show, i wrote him to get more information on the radio:

The first time i read the description of the project, I thought the radio was meant for people who are afraid of bad news. But it is the exact opposite. You created it for people suffering from "euphobia". Do such people really exist?

Yes they do, although very few people experience this condition. The intention was to use a phobia as a starting point for the design process, and the radio was inspired by euphobia, “a persistent, abnormal and unwanted fear of hearing good news”.

So why not make the radio that everyone would expect, the one that people who hate hearing bad news would want to buy?

I think this would leave less to the imagination. I wanted to suggest how someone who really suffers from such a fear could overcome it, either via team therapy or by getting used to hearing good news once they had had the initial support from a therapist. By pulling the tape the person can acclimatise themselves to hearing good news in small measured doses.

While the original intent is to cure a phobia, it can also be used to create more insightful solutions for interaction with technology. (This is not to say that one is trying to make light of what are indeed serious and real fears. But changing one’s mindset as a designer and moving away from marketing-driven design and thinking about solutions from a completely different perspective, can encourage new interactions and designs to emerge.)

Assembling the prototype

Ticker Tape has a very sleek, pure and shiny design, does this reflect its own "mission"?

The design has considered a neutral and inviting form, which means you almost have to encounter the object and discover out how it works, yet there are some cues and signs that it is a domestic product. I wanted the radio to be made from ceramic – the prototype is plastic, perhaps that is why it’s so shiny. The void running through the object is for the speaker and the overall form is inspired by an old Braun SK25 radio designed by Dr Fritz Eichler in 1955.

Thanks Will!

All images courtesy of Will Carey.

Tuning the radio

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