The Medium is the Metropolis

Oakland Crimespotting by Stamen

Oakland Crimespotting by Stamen

“The age of ubiquitous computation is condensing around us even as you read this.  The various systems throughout a modern city that you probably interact with everyday are beginning to maintain persistent memories of their own use, communicate with each other about their status, and even reconfigure themselves based on your dynamic needs.”

This is the opening statement of VURB, a European framework for policy and design research concerning urban computational systems. VURB was founded in July 2009 by our friend Ben Cerveny, design strategist and data visualization theorist, in collaboration with James Burke (Roomware, Narb) and Non-fiction’s Juha van ‘t Zelfde.

“In the same way that social networks and digital representation have had profound consequences on the cultures of print, music, and video, so too will the urban fabric of the city itself be transformed into an information layered, collaboratively shapable medium.”

The VURB foundation, based in Amsterdam in the Non-fiction office at Museumplein, provides direction and resources to a portfolio of projects investigating how our cultures might come to use networked digital resources to change the way we understand, build, and inhabit cities.

“The modern city is built not just upon physical infrastructure, but also patterns and flows of information that are always growing and transforming. We are only now beginning to develop the tools that allow us to see these patterns of information over huge spans of time and space, or in any local context in realtime.

Just as the industrial age transformed cities with the addition of towers to the skyline and far-reaching transit networks, the digital age will bring new urban-scale infrastructure into  everyday experience.  Where the products of industrial urban evolution were huge physical manifestations that celebrated the magnitude of urban culture, the digital era is instead producing equally impressive manifestations that live in the cloud.”

For more information on VURB, visit .

By Juha — Posted September 6, 2009 — 4,152 Comments

New article in Metropolis M: Ubiquitous museum

Crisis in Darfur, a mapping initiative by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

Crisis in Darfur, a mapping initiative by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

According to Wikipedia, the term ‘ubiquitous computing’ dates from 1988 and was first used by the American, Mark Weisner, when he was chief technologist at Xerox’s legendary Palo Alto Research Center. Ubiquitous computing refers to the omnipresence of the computer, a phenomenon now moved well beyond the desktop and fully incorporated into our portable functional objects. The best-known example is probably the iPhone, which has revolutionized the cellular telephone, altering it into a convenient little computer capable of ‘doing everything’. We can also think of the onboard automobile computers that keep track of tire pressure, fuel levels and the routes being driven. Computers that tell us what we should purchase have, of course, been a reality for some time (such as the Tamagotchi electronic pets, dating from 1996). We are, however, not so far advanced that we use our iPhones to communicate with our refrigerators, let alone our stomachs (something that those who call themselves transhumanists are all too happy to predict).

What we increasingly understand, however, is how we can make use of this technological development to make our collective heritage more visible and accessible. A few years ago, in the United States, the Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) in Washington began employing Google Earth and Google Maps to better inform their visitors of the history of the Holocaust and chart current-day threats of genocide, such as in Darfur, in Sudan. On the museum’s website, you can look through the lens of the museum as you travel Google Earth for an overview of international crisis spots. This project moreover came about in collaboration with the United Nations, Amnesty International and the international photography associations, making it more topical and up to date.

Another example of an institution using the Internet to reach beyond its walls is the Prado, in Madrid. The Prado also uses Google Earth as an instrument, but in contrast to the Holocaust Museum, it does not use the museum to zoom in on the world, but uses the world to zoom in on the museum. Google Earth is making it possible to look at works by Velazquez, Rubens and Rembrandt at a resolution of 4 billion pixels, or 14,000 MB (!), and to zoom in on details of masterpieces in ways that would never be possible in the museum itself.

In Amsterdam, a group of software developers have spent several months working with Narb, an iPhone application that allows museum visitors to take photographs and provide commentaries to the works they are viewing. This can then be shared via different social networks. It is relatively simple to create a personal route for yourself, or for someone else, and to share and compare it with friends and strangers. The advantages for the museums are manifold: works of art move beyond the walls of the institution, in more personal contexts, and are coupled with other works from different museums (not just locally or nationally, but soon, also internationally). A less evident, but socially and economically very interesting and pertinent advantage of this is that Narb allows museum visitors to express their own opinions about the works of art. The ‘app’ was introduced at the recent Rotterdam Museum Night and is now being further developed for a number of museums and art fairs. Its developers hope to be able to activate museums and involve them in the project, further enriching the database and making it more attractive for visitors and institutions alike.

