In The Air_Rethinkery

30th December 2013

Back in the 1990s, futuristic ideas based on films like Minority Report were something only science fiction writers could envision. However, in 1999 when society gave birth to the Internet of Things, this concept became the impetus for making those sci-fi fantasies a reality. Of course, at the time, these concepts couldn’t be developed as quickly as hoped, mainly because wireless technology didn’t exist and sensors were large and costly. Fast forward to 2013 and we are now surrounded by Wi-Fi and the ubiquitous cloud; sensor devices are also smaller, cheaper and raring to be implemented into city infrastructures. Our phones are no longer phones, instead serving as powerful pocket computers armed with apps to quantify and digitize our lives. Sensors have also migrated to everyday objects like refrigerators, collecting massive amounts of marketable data and creating systems whereby inanimate objects talk to one another. While some fear these automatic and hidden qualities will expose our rights to privacy, others are taking advantage of this exciting time, initiating new methods of communication, motion sensor interfaces and interactive experiences. If the Internet of Things is placing society in a position in which we don’t have to worry about what’s in our fridge because it speaks directly to our supermarket and reorders the milk for us, our minds and our time will be freed up, allowing us the opportunity to redesign and rethink everything we have come to know so far. In his book Everyware: The Dawning Age of Ubiquitous Computing, Adam Greenfield confirms change is coming as everyware reshapes our lives, transforming our understanding of the cities we live in, the communities we belong to and the way we see ourselves.

According to Melanie Swan, a Palo Alto-based tech researcher and founder of DIYgenomics (a crowd-sourcer of personal health data) by 2017, 80 million wearable health sensors will be connected to the Internet of Things measuring variables such as pulse, temperature, glucose levels and respiration rates. Already last year the FDA approved the first ingestible chip by Proteus, which monitors personal health and is linked to sensors connected to smartphones. And it’s not only this or wearable sensing that is exponentially growing: in Spain, Santander is a pioneering testbed city that is truly connected via sensing technologies. With 12,000 sensors buried under the asphalt, or fixed to street lamps and city buses, the city is in constant communication with itself. Information such as the location of free parking spaces and localized pollen count are among a few of the benefits for residents, while the city hopes to save money as the sensors can notify garbage collectors as to which bins are full, and automatically dim street lights when no one is around. The well-documented Google car is not alone in the quest for ubiquitous sensing technology either: Volvo has recently showcased its 2015 XC90 car, which boasts a long list of safety tech sensors that include automated parking, road edge barrier detection, pedestrian detection, as well as the prerequisite car-to-car communication. While Volvo states that not all of these features will be on the 2015 model, many will.

In addition to this continual stream of connection, inanimate objects are taking on a life of their own. Presenting a different sort of future, Hello Lamp Post is an experimental platform that allows city dwellers to send text messages to particular objects, including but not limited to lamp posts, post boxes, bollards, manholes, bins or telegraph poles. The project cites itself as “preparing us for a future in which the stuff that surrounds us, from TVs to toasters to tube trains, will be networked and communicative.” Little Printer meanwhile lives in your home: connected to the Internet, it takes online content and repackages it by curating and creating your very own miniature newspaper. Taking a poetic approach to communicating, the Good Night Lamp is another example where the inanimate is animated: a family of connected lamps, it allows users to share bedtime, letting friends and family stay connected around the world.

What was once just a simple device for verbal communication has transformed itself into a must-have necessity. Now sitting at the heart of our lives, the smartphone has replaced so many other objects and offered more experiences than we perhaps thought possible – or would ever need. A series of innovators is designing and building external objects that combine the intelligence of the smartphone with the seamlessness of sensors, creating clever systems whereby alarm clocks can switch on coffee machines or lights can lock doors. The Pebble Watch is a watch that hooks up to a smartphone via Bluetooth, while Bleep Bleeps uses sensors to help users get pregnant, give birth, look after their baby and raise their child. Also sensing external data, Lapka is a beautifully designed personal environment monitor: linking to a smartphone, it can collect data such as air pollution, as well as measure the goodness in food. Similarly to Nike’s 94 Fifty Ball, and following three years of innovative research, the adidas Smart Ball is embedded with a series of sensors that includes an accelerometer and a magnetometer; linked to a smartphone, it offers real-time statistics and is fully compatible with existing adidas miCoach products. Unveiled during Milan Design Week, Renault’s collaboration with Ross Lovegrove also sees the automotive industry connect with the smartphone movement: titled Twin’Z, the car uses a docking station as opposed to a dashboard, displaying the usual statistics in addition to controlling car functions such as windows and car entertainment.

