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|Intimate Space and Contemplative Entertainment |
Walking into a typical high-tech office environment one is likely to see, among the snaking network wires, glowing monitors, and clicking keyboards, a plant. What a sad creature it is. Domesticated yet ill-adapted to its artificial niche of human design, this generic plant sits on a desk corner under artificial illumination, serving as a placeholder for that which electronic machinery cannot offer: personal attachment. Office plants are an expression of a need for undemanding presence in an efficiently impersonal environment. There are, however, alternatives.
Office Plant #1 is an exploration of a technological artefact adapted to the office ecology that fills the same social and emotional niche as an office plant. Comparable in size to a generic office plant (l0 x l0 x 33 inches), OP#1 consists of a large bulb surrounded by metal fronds mounted on a base. The ball, a hammered aluminium sphere, can open and close. Mounted on a stem, it can also rise above the fronds and remain in any intermediate position. The fronds, made of copper wire, sway slowly, moving individually or in synchrony.
OP#l monitors the ambient sound and light level and, employing text classification techniques, also monitors its owner's email activity. Its robotic body, reminiscent of a desert plant in form, responds in slow, rhythmic movements to comment on the monitored activity. In addition, it makes its presence and present knowledge known through low, quiet, ambient sound. OP#l is a new instantiation of our notion of intimate technology, that is, technologies that address human needs and desires as opposed to technologies that meet exclusively functional task specifications. OP#1 lives in a technological niche and interacts with users through their use of electronic mail. It acts as a companion to and commentator on these activities.
Here we will describe the major artistic and technical concepts that underlie the design of OP#1.
Once, social interaction was defined by communal space. The properties of the space delimited the forms of exchange. The local pub, for example, was a space large enough to support a critical threshold of social energy, public enough that a cross-section of the local population was present, yet small enough that one could notice friends and acquaintances. This is the ideal of public intimacy: crowd presence without alienation.
Once, letter writing was bound to paper. The physicality of the letter conditioned the interaction. It took time to inscribe ink on paper, to handle the envelope, to wait for the letter to be received. Communication was removed from the realm of the immediate, opening a space for contemplation. This is the ideal of reflective intimacy: private sharing combined with distancing.
Technology, in its usual move of utopian plenitude, offers to satisfy both desires in one convenient package, email. While new forms of computer interaction are continuously created, email is the first computational forum for human social interaction to become ubiquitous.
Some people argue that the lack of public intimacy in the anonymity of the suburb will no longer be a problem now that virtual communities can be formed and conveniently connected by email. With a lowered threshold for message creation and near instantaneous transmission, email is a conversational medium. But the conversants aren't subject to the constraints of real-time response. Given additional time to think, they can engage in the construction of letter writing. But this new medium, while pretending to offer the catch-free satisfaction of two desires, also introduces the watchword of computing into social interaction: efficiency.
Email encourages constant connection. Reflective letter writing may take place in the evening, after the work day is finishedbut how inefficient to separate work and personal life. Email encourages continuous multitasking between work, play, and social interaction. As one sits constantly at the computer, words can be processed, numbers tabulated, games played, letters answered, all in one undifferentiated flow of activity. Where conversation and letter writing used to require distinct context shifts that involved changing mental state as well as physical location, the ease with which the user can switch contexts on the computer belies any distinction between these activities. And the ease with which an email can be sent ensures that all of us will be receiving dozens if not hundreds a day. With the blurring of historical distinctions surrounding concepts such as efficiency, pleasure, conversation, and work, this increasing stream of information contains an odd mixture of work-related announcements, junk mail, meeting requests, short quips from friends, and occasional heartfelt letters. Offering a seductive outlet for the primal human desire for social contact, email represents the transformation of the alluring familiarity of the letter and conversation by the logic of the machine.
As a new hybrid communication space, email is a fascinating site in which to observe human adaptation to and negotiation within a new medium. OP#I is a commentator on this space. It physically responds to the social and emotional content of email messages received by the user. Unstructured, this email space is not accessible to scrutiny. In order to open this new social sphere for analysis and questioning, we have developed, after reviewing a large body of email, a special categorization scheme.
