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Project Taos, Sensorium, 1996: "Beware Satellite," and other projects

"We need a new medium that will nurture our senses so that we may all be compatible with the natural and cultural diversity of the world. A new world demands a new medium: a medium to develop a new "common sense" regarding our planet, our land, and ourselves."
Shinichi Takemura, January 1996, Keynote for the Japanese Expo pavilion1

Areas (Beware Satellite): touch & tangibility, global awareness, telematic art, transformation

Between 1995-1998 Tokyo based Taos Group created “Sensorium”, a collection of installations and Web based works for the “Internet World Exposition 1996”, all of them exploring the general theme of “perception of the living world“. Taos Group consists of about twenty members coming from a variety of backgrounds as cultural anthropology, network art, graphic-design, journalism, music, university teaching and earth sciences and form loosely knit smaller teams when working on individual projects.
Core members are Shinichi Takemura, Ichiro Higashiizumi, Yoshiaki Nishimura, Soichi Ueda, Yumiko Haruk, Koichiro Eto, Takuya Shimada, Pamela Virgilio, Hiroyuki Ohno, Suguru Yamaguchi, Yasushi Watanabe and Tetsuya Ozaki.

“If we [the Japanese] had been left alone, we might not be much further now (...) but we would have gone only in a direction that suited us. We would have gone ahead very slowly, and yet it is not impossible that we would one day have discovered our own substitute for the trolley, the radio, the airplane of today. They would have been the tools of our own culture, suited to us.”
"In Praise of Shadows" Tanizaki Junichiro, 1933

"You are not who you were." The human body replaces 200 to 300 million cells every day. The genderless drawing depicts that between April 18th and September 8th more then half of the cells of the visitors body changed.
Image:Sensorium welcome page

Their works often use real time data as webcam images, computer network statistics or weather data and medially transform these into vivid, eye-opening experiences for participants. Their communicative approach is mostly simple and transparent while the conceptual content is of higher relevance. Small ideas with creating a large impact upon the visitor. Whichever their approach may be technically highly sophisticated or a simple but engaging idea a major task in the work is to keep it accessible and transparent for the visitor. One of their main tasks seems to be to create a stimulating experience without bringing the technology between the visitor and the content.

In that respect their work contains a unique approach: A general theme and message communicated with beautiful ephemerality, elegance and simplicity that wasn't to be seen in digital media in this way before 1996. I will introduce a few significant examples of a their works.

"You are not who you were ..."

An example for their simple yet eye-opening approach is shown on their welcome page. When visiting this page for the second time one is greeted with the phrase “You are not who you were.” This refers to the replacement of cells in the human body and is graphically illustrated with an abstract drawing of a genderless human being, the visitor, and adding a colourful filling to this body displaying roughly the amount of cells having been replaced since the last visit of this page. The visitor is informed that these are between 200 to 300 Million cells every day.

Technically this solution is fairly simple, a “cookie” set or deleted as the page is accessed and an image from a database. Yet the result is stupefying as one is unprepared for this knowledge about oneself. With this simple example visitors are prepared for the indiscernible world they encounter at the Sensorium website.

“Beware Satellite”

“Beware Satellite” is Sensorium's first physical installation piece and consists of a metal plane 9 x 160 cm onto which a longitudal slice of a NOAA2 weather satellite image is projected. This image is being continuously updated over the internet and animated as the satellite moves along. The low flying satellite cycles through a full orbit in 102 minutes and covers the surface of the earth in approximately a day.3 The images are updated in regular intervals and every picture exists in different colour-coded variations indicating water-vapor, infrared rays (temperature) or visible light and available from the NOAA web-site.

The temperatures encoded within the colours of the infrared image are changed into temperature information which is used to control peltier-elements installed underneath the metal plate. Visitors can touch the second image projected onto the metal plate and feel the temperature of the according place on earth.
Usually this feels relatively cold as many places are covered in clouds. The artists are aware that the accuracy of the perceived data and resolution of the display are controversial and freely admit that “from an information design standpoint [...] the project was riddled with difficulties.”4
Other difficulties include that the actual geographical area being displayed on the metal plate is indicated by a second projection upon the floor which is displaying an abstract globe and grid. This adds another layer of complexity to this otherwise simple interface, and makes the piece accessible only from one side. It is still questionable if visitors get a vivid sense of the geographic location currently being displayed. Once a day this also results in an exciting recursive “overview” experience when the satellite is crossing the actual place where the exhibition takes place.

