Responses to ‘Immaterials’

By Timo | 26 October 2009

In the two weeks since we launched our film Immaterials we’ve seen it spread across the internet, going much further than we anticipated for such an esoteric exploration! So far it’s been covered by Infosthetics, Slashdot, PSFK, Fast Company, Popular Science, io9, Wired, Gizmodo (FR, JP), Microsiervos, Make Magazine, Gizmologia, Influxinsights, WonderHowTo, Amal Graafstra, William Gibson and Warren Ellis amongst many others. Thanks for all the input and discussion.

21 January, 16.59

One of the first long-exposure photographs that proved the mapping technique.

Adam Greenfield uses the work to reflect on how design decisions about seemingly small details—such as the range of an RFID reader—can have significant implications for wider systems and infrastructures:

“Rather than asserting “an RFID” as some eternal given, something that will produce the same linear, determinate effect each and every time it is deployed, Immaterials reminds us that the choice of material, shape, size, direction, orientation and power rating of the components involved have distinct consequences for the uses to which those components can be put. And as we’ve seen, these choices can produce effects on levels seemingly entirely removed from the interaction itself.”

Dan Hill goes back to the ‘invisibility’ of electricity and relates the work to his own experiments looking at the immaterial aspects of the city:

“In their work I even see something of the early experiments of, say, Benjamin Franklin and Nikola Tesla in terms of understanding the behaviour of electricity, such that it can then be tamed, conducted, and put to work. It’s perhaps drawing a long bow to make that comparison, but it feels like a similar sentiment. Whilst electricity is hardly invisible, there is a sense of trying to understand such immaterial phenomena through prototyping and experimentation. ”

Here in the discussion Mitchell Whitelaw responds to what he sees as the false opposition between material and immaterial, suggesting transmaterial as a suitable alternative term for the new kinds of materials that we are working with. Have a look at Mitchell’s weblog for more on the term transmaterial and ‘expanded computing’.

The technically focused audience at Slashdot questioned the reasons for doing such a study. A common criticism here is that manufacturers data sheets and computer simulations should be able to give us a quicker and more accurate model of the interaction:

“For a theoretical/measured depiction they could just read the reader manufacturer’s data sheet, which will almost certainly contain a diagram of the antenna sensitivity pattern in a couple of planes and probably some concrete figures.”

“The subtlety seems to be that they’re not plotting an RF field, they’re plotting the volume in which the passive tag will respond to an RF field (of a given strength). It’s another level of abstraction. Yes, once somebody has come up with the idea then the implementation looks simple enough, but the idea is quite remarkable.”

“The main reason they did this is to map out the field interaction between the RFID tag and the reader, which is not a trivial thing to visualize based on the two data sheets.”

Also discussed here was a technical point that raises wider concerns about privacy, security and eavesdropping:

“Remember, anything radio is not theoretically limited in range. Only practical implementations have set limits. ”

“Yes, but RFID passive responses very quickly go below ambient background noise, in effect limiting even the theoretical range to 1-2 m for all but most exotic radio-noise free environments.”

This discussion shows that—even though we are keen for these images to be used as material in the discussion of privacy and the problem of invisibility—the physical limitations for snooping or eavesdropping are more complex. And if we then take RFID systems as a whole, there are far wider concerns that are much broader than physical/spatial relationships such as the long-term storage of data on travelcard or passport usage for instance.

04 March, 12.34

A glimpse behind the scenes of the Immaterials filmmaking.

We received lots of emails and comments from specialists involved in radio and antenna design, who saw the visualisations as empirical evidence:

From Paul B. via email:

“I’ve worked in both passive and active RFID for about 15 years and want to congratulate you on the very effective and entertaining visualizations. I’ve done my share of winding coils, blinking LEDs and have created diagrams mapping fields so I know how hard it is to make something that is useful and actually helps non-tech people understand the weird world of RFID.”

From Dave H. via email:

“We have had to use huge anechoic chambers with massive parabolic reflectors and extremely stable transmitters to measure the field strength pattern of antennae. I know it’s a world away from that sort of large scale tech but your RFID visualisations blew me away. It’s fantastic. A brilliant idea. And it works perfectly.”

And finally some kind words from both Fast Company:

“As technology progresses, we need better symbols to understand all the gadgets and electrical hubbub that surrounds us. What could be better than symbols that actually reveal a bit about how a technology works?”

And the Helsinki Design Lab 2010:

“Rarely does one have the opportunity to watch a discourse take large strides, but I get the feeling that’s exactly what we’re witnessing as Touch/BERG elaborate nearfield communications as something with nuance – in other words, as a material.”

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