Consider that an email message is either private (addressed to a single person) or public (multiple addresses). The tone can be either formal or informal. Private, informal email can be intimate, that is, email addressed to close friends. These distinctions form the basis of the category tree employed by OP#I. After passing through this initial category tree, every message can be assigned to one or more categories. In this categorisation scheme, every message is assigned a set of labels. For example, a message may be a public, informal announcement, or a private, informal, humorous request.
Sculptural Presence and Kind Surveillance
Office Plant #1 is a desktop sculpture, an office machine that serves as a companion. Like a good piece of sculpture, it is always on. Based on physical principles of static equilibrium, OP#1 needs no external power source-to function as a sculpture. The addition of slight, slow, and at times hardly noticeable motion gives OP#I an enigmatic quality. OP#1 is kinetic but on the verge of motionlessness, and static but on the verge of movement. It reacts to and comments on the events it analyzes and takes on varying stances in the process. It delivers rich and complex actions as if it understood the significance of the email exchange.
OP#1's activity cycle is defined by a period of 24 hours. During the active office hours, it is receptive to user presence. After hours, it uncouples itself from the daily trivia as it moves into a contemplative space for regeneration
OP#1 is both a sculpture and an observer. It can be decided y silent, simply present as an aesthetic experience provider. As a good observer. OP#1 is attentively quiet. Its preference for minimal action is commensurate with its ability to observe its communicative environment. It watches this space benevolently and forms in its actions an instantiation of kind surveillance. This form of surveillance is not geared to record and maliciously manipulate data about a human user. OP#l's knowledge remains unrecorded and poses no threat. It is a data-driven electronic voyeur with no intentions.
Externally, as we have seen, OP#1 is formed to resemble a desert plant. Internally, however, it is something quite different. OP#1's mechanical design is based on a dynamically varying but constantly balanced exchange of forces. The system is always in equilibrium, balanced by two counterweights. An electrical and mechanical actuation is removed from direct observation. The sources of motion seem unclear, and the plant's movements appear mysterious.
The force-delivering stepper motors are concealed in the lower part of the plant, though discernible through semitransparent Plexiglas. The window in the bottom of the base would promise to reveal the inner workings of the plant but shows, instead, a scene composed of rocks, sand, and moving counterweights: the datarium. The datarium is the equivalent of a vivarium. In the datarium, however, the only life forms are data-driven lead counterweights moving in and out of the rock and sand garden.
The fronds or leaves surrounding the bulb are of copper wire and can be activated by a series of shape memory alloy (SMA) wires in the base of the board into which the fronds are set. The heat-sensitive SMA wires contract when activated and exert a small force on the lower end of the fronds, making them sway as the heat is applied.
OP#1 has three degrees of freedom: opening and closing the bulb, raising and lowering the stem, and swaying the fronds. These three degrees of freedom can be combined into three primary physical postures called rest, bud, and bloom. When at rest, the bulb is closed and fully lowered. In bud, the bulb is closed and fully extended. In bloom, the bulb is open and fully extended. The fronds can be moved while the plant is in any of these positions.
These states and their transitions are controlled by a fuzzy cognitive map (FCM). Like neural nets, FCMs are used to maintain mutually informed connections between different nodes. When email is analyzed, the result is passed into the FCM and the appropriate node is activated by giving "energy" to that node. The node with the most "energy" becomes the active node, and the posture associated with this node becomes the present posture: the plant moves to this posture from its current one. The links between nodes spread the activation energy to other nodes. Positive links between nodes cause nodes to add energy to each other. Negative links between nodes cause them to take energy from each other.
Activation energy from bud flows towards bloom; budding makes blooming more likely. Rest and bud, and rest and bloom, are mutually inhibitory. Rest and bud both spread their energy to an intermediate posture, and rest and bloom spread their energy to a second intermediate posture. The combination of the mutual inhibition plus the intermediate posture will cause these pairs of states to compromise towards the intermediate posture.
Finally, the self-inhibitory links tend to cause values in the system to decay. In the absence of input, the plant will not stay in a given posture forever. When all of the nodes are zero, the plant will move towards the rest posture. As email is classified, energy is added to nodes, thus initiating the process of competition and cooperation between the nodes.
