Report from E-culture Fair 2003

Posted by Jonah Brucker-Cohen | Fri Oct 31st 2003 2:15 p.m.

Report from E-Culture Fair
http://www.eculturefair.nl
October 23-24, 2003
Paradiso, DeBalie, Melkweg
Amsterdam, The Netherlands

By Jonah Brucker-Cohen (jonah@coin-operated.com)

Although adding the letter "e" to words like
"culture" might seem a bit too 90s, the 2nd
E-Culture Fair (first was in 2000) lived up to
its name as a comprehensive showcase of over 50
projects, experiences, and performances that
combined the virtual and physical. The fair,
which took place in Amsterdam, was spread over
several venues into three distinct categories
including "My-Mode" (wearable technology and
fashion), "Mobile Home" (networks at home and
dispersed in urban settings), and "Toys4Us"
(gaming and playful interfaces). This fair's
theme centered on "Research and Development" in
new media and took a hands-on approach to showing
work with an eclectic mixture of live demos and
events. Despite the potential brain overload, I
managed to tour most of the venues and even sit
in on several project presentations.

Walking into the newly renovated Paradiso
theatre, My-Mode resembled a hybrid fashion show
turned trade fair. The setup consisted of a wide
range of fashion tech hybrids that emphasized the
integration of technology on the body in
everything from fabric design to reactive
clothing. Taking a playful approach to adverse
weather conditions was Elise Co's "Puddle
Jumper", a raincoat with electro-luminescent
panels that lit up when water fell on the coat.
Also on display was International Fashion
Machines' "Electric Plaid", a panel of interwoven
conductive thread and silk-screened thermochromic
inks that slowly changed colors when electricity
was applied to the thread. This demoed solid
technological know-how, but less interesting
implementation other than some sewn light
switches and pretty wall mounts. On the more
practical side was "Inside/Outside", a series of
networked handbags that measure localized
pollution (smoke, audio, exhaust, etcS) and
connect to each other over an ad-hoc (or
spontaneous) network to exchange data and
aggregate a diary of exposure levels over time.
Focusing on biometric feedback was Sompit Moi
Fusakul's "Interactive Ornaments: Emotions in
Motions" which measured the wearer's heart rate
and transposed this result on kinetic and
illuminated jewelry. Also included was Jenny
Tillotson's "Smart Second Skin", a dress that
emits odors depending on biometric feedback from
the wearer. I got really close and out came a
Whiskey smell which means that either I remind
people of drinking or the day was getting too
long.

Despite the wide array of perspectives presented
in MyMode, there seems to be a continual emphasis
on cause and effect relationships with wearable
technology. Something happens in the environment,
space or activity the wearer is engaged and the
clothing or device acts as a display or
highlights these actions. The next step might be
to look at reciprocal relationships between the
object and the wearer where each plays a crucial
role in each other's development and output over
time. Is it possible to create objects and
clothing that are not only aware of their
inhabitants, but also of each other?

Spread over DeBalie and Melkweg venues, the
"Mobile Home" theme displayed projects that
featured fixed technologies for interacting in
both public and private space. Victor Vina and
Hector Serrano's "NetObjects", were a quirky
collection of networked household objects
including an umbrella that relays weather reports
and a koo-koo clock that displays headlines from
rightist and leftist newspapers. Another
experiment in connected familiar spaces, the
"Remote Home" featured networked furniture in
each building, where sitting on a couch would
trigger a linked couch to boot off the person
sitting in the other space. Despite the playful
interplay with the furniture, questions arose as
to the importance of transposing identity as well
as presence across distance? If you are unsure
that the ambient display is outputting the
movements of your significant other, does that
cause more anxiety than reassurance?

Escaping the confines of indoor space,
wireless-based projects seemed to pervade the
fair.
Delivering mobile wireless hotspots was Shu Lea
Chang's "RICHAIR", featuring three wired up
roller skate girls carrying mobile 802.11b
repeaters and mini-computers with embedded
webcams for relaying network connections and
images across town. There was also an emphasis on
the social impact of technology through Doors
East's "Mapping Mobile Phone Usage Among Auto
Rickshaw Drivers", a project examining the
changes mobile technology has had in Bangalore,
India for taxi drivers. The main implementation
would be to create a mobile phone booth by
integrating a pay system into cell phones
integrated into the rickshaws. Finally, Marc
Tuters' "Geograffiti" project envisions a future
of collaborative cartography based on localized
information exchange where public 'digital' space
is annotated with graffiti.

Moving onto the playful side of technology, the
"Toys4Us" exhibit looked at everything from
collaborative DJ scratching and virtual puppetry
to public installations of shared stories. Marcus
Kirsch's "Rashomon" pit video capture with Street
Fighter gaming where visitors' kicking and
punching moves were captured and imported as game
characters into a two-player fighting match. Also
integrating public input was Merel Mirage's
"Holy", a networked vending machine with an
embedded LCD screen that allowed visitors to
www.holy.nl to author animations and send them to
the display. Also STEIM showed up with some
impressive MIDI instruments and sound experiences
including a pair of headphones with tilt sensors
that sped up beats-per-minute on the audio
depending on how fast you shook your head.

After two full days of demos and talks, questions
arose as to the cyclical nature of information
and interface design. On one hand there is a
trend to build interfaces that encourage social
interaction, but there's also a tendency to
create experiences that discourage chance
occurrences by highlighting personal experience.
There should be a way to balance experiential
design so that it not only allows for
collaboration but also maintains an ambient
presence that blends seamlessly into everyday
activity. This was evident in some of the
projects at the fair, but most had trouble
escaping their categorization. Nevertheless,
events like the E-Culture Fair are great for
encouraging cross-pollination of research and
practice along with showcasing the current state
of the field. By emphasizing interactivity and
the participatory nature of projects, the event
had a distinct science fair-like atmosphere. This
approach succeeded in presenting not only the
latest gadgets and whimsical interfaces to come,
but also the experience of participating in this
landscape.

-Jonah Brucker-Cohen
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