Thursday, November 22, 2007



" In the United States, Thanksgiving or Thanksgiving Day is an annual one-day holiday to give thanks, traditionally to God, for the things one has at the end of the harvest season."



I've just celebrated Thanksgiving for the first time in my life. The day started early at 6.30 am when the alarm clock ringed in vain to wake up us, who partied until late the previous night going then to bed with the utopian intent to join the infamous Macy's Parade in the streets of Manhattan. We had to wake up very early in order to get good seats at the event, but obviously we couldn't make it and we have slept until 9.00am.

Once awaken, we met our two Friends Amy and Beth passing then the whole day in their lovely company, eating the awesome turkey and breathing a familiar atmosphere.


The Macy's parade turned out to be an outdoor Broadway style show with choreographies and huge balloons floating around. Everything was in the name of Macy's department store, which was highlighted even more than"Thanksgiving" ! just look at the logo of the event:

I've never seen anything like this in Italy, no department store has the power and the courage to really conquer the name of an holiday! Needless to say during the tv broadcasting of the event there were commercials which carefully instructed the audience on the gifts to buy in the upcoming Christmas and about the opportunity to start immediately shopping at 4 am to save time!

the name of the parade should be "Thanks for giving", right Macy's?


Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Major Studio Interface : hexagonBrush postmortem



This paper is a synthesis of the design research addressing the theme of “Instruction sets for strangers” which had as result a site specific tool named hexagonBrush. It has been designed to encourage and enable playful collaboration between strangers aimed towards the recovery of a urban public space as a medium of free communication. The research and development of this concept is outlined.


The project started from the observation and documentation, over a period of twenty four hours, of the activities and interactions occurred in Union Square, a very famous and populated plaza located between 14th and 17th street at their intersection with University place, Broadway and 4th avenue in New York City.
This video shows the outcome of these observations

Based on this documentation, along with the live analysis of the space, a design strategy ,which had as foundations the core concepts of play, collaboration between strangers, creativity, communication and augmenting physical space, was outlined. It then led to the creation of five different interface proposals.

1.1 Concepts

The first of the five design proposals initially prototyped was Musical Swing, a musical interface embedded in a swing located in the north west children playground area. While children could still use it as a classical swing, a musical layer was added to the traditional swinging interaction allowing kids to produce musical notes on the fly based on their swinging movements. In our vision this could trigger an unconscious collaboration between children towards the creation of unplanned, unwilled musical patterns.

The second and third prototypes named respectively Imaginary Fountain and Text Fountain dealt with the “augmenting physical space” core concept trying to open up a virtual window on the concrete made base of George Washington statue located in the middle of Union Square south. The statue pedestal is actually like a wall tall approximately three meters which blocks the vision from one side of the central area of the square to the other and vice versa; the two designs take into account this problem and try to solve it to opening a window made of virtual water or flowing text onto the concrete. This prototype was also partly motivated by the fact that Union Square lacks a real fountain, and usually fountains are a very powerful meeting site in the economy of a public space.

The fourth idea proposed was the Conveyor Belt Screen, an interface designed to visualize textual and graphical information flowing around the square floor exploiting and digitally empowering an existing architectural feature of the plaza: a series of wide stones arranged as an half ellipse running from the west side to the opposite side of the square as an ideal belt. This vast and unusual space has been already used to visualize some text and graphics in form of stone and bronze engravings but its transformation into a digital array of networked screens could really boost up its communication power, possibly not in the direction of advertisement, a visual and perceptual plague in NYC panorama.

The last interface proposal is the “Union Square brush” which soon became the hexagonBrush, the prototype that was chosen to be the final idea to further work on as it was the only one, among the other four, which comprised all the aspects of the core ideas of the design strategy.
It was designed to be a tool to promote and empower playful collaboration between strangers aimed towards the recapture of Union Square as a communication space. Basically the interface is composed by three main parts: an hexagon shaped brush, a bucket containing some non permanent pigment and a visual reference which strangers can use to plan their drawings before applying them onto the floor. The idea was inspired by a random observation at the style of Union Square floor tiling.

A detail of Union Square hexagonal tiles

These hexagonal tiles are very peculiar to NYC parks as they are used to accommodate tree roots growth under the ground and Union Square really uses them also to delimit the range of its own spatial domain as they are spread on more than 80% of the square total area but absent in the areas located out of the plaza limits. I wanted to exploit this feature as I immediately saw a strong connection between the concept of tile on a physical surface and the idea of pixel on a virtual surface. As digital tools allow to draw using arrays of picture elements the hexagonBrush tool gives the user the power to fill up with one effortless movement one tile at time allowing him to create huge non permanent drawings on the square surface, enjoyable and readable even from large distances such as from the top of a building facing the square.
These five design proposals were motivated and deeply grounded on top of the design strategy core ideas.
This video documents all the five prototypes:

