Ecopet

In the weeks leading up to The Mobile City Conference, we will feature a number of art works, research projects and (commercial) applications created and carried out by some of the participants of The Mobile City. Today:

Eco-Pet is a research project developed at the MIT Mobile Experience Lab, in collaboration with the Province of Brescia by Bo Stjerne Thomsen, Colleen Kaman and Lorenza Parisi. The project is currently under further development and will be prototyped for additional testing and user studies as well as further elaborated in an upcoming paper.

Eco-Pet explores how the exchange of locative information through mobile performative objects impacts youth identity/culture on the basis of research on performative objects, game design methodologies, and place-making. We are particularly interested in examining how new mobile technologies encourage vibrant, constructive social engagement across urban spaces by fostering environmental awareness and user-friendly public transportation. We are furthered interested in how this transformation re-imagines social networks, urban culture and the city itself.

During the workshop at MIT the project group examined mobility and culture with a focus on the ways in which active learning and civic engagement could be promoted through mobile media. The team explored a series of projects involving environmental awareness, data collecting and sharing, interactive urban environments and personal objects. The project was also significantly informed by a visit to the Province of Brescia, Italy. While there, the team collected qualitative data and interviews with multiple youth groups about their habits, use of mobile technologies and public transportation, as well as their views on the urban environment.

Shadowing youth in Brescia

The Eco-Pet project emerges from a design scheme to create a personal object that allows young users to circulate information and aggregate this information in an interactive urban space.

Eco-Pet advances the concept that actors come to define themselves and others through interactions by the intermediaries that they circulate within society and considers how media transform these identities and interactions. This blurring of physical and digital space encourages the extension of private social networks into urban space, allowing citizens to more fully engage with the ecology and geography of the city.

The Eco-Pet is a monitoring device that records geo-referenced environmental information like audio and air quality and exchanges the information among users. Unlike many environmental projects that assume technical fixes can address issues of pollution and climate change, this project transforms the meaning of ‘environmental sustainability’ and redefines ‘scientific knowledge’ within social networks.

The device is linked to the public transportation system, which allows it to function as a bus pass that simplifies the user’s transportation experience as it eliminates the need for a separate card. Furthermore, as the device travels along this transportation system, it distributes recorded sounds and data via mesh networking. Gathering this data, embedding it in digital networks, interactive urban structures and circulating it in a social network also makes it a game, encouraging playful and ad-hoc interactions between individual users and groups as they embark on quests, individually and collaboratively, to record audio, exchange audio and make re-mixes to share with one another through interactive public spaces, distributed screens, online web interfaces, and the devices themselves.

Our research considers questions of social ties and identity construction and active and critical learning in a hybrid virtual/actual world. Our research is informed by Sherry Turkle’s work on emotional attachments to mobile objects and the use of these objects to create common narratives of experience and place.

We find it familiar to consider objects as useful or aesthetic, as necessities or vain indulgences. We are on less familiar ground when we consider objects as companions to our emotional lives or as provocations to thought. The notion of evocative objects brings together these two less familiar ideas, underscoring the inseparability of thought and feeling in our relationship to things. We think with the objects we love; we love with the objects we think with. (Turkle 2007)

These objects are also personal ´pets’ that have emotional meaning for the individual and become more evocative as they are customized. Thus, we might think of the Eco-Pet as an extension of the individual taking on the qualities of its owner. This research has been an inspiration for imagining the future possibilities of embedded technologies. The recent theories as ANT (Actor-Network-Theory) and post-ANT have emphasized that people are ‘who they are’ because of the relationship with networks of materials and objects as much as we are part of human relationships. In essence, we define ourselves through the objects around us. Secondly it is the action itself that helps people define themselves through interactions as noted by Thrift:

Actors come to define themselves and others through interactions…. – in the intermediaries that they put into circulation. (Thrift 1995: 24)

As an emergent social networking technology, Eco-Pet aims to tie social networks and the formation of groups among friends and affiliations aligned with individual topics, interests, or even bus routes. This will allow for extensive collaboration, iterative play, and the formation of knowledge-building communities. Turning to James Paul Gee, we examine constructions of identity and social affiliations through game play and the tendency for games to promote the interpretation of situated meanings and encourage practices related to identity, embodiment, cognition, and literacy.

Games allow players to be producers and not just consumers … [good games] allow players to form good generalizations about what will work well later when they face more complex problems … collaborate in teams, each using a different, but overlapping, set of skills, and share knowledge, skills, and values with others. (Gee 2003)

Our development process is further informed by research around game play, design narratives, and emergent social networking technology. Eco-Pet considers the game what Kurt Squire and Henry Jenkins call ”spatial art with its roots in architecture” (Squire and Jenkins 2002). We consider the influence of these personal devices as objects that shape our understanding of our surroundings. Borrowing from Serres, we can extend the notion of the object to a ´quasi-object´; the object as a tool for discussion around the integration of mobile technologies and around which common narratives might be created.

