Flying Pixels

"Something very interesting happened in Formula One racing, if you wanted to win, you used to bet your budget on a good car and a good driver.  Nowadays, to win the Formula One race, you need a team of people to monitor the car in real time, thousands of sensors collecting information from the car transmitting this information into the system and then processing it and using it in order to back to the car with decisions and changing things in real time, as information is collected." - Carlo Ratti

Architect Carlo Ratti shares a series of innovative projects that incorporate affective and sensory architecture. No longer are buildings static forms that house our activities. New technology allows us to implant sensors into our space and give us information about how we live.  No longer is the computer located in a shell on our desktops but rather is a network of small nodes hidden throughout the open air, just like molecules of water that make a cloud.  Ratti runs the MIT Senseable City Lab - which uses sensors and small electronics to infiltrate our built environment and give back data that describes how people move and operate within the city.  He notes that cities are only 2% of the earth’s land mass, but contain 50% of the earth’s population, account for 75% of our energy consumption and 80% of our CO2 emissions.

In this short talk, he cites the example of tracking cell phone use in Rome during the final World Cup game when Italy won, visualising surges of communication and radio silence, climaxing in a giant party in the city’s main square. His lab tracked thrown away cell phones and realized they didn’t end up where you would think they would.  He also describes projects that take this data to create interactive environments, such as a pavilion with walls made of water and a flexible three dimensional “screen” made up of thousands of LED pixels flown on mini-helicopters.

Carlo Ratti’s website

Sensable City Lab at MIT

Gizmodo: Watch Where Your Gadgets Go When They Die

TED: Ideas worth spreading

Björk’s Gravitational Pull

All artists today must navigate between analog and digital, and make functional decisions about technology that determine aesthetics.  Björk is one such artist whose work directly addresses the intersection of technology and raw sound.  Andrew Marantz writes, “The most Goldbergian of contemporary pop musicians, the one who most elegantly splits the different between techno-worship and Luddism, is Björk, whose new album, “Biophilia,” is a meditation on creativity, the laws of physics, and how to make simple things complex.”

When Björk went to visit MIT Media Labs, the pre-eminent centre for out of the box, human-machine research, she met Andy Cavatorta.  He was a graduate student at the time and they immediately clicked.  He was hired to design a robotic instrument for her Biophilia tour that would harness the forces of nature: lightning, gravity and the Earth’s magnetic field. 

"I should mention that I’d already quit this business twice before I met Björk. While audiences loved the idea of music and robots together, it contains an aesthetic dead end. If the content of music is emotion, the Jungian unconscious, the deep mystery through which our raw atoms create meaning out of the chaos of the world, then robots possess nothing of what makes us care. I could see little place for them in music beyond fleeting novelty." Andy Cavatorta

In the end, they focused their energy on the Gravity Harp, that uses pendulums.  Pendulums are natural oscillators, that transfer gravitational energy into kinetic energy. The robotic pendulums, each containing a harp with eleven strings.  These pendulums hang in the air and swing slowly swing back and forth, in the pattern of a sine wave.  A long line of pendulums that each play one note.  The rhythm is determined by the energy of the earth’s gravity pulling the wooden instrument.

The New Yorker, “Inventing Björk’s gravity harp”

Origin Magazine, “Building Gravity Harps for Björk by Andy Cavatorta”

The Funambulist, “Björk and her beautiful gravity harps”

Demo of Björk’s Gravity Harps