etech08: Kati London on Exposing the APIs of invisible things

The reason for my presence at etech08 this year was the “art fest” that i set up with the super nice and super smart Kati London, an itp graduate who currently works as a senior producer at area/code in New York and as an artist responsible for projects such as Botanicalls Twitter DIY and You Are Not Here.

Brady Forrest had the idea to organize this first ETech Emerging Arts Fest and we are infinitely grateful to him. We had our friendly debates and doubts but he is the first person who listened to our complains that artists should be given a voice in all those big technology conferences. The theme of the event was “Awareness” and we selected works that bridged the gap between perception and understanding. In retrospect i realize that Brady selected the geekiest pieces, Kati (who actually did most of the work) chose the playful ones and i went for information visualization.

Kati and i invited Brooke Singer to join us for a panel which attempted to illustrate the whole idea of awareness to the conference attendees. Because i’m never really interested in writing about my own presentations and because i’ve covered the work of Brooke several times (and will keep on doing so in the future), i’ll just focus on Kati’s talk.

She gave me the authorization to publish her slides so here they are:

And here the notes i took while she was talking:

She compared artists to hackers, they are the one giving the one finger salute to mainstream technology, they have ideas, go against the grain and keep on pushing their own inspiration forward no matter the resistance.

Today, we have more and more tools which empower people: OS hardware and software, library, there’s also a revival of the DIY culture, Arduino and Processing are increasingly successful, etc. Suddenly being creative with technology becomes possible for a larger number of people. How does this spirit translate when we think about “awareness”?

Kati then focused on several projects which, according to her, best embody the idea of awareness.

1. Invisible: Waste processes

drinkpeedrinkpeedrinkpee, by Rebecca Bray and Britta Riley, includes an installation and a diy kit for turning your pee into fertilizer for houseplants.


What happens when we think of our bodies as their own ecosystems? Are they open or closed ecosystems? Where do we draw the boundaries? Before we take medication, do we ask ourselves how it will affect our internal organs, our friendly bacteria? What is our medication’s future, beyond our bodies, in the sewage system and out in the waterways we swim in and eventually drink? What are the possible futures of our personal waste? What do sentient ecosystems eat and drink?

Human urine is actually sterile (unlike faeces, it is bacteria-free) and it can be a rich food source if it gets into the right part of the right ecosystem. Now, most human urine travels untreated into the waterways and is a significant cause of eutrophication, a toxic condition caused by harmful algae blooms, in the oceans. The excess nitrogen and phosphorus in our urine overfeeds algae and suffocates fish.

However, a biological waste treatment process developed at EAWAG Aquatic Research in Switzerland can extract this phosphorus & nitrogen for use as a fertilizer, leaving the rest of urine almost harmless to aquatic life. This kit gives users the opportunity to replicate the technique at home and fertilize their plants with their own pee.

Bioreactor to stabilize urine, photo Eawag

The installation will be on view and the DIY kits will be available at the exhibition FEEDBACK at Eyebeam, March 13 – April 19, 2008.

2. Invisible: Animal Behavior Patterns

Joshua Klein built a vending machine that teaches crows to deposit coins in exchange for peanuts. Crows are surprisingly (for me) intelligent. Their brain/body weight ratios are similar to chimpanzees. Look at the image below, seagulls don’t get the vending machines but those smart little crows seem to understand that there’s something worth their attention there.


Once he has fine-tuned the vending machine training, his plan is to train crows for search and rescue, picking up trash, and other mutually beneficial tasks (via boing boing). The machine is only the first step in his quest for “interspecies harmony.”

3. Invisible: Social Connections

0aagenerativsocail.jpgGenerative Social Networking, by Andrew Schneider and Christian Croft, uncovers the dark sides of social networks by exposing their vulnerability. The software uses bluesnarfing to open the mobile phonebooks of people using security loophole-laden Bluetooth devices. This phonebook data is then fed through the GSN System. Unbeknownst to the phone owner, the device betrays its list of phone numbers to a laptop. An Asterisk phone server will then generate a “conversation” with each number in the list. The first number on the list is called and receiver’s response recorded. The next number on the list is called, the first number’s initial response is played back to the new number, and the new number’s response to the old number’s prompt is recorded. This continues for however many phone numbers are in the contact list.

More fun with the video.

W. James Au at etech08: Why Won’t Second Life Just Go Away, Already?

0ajameswau.jpgMore etech08 talks with W. James Au’s take onWhy Won’t Second Life Just Go Away, Already? Understanding Web 2.0’s Most Misunderstood Phenomenon

Throughout 2007, publications like Wired, Forbes, and the LA Times pronounced Second Life over-hyped, while negative press over Ponzi schemes, porn, etc. suggested imminent disaster. Meanwhile, the world’s user base tripled (both in terms of monthly active and maximum concurrent users), and continues attracting about a half million new sign-ups a month. How can this possibly be happening?

