Frontier Nerds: An ITP Blog

Big Screens Ideas

Eric Mika

I have a couple of ideas for big screens that attempt to visualize and force into perspective large volumes of real-time data.

For a little context, here’s an archive of past big screens projects.

Private Radio

Private Radio concept still

Anyone carrying a cell phone has a radio signature… whether they like it or not they are emitting and receiving radio waves as various gadgets talk to the web.

I’d like to fill the IAC with a network of antennas to pick up chatter from GSM / CDMA / WIFI wavelengths and map the audience’s radio presence to a visualization on the screen.

Ideally the antennas would have some sense of the location of different levels of signal strength throughout the room, which could in turn create regions of high and low radio concentration. If someone receives or places a call, presumably they would create.

WiFi packet sniffers also give access to huge volumes of real-time data, although the vast majority is just the machine-machine chatter necessary to keep networks alive.

The scale of the screen would be used both as a 1:1 real-time heat-map of radio activity in the space, possibly with node-style connections drawn between maxima. This map would be overlaid with data collected at different wavelengths streaming across the screen horizontally.

I’m not completely sure of the technical feasibility of this project, and the hardware involved might be expensive (at best) or logistically / technically untenable (at worst) — I plan to speak with Eric Rosenthal and Rob Faludi for a reality check.

Real Time Web Clock

Real Time Web Clock concept still

Our daily use of the web consists of a call / response model that makes the web seem relatively stable and even a bit static. However, new content is dumped on at such a remarkable rate that it might be more useful to think of the web as a real-time stream.

To put this into context: 100 years of video was uploaded to YouTube today. 7309 edits were made to Wikipedia in the last hour. 4,459 photos were uploaded to Flickr in the last minute. Around 600 tweets were posted in the last second. For every second that passes on the clock, 4.5 hours are spent on Facebook.

I’d like to make a linear, timeline style clock that runs for exactly three minutes, starting with a blank screen and rapidly filling with real-time web content of various types.

The clock would probably be arranged by duration and depth. The first layer would be 10ths of a second. The next would be Individual seconds, the back layer would be minutes. The clock wouldn’t “tick” but scroll smoothly in real time. The layers would combine to create a parallax effect and build up a wall of content and noise over the course of three minutes.

And for good measure, here’s one more idea that’s more of a vague pipe dream than an actual plan:

Live Coding

Has this ever been done before at the IAC? Is 3 minutes enough time to do anything? Presumably you could run a python interpreter on top of Processing or something of the sort and distribute fresh strings of code to each Mac Pro using a socket server. Crashes and restarting would be problematic, and the big screens audience might not be nerdy enough to enjoy a process instead of a product.


Patrick: Using a prop to stage the radio scanning. Airport security like wand or kiosk?

Niel: Finding the wavelength of various web 2.0 services… interleave and audio.

Driving Force Paper Proposal

Eric Mika

Synthetic biology stands to have a major influence on the course of technology over the next 5 – 15 years. Specifically, continuing decreases in the cost of DNA synthesis will allow for more experimentation with life’s building blocks by an increasingly diverse group of scientists and amateurs. The core uncertainty surrounding synthetic biology is not “if” or “when”, but rather how this newfound control over the stuff of life will factor into the future.

The answer holds implications for a wide swath of fields from energy policy to artificial intelligence to bioterrorism.

The field’s most recent milestone was the creation of a self-replicating bacterial cell from a completely synthetic genome. This proves the basic viability of synthetic biology’s promise. A few other factors will work to compound the field’s influence: The creation of abstractions above the protein / DNA will allow biological processes and characteristics to be treated as basic functional units in the design of new life. This abstraction process is already under-way by the The BioBricks Foundation and similar initiatives.

Research will consist primarily of review of scientific literature on the topic — both technical material and bioethics related commentary will be of interest. Statistical analysis of historical costs for the technical procedures associated with synthetic biology — perhaps most importantly, DNA synthesis — should reveal trends and allow for projections regarding critical cost milestones. Finally, interviews with researchers and amateurs who working on the forefront of the field will round-out my understanding of the role synthetic biology will play in shaping our future.

Foamcore Mouse

Eric Mika

Original apple desktop bus mouseFinished foam core mouse

To get acquainted with three-dimensional prototyping in foam core, I created a model of the first mouse I ever used, the Apple Desktop Bus mouse. The mouse was first released in 1986 alongside the Apple IIGS.

I don’t have the original mouse on hand, so I used a combination of memory and photographs to reconstruct the approximate dimensions and proportions. (It might have been more interesting to have worked completely from memory, since I haven’t used one of these vintage mice in at least 18 years.)

I drew up the plans in Adobe Illustrator, printed them to scale, and then used the scale print to guide the cutting process for the model mouse.

Foam core plansThe final

Original mouse photo by Pinot & Dita

Foam Phone

Eric Mika

The finished foam phone

To get acquainted with prototyping with 2" blue insulating foam, I decided to build a large-scale model of a classic phone-booth telephone handset.

The process was relatively simple.

Each step is documented below.

First, I cut two pieces of 2" thick foam down to the approximate size of the handset, and then joined the pieces using transfer tape.

Joining the pieces

Next, I sketched the basic outline of a two-dimensional version of the phone, and did a rough cut on the band saw.

Cutting plan, including relief cutsFirst two dimensions of cuts

With a basic two-dimensional version of the phone in hand, I sketched out the third dimension and made the corresponding cuts on the band saw.

Planned cuts on the next planeFinished cuts in three dimensions

And finally, the ear and microphone cups were sketched and cut. I removed a wedge of foam from each disk on the belt sander to make sure they would mate to the handset at a slight angle. A drill press took care of the holes in each disk.

Preparing the ear cupsEar cups ready for attachment

I used another round of transfer tape to attach the disks to the handset. About 20 minutes of sanding and finishing work leaves the finished phone:

The final foam phone

I learned a few things about the material that will guide any future use:

  • Higher speed tools do cleaner, more consistent work — the belt sander and band saw avoid tearing / chunking the foam the way hand tools do.

  • Extra-wide transfer tape is worth the up-front expense for larger projects.

  • The foam seems to have a grain. Sanding in certain directions minimizes chunking. I haven’t figured out how to identify the grain.

  • Relief cuts make shorter work of tight curves.

Geo Bot Postmortem

Eric Mika

My work on the graph bot ended up veering a bit from my initial plans — rather than constrain several automatons via lengths of string, I worked instead towards a group of drawing machines that would chart their course through a room by excreting yarn in their wake.

The intention was to capture both the criss-cross of attention in and to visualize larger patterns in the geographic distribution of activity on the web.

Although I eventually became less and less convinced of the conceptual merits of the project (for which I have no one to blame but myself), it was nevertheless a useful exercise in combining techniques from a number of disciplines.

A picture of the device’s guts, is I suppose, an appropriate place to start since I spent an inordinate amount of time on this aspect of the project, chasing down minor details rather than reconsidering a more elegant approach to the entire concept.

The underside of a small robotThe underside of the Geo Bot.

Here’s how the project’s requirements break down:

  • A mobile robot platform, associated circuit building and firmware development, a rudimentary navigation system, wireless communication and power.
  • A yarn storage and excretion mechanism that can reliably dole out yarn at a range of speeds.
  • Centralized control software and associated connections to live data sources on the web.

More to come on the process and discoveries made along the way.