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ITP New York NYU Physical Computing

Physical Computing: Week 2 Observation Assignment

Here are my notes from my observation assignment from week 2 of Intro to Physical Computing at ITP.

Observation Assignment

The goal of this assignment is to develop the habit of detailed observation of what people physically do when they use the kinds of technologies we’re developing. In order to develop good physical interfaces, you need to know how people use existing ones. Do learn this, it helps to observe carefully, and to limit your assumptions as to what the person’s intentions are while you’re observing.

Counting Daily Uses

To begin with, take a one-hour hour walk or ride around the city. Try to travel as far as you can from your start and get back in an hour, this will give more variety. Take note of every time you see a person using a digital device. This could be anything from buying and using a Metrocard on the subway to playing video games in an arcade to making cell phone calls to using an ATM to swiping an ID at the gym. With each action you note, take note of:

* location and time of day
* apparent intent of the actor
* time taken for the action
* number of people involved
* motor skills needed (hands, legs, seeing, hearing, etc)

Collect your notes on your blog. Do this in pairs, with one person observing and the other keeping notes. Alternate roles as well.

The goal of this stage is to notice how many everyday technology interactions we experience that we’re largely unconscious of, and what it takes to do them. In many cases, the success of these transactions depends on the lack of attention we have to pay to completing them. The goal of most of these moments is not to use a technology, but to reach some other goal.

We chose to walk around Greenwich Village, in the immediate vicinity of NYU.  We noticed that the overwhelming majority of human-technology interactions we observed on the streets of NY involved mobile devices (cellphones, iPhones, Blackberries) and portable music players (iPods, CD players, etc).  We also observed a large degree of multitasking: people listening to music or talking/texting on their phones while walking/cycling down the street, a process that involves quite a bit of coordination between the senses and human motor functions.  For listening to music while walking the streets of NY, the intended purpose seems to be escape – a way of isolating oneself from the excess of sensory stimuli.  However, for people on their cellphones, the intended purpose seems to be connection with others, even when alone in the streets.  Technology thus allows us to be both isolated and alone (with headphones and iPod) or hyperconnected to others we know (cellphones) when we are in public space.  Headphones and portable music players act as an invisible wall that shields us from others, while cellphones and their ilk act as extensions of our voices and ears that allow us to reach out to those not in our physical vicinity.  This projection of the senses is both freeing and constricting.  By being able to multitask, for example, taking a walk and talking on your phone, one is freed from the physical constraints of having to be face to face to communicate with others.  But at the same time, the tether of social cohesion and pressures is extended.  One is not really “away” if one is reachable by cellphone or Blackberry.  Herein lies the paradox of technology – we are simultaneously liberated and constrained by it.

Well, enough holding forth for me.  Click below to read the raw data we collected.

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ITP NYU Physical Computing

Response to Crawford’s The Art of Interactive Design (Chapters 1 & 2)

This is my response to chapters 1 & 2 of Chris Crawford’s The Art of Interactive Design, the reading assignment for week 1 of Physical Computing at ITP.

Interactivity is a fuzz term that is hard to define.  Crawford says that “the term interactivity is overused and underunderstood.”  As a buzzword, it has been applied to things as absurd as a rug for children and even shampoo!  Many things/activities claiming to be interactive are really not.

While he does not claim to have the final definition of interactivity, Crawford does propose that interactivity be defined “in terms of a conversation: a cyclic process in which two actors alternately listen, think, and speak.”  If this is the case, then the ultimate interactive activity is direct human social interaction.  But other activities that humans engage in with objects

Participation is not interactivity.  Movies, plays, music and dance are for the most part, not interactive.

Also, Crawford says that interactivity is not a Boolean property, meaning it is not a binary either/or situation.  There are varying degrees of interactivity.

So maybe interactivity is like porn: controversial, misunderstood, difficult to define, but you know it when you see it.  Like porn, interactivity has varying degrees.  Softcore-Hardcore.  Low interactivity-High interactivity.

Perhaps the definition of interactivity itself should be interactive.  Ok, that’s pretentiously meta.  But if interactivity is such a virtue, then a conversation is essential to its definition and application.

So why bother with this interactivity stuff?

Crawford declares that “interactive communication is superior to conventional, one-way communication” and that “interactivity is the computer’s intrinsic competitive advantage.”

Interactivity is both old and new.  It is hardwired into mammalian animal behavior as well as a trait of modern computers.  Interactivity is a conversational process that helps humans/mammals learn through play.  So it is something that we (people/animals) have in common with computers.  So as computers get more interactive does it mean that they too are able to learn, and become more similar to humans/animals?

Crawford promotes interactivity as a new and exciting field for artists to explore.  He also quotes a Chinese proverb, “I hear and I forget; I see and I remember; I do and I understand.”  I have heard and seen the gospel of interactivity, now it is time for me to do before I truly understand.

