Alejandro Tamayo is an artist-engineer and a teacher working in the intersections of design, art and new technologies in Bogota. A year ago, i interviewed Alejandro about the lab he's currently directing in Bogota.

The v*i*d*a lab, part of the Aesthetics Department at the Javeriana University, is focusing on the development of new design products and ideas. Guided by a reflexion on life itself, the course proposes to engage with organic (biological) and "post-organic" (electronic, digital) visions, trying to identify new relationships and interrogations that could be translated into the realization of concrete projects.

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Random Hamster allows pets to participate to card games

I stumbled upon the projects of the latest v*i*d*a lab over the weekend and liked some of them so much that i thought that it wouldn't hurt to cover some of them on wmmna. Which meant pestering Alejandro with some more questions:

What was the brief you gave to students at the beginning of the workshop? Was there a particular theme to explore?

We don't start with a particular problem to be solved, instead we always begin with a very broad question: what is life? Students are then encouraged to explore and contrast scientific and mystic approaches. some liked ideas and characteristics derived from considering living organisms as open systems, others reflected about life as a particular organization of matter, others were interested in concepts derived from thermodynamics, cybernetics, etc., while others liked ideas about chance, causality, teleology and so on. After this phase students had to look for ways to apply their findings and interests in their own contexts looking for ways to draw connections to their every day lives. The idea is that they start to confront their "objective" findings with their subjective and personal experience. And this is the way all the projects start to appear. For some it took a long time to come up with something while others found interesting connections easily.

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Cántaro, a flower pot that plays music according to the plant conditions

Who are the students? What are they studying and what is their background in electronics (if any)?

They were all students of industrial design and they were in their 7th semester. None of them had a previous knowledge in electronics. We try to make them appropriate very rapidly the basic language needed to understand an electronic diagram, to play with electronic components and sensors, to break them, and to try to overcome the fear of disassembling electronic objects. The also start messing up with microcontrollers (pics and the arduino platform) from very early in the program.

The projects are detailed on a webpage but here are some of my favorites:

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T-shirt that sweats

The T-shirt that sweats, by Mariana Rivera. Sweat, a natural phenomenon present in most forms of life, is usually regarded as unpleasant and something to hide in most western countries and in America especially. There is one exception: futbol (soccer, football) T-shirts. Considered as a fetish object, a sweated T-shirt worn by one's favorite player is considered of great value.

T-Shirt That Sweats proposes to provide the football supporter --who couldn't attend the match but follows it from afar, on his or her tv-- with a more intimate contact with the action that takes place on the field. The project could thus enrich and expand the communicative power of the tv set through a t-shirt that sweats according to the sound levels of the TV screen during the game.

Working prototype: a microphone captures the sound signals coming from the tv set. The sounds are then filtered using a microcontroller. When the sound goes beyond a certain level, a water pump hidden inside the garment wets the t-shirt. Programmed using Arduino.

The second project i wanted to highlight is less "in your face" but it is also very endearing and fascinating: Cafetera VLF (aka VLF StreamCafe), by Andrés Vargas, refers to 2 projects i liked a lot (although one is much more credible than the other):

- Jean-Pierre Aubé's VLF Natural Radio which underlines how the growing use of the frequencies necessary for digital and wireless communications is overriding the naturally produced waves of the northern lights and other climate-related signals. According to Aubé, "eventually, VLF waves will be completely drowned out by the signals of various telecommunication systems."

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Capture de sons sur la Baltique, Finlande, 2003

- Masaru Emoto's theories and experiments on our thoughts, words, ideas and music affect the molecular structure of water. The Japanese researcher claims that if human thoughts are directed at water before it is frozen, images of the resulting water crystals will be beautiful or ugly depending upon whether the thoughts were positive or negative.

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VLF StreamCafe

The earth is constantly emitting a variety of sounds ranged in the VLF spectrum (very low frequency) which are the result of electromagnetic activity taking place in the magnetosphere. Some compare these sounds with spontaneous Earth Songs and we may also interpret them as an evidence of our planet's activity as a living organism. To listen to these sounds we need a VLF radio receiver (D.I.Y. example by Stephen P. McGreevy). Inspired by this phenomena and by Masaru Emoto's research (that reflects about the profound sensibility of water to the subtleties of its surroundings).
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VLF StreamCafe proposes to relate the activity of the planet with daily life gestures (making and drinking coffee), exploring the incorporation of a VLF receiver into a coffee maker, connecting the water we use to prepare coffee with real time Earth Songs.

The concept would thus materialize in a coffee machine able to transmit the emotions, feelings, songs and energy of our planet through the coffee, reminding us of our intimate relationship with the planet we live in. The tiny vibrations generated by the sounds wold be captured by a VLF receptor and transmitted to the water used for the coffee.

In February, the first public exhibition of v*i*d*a* will take place at the Alliance Française, in Bogota. In March, Alejandro will be in Helsinki to give a presentation at the Pixelache festival.