These are only three examples of an expanding domain of new developments in the land of the museums. Each year, academics, developers and marketing experts meet at the Museums and the Web symposium in North America, to discuss the latest state of affairs, compare products and most of all, in the breaks between seminars and lectures, daydream about endless ‘museo-spheres’ with no walls, no opening hours and no entry fees.

This ubiquitous museum is coming ever closer. It will make it possible for museums, archival institutes and monuments to establish themselves as important links within the interwoven fabric of the Internet. A museum can be everywhere at all times, on your iPhone at the bus stop, in your hotel room in a foreign city, in that extra hour at home, sitting on your balcony. This is a world in which you can immerse yourself, an historical dimension that you can call on at will, a search engine with all the original documents that you could possibly ask for. It would be wonderful. For those who are horrified by the idea, who envision empty auditoriums, have no fear. This scenario is simply an extension of existing practice and will be found outside, around the museum, not in place of the museum. It offers alternative access to the ultimate encounter with the actual objects. It is a bit like the navigation system that assists you when you are driving a car. It could hardly be a bad move on the part of Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum if they were to appoint the former CEO of Tom Tom as their new Chairman of the Board of Trustees.

This article was published in Metropolis M of June/July 2009.

By Juha — Posted June 9, 2009 — 2,528 Comments

The ubiquitous museum. An interview with James Burke

Jame Burke at work in the Volkskrantgebouw, Amsterdam

Jame Burke at work in the Volkskrantgebouw, Amsterdam

Juha van ‘t Zelfde > Who are you and what do you do?

James Burke > Presently, Narb consists of Tijs Teulings and James Burke. I’m a former chef who became an interaction designer across a number of different fields. I’m mainly known as one of the guys behind the Roomware project and separately also a founding member of the P2P Foundation where i’m still an editor. Recently i’ve been involved with the push here in the Netherlands to open up government data, working with then Ministry of Internal Affairs. My daily freelance work is interaction design for web and physical spaces which is often for events. Tijs works as a freelance web developer and architect, founded portfolio service and is co-founder of the Roomware project which he and I started together with Robert Gaal. Tijs also runs his office as a co-working space under the moniker of Nomadz.

What is Narb?

If you Google “Narb”, you’ll find a description which says “Narb – People Filtered Art. Discover, discuss and collect art online”. We’re essentially an art discovery site with social features. We list exhibitions that are currently showing, much like any magazine or art listing site, but add tools for filtering and discussion to help people find new art that’s exciting and makes them want to get up off their ass and visit a gallery or museum. After they have found what they want to see, we give them a way to interact via comments, ratings and by letting them gather art pieces as virtual goods to form a collection. We also created an iPhone app, and a mobile website to allow for these kinds of interactions right in front of art itself at any gallery or museum. Leaving an exhibition, people can keep track of where they went, what they said and find out what other insightful people have also written about art works. Aside from what’s been mentioned, people can also submit venues and exhibitions for coverage, and take photographs via the iPhone app, which then get added to the exhibition they are in. But NARB is not just for visitors, it also offers some interesting new things for galleries and museums.

A big part of our mission is to make art more accessible. We built an API which helps cultural institutions to reuse and republish the information about the exhibitions they are hosting and the art they are presenting. We want to enable mashups of art (data), both useful and useless. One way we use the API ourselves is for helping create room-based interactions on screens inside art venues. The screens show live feedback as people add comments, upload images, add art pieces to their collections or rate art objects. Theoretically you could put a screen in each room of a museum or gallery and show feedback for only the works showing there. While tools like an API might not be for everyone, curators get a new toolset to tinker with, in respect to experimenting with public participation. For the less adventurous, or technically inclined curator or museum educator, we simply offer new insights into the experience of their visitors through direct feedback and nice colorful stats.

How was Narb received on the Rotterdam Museum Night?

Mixed. Significant downloads for the iPhone app and site visits, but commenting on art and collections was light. Less than we had hoped at least. Especially in relation to the visitor numbers. We have a lot of work ahead of us still.

What did you learn: what went well, what went wrong?

What went well for us was finally launching after working for the last 5 months building the prototype. It was really important to just get going in a big way. So we got quite a lot of new users and lots of great reactions from people who love the concept. Downsides were that commenting, rating and collecting got light usage. Here are a few theories as to why this might be so.