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Applications ITP NYU

Group Presentation Notes from Applications of Interactive Telecommunications Technology with Red Burns

One of the required courses I have to take at ITP is Applications of Interactive Telecommunications Technology, taught by Red Burns, the founder and chair of the program.

Course description:

This introductory class is designed to allow students to engage in a critical dialogue with leaders drawn from the artistic, non-profit and commercial sectors of the new media field, and to learn the value of collaborative projects by undertaking group presentations in response to issues raised by the guest speakers. Interactive media projects and approaches to the design of new media applications are presented weekly; students are thus exposed to both commercial as well as mission-driven applications by the actual designers and creators of these innovative and experimental projects. By way of this process, all first year students will, for the first and only time in their ITP experience, be together in one room at one time, and will, as a community, encounter, and respond to, the challenges posed by the invited guests. The course at once provides an overview of current developments in this emerging field, and asks students to consider many questions about the state of the art. For example, with the new technologies and applications making their way into almost every phase of the economy and rooting themselves in our day to day lives, what can we learn from both the failures and successes? What are the impacts on our society? What is ubiquitous computing, embedded computing, physical computing? How is cyberspace merging with physical space? Class participation, group presentations, and a final paper are required.

We have guest speakers each week, and then the following week, a different group of students have to present their reaction to the speaker’s presentation.  The reaction can be almost anything – it’s very free form and open-ended.

Our group (group #1, lucky us) went today.  We were reacting to last week’s guest speaker, poet, artist, designer and all-around genius Vito Acconci.  He’s on Wikipedia too.

Our group decided to present our new ideas for reinventing public space, making it playful and multifunctional, much like our interpretation of Acconci’s work.  In our case, we chose Central Park.  The members of the team chose different sites in the park to reinvent.

Here are my adapted speech notes from the 2 reinvented sites that I presented:

The Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir

The reservoir was built between 1858 and 1862, based on the design for Central Park by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux. Olmsted is also known for designing Prospect Park in Brooklyn and the Mont Royal Park in Montreal, but more on Olmstead and Vaux later.

The reservoir covers 106 acres – 43 hectares (or 1/8th of the park’s total surface area). It is over 40 feet (12.2 meters) deep, and contains over 1 billion gallons (4 million cubic liters) of water.

Up until 1993, the reservoir was an active part of the City’s water supply system, and was used as a holding reservoir for distributing water to the City. In 1994, it was renamed after former first lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, who had a 5th avenue apartment overlooking the reservoir and enjoyed jogging around it.

Today, it serves a purely decorative function, with joggers and walkers who taking advantage of the 1.58 mile foot path (2.54 kilometers) around it.

But what about the water itself? That is a lot of “public” space that is inaccessible to the public.  So we decided to put some life into the reservoir:

We brought back some of Jackie’s relatives from the dead and reincarnated them as genetically-engineered robotic cyborg sea creatures. Meet Big Edie and Little Edie, Jackie’s aunt and first cousin.

They are the stars of Grey Gardens, a 1975 film that documents their isolated existence in their dilapidated Long Island mansion of the same name. The film made the Edies cult star sensations and gay icons.

And now they are immortal fixtures of the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis reservoir. They definitely add a more mischievous sense of fun, fabulousness and intrigue to the reservoir.

And here is Jackie herself. A sea creature of Central Park – Half octopus and half fashion icon. She is New York’s answer to Tokyo’s Godzilla and Scotland’s Nessie, the Loch Ness Monster.

Jackie is pretty in pink, so she color coordinates with the cherry blossoms that bloom around the perimeter of the reservoir in spring time. And she’s multifunctional too. She is a tame sea monster. You can ride Jackie. Visitors can get on her tentacles and she will transport you from one end of the reservoir to another. Thus reducing the travel time from one end of the Park to another, and uniting the aquatic space of the reservoir with the terrestrial space of the rest of the park.

The Sheep Meadow

The Sheep Meadow today is a 15-acre (6 hectare), lush, green meadow for relaxing and enjoying one of New York City’s great skyline views.

But the original concept behind the meadow was a little less pastoral. One of the conditions for entries in the 1858 Central Park design competition was the inclusion of a parade ground for military drills but park landscape was perhaps not the best place for military displays.  – and may perhaps too totalitarian according to our interpretation of Acconci’s parameters.

Frederick Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, who won the design competition, included the parade ground in their design only reluctantly. The Park Commissioners were soon won over to their point of view, however, agreeing that military use conflicted with the vision of a quiet and serene atmosphere.

To re-enforce the pastoral and bucolic nature of the “Green” as it was then called a flock of sheep was added in 1864. A sheepfold (a house for sheep) was built in 1870 and twice a day a shepherd would drive the animals to and from the meadow.