W. James Au is the author of the recently published The Making of Second Life (amazon usa and uk), online games editor at, and lives as an embedded journalist inside Second Life on New World Notes. In his blog he takes the position of some kind of archivist conducting ethnographic research of everyday practices and life in this emerging world..


Second Life… “What was it again?” (James Au’s PPT slides)

After the year 2006 where SL was on everyone’s lips, that was the year i interviewed W. James Au. I actually never really got into SL. I found its aesthetic repulsive but i never stopped finding fascinating pieces of information about what SL was revealing about our society and how it is also contributing to its current shape in James’ New World Notes. I was probably not the only person at etech who cultivates some curiosity for the synthetic world. The room was as packed as possible and the doors were left open to allow people crammed in the corridor to listen to the talk.

In Spring 2006, SL made the cover of Business Week. It’s Anshe Chung – the “virtual Trump” – who got the cover. The avatar has built a development from nothing and quickly turned it into an operation of 17 people.

A mini boom followed as many other articles followed Business Week enthusiasm. That’s when companies started to knock on the door of Linden Lab with requests to be allowed to get in. Linden Lab resisted for a long time but they changed their policy and allowed companies to buy land like any other user.

These companies would start opening shops to display and sell their stuff to avatar. One of the first company who joined SL was American Apparel. But their efforts were quite useless as the online shops was empty most of the time, most players were just ignoring it. James draw a comparison between this empty shop and the scarcely visited homepage of McDonald’s in 1996. The pattern is similar, loads of modern is thrown to join the hype but with very little effect.

James went on by comparing shops selling cars. It appears that a kid who had opened his own shop and made it more appealing with hot babes and rap music was selling way more cars than Nissan who had just opened a shop which didn’t looked much more than a giant vending machine.

Anyway, in 2007 the backlash started to hit hard:
Second Life: It’s so popular, no one goes there any more.

The truth lies probably somewhere between the utopia described in the previous paragraphs and the disaster scenarios that would mushroom in 2007.

The first backlash arrived with a blog entry from Clay Shirky.

He was right and soon magazines such as Wired, LA Times, Forbes and many others were reporting failure of commercial ventures in SL.

A company called Yankee Group released figures that claim that user’s activity had dropped to 12 minutes per month. However the company was unable to sustain these figures when asked to do so.

While backlash stories kept coming in, the active user base has tripled in the space of a year.

Image by Paul Decelles

TV series like CSI and The Office featured SL in one of their episodes. CSI proposed a feature where the story would continue inside SL. However neither of these TV appearances have contributed much to the overall growth of SL. It’s not the media that drives long term activities.

Image Just Jared

SL keeps on attracting innovation and major companies continue to invest heavily in SL, not just for marketing but also for practical applications:

Interactive demo of the future Cisco Connected Health hospital campus, Palomar West due to open in San Diego, California, in 2011. Video:

IBM uses SL as a platform to design prototypes (3D data center) using OpenSimulator, OS version of SL, reverse engineering project.

Image New World Notes

Greenies, a ’50s style crazy room filled with tiny green aliens attracted the attention of L’Oreal Paris which started to advertise there by placing Copies of their products inside the funhouse. Corporations have learned their lesson and now adjust to what users want.

Corporation presence per se is not as important as one might think. Companies own a total of 2000 islands, that’s 15% of the private-owned island which means that corporation presence on the total land mass amounts to less than 5%.

3 principles that make SL keep thriving (so far):

1. Mirrored flourishing – “What you do here should make you better out there”

This principle has been part of the community since its origins
Catherine Omega built a mansion on SL while she was homeless. She was squatting an apartment inhabited by drug addicts and somehow managed to get an internet connection in her place. SL was her portal into a better world. Because of her talent people started coming to her to help them build their house and that’s how she started to make a real income. Today she is a SL consultant for companies.

The activities you do in SL can potentially improve your own life. Disabled people who have to stay home use SL to meet other people and get a social life.

SL is a space that creates opportunities. Users own the IP right to the content they create on SL.

2. Bebop Reality – “The virtual world as a 3D jazz combo”

In SL furries coexist with hot babes, angels and robots and that’s not science-ficition. In the SL atmosphere, there are clashes and mergings of different races, species and tastes. You’ll find a space station next to a church next to a strip joint. Everyone is part of the same society.

3. Impression society – Whaddya got, and how long are you gonna stick with it?

In SL making an impression is about being cool, compelling, exciting. It is not about money but about how much creativity you can bring to the community.

