when virtual becomes real

Just read Adam Greenfield’s blog entry “Reality bites“. He describes how a design he produced for a friend’s new restaurant became a solid metal sign within days. Despite knowing about recent rapid fabrication techniques, actually seeing these processes in action for his own design was still shocking.

I too am still amazed at the relative ease that ideas can be turned into reality. In a presentation “As we may print” at the 2003 Interaction Design for Children, Michael Eisenberg described how he and his co-workers at University Colorado were using laser cutters to enable children to design their own 3D designs in card or even thin plywood. More recently at the National Centre for Product Design and Development Research in Cardiff, I saw 3D metal printers. I was aware of 3D printers working in various gels and foams, but did not realise it was possible to create parts in titanium and steel, simply printed from 3D CAD designs. Chasing one of Adam’s links I found instructions to make your own 3D printer on the MIT site … however, this constructs your designs in pasta paste not metal!

One of the arguments we are making about our FireFly technology is that it will change lighting from being a matter of engineering and electronics, to a digital medium where the focus moves form hardware to software. While FireFly allows more flexible 2D and 3D arrangements than other technologies we are aware of, it is certainly not alone in making this transformation in lighting. Last week I was talking to Art Lights London and they are planning some large installations using Barco’s LED lighting arrays. Soon anything that you can point on your computer screen you will also be able to paint in light from your own Christmas tree to London Bridge.

Although it sometimes seems that technology is simply fuelling war and environmental catastrophe, it is a joy to still glimpse these occasional moments of magic.

mirrors and estrangement

One of my PhD students, Fariza, has been extensively studying a single person, a women not so disimilar from herself. In doing so they have become friends and much of Fariza’s thesis (soon to be submitted) concerns the methodological issues surrounding this.

pianoOne issue we have discussed at length is the importance of estrangement, that distancing oneself from the commonplace to make the taken for granted become apparent. We do not see the things closest to us: the dirty toenail, the crumpled sheet, the asymmetric fall of the piano music stand, the things lost because they are in the open.

Artists and comedians often open our eyes to the unseen-because-unnoticed aspects of life, such as Emin’s own crumpled sheets or the poignant woman on the platform in “The Fall and Rise of Reggie Perrin”1. Garfinkel’s breaching experiments attempt to bring this incisive comic eye to social science. Of novelists Gabriel Garcí­a Márquez is the master of this; through his true to life yet surreal accounts, with sometimes tenderness and sometimes almost cruel dispassion, he describes in intricate detail the intimate yet insignificant.

The Last Battle, C.S. LewisBerger talks about the way artists look at their work in a mirror to see it afresh and he himself sees the sunshine of lilacs in the mirror, lilacs that show him only their shadows2. I was reminded of one of C.S. Lewis’ Narnia books where the supra-reality of the mirror image is more crystal sharp, more ‘real’ than the ordinary world3.

Mirrors bring to mind reflective practice, just as Fariza has to write herself into her own accounts, the mirror often shows not only the unseen side of an object but also oneself and oneself in relation to the object. The seer and seen are themselves seen and, like Berger’s lilacs, the partiality of one’s seeing becomes more obvious. The mirror is not so much important because it shows the hidden sun-glowed lilacs, but because it says that the shadowed petals are not the whole flower.

Arnolfini Mariage: mirror closeupI am reminded of that Dutch painting by van Eyck where the apparently pregnant woman and her husband stand in their home with their lap dog between them and discarded outdoor shoes untidily dropped4. On the wall behind the couple is a convex mirror capturing the whole scene from behind, and in the reflected doorway where you stand is the tiny image of van Eyck and another. Unlike supposedly ‘good’ scientific writing in incomprehensible passive speech, the artist has not painted himself out of his picture.

Arnolfini Mariage: dog closeupBerger also talks about paintings being painted for the moment of seeing, yet so many portraits do not look towards you, or even the artist, but through you, beyond you, to an unseen landscape. This may be because it is hard to paint eyes, or because it is hard to stare into the eyes of one’s painter. In life it is only with the deepest lovers or friends that we dare to share like this, hence perhaps the growing friendship that Fariza experienced when gazing deeply together into her subject’s life. Also, perhaps why the most intimate paintings have often been of the painter’s wives or lovers. Unusually in van Eyck’s painting, clearly of close friends, the couple do not gaze either aloof or uncaring past the viewer, but instead gaze within the painting demurely to one another … it is only the small dog that stares back.

Mona LisaThis may be part of the Mona Lisa’s allure. I have never seen it ‘in the flesh’, but everyone talks about the eyes that they follow you. However, look again, it is not so much that they follow you, but, unusual amongst paintings, they actually look at you and I suppose at Leonardo himself.

I know Fariza has found this, and I am sure it is universal, that if we look closely and honestly at those around us, we begin more clearly to see ourselves .

  1. This was a popular BBC TV series, but it is the book which I remember as most moving, I laughed out loud and shed tears equally.[back]
  2. John Berger, “and our faces, my heart, brief as photos“, Bloomsbury, 2005[back]
  3. end of Chapter 15 in “The Last Battle“[back]
  4. The page about the Arnolfini Portrait at the National Gallery site allows you to zoom into the image. It also explains that the woman is not actually pregnant, but simply in the full skirt style of the day.[back]

digital culture

I was at futuresonic last Friday doing a panel keynote at the Social Technologies Summit. I talked about various things connected to imagination: bad ideas, regret modelling and firefly/fairylights technology. On the same panel was a guy from Satchi and Satchi who created television adds for T-mobile and a lady from Goldsmiths who described a project for Intel where they studied a London bus route. The chair Eric introduced the session with a little about blogging and other web-based technologies and in general we were immersed in the ways in which digital culture pervades the day to day world.
In my way home on the train I sat opposite a father and son who were playing hangman. The boy was about 6 or 7 and the father had to help him and sometimes correct him. Every so often I noticed the words they chose, but just before I got off the train there was obviously the father’s hardest challenge yet. I gradually noticed the hightened excitement in the voices … it was a word with ‘X’ and ‘Y’ in it.

As I stood to get up, the boy eventually got the last letters and completed the word …

F O X Y B I N G O . C O M