Making radio tangible

Next week we’re launching some new work that explores the spatial aspects of RFID. So before we publish that, here is a quick summary of existing work on radio, sensors and space that I’ve been compiling for a while.

The ‘Radiogenic’

Dunne & Raby introduce the idea of ‘Hertzian space’ in Design Noir and Hertzian Tales where they describe a landscape of electronic products creating a “new, invisible but physical environment”.

In Tunable cities they map the radio signals from domestic equipment such as babycoms and begin to examine the “role of electronic products in the aesthetic inhabitation of a rapidly dematerialising, ubiquitous and intelligent environment.” Here there are visualisations of radio fields as bright red spaces overlaid on the streets of Chiswick, London.

Although their work specifically avoided issues around making the invisible visible or visualising radio, it explored the “links between the material and the immaterial that lead to new aesthetic possibilities for life in an electromagnetic environment”.

“It might seem strange to write about radio, a long-established medium, when discussion today centres on cyberspace, virtual reality, networks, smart materials and other electronic tehcnologies. But radio, meaning part of the electromagnetic spectrum is fundamental to electronics. Objects not only “dematerialise” into software in response to minituarisation and replacement by services but literally dematerialise into radiation. All electronic products are hybrids of radiation and matter. [...] Whereas cyberspace is a metaphor that spatialises what happens in computers distributed around the world, radio space is actual and physical, even though our senses detect only a tiny part of it.”

As Matt Jones points out, they go on to coin the term “radiogenic” to describe objects that:

“function as unwitting interfaces between the abstract space of electromagnetism and the material cultures of everyday life, revealing unexpected points of contact between them.”

Faraday

The Faraday chair offers a slightly more nuanced ‘visualisation’ of the boundaries of electromagnetic waves through a physical object. These works operate by visualising and making tangible the boundaries between electromagnetic phenomena, and as such, serve to highlight and create discourse around the issue of radio in emerging products and systems

Celebrating the magic of remote action

The language used to describe RFID interaction includes closeness, touch, proximity and pointing but there are few explorations of the way that RFID systems shape the gestural and tangible aspects of this interaction. Within Human Computer Interaction (HCI) there is some discussion of the spatial aspects of sensor technologies. For instance Ailisto et al (2003) discuss the ways that RFID creates contactless interactions on mobile phones: “Physical selection may be based on proximity or pointing. In the case of proximity, the selection is activated by bringing the activating device, e.g. a smart phone, close to the target device.”.

In the Touch project we have experimented with the spatial aspects of RFID interaction, developing a tacit design knowledge of the technology over time. At an early RFID hacking workshop with BERG/Schulze & Webb we experimented with playful interactions that involved “the magic of remote action” where invisible interactions triggered events in the world.

Magic invisibility

This is something we went on to explore in much more detail in the film Nearness, where the relationship between proximity and physical interaction is explored in detail.

In projects like the Graphic language for touch we have begun to find ways of representing invisible radio as a tangible design material in a functional setting.

And in her project the Bubbles of Radio (that emerged from our Fields and Seams brief) Ingeborg Marie Dehs Thomas imagined and visualised many fictional representations of radio fields including Bluetooth and RFID. These drawings provide a playful starting point for the discussion of our relationship to radio fields and the possibilities they open up for interaction.

Exploring and experiencing waves

The political, social and phenomenological aspects of the electromagnetic spectrum are a recurring theme within contemporary media art practice. For instance the exhibition Waves at RIXC tuned in to artistic engagements with the electro-magnetic spectrum and suggested that “artists should take control of the very principles and materiality of the ‘network waves’.”

A common practice is to translate radio space into an audible, sonic experience. In projects like ætherspace, Aeriology, Electroprobes and in many RFID projects some kind of probe that senses radio and offers audible output is held or attached to the body. The experience is then about being mobile, moving through and probing the world to discover how the lanscape and patterns of radio changes through space.

Then there are a number of visual, interactive visualisation projects such as the Wifi camera, the sightseeing telescope that reveals open wifi networks in urban space and the Free Network Visible Network project. In most cases the visual representations of the radio waves are merged and overlaid into optical or video backgrounds of the physical world, in a kind of ‘augmented reality’ genre.

wifi 2

In Edge Town by Ben Hooker and Shona Kitchen visual approaches are used to explore the ways in which we can “design interfaces with the flows of electronic data that run through our cities so that they can be experienced as an enriching complement to other, more ‘earthly’ phenomena.” Their garden-like visualisations represent the desire to turn these invisible flows into something more tangible. In another architectural approach, Pedro Sepulveda-Sandoval proposes the demarcation of public areas that are free of mobile phone signals, using the visual language of yellow/black warning tape.

Artists Ruth Jarman & Joe Gerhardt visualised many kinds of fields in Magnetic Movie, where the fields are seen animated as crackling, pulsing and swirling waves that uncomfortably inhabit physical spaces. This animation reinforced by a strong soundtrack that crackles in time with the motion is one of the most engaging and compelling visualisations of radio fields that we have seen.

Spatial and seamful sensors

For engineers and scientists, accurately modelling and visualising invisible radio fields, and engaging in antenna measurement is a difficult task, if not almost a ‘black art’. Using specialist robotic equipment and slowly measuring the intensity of radio signals at various points in space, it is possible to build up a three dimensional map of a radio field. There are also specialist 3D simulation tools that create models of radio fields and their interactions with physical material. These tools are mainly used to optimise the design of radio antennae, probe and problem-solve radio interference problems in electronic equipment and to assess safety issues with human exposure to radio systems.

In a paper called The spatial character of sensor technology Reeves et al (2006) describe the importance of understanding seams and spatiality in sensor-based systems. Although they concentrate on ‘torch-based’ interactions, their concerns are relevant for other sensor technologies:

“We are primarily concerned with the way in which seams between devices create a particular spatial character for the location in which they are deployed. This spatial character of seams derives from the use of spatially-embedded sensor technologies (e.g., GPS, Wifi, etc.) which are particularly prevalent in ubiquitous computing. Sensor technology plays a fundamental part in the creation of seams, and thus the character of the space in which such technology is deployed. The main issue, then, is how interactive and ubiquitous system design may appropriately address this essential spatiality.”

There is also a discussion of the ‘seamful’ character of many ubiquitous technologies.

Chalmers and Galani (2001) describes the ways in which “wireless networks have distinct physical characteristics such as a tendency to be absorbed by metal, water and other conductive materials, and a pattern of coverage that makes for a limited area of usable network connectivity.” They suggest that there may be a method or conceptual process of ‘seamful design’ that builds upon the way that “people accommodate and take advantage of seams and heterogeneity, in and through the process of interaction.”

“We critique the ‘disappearance’ mentioned by Weiser as a goal for ubicomp, and Dourish’s ‘embodied interaction’ approach to HCI, suggesting that these design ideals may be unachievable or incomplete because they underemphasise the interdependence of ‘invisible’ non-rationalising interaction and focused rationalising interaction within ongoing activity.”

There is something in this ‘seamful design’ process that may help us to understand of the way that we deal with the invisible aspects of radio-based interaction, and the ways that mental models are built out of these systems.

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