1.2 Methodology

I would like to point out the motivations that generated the core concepts of the design strategy:
the play and communication ideas emerge from the analysis of the square very architecture, which turned out to be strongly related to that of a stage for performances in fact, throughout the day, a variety of performers use the plaza to express their arts and skills especially in the southern part facing 14th street: musicians, actors, skateboarders, photographers can easily be found there. Another hint that support these two core ideas is that the curved shape of that particular portion of the square together with the tall buildings which surround it all around make it resemble a modern version of the ancient Greek theatres, where the audience was arranged in semi-circles on upper and upper levels and the actors played in the lowest level.
The motivations of the remaining three core ideas lay in Union Square history. In the past it has always been a place where people could go and express themselves without many limitations, but now, besides performers and traders, it’s very difficult to find strangers who freely use the square as a medium of communication. This is caused by the more and more severe restrictions that regulate the behaviours and activities that take place in the square: for example anyone drawing with a chalk on the ground can be theoretically considered and punished as a graffiti writer.

These are the fundamental motivations the core ideas were generated from but besides them it’s important to mention two precedents design project which strongly influenced my research:
the Bikes against Bush project by Joshua Kinberg and the Graffiti Writer by the Institute for Applied Autonomy; the first project sees a wireless Internet enabled bicycle outfitted with a custom-designed printing device which can print text messages sent from web users directly onto the streets of Manhattan in water-soluble chalk. While the implementation is somewhat similar to the hexagonBrush, as they both use chalk to draw visual messages onto the floor, the motivations of Bikes against Bush are explicitly directed towards politics and activism and this marks a profound difference between the two designs.

The Graffiti Writer interface is composed by a remote controlled programmable robot equipped with a custom built array of spray cans to write linear text messages on the ground. Here both the motivations and the implementation of the project are far from those of hexagonBrush in fact instead of chalk the Graffiti Writer uses paint and interface was designed to allow and test remote defacement and vandalism.

From a technical point of view the following prototyping stages were quite simple but it’s useful to explore more in depth the technology which permitted to create the powerful “Digitally assisted reference” solution part of the second hexagonBrush prototype. The name of the environment is Processing, it wraps around the Java programming language making it a perfect rapid prototyping tool. It allowed me to easily create the application who takes an image as the input and translate it into an hexagon map extremely useful as a reference to draw complex visuals.


The hexagonBrush prototype passed through two iterations, during the first one the efforts were focused on the building of the physical tool. Initially the dimensions of one hexagon tile were taken and then transposed on paper to be used as a reference to make the point of the brush out of a thick yellow 3M sponge and cheap pine wood; a wooden pole was then attached to the hexagonal point as an handle. I wanted the tool to be cheap, robust but still light and enjoyable with a fun aesthetic, as it had just jumped out of a comic book. Other two elements were chosen be part of the interface: A transparent plastic bucket was used in order to carry the pigment and some paper sheets printed with a hexagonal pattern identical to that used to lay down Union Square tiles. This last element played a major role in the prototyping economy as enabled the users to plan and collectively organize their drawings before rendering them on the floor.

Assembling the hexagonal brush

The first prototype was tested in Union Square during a pleasant sunny day in the ending of September, this video documents the results of this initial prototyping phase:

The results of this first intervention were astonishing as many design flaws and consequent improvements emerged explicitly from the abundant interactions. First of all the problem of the initial interaction was highlighted: who starts the first interaction with a strange looking object left alone in a public space? I resolved this issue starting it on my own without using any sign or text to explain what I was doing, then more and more people became curious about my activity and started to come closer and closer suddenly approaching me asking for more information and finishing to use the tool on their own. Many other issues and opportunities of improvement , which later led to the second prototype iteration, emerged from people interactions:

Empowered mobility: It was observed that people tend to move from place to place if their drawing is very big or to find an appropriate spot.

Enable simultaneous drawings: The ideal setup would be having two brushes so simultaneous collaboration can be achieved.

Add Colors as they supply another layer of expression and are a very powerful communication tool.

Liquid instead of powder: Mixing a bit of water to powder would improve the printing detail of the brush on the tile avoiding the chalk to fly away.

Make it tougher but still light and fun: People enjoyed the playful look of the interface, but they also broke it, so we have to reinforce it while refining its aesthetic.

A very powerful and not totally expected interaction pattern emerged as people jumped on the brush, resulting in both more fun and more chalk left on the tile.

Enable the rotation of the brush: This feature was not planned in the beginning but came after one strong interaction by a young kid who started jumping on the brush. The screw that was keeping the brush attached to the pole got loose allowing the brush to rotate. This enriched the output allowing to trace big circles standing fixed as a pivot point and rolling the brush around.

