Saturday, February 19, 2005

Material worlds

While not a big fan of Intel's Jabberwocky project (the background research on familiar strangers was much more interesting to me), Jetsam - part of their Urban Probes research programme - completely fascinates me.

"Just as an archeologist excavates layers of debris from past civilizations to inform histories of ancient civilizations, so too can the discarded artifacts of today’s urban inhabitants be used to create the rich milieu of everyday stories of urban life. In fact, we can observe these patterns by extracting the secondary traces that are left behind by the flows of urban inhabitants – the archaeology of public urban trash... Our Urban Probe, Jetsam, explores urban public trash, its meaning, patterns, and usage, as it manifests itself in cities. Through this probe we hope to uncover new opportunities for technology to emerge across urban landscapes and further connect with our emotional experiences of living in cities."

trashaugmented trashcan visualisation

Using observations, interventions and interviews to glean information about how people interact with and interpret garbage in public spaces, they produced an augmented trash can which "exposes city dwellers to the pattern of trash interactions". The trash can records the objects thrown into it, and projects an image onto the ground of the collected artefacts. Over time, images disappear from the projection - just as artefacts disappear from the archaeological record. (Watch QuickTime movie of the can in action.)

Explorations in pervasive urban computing seem to be tending towards either gaming or narrative approaches to interacting with or understanding the city, and this project certainly falls under the story-telling category. But it's particularly refreshing to see our understanding of narrative engage a material perspective. After all, I've never heard a story that didn't involve people and things -- and surely we can do better than another city of bits.

For more on the urban probes methodology and the Jetsam project:

Urban Probes: Encountering our Emerging Urban Atmospheres (pdf) by Eric Paulos and Tom Jenkins

And while I don't have time to get into it now, I still find it curious that Situationism is being mobilised to defend non-traditional or playful research practices -- rather than as a way of critiquing the politics and practices of technological use in everyday life. Plus, if they'd only brought in some relevant material culture studies instead of just using Lynch's image of the city...

Related:

The Garbage Project & "The Archaeology of Us" by William Rathje

Found Magazine

Trashlog

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