Impression is also about how long you stay there and provide and that’s something that shows by the look of your avatar. A well-dressed avatar for example shows that its user cares for it, has been in the community long enough to polish the appearance of its character. Long-term activity is a prerequisite if you want to be cool in SL.

SL is a very frustrating experience at the beginning. There are neither rules nor guidelines, you have to make them up on your own. According to James Au the result is that SL is an international cutting edge creative space with high barriers to entry.

Kowloon: a Japanese studio 4 made a video game inside SL so that gamers can live inside the game. There’s actually a huge amount of content no one knows about. Some of the most active users are from Brazil and Japan.

Steampunks are an active community in SL and a rather large one with 30 to 35 000 active users.

Midian cities, role play inside SL giving its users a “third life”. Like a mini-MMO. The users don’t chat as much as they write a story collaboratively and on the fly.


My Second Life, The video diaries of Molotov Alva: documentary in SL (coming soon to HBO). There are many Machinima makers but only ten of them can be regarded as top talent as their movies go beyond the usual audience of the SL community. Usually machinima don’t, they are for insiders.

My Second Life, Screenshot

Ajax Life, a web-based client for Second Life that does not rely on browser plugins. Made and constantly improved by a 15 year old girl between her classes.

Several versions of SL on the phone.

SL hooked up with a jogging treadmill. Video:

3D architectural design and prototyping: wikitecture, 3D objects are “wikified”.
Example 4 dozen people create project of a health center in Nepal for the OAN Nepal Challenge.

James also mentioned a Danish architecture studio which uses SL to play with SL and tries to figure out what architecture could be like were it not all those regulation rules, they came up with a desing of building that looks like pearls and some Chinese contractors found about it and the building might be realized in China.

No matter if and how SL grows up it has proved itself as a valuable platform for experimentation and prototyping. 300 universities using Sl as a teaching tool.

etech08: Information Visualization is a Medium, by Stamen Design

I arrived in San Diego for etech08 after a 25 hour trip. The morning after i was sitting in the main conference room wondering why on earth i was doing that to myself. I could have stayed quietly in Europe, avoided the jetlag and the artificial food enriched with extra-anti-oxidants and extra-vitamins.

… Until Eric Rodenbeck, founder and creative director of Stamen Design, took the floor and gave his waaaay too short talk on Information Visualization is a Medium. He highlighted a couple of the works they developed, threw in some interesting thoughts and saved my severely jetlagged morning.


Many of you are probably already familiar with the work of Stamen, especially with the visualizations they created for (Swarm and Stack) or the brilliant cabspotting.

The focus of the talk was on process of analysis and how the concept works both for Stamen and culturally. For Stamen Information visualization is a medium, not a technique per se.

Housing built on an artificial lake: Discovery Bay

The first project that illustrated this statement is Trulia Insight, a real estate aggregator, search and information tool they developed for Trulia, a real estate company based in San Francisco which aggregates information about properties around the United States.

The mashup combines historical real estate data with a “heat map” that displays which properties are hot. People looking for a house can search for real estate by zip code, or other parameters like size, cost, and building type. Houses glow different colors as they are built and re-built over the years, enabling buyers to watch growth trends and movement in residential areas.

Trulia, Miami, 1988

It is almost like a pollution map as it shows the impact of men on the landscape. The most fascinating aspect of the work is to compare the real estate growth from city to city. A city like Plano in Texas for example experienced a somewhat chaotic growth pattern from 1970 to 2008. Meanwhile the real estate flow in Los Angeles looked easier and more organic.

0aaaokland.jpgOakland Crime Spotting, a project initiated by Mike Migurski.

This interactive map of crimes in Oakland was developed with the idea of offering a tool for understanding crime in cities.

You can get a precise overview of what is happening in your neighbourhood (or the one where you plan to rent a house) over time, you can select the crimes you want to see and if you like that sort of thrill, crime alerts can be delivered to you in almost real time via RSS or email.

Crimespotting helps people explore public information, draw connections, see pattern emerge and find new possibilities for questioning.

The website says: We believe that civic data should be exposed to the public in a more open way. With these maps, we hope to inspire local governments to use this data visualization model for the public release of many different kinds of data: tree plantings, new schools, applications for liquor licenses, and any other information that matters to people who live in neighborhoods.


The idea is not to offer a search programme that would give you a way in but rather to give a map display as a way out for users to explore. It is not enough to simply analyzes and it is not enough either to simply entertain.

In Stamen’s project there is always an editorial choice, their projects are not totally value free, they are more than just a pretty accumulation of data. They attempt to give people a way to access information they care about, to engage them in data and keep them interested.

Related: Sascha’s report on Stamen’s participation at OFFF in Barcelona.