But in 1934, Robert Moses, the “master planner” of mid-20th century New York banished the sheep to Brooklyn’s Prospect Park and the sheepfold was converted into what is now the famous restaurant Tavern on the Green.

Solution:  Bring back the sheep.


Although the view from the Sheep Meadow is interesting, it can also get a little boring.  Many people sunbathe there in good weather, but sunbathing is bad for you.

There are a few sheep left in Central Park, but they are in the Central Park zoo’s petting area.  This area is small and sad.  Set the sheep free!

Also, many urbanites are alienated from their source of animal products.  They don’t really see or interact with their source of meat or animal fibers.

So the new Sheep Meadow with sheep will be multifunctional interactive.  There are many different ways that people interact with sheep.

We want it to be playful and not be too totalitarian in dictating its use.  It will be a real pasture and giant petting zoo.  But the sheep will also be raised for meat.  This will be organic, free range meat, with a low carbon footprint, suitable for even the most stringent of locavores.

The wool can be used to make clothing for the homeless in the winter time.

Children can play with their furry friends, and rich Uptown girls can frolic like in rustic setting without leaving the city, much like Marie Antoinette did at her faux-rural private estate on the grounds of Versailles.

After the presentation, a couple classmates suggested that I should make some t-shirts with Jackie on them.  Click on the image or here to customize and order your own Jackie O shirts.  Like the ITP shirt that I designed, I will donate the Zazzle royalties that I make to the ITP student social fund.

Group 1 Rocks!

BTW, I can’t draw good or nuthin’, but I sure had a lotta fun fotoshoppin’ tentaclez onto faces and stuff fo’ this project.  And yes, Squidbillies was a definite inspiration.

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ITP NYU Physical Computing

Physical Computing: Week 1 Lab

This is my documentation of my first week of Physical Computing at ITP.  What is physical computing?  According to the syllabus:

Physical Computing is an approach to learning how humans communicate through computers that starts by considering how humans express themselves physically. In this course, we take the human body as a given, and attempt to design computing applications within the limits of its expression.

To realize this goal, you’ll learn how a computer converts the changes in energy given off by our bodies (in the form of sound, light, motion, and other forms) into changing electronic signals that it can read interpret. You’ll learn about the sensors that do this, and about very simple computers called microcontrollers that read sensors and convert their output into data. Finally, you’ll learn how microcontrollers communicate with other computers.

Physical computing takes a hands-on approach, which means that you spend a lot of time building circuits, soldering, writing programs, building structures to hold sensors and controls, and figuring out how best to make all of these things relate to a person’s expression.

For me, physical computing means building things with wires, circuits, sensors, switches and microprocessors.  We are using Arduino microprocessors in class to control our creations.  Our lab this week involved building a simple digital input/output system that makes two LEDs alternately flash when you press the switch.

Besides a photosensor theremin that I built in high school based on some plans I got off the internet, I have never really done any physical computing stuff before, hence my perplexed look in the photo above.  I basically just set about recreating the plans in the lab instructions while familiarizing myself with working with the materials.  The color-coded wires really help.  Red is for power, black is for ground, and the light blue is for input/output signals.

Soldering was a little bit scary for me.  We were supposed to solder the switch to two of the light blue wires.  First, I wrapped the wires onto the switch, and then put everything in the helping hands.  Then I melted some solder onto the iron to coat it, and then put the soldering iron onto the connection along with a bit of solder and melted it all together.  It only took a couple seconds.  My soldering job was ugly, but nothing exploded and the project worked, so I guess practice will make perfect.

Reading the resistors was a little bit tricky.  Resistors have these little colored stripe patterns on them that tell you how many Ohms they are.  They all kind of looked the same to me.  I really had to squint to see the patterns.  And I just got my eyes checked, so I don’t need new glasses.  They are just really small!  Note to self:  I need to get a magnifying glass.

After I thought I had everything set up, the red light was flashing, but the yellow light didn’t do anything.  Careful inspection revealed that I had one end of the yellow LED plugged in the wrong whole.  Once again, a magnifying glass would have helped.  Anyway, finally it worked!

Here is my successful project:

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ICM ITP NYU

Intro to Computational Media Week 1 Assignment

Here is my first week’s assignment for my Intro to Computational Media class at ITP with Danny Rozin.  We are learning the Processing programming language.  The assignment was to create our own beautiful drawing with Processing using only 2D primitive shapes.

My drawing is a study of form, colors, and composition.  I used only circles, rectangles/squares and triangles.  I played with different degrees of color transparency (alpha) to layer shapes and colors.  As Scott McCloud pointed out in Understanding Comics (assigned reading in my Communications Lab class), circles/dots interact with the other random shapes to create eyes, faces, and breasts in the human mind, even in seemingly abstract drawings, which points to the anthro-centric hard-wiring of the human brain’s visual processing systems.

Click on the screenshot below to play with the interactive version.  Move your mouse around the drawing and see how it reacts.