Digitally assisted reference: What if a user wants to make a complex drawing but it's not skilled enough? He can use a digital reference output by an application which takes an input image and translate it into an hexagons made version of it.

The second prototype iteration was built on top of these insights, not all the changes and improvements were applied but enough to take the interface on an higher level of both interaction and building quality.
Battery Park was chosen as the location of the second prototyping round because of a problem arisen during the first prototype iteration in Union Square when the park supervisor blocked the intervention considering it graffiti and defacement menacing to emit a fine; this video shows the results of the second iteration:

The changes applied to the first prototype were more successful than expected, first of all the fact of adding water to the chalk highly increased both the precision and the overall look and feel of the tool, taking away the effort to leave the pigment on the ground, adding also a felt tip pen feeling to it.
The second major improvement of adding a mobile bucket really eased the whole drawing process as the user could move around, look at the drawing from different positions without having to search for the bucket to refill the brush with the pigment.

Finally the digitally assisted reference made available to everyone the opportunity to create huge, complex drawings transforming the brush in a real powerful communication tool.


Considering the initial motivations the project was successful. Strangers were, even from the first early prototype stage, very attracted and fascinated by the tool both from its aesthetic qualities and expecially from the power it gave to them.


Above all I consider particularly striking the tension that exist between people desire to express themselves in public spaces and the implicit and explicit rules that deny them to. I find this project appropriate both for the physical context where it has been designed to be used into and for the metaphorical context of New York City, an environment built on top of two cardinal concepts: freedom and communication.
A tool like this can seem to be very limited but in my vision it has the power to make people open their eyes on the current status of their freedom of expression and how it could be wonderfully mixed with that of the others to collectively shape the communication environment we all live in.

Digitally assisted reference output


Thursday, November 15, 2007

Guantanamo Camp Delta Standard Operative Procedures


I've just found out that Wikileaks has released a non classified but reserved operative manual about Camp Delta policies towards camp management.

I find it an extremely interesting text to explore from many point of view, but tonight I started looking at it from the data visualization perspective:

the document contains 238 pages and is very dense, it would have taken days to me to cover it all, but thanks to Python I started building an application which analyze the text looking for words, choose some of them and then visualize them in a synthetic map built with Nodebox.

I found this a quite powerful process, I will go more in depth, stay tuned for the results!


Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Major Studio Interface : final project proposal --- soundFishing



My final project for the Major Studio Interface will be a portable tool to capture sounds from the environment based on certain logics; I like to call it soundFishing.


What brought this idea to life is both the combination of my curiosity and the environment where I’m currently living in; I’m deeply fascinated about the everyday sounds that surround us and the fact that usually we don’t care about them strikes me. We are constantly immersed in them and this condition denies us to perceive both their power and value.
I want to build a tool which helps to re-discover the value of these perceptions, an object able to analyze the sonic environment around us, filter it and collect precious data for us, out of our absolute control.

Domain of research

There are various research path connected to the soundFishing interface design synthesized by these key ideas:

Sounds as an intimate diary: the audio captured from the environment will be collected building up a sequence of the events happened during the user's everyday life flow.
This collection of events can then be easily related to the concept of a diary, a sonic diary.

Non conscious action: A fundamental difference lays between a traditional textual diary and this diary of sounds; usually the first is filled up consciously by the user who has the power to explicitly decide what and when write something into it. The sonic diary produced by the soundFishing interface instead will be composed unconsciously by the user who has just the power to set the basic logical rules that will control the capturing of the events to be recorded, but can not decide explicitly what and when to record. In my vision this loss of control on the tool can re-establish a sense of surprise and curiosity towards the everyday perception of hearing sounds.

Generative sampling - Automation: the soundFishing tool will be intimately procedural and algorithmic as the user will define a set of rules that will control the recording process, leaving then the interface working on its own without direct control.
The interface will act as an autonomous audio filtering agent who continuously listens to the environment for events to happen in order to start the sound capture.

This process can be linked to Lev Manovich concept of Automation:

"The numerical coding of media (principle 1) and the modular structure of a media object (principle 2) allow for the automation of many operations involved in media creation, manipulation and access. Thus human intentionality can, in part, be removed from the creative process."

" 'High Level' automation of media creation, which requires a computer to understand, to a certain degree, the meanings embedded in the objects being generated, that is, their semantics."

"The Internet, which can be thought of as one huge distributed media database, also crystallized the basic condition of the new information society: overabundance of information of all kinds. One response was an idea of software 'agents' designed to automate searching for relevant information. Some agents act as filters that deliver small amounts of information..."

instead of the Internet the soundFishing explores the sonic layer of our reality.

Multiplicity :
Generative processes leads to Multiplicity... I explain it better, mind the differences between these two statements:

"I want to record the sound of the police car siren that is passing now in the street."