In addition to physical movement, OP#1 has a voice; it produces sound using a speaker housed in the bulb. These sounds provide the plant with a background presence. The sounds include variations on whistle, chant, sing, moan and complain. The sound nodes all have mutually inhibitory links (only one sound will be active at a time). In addition, there may be excitatory and inhibitory links from body postures to sound nodes. For example, the bloom node may have excitatory links to the sounds chant and sing and inhibitory links to the sounds moan and complain.
As stated above, OP#1 is an instantiation of intimate technology. As opposed to traditional machinery that is designed to perform well-defined and economically useful tasks, intimate technology attempts to focus on human desires, interaction niches between man and machine, places of unfulfilled desire for contemplation.
As an act of technology appropriation, OP#1 is indebted to the history of artists' use of machinery. The futurists discovered the aesthetic of mechanical precision; the dadaists, the irony of predefined movement; and Marcel Duchamp, the erotic poetics of repeated motion. Daniel Spoerri and Survival Research Labs (SRL) have worked the raw force and destructive power of mechanical contraptions into spectacular events.
Our interests lie in the relationship between technology and the social sphere; for example, in the subtleties of machine-mediated information exchange. OP#I makes use of engineering principles and artificial intelligence (AI) practices and reintroduces the result into a socially sensitive sphere: the office workspace. The home or office is the preferred setting for intimate technologies, not highbrow galleries or sterile laboratories. Close to end users, in bedrooms, kitchens, or bathrooms, and as portable items, intimate technologies thrive in the niches where machine efficiency has eradicated desire. In our conception of intimate technologies, the device is a mediator between the realm of repeatable machine precision and human instinct. Intimate technologies are an attempt to reclaim the territories colonized by the unquestioned pursuit of efficiency. They propose to reintroduce contemplation into the design space and to build machinery that allows and fosters it. Intimate technology is a form of critique that comments on the alienating effects of technology by reclaiming the engineering disciplines to the service of desire.
As OP#I uses a set of methods and techniques that are not common in artistic practice, we include below a short description of its main technical aspects.
Plant movement. Machines excel at performing fast and precise movement but the requirement here is for very slow movements. In order to achieve slow linear and rotary motion under space limitations, we used micro-stepping stepper motors. This allows both slow and precise movement control without cumbersome gear reduction . We tested a variety of actuators for the fronds, amongst them polyelectrolyte ion exchange membrane metal composites (IEMMC)  and shape memory alloy (SMA) . We choose SMA as it requires little space and no climate control and provides acceptable reaction times (< I sec. for 150 micrometers in diameter).
Text classification. In order to sort incoming electronic messages into categories, we employ text classification using the practical and efficient Naive Bayes Classifier . This method is a Bayesian approach for computing the probability that a new text belongs to a class given the words present in a text. It involves a preliminary pass, a learning step in which the various probability terms are estimated, based on the frequency of words occurring in the training data. Interestingly, the Bayes learning method requires no explicit search through the space of possible hypothesis. It is formed by counting the occurrences of various data combinations within the training sessions.
Plant behaviour architecture. The state of OP#1 is dynamically modelled with a fuzzy cognitive map (FCM) . FCMs are fuzzy signed (+ enforcing and - inhibiting) digraphs with feedback. In an FCM, nodes representing actions and variables (states of the world) are connected in a network structure reminiscent of a neural network. At any point in time, the total state of the system is defined by the vector of node values. In our implementation, the nodes represent actions. The action associated with the action node with the highest value is executed at each point in time. The values of nodes change over time as each node exerts positive and negative influence on the nodes it is connected to. The FCM approach is attractive because it can resolve contradictory inputs and maintains aufficient state to exhibit incremental effects.
We would like to thank the following companies and individuals for their support in this project: Allegro Microsystems, which generously supplied electronic components; Microkinetics, which discounted its stepper motors for us; George Biddle of the material science department of Carnegie Mellon University, who made his machining and materials expertise generously available to us; and Bernard Mettler for his invaluable knowledge of mechanics.
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