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Neighbourhood Satellites

nesa.jpgThe idea of portable environmental sensing is becoming a relatively common one among design and engineering students, but Neighbourhood Satellites, a Masters Thesis project by Myriel Milicevic at the Interaction Design Institute Ivrea, takes the concept in a new direction. Rather than make the detection of pollution an act of social or environmental responsibility, Milicevic instead makes it an act of enjoyment, linking the data pulled in by the hand-held unit (which looks like a satellite) to an interactive video game. Although the goal remains the same -- the accumulation of environmental knowledge -- the form of interaction arguably makes it more likely that the technology will continue to be used.

As Natalie Jeremijenko's work shows, good emergent activism technologies often use a bit of whimsy to connect people to the results. There was no need to use robot dogs as the platform for her chemical sensors, for example, but doing so gave the project both a cool name ("Feral Robotic Dogs") and a grounding in recognizable aspects of Western culture (the use of dogs to search out scents, whether for tracking criminals or gathering truffles). By connecting his sensors to video games, Milicevic strikes a similar balance:

Going around and measuring the levels of air pollution in your city seems to me an exciting thing to do. However, not being a scientist, I wonder for how long those numbers will keep my attention and, even more important - how can that surveying endeavour become an engaging activity for a greater group of city people?
Those numbers needed a translation into a language that would be both, intuitively understandable for a large group of people, and fun to read.

Using videogame as medium promised to suit those requirements and show the measurements in great detail.

Therefore, I made a small game that offers a brief, but nevertheless challenging interaction with the environment on a virtual level. It is an entertaining way of checking conditions, and gives a better sense of what those conditions are like than a mere glance at a status bar can indicate.

The goal of the game is to find "pollution clouds," while being careful not to spend too much time away from fresh air. Milicevic notes that, as the device can't clean up the pollution that it spots, the game isn't an exercise in "blasting" pollution; instead, the game advances by finding more pollution spots, seeking out new samples without being overwhelmed by them. Over time, the game system can display accumulated data, and Milicevic intends a future version to connect to neighborhood maps.

Milicevic tested his system with friends and neighbors in Ivrea; perhaps unsurprisingly, his listing of the places in which his testers ended up using the system overlapped the places people tend to play hand-held video games. Unlike traditional video games, however, the Neighbourhood Satellite system ended up being a catalyst for users to explore their surroundings more than they otherwise wood.

This is a point worth underlining. Location-based technologies have the potential to encourage a greater connection to one's local environment by providing concrete rewards for the "discovery" of new spaces. Those rewards may be advancement in a game, as with this system, or the discovery of services and information that would otherwise be obscure, such as with projects such as Dencity and the unfortunately-named "Crunkies." Augmented-reality systems, when properly designed, can result in a greater level of interaction between a resident and the environment, rather than a reduced level.

Milicevic has several other design concepts in the works, including a set of radio receivers able to pick up everything from traditional radio stations to microwave transmissions to long-wave radio signals from space, and a "global warming tracking network" that combines a SETI@Home-type distributed modeling effort with emergency alerts of major global warming-related events, all on mobile phones.

I was very pleased to see that Milicevic has made the design of the Neighbourhood Satellites system available for download (PDF). Notably, he uses the "Wiring" open-source programming language, discussed here a few months ago, for the control software for the system. This isn't terribly surprising, as Wiring is a project of Interaction Design Institute Ivrea, where Milicevic received his degree.

(Thanks for the tip, George Mokray/"gmoke")

Comments (5)

Emily Gertz:

Neat project -- thanks for posting that.

There was another good reason to use robot dogs, as Natalie explained it to me: they're already well-developed and distributed technology, at the expense of the toy and electronics companies rather than the artist-engineer.

True, but so are radio-controlled cars; the value of the robot dogs was as much symbolic as practical.

Emily Gertz:

And that's what makes it art!

A decade or so ago, TERC (http://terec.edu) was doing work with cheap and easy ecological monitoring for grade, middle, and high school students. One thing they were working on was a low atmosphere ozone meter using the degradation of a rubber band to show ozone levels.

About the same time, there was a GE funded, if I recall correctly, high school program. In one town, the teacher had the students work on a local project, a prospective development with some conservation aspects. The students studied the property in question, drew up plans, and made a presentation to the town government.

Screw the robots dogs. Have the kids learn while they do the monitoring then publish the results to their parents and the rest of the public, including the local city or town government. Let our children keep score. Maybe that will keep us honest.


I would love to see our children being given the opportunity to keep score, but it is not often that we let our children question us. But mechanisms could be made available. It would be unlikely that institutions like schools would facilitate such a thing, but through the internet, open source communities could make it available.

I wonder what a marketing campaign aim at kids for something like this, would look like.


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