Interactive tech transforming urban space
Is social media changing the way we communicate face-to-face in public spaces?
Hundreds of city folk in Montréal demonstrated recently how interactive digital technology is taking free speech to a new level in public spaces with an installation called Mégaphone.
Simon Fraser University doctoral student Claude Fortin undertook a 10-week case study of the interactive street exhibit, which merges technology and urban space in a bid to transform the traditional soapbox.
The Montréal native believes such interaction could play an important role in building a stronger sense of community. Her lab’s field findings also raise questions about how social media influences how we communicate.
Passersby would speak into a microphone set up in a ‘Speakers’ Corner’ of a city plaza. The Mégaphone amplified their spoken words throughout the plaza, and projected them into giant written text onto the monumental media façade of Université du Quebec à Montréal’s President Kennedy Building.
A speech recognition system transcribed the speaker's words in live mode with a 30-second delay, then permanently archived them into the Mégaphone database to become visible in sleep mode when no one was speaking.
The large media façade was also programmed to change color according to the frequency modulations in the speaker's voice, resulting in an interactive embodied experience for those who used and watched it.
“We were surprised at how people appropriated Mégaphone to share their opinions, anecdotes from their days at work, feelings of the moment or elements of news they felt should be publicized, much like people routinely do on social media such as Facebook,” says Fortin.
“It often seemed like people were announcing their ‘status’ while those in the agora would ‘like’ these interventions with applause or even come up to the Speaker's Corner and react to the previous speaker, one after another, like a thread of comments.
“This was an unexpected observation, because, from an anthropological perspective, it begs the question: "Has social media changed the way people communicate face-to-face in public space?”
With the future development of smart cities, Fortin says we need to be mindful of how urban technology will “enable new possibilities for technology-mediated social participation, activism and civic engagement, instead of letting it be used only to provide us with geo-relevant information and advertisements.”
Fortin, who is examining the aesthetic and social potential of public interactive displays like Mégaphone, interviewed numerous participants and became a resident “fly-on-the-wall” to study the hands-on exhibit.
“Mining rich qualitative data on interactive digital displays ‘in the wild’ requires an approach that favours observation and descriptive reporting based on interpretive analysis,” says Fortin, who is supported by GRAND, a federally funded research Network of Centres of Excellence (NCE).
Fortin’s doctoral supervisor is Kate Hennessy, an assistant professor in SFU’s School of Interactive Arts and Technology (SIAT) at the Surrey campus. She says the research provides “a unique insight into the culturally, politically and economically situated design and implementation of a large scale digital public display, as well as its reception, engagement and appropriation by the public.”
The study is an example of work being done in SIAT’s Making Culture Lab (MCL), which focuses on developing and assessing culturally specific applications of digital media. The lab also works closely with end users to document their feedback on design and prototypes.
The researchers expect to see more examples of interactive technology in public spaces. They say closing the gap between online and offline communications has the potential to stimulate a wider range of opportunities for people to hone social, cultural and political resources, while creating conditions that can help foster a greater sense of community.
Inspired by the city’s history of popular assemblies, the installation was co-produced by the National Film Board of Canada and the Quartier des Spectacles Partnership, created by Moment Factory and directed by Etienne Paquette.
For more on this research and SIAT’s MCL see: http://at.sfu.ca/eUkwvo
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