Wearable Computers: Devices of Mediated Presence on the Web
Luisa Paraguai Donati
Institute of Arts, Unicamp, Brazil; Visiting Researcher-in-residence at STAR, University of Plymouth, UK.
Department of Visual Arts, School of Communication and Arts, University of São Paulo, Brasil
The interaction human being-technology is an activity present in all stages of civilisation. The integration of the computer as a communication tool has profoundly transformed the means of human interaction, providing a social space that has been individually or collectively, explored, accessed, and developed through different interfaces. The question to be asked here is the possibility of remote presence using a specific technologic interface: wearable computer. The paper will highlight some definitions about telepresence and present two specific projects, where the wearable computer is used as mediator of personal experiences and poetic procedures on the Web.
Bass suggests five characteristics to define a wearable computer, “… it may be used while the wearer is in motion; it may be used while one or both hands are free, or occupied with other tasks; it exists within the corporeal envelope of the user, i.e., it should be not merely attached to the body but becomes an integral part of the person's clothing; it must allow the user to maintain control; it must exhibit constancy, in the sense that it should be constantly available...” . So, another form of human-computer interaction has been proposed by wearable computer system, when the “always ready” capability leads to a new form of synergy between user and computer. This “embodied” system provides the users an own information space, operated and controlled by them, empowering each individual with a new tool of communication.
Such devices, when connected to the Web, can propose another sense of presence, “telepresence”, thus modulating “to be” and “to act” in remote spaces through exchanged images, texts, and sounds. The images, grabbed and transmitted in real time, start to operate among different physical localizable spaces, making available a time of “being present” to the user. In this manner, users’ action is determined by the synergy of elements such as coexistence in virtual and real space, synchronism, remote observation, and remote control in real time, many times in collaborative environments. People start to coexist in the threshold, “moving” from one place to the other without leaving their “house”. This possibility of operating simultaneously in different contexts makes possible several “folds” of existence and (re) configures the sense of presence that is updated without any physical displacement and organised differently of “being physically close”.
The term “telepresence” (Minsky, 1980) , or “remote presence”, determined by new digital tools provides different levels of interaction from the previous media of communication, “when users can influence the form and/or content of the mediated presentation or experience as in definition” . This concept can be understand as “co-presence” according to Lombard (1997) when “…person’s perception that the person or people with whom she/he is engaged in two-way communication is/are in the same physical location and environment when in fact they are in a different physical location.” . The possible actions carried out by the users (observation, movement, operation ) affect the remote environment and they can receive and monitor a retroaction, feedback, from it in real time. For Manovich (2001) “… a better term would be “teleaction”. I do not have to be physically present in a location to affect reality at this location. Acting over distance. In real time” . Paulos and Canny (2002) defined the term “tele-embodiment” to describe a context where the users can have their presence projected into a real remote space using a robot at the end of connection . Users, from this kind of experience, can access other “perceptive dimensions” as different operations of space/time, projecting their presence as possibilities of experiencing power and control into a real remote space.
As Negroponte says, “the modulation of signals processed from wearable accessories can constitute the ‘body net’, a personal area of web communication that establishes connections through the body itself” . So, the “body” can be understood as a physical reality technologically mediated, elaborating its activities, which take place either locally or remotely, in constant juxtaposition of space/time dimensions not related.
The artistic experiences that involve Web user’s presence as possibility of interference in remote physical environments evoke a new domain of sensory-motor interactions, learning processes, leading the user to (re)discover his/her own space and the perception of his/her presence. These possible artistic expressions change the contemplative and interpretative behaviour of users’ actions, and therefore demand a different attitude from users to handle the space and their sense of presence. KAC sees the telepresence art as “... a way to produce an open and engaging experience that manifests the cultural changes brought about by remote control, remote vision, ‘telekinesis’, and real time exchange of audio-visual information” .
Some artists have been appropriating the technology of wearable computers and aesthetically formalising these new behaviours, social presences, as the result of a fluid process, since the device can keep the wearer susceptible to mobility and constantly connected on the Web. Therefore, they are indispensable in the reflection of how these new tools have been incorporated by people, included in this process, to produce, store and apprehend knowledge, thought, and power. Below, two different proposals using wearable system will be described.
Steve Mann started this project in the Media Lab – MIT, in the beginning of 1994, and remained online until September 1996, at the ICIP 96, in Lousanne. The works “Maybe Camera”, “Probably Camera”, “No Camera”, “My Manager”, and “ShootingBack”, questioned the use of surveillance cameras in public spaces and confronted the society with its own mechanisms of control. The Web users could “follow” Steve Mann movements and become observers of his daily course through images grabbed by his device and transmitted in real time to the Web. The project named “My Manager”, inspired on Stelarc’s works in “Performance Art”, permitted the participants interfere on it as administrators via radio teletype (RTTY). They remotely contributed to choosing the images for the creation of a video document also inserted in a surveillance environment. All the works of Steve Mann have been pointing to a personal resistance against the “control societies”, which according to Deleuze has been operating through “information machines” – software and computers, and substituting the “disciplinary societies” . More information on the wireless wearable webcam project can be found at http://www.wearcam.org.
The “tele-actor” is inserted in a larger tele-robotics project and proposes a form of telepresence on the Web, where the participants collaboratively experience and effectively can act in remote spaces. The system combines a remote agent – “tele-actor”, and participants from the Web – “tele-directors”. Requests from the “tele-directors” are treated as choices of actions, and are processed on the base station as a sequence of commands sent to the “tele-actor”, who answers performing properly. “Tele-directors” online collaborate more than compete for access, thus allowing the persons to share remote experiences through the system. According to Goldberg, the “tele-director” system was elaborated from two fields of possibilities: human remote interaction and collaborating control. More information on the Tele-Actor project can be found at http://www.teleactor.net.
According to Ascott “...we seek through technology to escape the constraints of the body, extend the mind, navigate the Net’s planetary field of consciousness, seed the artificial life, in order to reach a better understanding of our own capabilities and to create other ways of being” . Then, we can think that those new forms of “presence” have changed the users’ perception when the use of that prosthesis, wearable computer, proposes the possibility of coexistence in different codes, dimensions, spaces, worlds, affecting the shape of consciousness, the essence of behaviour, and thereby the construction of reality.
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 Ph.D. student at Institute of Arts, Unicamp, Brazil; Visiting Researcher-in-residence at STAR, University of Plymouth, UK. This research is supported by CNPq - Conselho Nacional de Desenvolvimento Científico e Tecnológico and FAPESP – Fundação de Amparo à Pesquisa do Estado de São Paulo. firstname.lastname@example.org.
 Multimedia Artist, Professor at the Department of Visual Arts, School of Communication and Arts, University of São Paulo. E-mail: email@example.com