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Una Silla, a "placebo'd chair"

Images of the projects, courtesy of Alejandro Tamayo.

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Today being Toys Day on the blog, let me introduce you to Plushie. This really neat system, created by Yuki Mori and Takeo Igarashi from The University of Tokyo, allows nonprofessionals (even those who are not able to draw "appropriately" a 2D pattern) to design their own original plush toys. Plushie constructs 2D patterns and applies simple physical simulation to it on the fly during 3D modeling. The model on the screen is thus always a good approximation of the final sewn result, which makes the design process much more efficient. `

Gosh! This blog is in danger of becoming almost funny!

Merci Julien!
Oh! Btw, Dana Gordon and Jean-Baptiste Labrune will be at Mediamatic in Amsterdam in January for a Hybrid Toys Workshop. Together with Auke Touwslager, they will help participants design playful projects (applications, services, games, programs, formats) that connect physical objects of places as interface to digital media.

0aamakingthingsjat.jpgMaking Things Talk: Practical Methods for Connecting Physical Objects, by Tom Igoe (whom i interviewed over a year ago). Available on Amazon USA and UK.

Publisher O'Reilly says: Building electronic projects that interact with the physical world is good fun. But when devices that you've built start to talk to each other, things really start to get interesting. Through a series of simple projects, you'll learn how to get your creations to communicate with one another by forming networks of smart devices that carry on conversations with you and your environment. Whether you need to plug some sensors in your home to the Internet or create a device that can interact wirelessly with other creations, Making Things Talk explains exactly what you need.

This book is perfect for people with little technical training but a lot of interest. Maybe you're a science teacher who wants to show students how to monitor weather conditions at several locations at once, or a sculptor who wants to stage a room of choreographed mechanical sculptures. Making Things Talk demonstrates that once you figure out how objects communicate -- whether they're microcontroller-powered devices, email programs, or networked databases -- you can get them to interact.

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Image stolen from Ti.mo's photo stream

Making Things Talk is a cookbook for people who want to connect objects. There are step-by-step explanations, a clear language and plenty of illustrations to make it all simple and approachable but beware! That doesn't mean that anyone can find their way around. You need basic knowledge of electronics (if you don't, Physical Computing: Sensing and Controlling the Physical World with Computers, a book that Tom wrote together with Dan O'Sullivan is made for you), as well as some understanding of programming (if you have none, then run to Processing).

Favourite quotes:

"This is not a book for those who are squeamish about taking things apart without knowing whether they'll go back together."

"Networking objects is a bit like love. The fundamental problem in both is that when you're sending a message, you never really know whether the receiver understands what you're saying , and there are thousands of ways for your message to get lost or garbled in transmission."

Tom takes you by the hand to make sure that everything will go right. Starting with the basics: pictures and explanations to tell you what a soldering iron is, a comparison between Wiring and Arduino, clear indications on where the hardware suppliers and the software sources are, etc.

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Uncommon Projects: The Ybox

And you'll learn through practice:
- While making a wireless Monski pong, you'll be introduced to data protocols, flow control and addressing, switching cable connection with a Bluetooth one and other things to better understand data communication.
- By building a cat-email camera system, you'll get to understand better the structure of the internet, how it is organized and how things works on the net and in networked applications.
- the next chapter is about doing projects like the networked kitten but without having to connect to a computer. That's how you'll get the lowdown on connecting a microcontroller to the internet through a simple module. A networked air quality meter will walk you through the theory.
- Creating a networked game, complete with a physical client that works like a seesaw, will teach you how to work with real time connection.
- Chapter 6 explains the basics of wireless communication -whether radio or infrared- between objects.
- With chapter 7, things are starting to get serious as it shows you how to make multiple devices on a network talk to each other directly or talk to all the other devices at once, without having to pass through a serial port. That's where my favourite project from the book enters: a monkey toy that plays cymbals to warn you when you might be breathing too much fumes of toxic chemicals.
- Now that you're a master of packets, sockets, clients, servers and all sorts of protocols, it's time to get acquainted with location technologies and identification technologies. First you'll see what it takes to develop projects that use location systems and finally you'll learn some methods for giving physical objects network identities.

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Perform-O-Shoes, by Andrew Schneider (image Yodel Anecdotal)

Each chapter is illustrated with images of projects developed by some of Tom's students at ITP in New York.

Appendix A and B are the icing on the cake. The first one contains pieces that never made it to the main text but you might still find useful. The last one sums up where to find the necessary hardware and software.

0aakibuu.jpgKitchen Budapest is a brand new media lab for researchers who are not only interested in the convergence of mobile communication, online communities and urban space but who are also ready to get their hands dirty creating experimental projects in cross-disciplinary teams.

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"Evil Gingerbread man" grabbed from the Kitchen Budapest photo stream

The Kitchen Budapest have released their Summer 2007 catalog. Edited and commented by Eszter Bircsak and Adam Somlai-Fischer, it is yours to download in PDF form. Trust your dear Aunt Régine, the booklet is worth leaving aside whatever you're doing right now.