Clever technology, and cheap sensing, has meant that designers are exploring the way we interact with objects. Hibou Radio by Pluvinage uses a conductive paint, which allows touch to control all its functions such as volume and frequency. As well as toying with the interface, technology is also exploring new design typologies. For example Noisy Jelly, another project from Pluvinage, boasts a unique interface: a game whereby the player has to cook and shape his own musical jelly, it rewrites current perceptions of how we interact with technology, exploring our senses in entirely new ways. In the fashion sphere, hidden sensors are the cornerstone of wearable technology, from heart rate knitted sensors to galvanic skin response sensors, but the NoWhere NowHere dress goes a step further, exploring a different connected experience: sensing how the movement of the eye can control the interface, and using embedded eye tracking technology, the dress flutters the more someone stares at it. Also exploring fashion as a vehicle, Dominic Wilcox’s No Place Like Home shoes are embedded with GPS and switching devices; like Dorothy’s ruby red slippers in The Wizard of Oz, one click and the shoes will navigate the wearer to a desired destination through LED lights that signal the route.

The relationships humans are building with technology are allowing for new experiences to develop. Sensor-based experiences can be triggered via audio, movement, wind and energy, and as such artists and designers are experimenting with different ways to create experiences through the use of hidden sensors. With shrinking technology and cheaper components, technological functionality will in time merge into almost any surface or object, which will have a huge impact on the way we work, play and navigate our daily lives. Scott Garner’s Beet Box is a perfect example of how the norm is changing; powered by a Raspberry Pi, it allows users to play drum beats by touching actual beets. Moving from vegetables to plants, Ivan Henriques’ Prototype for a New BioMachine, which was recently displayed at Like A Second Nature Arts Electronica Exhibit, explores new channels of communication between humans, living organisms and machines. Art exhibitions have also quickly incorporated the immersive experience with the likes of the Rain Room from Random International, as well as WALL by Rejane Cantoni & Leonardo Crescenti, which, using an electronic sensor system, reacts to proximity offering an optical experience that almost endows the wall with personality.

In this quantified world where our smartphones are constantly tracking, collating, quantifying and creating vast amounts of data, the term big data is emerging; and despite being coined as mundane, artists and designers are finding ways to personalize this big, boring data in new, exciting ways. Brian House’s Quotidian Record translates one year’s worth of his daily commute into musical notes, playing the path of his travels via composed audio. Likewise Jed Carter linked 64 public access web cameras together around Europe with each recording the color of the sky; named Eyes on the Sky, he translated the data and compiled the overall effect into a book, which represents one week of weather. Collating the purely mundane, artist Harvey Moon tracks the path of a cricket to create drawings, while designer Lina Patsiou visualizes each letter of the alphabet with a color, incorporating a new narrative through hidden messages encoded on the surface. Currently installed at the Carrousel du Louvre in Paris as part of the Tranoi Preview, Passage is an interactive installation from Bonjour Lab: decrypting the visual and sound imprints of those who step near it, the room is a representation of the data we leave behind in the digital world.

As technology begins to make decisions for us, it is time to address the way we view the world. If a lamp post can speak to our car and sensor-integrated cities become the norm, what was once perceived as common sense is evidently going to change. Designers and cultural thinkers are therefore looking at society again from a different perspective; for example, Different Minded Worlds invites visitors to events that allow them to experience alternative ways of thinking. Rethinking in a similar vein is the fictional nation Creators of the Republic of Privacy, which questions what kind of new system is needed to guarantee a life that is 100% private. Addressing the problem of sustainability, The Incredible Shrinking Man Project is a speculative project about downsizing the human species to 50 centimeters, while The Tyranny of Numbers by Wan Yuhan is another project that questions standardized systems, which is redefining how we quantify in an over quantified world. Challenging the immediacy and accuracy of the digital age, her smile-measuring tool gauges sincerity, as well as the perfect smile, while other tools calculate such qualities as social status and attractiveness.

It is simply a matter of time until our computers, tablets and phones extend their functionality into and onto any surface and object. Inevitably, this will bring inanimate objects to life and propel them into the digital world. Once this goes beyond concepts and matures into a fully integrated connected world, the Internet of Things will bring about a new change – a change that will alter the way we work, interact, play and navigate our daily lives, turning everything on its head as we reconsider what we once considered to be the norm.

Published August 2013 © Reproduced with kind permission of