The user experience
Our user experience was probably not good enough. Perhaps people could not find how to comment or rate art easily enough. Equally they might not have understood what the service was about at all.

The environment
15,000 people showed up, tickets were all pre-sold out, which means all venues were full to capacity. What does that do to your art experience? Perhaps the human density factor squashed out use of social media. People were clumped together, so, where in small gallery you would usually see one or two people it was like an art opening but with double the crowd. Not sure if there is a statistic that can be applied to crowd density but this should be a consideration. Noise. The atmosphere was often like a party rather than the quiet reflective space needed for opinion forming, although it should be stated, not everywhere.

We were presented as part of an art piece called RE:ID . We’re mates with the artist and helped him with his set-up for museum night. Our service was mentioned always in combination with RE:ID which might have been confusing to visitors. The same on the website. On the mobile page, the museum night staff placed a mobile version of their website next to our applications. We were never hidden, so these are all small things. We also did not set up any public screens at the event so visitors maybe had less motivation to comment as they would not immediately see their feedback as a form of public presentation or performance amongst a group of friends.

All the things that failed to work as we had expected did also offer hints as to how to solve them though, so that’s what we’re trying to do in upcoming releases of the iPhone app and website.

What is your next step with Narb?

We’re in talks with several museums to cover their entire shown collection, so visitors will see more gentle reminders to add feedback at the venues themselves. We’re working on some new ways to get users off their seats and into galleries and museums. We also want to refine how to improve our experience for festivals as they are a different type of event where we think we only just dipped our feet in the water. At the same time the website and iPhone app need continued improvement. Follow the @narbme twitter stream which is where we officially declare new features and updates to our services.

Could you tell me something about Roomware?

Sure. Roomware was an idea that became something practical, a framework for interactive spaces. We wanted to bring the best of the web into physical spaces but we found it was hopelessly complicated to do back in 2006, so we built a simple server that handles the hard stuff of creating cool apps using wireless protocols like bluetooth, RFID and Wifi. You tell the roomware server what you want to use, for instance, add a bluetooth module. What it does then is detect all bluetooth devices in a space and publish these as an XML feed. This makes it easy for developers building an application that uses bluetooth to re-use the XML feed. You can find a few examples on the Roomware Project blog.

The server is totally open source and can be downloaded from our code repository. It’s a modular structure which presently is in need of some care and developers. At this time of writing we support Bluetooth and RFID. We also support zoning, meaning you can run multiple Roomware servers across multiple locations which lets you get really specific with what’s going on where.

The seeds for doing something with Roomware were probably sown when I used to be a chef at the original Supperclub in Amsterdam where you were a chef but also a kind of artist or active participant. It was 1998-2000 which was the period when mobile phones started appearing. While crazily and passionately cooking there , I started thinking about what kind of participative experiences could be made if the phones of people we all connected in some way and able to control shit in general or form something in a theatrical storyline. I was playing around with microphones at that time, recording what people were saying, as I had a computer in the kitchen and then replaying overhead conversations back through the main speakers. This proved lame mainly as I was too busy cooking to really dig into creating something worthwhile. It ended with me more or less only cooking, while friends asked into kitchen were playing music and recording dumb samples of the cooking instruments and integrating these into the performance.

What can be the role of new media in physical space?

Err.. thanks for asking that annoying question as it’s one of those massive wide open ones that can fill a whole book. There are a couple of them already well written that address this question with withering insight, for instance, Everyware by Adam Greenfield and Shaping Things by Bruce Sterling. Recommended reading for those of you with passing knowledge of this space; or better, required reading.

Just apply what ubiquitous computing can mean to every area of life. To the home, to work, to museum spaces. If it’s the latter, in line with this interview, then think about what you can do with augmented realitycustom electronics and Roomware-like services bringing objects with all their magical spimeyness at microscopic and global view into play. Think about what’s possible if you were to use some of these tools to power new forms of participatory art and cultural expression. It’s about new ways of interacting with computers, not beige box computers but all-knowing hidden-in-the-wall led-light-studded computing modules that can be scary and dangerous but exciting too.

The role of these new-fangled media if you will is to make our lives a bit easier without being annoying or scary.

Thank you James.

This interview was conducted via e-mail on 23 March 2009. Disclaimer: the interviewer is a member of the advisory board of Roomware project and Narb. Both Roomware project and Narb will be deployed in De Verdieping.

By Juha — Posted March 24, 2009 — 90 Comments