A while ago, I wrote a brief introduction to VURB here on our site. In the past months, we have met with many brilliant people, started a monthly night in De Verdieping called Visible Cities, and investigated various scenarios in the vast dimension of responsive architecture and urban informatics. VURB founders Ben Cerveny and James Burke recently wrote a proposal for a new project that will “enable a set of environmental services in the Trouw building to be ‘discoverable’ by mobile devices, and controlled by citizens/users through applications on their smartphones.” I wanted to share these words here, because I believe they offer a great view of the playing field, and give a good description of one possible interactive architectural application. Enjoy.

The mission of VURB is to investigate the consequences of the convergence of ubiquitous computing onto public, urban spaces. Often this means understanding how data generated by the environment and its use can be stored and made available as a realtime service built around the city as a platform. However, the transformation of how the digital city and its public spaces are used will not only be about collecting and representing information. Citizens will begin to gain the ability to affect their environment in new ways, using city services the way they would use a digital application in an online environment. Transportation systems, lighting systems, public media hardware like active signage and sound-systems will become objects available for activation, control, and coordination by tools and services that citizens use in their everyday lives. Through collaborative interaction with such tools, users of public spaces can configure them for specific temporary functions and even begin to ‘perform’ space together.

Architects and urban planners have for years attempted to envision how these dynamic systems would behave and operate. In the 1960s, Constant Nieuwenhuys, an Amsterdam-based Situationist artist-architect, imagined a New Babylon made of linked transformable structures that allowed its inhabitants to freely reconfigure their environment to fit their needs and desires in realtime. This Utopian fantasy was certainly provocative at the time, but also held hints at a new relationship between citizens and their context. The citizen can be an active participant in shaping her environment everywhere she goes. Together, we can play our cities like instruments.

We are now entering an era where technology begins to weave together the desires of citizens and the services available to them in their environment in realtime. But what does the use of these new systems look like? It is quite clear that the first step to unlocking these possibilities is the mobile terminal, or ‘smartphone’. Users of such mobile devices have already become accustomed to the access to information that urban-oriented webservices available in the mobile browser provide: maps, transit times, weather information, etc. Even tasks like calling a cab or reserving a table at a restaurant have become like buttons on a remote control for the city. But what about more active uses of service made available in the environment? Applications, supported by new network hardware, more like airTunes, where anyone running iTunes can ‘discover’ nearby speakers and stream music to them wirelessly.

For this project, VURB and partners will enable a set of environmental services in the Trouw building to be ‘discoverable’ by mobile devices, and controlled by citizens/users through applications on their smartphones. These services will most likely include a dancefloor lighting system and various speakers situated throughout the publically accessible space. One of the most interesting aspects to investigate about these types of contexts will be the social dynamics of resource sharing. We will build a toolkit that allows the maintainers of the space to continue to adjust the mechanisms by which individual users compete or collaborate to gain access to the controllable components like lighting and sound. The patterns of use generated by these services over time will be recorded and made available on the web at a later date [by way of analytics applications built through later granted funding] The investigation of methods of dynamic digital resource sharing in public environmental systems is an ongoing research initiative within VURB, and this dataset will provide rich examples of different approaches to making these tool available.

It is our intention that the toolkits produced both for the mobile handset application and the environmental system that makes lighting and sound serves available for network operation will both be made into opensource technology development projects housed at VURB for ongoing collaborative development. We hope that this will be the first of many such installations that investigate dynamic digital service discovery in the urban environment.

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