Beware Satellite's touch interface enhancing the projected image with temperature information. Image: Centre international d’art contemporain de Montreal.

“Beware Satellite” was one of the first examples of “Senseware” a term created by Sensorium members that wholly incorporates their approach and philosophy: Leaving the computer screen and mouse behind and extending technology based projects not only into physical space but also into the sensual realm. Thus transforming rational and abstract data (cells in ones body, temperatures across the world) into a rich, palpable and sensual information experience. This information-experience is probably less accurate then reading the original figures yet for this purpose an engaging sensual experience is more effective. The tangible aspect of the installation can still be seen as a milestone in computer interaction design and as an example that a technically complex networked project can indeed be very accessible.
With “Beware Satellite” visitors are not only able to get a visual overview of the earth but also an corporeal one. By referring to the senses of touch and vision simultaneously this piece achieves a high grade of presence and immersion. Visitors add this corporal dimension to their existing mental model of the world and may in fact remember the temperatures of Africa or the Himalayas, creating a better understanding and enhanced relationship by this unique experience.

Beware Satellite: Additional floor projection displaying the axial course of the satellite with the highlighted area currently being displayed.Image: sensorium.org

"While you were ...

“While you were ...” accompanied an exhibition about “Time” in 2000 and was commissioned by the Ars Electronica Center in Austria. Upon entering the exhibition visitors received a barcode label they retained while viewing the exhibition at their own pace. Part of this welcome was a projection against a wall in the entrance area that displayed continuously updated global phenomena that were taking place since the exhibition had opened. Among these continuously updating figures were the height the Alps had risen, babies born without citizenship, tons of dust having fallen from space onto the earth, languages having disappeared from the world, and the amount of Kilometres the planet earth had travelled around the sun. From there visitors would view the exhibition about Time. As visitors approach the end of the exhibition they scan their barcode label and print out a rectangular slip of paper titled the “While you were visiting this exhibition …” displaying a selection of global changes that occurred during their visit similar to the one in the entrance area. To prevent a group of visitors the disappointing experience of having identical slips of paper there are slight modifications from rendition to rendition.

Image: The "While you were ..." web page displaying global changes. This web page is similar to the projection at the entrance area of the "Time" exhibition with the difference that it would state "Since this exhibition began ..."

Image "While you were at this exhibition" Sensoriums personalised take-away token that put individuals perception of time into a wider perspective. The label reads "Retain and scan at exit," the middle image shows three variations of flyers. Image: sensorium.org

One flyer shows an two abstract graphic rendition of the earth. One depicting night and day hemispheres as the exhibition was entered the other one at the time of scanning the label together with the number of degrees it rotated during the visit. It also displays other timebased events in relation to global statistics. The degrees global temperature rose due to global warming or how many fridges where produced, the number of species that became extinct or how many people the world population increased meanwhile.

From entering the exhibition visitors have been sensitised for time and its flow. They will remember receiving the barcode label and the continuously updated display in the entrance area and the exhibition itself. When they receive the “While you were ...” paper printout at the exit of the exhibition their individual lives and their individual perception of time, the duration of their current visit which is about to end, is suddenly connected with the bigger picture, the whole of the flow of global time and some of those events hidden and indiscernible that have taken place in this last and lasting recallable period of time. Doing such focuses the visitors perception from the present to the immediate past for which they have a immediate recollection. This enables visitors to relate individual experience and individual perception of time into the “bigger picture” of events which are either too far away, to fast or to slow to be recognised or indiscernible creating a vivid experience of global consciousness. Besides they have a personalised keepsakes item which will remember them of the exhibition. A take-away sample for an otherwise ephemeral experience.

"Night and Day

Another Sensorium piece made possible by the internet and dealing with global distances, time and time zones is “Night and Day”5. Twentytwo outdoor semi-realtime webcam images from different longitudinal zones in the world are arranged in a circle on a web page simulating a single revolution around the world and give visitors a live impression of the earth in the current moment. Giving visitors an idea of the different time of day on earth in the same moment in time. A synchronoptical live-view achieved through the Internet.