"I want to record all the loud sounds I'm going to encounter today."

a huge difference exist between them as the first sentence leads to a simple but rather obvious result, on the contrary the second statement opens a door to many possible results giving the user a glimpse of the almost infinitely wide spectrum of possibilities that exists in our everyday life experience depicting a space of potential in the Mitchell Whitelaw perspective:

"Multiplicity here is a way to get a perceptual grasp on something quite abstract - that space of possibility. We get a visual "feel" for that space, but also a sense of its vastness, a sense of what lies beyond the visualisation."

"Multiplicity refers to the specific space of potential in any single system, by actualising a subset of points within it;"

Expanded Cinema - Sound sharing & mixing:
The audio captured by soundFishing can be valuable to the individual based on certain personal parameters, but what about its value related to other people? Why some people find sounds coming from the life of another person interesting or useful?

One input can come simply from curiosity, another because these sounds can be used to produced something else, a musical piece for example, or a video game sound effect or anything related to audio remixing and production.

In my vision the soundFishing output can be redirected into two different directions. The first can be a social network community as Youtube, but instead of video audio samples taken from the life of every user can be shared and mashed. Another direction can be one in the spirit of Expanded Cinema:

"Youngblood defines the technosphere as a symbiosis between man and machine. The computer liberates man from specialisation and amplifies intelligence (pp180-182). He draws comparisons between computer processing and human neural processing (pp183-184). Logic and intelligence is the brain's software. He predicts that computer software will become more important than hardware and that in the future super-computers will design ever more advanced computers (pp185-188). His vision of the future is the Aesthetic Machine: "Aesthetic application of technology is the only means of achieving new consciousness to match our environment" (p189). Creativity will be shared between man and machine."


"fm transposes non-metaphoric systems and grammar theory (of computer languages, abstraction and data containers) to the realm of expanded cinema. the base proposal concerns the development of a scripting language, data structures, and suitable filesystem for the automated production and grammatical expression of endless cinema."

By this perspective the soundFishing interface becomes an extension of the human ear and memory, allowing a more powerful perception of the sonic environment and a more durable memorization of sound in the form of digital samples.
These samples can then feed another generative system which can assemble them algorithmically to produce new and unexpected sonic experiences.

Design Issues

"The Data Avalanche

Another important consequence of having a computer with us all the time is the ease with
which information can be gathered. Data can be ‘beamed’ to us from nearby electronic devices or from the PDAs of other people we encounter, where and when we encounter them. And since the PDA is itself active, it can be commanded to pick up information automatically, as data become available, without the need to issue explicit instructions each time. The range of data we might profitably gather automatically is enormous: receipts from sales transactions, telephone numbers dialled, even overheads from presentations we attend. These are all things we might ask our PDA to capture, just in case the information might be useful someday. But there is an obvious snag.

Information overload is already a familiar problem we all have to contend with. When
these extra data start flowing in, the task of organising them will become even more daunting. It is unlikely we will suddenly find the time or develop the inclination to index all of it. In any case, we often don’t know what information we have been given. For example, we often receive information that some person, or some system, thinks will be useful to us — we then find we can’t file it away because we have not read it, but nevertheless we are reluctant to throw it away, just in case it might be needed.

Much of this information snowstorm will be difficult for the computer to index automati-
cally on our behalf based simply on its content. For example, sketches, photographs and video
are notoriously difficult for computers to analyse. It looks like intimate computers, when used as automatic data gatherers, could make our lives much harder. If this is the prospect, then we still won’t be able to make good use of the information we encounter — and just won’t bother to collect it.

Context as a Retrieval Key

Fortunately, the very features of PDAs that contribute to information overload can also
come to the rescue. The user’s context can itself provide a valuable key for indexing information automatically. A detail from a past event in which the user was involved might be difficult to recall, the name of a document, for example. But the context of the event can be easier to remember. For example, we may be able to recall: the place where the document was received, the people present when it was handed over, or the task being carried out at the time."

Precedents, Resources

Brad Rhodes - 'Remembrance Agent'

Microsoft Research Cambridge - Sensecam

Mitchell Whitelaw - 'More is More: Multiplicity and Generative Art'

Lev Manovich - 'The Language of New Media'

Gene Youngblood - 'Expaned Cinema'

M. Lamming and M. Flynn, 1994 - 'Forget-me-not': Intimate Computing in Support of Human Memory. In Proceedings of FRIEND21, '94 International Symposium on Next Generation Human Interface, Meguro Gajoen, Japan.


Monday, November 5, 2007

hexagonBrush: second iteration video


Here's the video we could not show today in class because of "DA TIMEKEEPA" problem...

It shows the hexagonBrush interactions occurred in Battery Park City and Battery Park on November 4th 2007.

enjoy it ;)

Sunday, November 4, 2007

George W. Brush!


here are some drawing references for the upcoming hexagonBrush second prototype and interventions.