A Public “Information” Box

For our next Internet of Things (IOT) assignment, we are learning how to use our Raspberry Pi 3’s in more depth, working with the General Purpose Input/Output (GPIO) pins to connect input sensors and outputs like LED’s, motors etc.

We actually started using the Raspberry Pi’s last week, but our only assignment was to install the operating system Raspian a couple of times, setup our configuration files and updates, and get an email script up, running, and automatically called on boot so that we can get our IP sent to us every time we turn it on – an extension of our last homework working with Python’s email libraries/packages. We also worked to set up preferred WiFi networks and learn different ways of connecting to our Pi through SSH, VNC (to see the screen) and FTP to check and edit files.

For this week we were asked to create a project that took 2 inputs and sent information to 1 output, as well as sending us an email. We were asked to get creative, conceptual, and most importantly, not just to hide all the wires and set up in a “plain box”.

Inspiration | Speculative Artifacts for Speculative Futures

Upon starting, I knew I wanted to work with the RaspberryPi camera I’ve had since purchasing and setting up a PiZero last year. While I had trouble setting it up on that interface, the RPi3 comes with a port for the camera and seemed pretty basic to set up.

As I pondered what to do with the camera, I tried to think along the same avenues my brain has been wandering down for thesis, building speculative future artifacts to help people interact directly with how technology might impact their lives in the future.

As a quick summary (you can read my thesis posts for more info) I’m studying how we can get more people involved with the politics and policy of emerging technologies as citizens (rather than just encountering them as consumers) especially when they are executed by or in partnership with municipal governments. So many new technologies from LinkNYC to CitiBike have been deployed in partnership with private companies like Google and Citigroup in the name of innovation and better-designed interactions between people and their city. This so-called ‘Smart City’ movement is just amazing, the potential it inspires even more extraordinary.

But I still worry that most people won’t be a part shaping these possibilities because they fail to see the importance of how the choices we make about technology today will impact them directly in the future. As artists and designers, I think we can do a better job educating, engaging, and energizing  people to question emerging technologies by making the future real for them. What better way to do that than by telling stories? If we can bring people together to discuss their hopes and anxieties, translate these into plausible stories and scenarios about the future, we can use this fertile creative ground to build interactive artifacts that simulate possible future experiences, examining both the good and bad impact upon everyday life, and hopefully provoking people to take more action today.

So as I imagine projects for Internet of Things class, I will try to do so in the lens, helping me to explore the potential for cheap, rapid prototyping tools available to us – Raspberry Pi, Arduino, Human Computer Interactions, new Interfaces and speculative code, new networks, and fabrication tools like laser cutters, 3D printing and CNC.

A Public “Information” Box

For the start of my thesis prototypes and research, I have been studying how to bring people together to talk about the future in a way that can help me to generate a short plausible scenario or story.

Last week I posited a What If question to my class around the Internet of Things.

What If… In the future, the Internet of Things was the internet of Everything and we could use it to transmit information from any object or person?

As I started to work with the class through this question, we explored how People, Places, Technology, Resources, and History (adapted from fo.am’s Prehearsal methodology, would all impact this future. Here is  a picture of some of the results.

Here is  a picture of some of the results.

While I’m not yet to the point of writing an actual story about this future – I need to run the prototype more thoroughly and think better about the process of collecting information – I wanted to try skipping ahead a little and seeing what it would take to prototype a believable future artifact in terms of time, feasibility, aesthetics, and believability.

One of the biggest fears I sensed from people during our short session centered around constant, ubiquitous surveillance. Already we have thousands of cameras upon us, and with new interactive technologies coming into public places, we will soon have many more. However, we also often forget that even the most commonplace objects that inhabit our public life and public spaces already are surveilling, us or have the ability to – especially municipal assistance and security systems. For example, LinkNYC actually has 3 separate cameras in it, on the front and two sides. No one questions what these cameras are collecting, or who is watching the footage, they just use the amenity provided.

I wanted to play on this theme in my project, utilizing it as sort of an aesthetic prototype of how I might successfully translate ideas about future surveillance into a critical contemplation on public technologies already surrounding us. My first step was to look around at all of the boxes and booths already embedded on our streets, from bus fare collectors, to fire department call boxes. What I found – unsurprisingly – is that many actually have cameras in them, as well as infrared or motion detectors.

 

In order to convey my ideas about how this might emerge in the future and to play with the idea of information in a post-surveillance world, I created a short prototype project both for Internet of Things and as a quick first-round aesthetic and implementation prototype for my thesis.

The resulting project, Public “Information”, purposely plays on the idea of ambiguous emergency and “information” interfaces embedded around our city. I seek to provoke users to question who is getting information from whom and how this might impact future issues around privacy versus security in public spaces.

While my project conveys that it is for receiving information from someone, with its signage, a big red button for calling someone up, and speaker holes to talk to them, none of these elements actually work. In essence, all the object does is collect information about people walking by and trying to interact with it. By pairing a camera with a PIR motion detector, this future “Pubilc Information” system can record videos, snap pictures, and even send the information to unknown watchers through email (or other means if desired).

The most interesting (and terrifying) thing I found while developing this prototype is that with modern fabrication tools, I could make this almost exactly match an actual Public Information box located on streets and in subways. If done right, it could be installed without anyone noticing and collect and stream information easily to anyone the maker chose. I mean, none of us actually use the things anyway… right?

While this object doesn’t seek to manipulate everyday people into thinking its a public service instrument, it does serve to illustrate important questions about many of the day-to-day technologies that surround us as we move about the city.