“Night and Day” has a number of difficulties that make it somewhat difficult to enjoy. The first one being that the java applett is not very responsive and it interferes with the protracted loading time of the images. For the viewer the required actions are not transparent, processes of the application are not clearly communicated. Several minutes may pass until Night and Day has successfully loaded and is fully responsive. Its responsiveness consists of highlighting location names and linking to the original web-pages the images originate. As the images are not available from every longitude and desired degree and the representation’s limited degree of displaying three dimensional space in two-dimensions the result is not very rich in information. Still it achieves the desired effect of creating a rough global overview of night and day longitudes through its circular arrangement.

Image: Sensorium's "Night and Day" displayed on a web page. Twentytwo webcam images from different longitudinal zones are arranged in a circle giving an overview of the different times of day worldwide. Image: sensorium.org

Conclusion:

The name Sensorium already alludes to the senses and perception. All Sensorium’s project have in common that a scientific aspect is communicated relatively simple with reduced modes of expression often in a poetic, humorous and philosophical manner. They appear to draw themselves into the background, while stimulating visitors imagination and senses by utilising the Internet to connect with indiscernible or invisible aspects of the physical world. While creating a vivid sense of live-connectednes throughout. The essence of Sensorium’s work is about increasing awareness and insight for these indiscernible processes that surround us. These can be earthquakes, the speed with which the earth is circumscribing the sun, temperature of regions of the earth or how much the Alps have risen during one’s last visit. These processes can be invisible to us for a number of reasons either that they take too long or are too short, are to small or large for us to being recognised. Microcosm and Macrocosm. By making visitors aware of these activities or even engaging or including them into the scope of the installation this creates an increased presence and vivid sensation of enhanced perception and interconnectedness with the the surrounding world. The Internet facilitates the live-character and immediacy of these experiences yet without oversimplifying them nor focussing too much on technology.

"The Internet has the potential to give rise to a new human common sense: an enhanced and pluralistic sensorium and nervous system that can be shared by all. The Internet is here to connect us to the hidden channels of the wind and water and fire of the earth. Like electronic acupuncturists we will diagnose the body of the planet through our senses."6
Shinichi Takemura, 1996

Their content is more important than their form. They encourage their visitors to reflect, learn and feel, trying to create an insight into Sensoriums' issues. The dialog between the visitor and piece is physical, personal and where possible sensuous. Sensorium proceeds in a distinct fashion of elegance and simplicity. All of the projects show a concern for the earth as a habitat and try to raise awareness for its endangerment in a rational, cognitively stimulating manner, beginning with simple and graspable information which is pointing to the “bigger picture” setting the participants in context. Therefore it also applies to the Japanese aesthetic sense of WabiSabi that favours the beauty of things that are imperfect, impermanent and incomplete – and unconventional. Material characteristics there are suggesting a natural process, irregular, intimate, unpretentious, earthy and simple.

Nishimura points to the early state the Internet still is in, and compares it to cinema which took forty years to "mature," he concludes: "The Internet as it is today has been born as a technology, but not yet as an expression. What is required for that stage in design is not "maturity" but "exploration" and "experimentation." 7

This approach of “sensing the world” never found a wider response by other artists. Interactive projects after Sensorium were either more critical (etoy) or technology focussed (sodaplay) focussing on interactivity, communication aspects or politics. All of these aspects are potentially incorporated in Sensoriums approach as well yet less in a predominant critical but more constructive and positive manner.

Resources:

1. Takemura's keynote (1996): http://www.sensorium.org/faqs/person/takecomment.html
2. These details from http://www.sensorium.org/beware01/
3. Nishimura's lecture (1999): http://www.sensorium.org/vp6/lecture/index.html
4. ibid.
5. http://www.orbit.zkm.de/?q=node/363
6. http://www.sensorium.org/faqs/person/takecomment.html
7. "Designing World-realm Experiences: The Absence of World "Users" Vortrag für Vision Plus 6, Vienna, 10. July 1999 http://www.sensorium.org/vp6/lecture/index.html

Links:

http://www/sensorium.org

last update: 1/7/02008 0:53

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