Quasi-object: a token, a thing that circulates, an exchanged gift, the peace pipe, the team ball. As the mediating object, it fixes relations on itself and around itself. Such an object became the focal point … round which the collective takes hold and around which a relation to the world is constituted, including the world as object of knowledge. (Abbas 2005: 177)

The circulation of Eco-Pet through the public transportation system and interacting with individuals, transportation networks, buses and public spaces.

These ´meaningful´ interactions can occur at many levels but the increased use of personal and mobile technologies for social purposes as part of specific locations brings into consideration how objects can attach to place and create meaning. Cresswell has considered many of these relationships in his work about “place (as) a product of a ‘pause’ and a chance of attachment it exists at many scales.” (Cresswell 2004: 20). In this regard we might begin considering new ways for mobile objects to attach meaning to environments and through the interaction generate a performative environment for collective spaces. In the Eco-Pet project we imagine the circulation of data will occur both on the level of a digital ´flock system´ where individuals can download both environmental information and sounds to exchange with one another and to re-mixed into new audio experiences.

Flock System for the web indicating sensor data

Finally, an integration of more performance-related spaces as part of existing transportation environments where people can spend time exchanging environmental knowledge and build up new sound tracks of the urban environments. We imagine an upgraded infrastructure and interactive installations embedded as part of existing transit nodes which extend the use and experience of waiting time as well as create new public domains and spaces of exchange through small collective performances. The interactive installation is a metal mesh with polymer and led lights where citizens can mix the collected sounds of the city to new spatial narratives.

Using the Eco-Pet to exchange with public installations as basis for performative spaces..

Thus the Eco-Pet is a mobile digital pet that circulates through physical space with its owner and extends the relationship of the individual with urban culture. This architecture of participation – materialized as collaborative art, narratives, and audio mixes – compete and coexist to produce new forms of intensely social and playful cultural production as part of an increasingly mobile and playful lifestyle.

Research and prototyping for this project is ongoing in Denmark, Italy and the United States. Additional information about Eco-Pet is available from http://ecopetproject.googlepages.com/.

Abbas, Niran (2005). Mapping Michel Serres. Ann Arbor, Michigan: University of Michigan Press.
Cresswell, Tim (2004). Place. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.
Gee, James Paul (2003). What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy. New York: Palgrave/Macmillan.
Mitchell, William J. (2003). ME++: The Cyborg Self and the Networked City, MIT Press, 2003.
Thrift, Nigel (1995). Spatial Formations. London: SAGE Publications Ltd.
Turkle, Sherry (2007). Evocative Objects: Things We think With. MIT Press.

Bo Stjerne Thomsen is M.Sc. Engineering in Architecture and Design with specialization in Urban Design enrolled as PhD Candidate at the Department of Architecture & Design, Aalborg University, Denmark, where his first case study was a an interactive architecture project for the 10th International Architecture Biennale in Venice. Through an Elite Research Scholarship he is currently research fellow at the Media Lab at MIT, Boston, looking into new types of performative technologies facilitating interactive collective urban environments. He teaches in advanced architectural design, interactive urban design and intelligent models and acts as consultant within urban design, architecture and interactive design.
His current research interests are on new types of Performative Environments, investigating the emergent effects of networked environments interacting with the local citizens illustrated through the design development of interactive architecture and urban experiments.

Lorenza Parisi is a first year PhD student at the Faculty of Communication Sciences, University of Rome La Sapienza, Italy. Her current research interests are on studying how consumer’s habits and sense of identity change, within the informational space of mobile media, reshaping the ‘public space’ and ‘personal space’ realms. Her master research thesis (“As We May Search. Knowledge Machines In Information Society. Memex And Google: A Comparison”) contains an accurate analysis of the cultural and ideological impact of automatic systems for storing and retrieving knowledge.
From May 2006 she has been working in the Press Office of the Italian Ministry for Sports and Youth Politics as press agent and consultant for ICT, Internet and new media. During the Fall 2007 she was enrolled in the ASP (Advanced Study Program) at the MIT (USA) where she also attended a design workshop at the ‘Mobile Experience Lab’. As PhD student she is now working on a device, called DOTTO, which applies GPS technology to work as a mobile audio-guide for tourists. The GPS technology localizes users and offers them specific geo-located audio information. The tool is based on an implicit interaction (movement) and, acting as a sort of travel mate, it uses a natural interface to guide the users all around the city.

Colleen Kaman is a master’s student in the Comparative Media Studies program at MIT (USA) and a Researcher with the Center for Future Civic Media at the Media Lab at MIT. Her current research focuses on ethnography and notions of democracy, public space, and vernacular culture. She is particularly interested in relationship between mobile technologies and the creation of narrative and identity. She is also an Emmy-nominated journalist and documentary filmmaker.
As a Researcher for the Center for Future Civic Media, she is currently developing a recording tool, cataloguing system, and a web-based platform for individuals to contribute, edit, and exchange audio online and in geographically-defined environments. The project explores the role that journalism, sound, and narrative play in the (re)construction of identity in an urban space.

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