  • What other sensors are installed in them already?
  • What exactly can they see, hear, and sense about us?
  • Are all of them actually put in by the government, or are other enterprising individuals watching us from their studio apartments (probably a nicer home than that if they could afford making and programming the thing!)

The Hardware & Code

In short, the way this project works is that an individual triggers the PIR motion sensor by passing anywhere from 5 to 10 feet in front of it (also lighting the LED up). Hopefully, they will get much closer to push the Information Button!!! It then records a ten-second video using the camera module and saves the video to the Raspberry Pi’s harddrive. Finally, it snaps a photo and uses a custom email script I wrote to send me a photograph of whom ever is in front of it after the recording is over.

To make this project I first individually tested both the RaspberryPi camera module and the PIR motion sensor. Both were easy to set up and configure given the multitude of tutorials on the internet. However, I did have a little bit of trouble with the PIR at the outset since the one I bought didn’t have the sensitivity and timing potentiometers marked on the back, so I had to look at a whole bunch of other models/examples and kind of fiddle with them until they worked. I also included an LED that would let me know when the camera detected motion, recorded video, and sent a picture of the motion to my email so I could observe if it was working from afar.

I tried out several different methods for linking the camera and PIR motion detector code together, finally piecing together my own version from three different tutorials from RaspberryPi.org, DIY Hacking, and Instructables. Some I tried at first but ruled out because I actually wanted to use the GPIO pins in my project instead of built-in in motion detector library. Others I used part of but eliminated some steps such as remotely uploading the video to a service like drop-box, as some tutorials suggested for space reasons. I also found cool examples of doing this solely through ComputerVision (OpenCV), which I explored in depth last semester through C++ and OpenFrameworks, but that wasn’t part of the assignments so I let it go… for now. 😀

A video of just the mechanics working before it goes in its casing.

You can find my code for the project on GitHub.

Fabrication

Ever since last year, I have wanted to make my work look more finished, more polished, more believable. In addition, according to my domain research into design fiction and speculative designs, it has been suggested that the level of believability and familiarity of speculative futures and corresponding artifacts must be plausible and feel like they are real to evoke the cognitive dissonance necessary to help people engage critically with the item and begin to question it more deeply. In order to be able to achieve this over the next few months, I will need to build, test, and refine prototypes of several objects . One of the best ways to accomplish this my fabrication skills to use all of the wonderful prototyping tools we have available to us at Parsons. While I’m good at getting code running and electronics working, I haven’t yet built an actual finished object I’ve been super proud about.

In order to be able to achieve this over the next few months, I will need to build, test, and refine prototypes of several objects, both being able to conceptualize, realize, and test them quickly, but more importantly,  to give them a level of craft and finish that is up to the task of making speculative objects believable. One of the best ways to accomplish this given the range of fabrication tools available to us is to start actually using them to realize my visions.

I finally took my CNC certification last week and needed to complete a short homework trying out the different cuts it can do before being allowed to use it semi-independently moving forward. What better opportunity achieve this through using the CNC to create an aesthetic first prototype for my Information Box! The benefit of technologies like CNC, Laser-Cutting, and 3D printing is that once the design file is created it would not be hard at all to make some minor adjustments and recreate a new version. I can also test out a range of materials further down the line such as wood, plastic, or even metal! For now, I will start with foam to make sure everything is carved correctly and to make sure the prototype is conveying the aesthetics I want my thesis work to make users feel, before committing to more expensive and harder to work with materials.

I decided to try cutting two 1-inch thick foam pieces and place them together to create the design for the Information Box. The back will be used to house the components and the front will be the faceplate for it. It can be quickly modified with different designs and signage as I get feedback on the prototype.

The idea behind the design of this object comes from David Kirby’s concept of ‘diegetic prototyping’ and Bruce Sterling’s definition of “Actually Futuristic” objects as a category of potential future images/objects that can be produced. This is where you create a prototype as a prop in the narrative environment so that it can appear as an actual material with the diegesis (narrative/story). Within a designer’s fictional world, this prop can actually exist and be rendered real, functioning in all respects, and can be thought of as “actually futuristic” for this reason.

The idea is that “actual futures” form as material assemblages and technologies and can help users to understand the future as a process, where the past is continuous with the present and the future, and the future is informed by what came before.

For my first try, I tried to blend what already exists with an imagined “futuristic” aesthetic, playing a bit off my love of sci-fi and cyberpunk tropes by including etchings of random circuits all over the front that also do nothing.  I also wanted to cue people in to its origin in current technologies by replicating the signage for a public information box and including elements that it is known to include a big red button, speaker holes. I seek to make users feel a sort of uncanny recognition of an object they pass by everyday and don’t consider in its current incarnation, by speculating how it may be used/abused in the future.

Here are some shots of the CNCing in action on our ShopBot at school. I learned many lessons about how to set up the files and what the CNC can and can’t do, and how long it will take to do it. So many hard lessons. ❤

A video of the awesome ShopBot working away at my design.

The Finished Project

Here is the final form for my first round prototype, Public Information Box.

I was only able to test it for a short time due to time constraints, but already I can tell that it needs to have a narrative/descriptive attachment so that peole actually realize what it is in some way. Otherwise it is a little abstract just hanging up on the wall of D12 without me present or talking about it, and people didn’t engage with it as often or long as I wanted them to. They are all also very busy with their own work, so perhaps a different context for testing (like the UC) would be better if I can figure out how to overcome technical constraints about WiFi access, or just ignore the sending an email part of the object and let it record video/images I scrutinize later.

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