The catalog highlights some of the projects developed at the Hungarian media lab.

The chapter on Mobile Expressions demonstrates the kind of playful content that can be created using mobile phones; Intelligent and Charming Things is about the way that objects around us can interact with us and even create a culture of their own; Dynamic Media Interfaces shows compelling new ways to explore (or perform) digital content; i guess i've lost everyone here and you're already busy reading the book but i'll keep on describing the catalog just in case. So, we're now at the chapter called Community Technologies which comes up with ideas for a better support for communal interaction and communication. The remaining pages are dedicated to a brief presentations of some of the workshops which took place at Kitchen Budapest (aka. KiBu).

Some of the projects developed are simples, other are quite sophisticated, some will appeal to the hacker, others have a clear interaction design feel, they are sometimes poetical, often thought-provoking and always interesting.

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One of my favourite is the Landprint project which uses a lawnmover to cut text pattern into the grass (so far) or even an image that looks like the print of a photograph when viewed from above (that's the ultimate plan.)

Related: also written by Adam Somlai-Fischer together with Usman Haque this time, Low Tech Sensors and Actuators handbook; Interview of Adam Somlai-Fischer.

Do you want to replace the existing normal?, a collaboration between Fiona Raby, Anthony Dunne and Michael Anastassiades, looks at designing for complicated or irrational needs... Just like their previous Anxious Times project did a few years ago, but this time, the designers focused on electronic products rather than furniture.

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S.O.C.D

The work, which was partly supported by the Arts Council is currently part of Wouldn't it be nice, an exhibition, curated by Katya Garcia-Anton and Emily King, which addresses the application of wishful thinking in art and design today. You can visit the show until December 16 at the Centre d'Art Contemporain in Geneva, then at the Museum für Gestaltung in Zürich. After their litle Swiss tour, the objects will fly to New York to be part of MOMA's upcoming exhibition Design and the Elastic Mind (February 24–May 12, 2008).

There will be 5 objects altogether, here are the first ones:

S.O.C.D* is for people who enjoy porn but feel a bit guilty watching it, or think that it's wrong. You put a dvd into the black box and hold onto the rubber part of the object. The long bit is made of rubber, it's shiny and soft like a dildo, except that the section is square. The metal bits sense your level of arousal and pixelate the image accordingly in real time. The more you get aroused, the bigger the pixel size, and the more distorted the sound gets. If you let go the film goes blank.

To enjoy your porn video, you need to hold on but try to de-arouse yourself at the same time, which parallels your contradictory feelings.

Electronics: Erik Kearney, software: David Muth.

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The Statistical Clock checks the BBC website for technologically mediated fatalities: car, train, plane, etc and pulls them into a database. The clock checks it every minute or so, and each time it finds a new one it speaks it out loud... 1, 2, 3, etc. The way the object works was partly inspired by the Number Stations', you pick them up on short wave radio and can hear usually a female reading streams of numbers, words, letters, tunes or morse code. They were probably used by spies in conjunction with one-off code books that could only be used on a specific day with a specific chain of numbers.

Each technology has its own channel on The Statistical Clock. You can select the channel you want to listen to. The object is meant to re-sensitise you. When you read about deaths or see them on the news they don't really have any impact. But if the clock suddenly says '1' and you are eating your dinner, you are much more likely to find it disturbing. That feeling reconnects you with the reality behind the statistics. It's not intended to be morbid, but to genuinely give meaning back to something we just take for granted.

The object is made from acoustically transparent foam, like the material used for speaker covers, it's 600 mm long and 400 mm diameter at its widest.

Electronics and programming: Chris Hand.

The Risk Watch speaks a number when you place it to your ear, the rubber deflects and activates a specially built device inside. The number corresponds to the political stability of a country.

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This watch is not connected to the telcoms network right now, but if it was, it would subscribe to one of several commercial providers of up-to-date risk assessments usually beamed to employees' blackberrys. There are 5 levels. It's meant to be reassuring when in an unstable country and relates to local geographic position.

Electronics: Erik Kearney.

The Herald Tribune has a review of the exhibition.

All Images courtesy of Anthony Dunne.
* s.o.c.d stands for sexual obsessive compulsive disorder.

Time for a lazy post.

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Bra Trainer is a fictional teaching aid designed by Noam Toran to instruct adolescent boys to overcome the intricacies of opening the brassiere. When initiated the machine mechanically demonstrates the basic principles of clasp disengagement. Following a short pause the machine then re-secures the bra ready for the next demonstration.

The piece is inspired from accounts of repressive post-war institutionalised sex education in the UK in which teachers were not allowed to touch any of the props (prophylactics, physical models of reproductive organs) unless using gloves or a stick. In collaboration with Nick Williamson.

See also: a bra-less Interview with Noam Toran.

Via sexblogs.

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