City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

Sensing the immaterial-material city

Written in


Drawing RFID, wifi, street markings, and painting the network

Timo Arnall and Jack Schulze’s research piece Immaterials is quite lovely, exploring the otherwise invisible multi-sensory and spatial qualities of RFID in terms of its readable volume, captured with a simple LED/sensor and camera. (This piece posted on 12th October 2009.)

Here’s their film, in which they explain more:

As well as the conceptual backdrop, outlined in more detail by both Timo and Jack, I particularly like the care and attention they’ve given to the visualisation, and the presentation of the research. This is quality design, involving physical and film-based prototyping.

Timo’s image of a physical RFID probe

It’s perhaps drawing a long bow, but in their emerging work I even see something of the early experiments of, say, Benjamin Franklin and Nikola Tesla in terms of understanding the behaviour of electricity, such that it can then be tamed, conducted, and put to work. It’s perhaps drawing a long bow to make that comparison, but it feels like a similar sentiment. Whilst electricity is hardly invisible, there is a sense of trying to understand such immaterial phenomena through prototyping and experimentation. (And again, while some would see that as the province of science, it’s also the contemporary purpose of design.)

In this particularly fine image, we see Tesla’s friend Mark Twain conducting high-frequency high voltage current, bringing a lamp to incandesce. Tesla is lurking in the background.

Part of the purpose behind Immaterials is to understand more about RFID in terms of an emerging “material knowledge”, as Timo put it, from the designer’s perspective. But perhaps also in order to raise awareness of a technology which is essentially invisible — and often feared — such that we can better understand it, and so make informed choices.

It’s similar to my own sketchier work exploring the shape of the wi-fi at the State Library of Queensland — if you could perceive the phenomenon of wireless internet as a physical space, what might it look like? (It’d be more interesting to ask what it feels like, actually.)

Despite the fact that it suggests the already massively overused term “making the invisible visible”, I’m particularly interested in tapping into the content in such transactions, as well as their materiality/immateriality, as a way of understanding patterns of behaviour in what I’m calling the New Soft City.

Closing the loop then means finding a way of exhibiting these invisible phenomena back in physical space. In an email exchange with Jack last night, I suggested that we might see such blooms or halos sparking as transit card-carrying passengers walk through ticket barriers in subway stations (I’m currently working on informatics for a subway project; it was front-of-mind). Jack had already put it thus:

Having produced these visualisations, I now find myself mapping imaginary shapes to the radio enabled objects around me. I see the yellow Oyster readers with plumes of LED fluoro-green fungal blossoms hanging over them — and my Oyster card jumping between them, like a digital bee cross-pollinating with data as I travel the city.

As well as the wi-fi research, I’ve also been fascinated by capturing existing everyday examples of how the city assesses invisible or hidden characteristics of its infrastructure.

I’ve been taking photos of people who appear to be sensing the city — in the broadest, er, sense of the phrase. The following shots are from Sydney and Los Angeles, and indicate the more quotidian, prosaic activities involved in instrumenting and monitoring the city — from surveyors to telecoms operators, from vans counting passing traffic to guys probing underground pipes, from markings on streets indicating what’s underneath to this peculiar footage of what looks like someone using a sonovac but is probably just a device checking for cables.

I’ve created a public group at Flickr called Sensing the City, so if you have similar photos, do add them there. I’d be interested to see what turns up.

While it’s a very different sensibility and approach to the aforementioned explorations of radio frequencies — it’s often a very material city, rather than immaterial; just hidden — in the context of discussions around instrumenting the fabric of our cities via urban informatics it’s interesting to consider how much of this already occurs on our streets. And despite being marked by traffic cones and fluorescent work jackets it’s become an invisible activity, somewhat ironically, for passers-by. These people are sensors.

Originally published at on 13th October 2009.


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