.Activist Phones and Long-Term Research

Eric Paulos gets paid by Intel to walk around and wonder about things.

Eric Paulos works a dream job at Intel Research Berkeley, a suite of labs and offices on the top floor of the Power Bar building. The lucky staffers are invited to dabble, experiment, create, and play. There’s no such thing as proprietary information at this lab, so they’re encouraged to collaborate with outside researchers. Maybe the projects they work on will have commercial applications for Intel somewhere down the line … or maybe not. The lab’s principle is that researchers shouldn’t focus too much on the end goal, because they might then miss an interesting turn along the way.

“What do I do in the world?” Paulos asks, reflectively. “I wander around. I might wonder what direction I’m facing, how hard the wind is blowing, whether there are pollens in the air if I have allergies, if the water is safe to drink, or how long can I stay outside before I get a sunburn.”

These mundane musings are the root of Paulos’ latest art installation/research project/activist campaign. In his five years with Intel, Paulos has been meandering down a path he calls “participatory urbanism.” Perhaps you think you’re already participating in your city’s life by negotiating traffic, walking your dog, shopping locally, but Paulos wants more. He wants you to take note of the environment that can be all but forgotten in a landscape of office towers and freeways. He’s hoping to use the ubiquitous technology of cell phones to bring humans into a deeper relationship with the urban environment, thus bringing about a cleaner, greener world.

His current work centers on air quality. He created a program that sends users text messages with current EPA air quality data on command, and is also building handheld sensors that measure levels of ozone, carbon monoxide, and several other smoggy pollutants. Paulos envisions a day when these sensors can be built into our cell phones, and thinks this could create legions of “citizen scientists” who could modify their pollution-causing behavior or start grassroots campaigns for stricter environmental regulations.

Cell phones are Paulos’ muse, or maybe even his obsession. “I want to get people to question what these phones can be,” he says, “and create these things that ultimately look nothing like a phone.”

His latest projects are currently on display at San Francisco’s Southern Exposure gallery, in a new exhibit about air quality — in fact, Paulos’ research projects often end up in art festivals and museums such as the SFMOMA and the Yerba Buena Center. Paulos says he likes putting his work into art forms, because it makes them more accessible to the public, and more likely to spark a debate.

Paulos’ air quality sensors will be taken for a test run on the afternoon of Saturday, March 29, when willing citizen scientists are invited to gather at Southern Exposure gallery. Paulos will hand out an assortment of sensors that detect anything from decibels to carbon monoxide, and the participants will then wander off to explore their urban landscape. “In one way, it’s sort of a happening — a free-form performance with a piece of technology,” says Paulos. “But in academic light, it’s a user study.”

Paulos’ boss, lab director Eric Brewer, says that Paulos’ work “is not short-term strategic,” which could be described as an understatement. “He works on things that are important for the industry,” says Brewer, “but not this quarter, not this year.” But Brewer points out that smart phones are on the same trajectory as PCs were in the 1990s, making startling gains in power and utility every year. “It’s not Eric’s job to come up with the right microprocessor for a phone, but to explore the future, interesting uses for these phones,” he says.

That job apparently comes naturally to Paulos. While he’s currently working on what could be described as activist phones, he has also designed phone-based projects that have no purpose other than eliciting “wonderment.” In an art project titled “Hullabaloo,” Paulos placed devices in public places that identified the unique Bluetooth signal of each phone that went by in a pocket or handbag, and assigned each one a different musical riff. Then it mashed up the riffs of all the cell phones that were within range, and played a constantly shifting symphony.

But back to air quality: although Intel isn’t going to start building activist phones in the next quarter, Paulos has been busily scheming up applications for his work. He’s currently talking with San Francisco’s Department of Public Works about mounting sensors on street sweepers to make a detailed, block-by-block map of air quality. He’s also determined to bring the technology to developing world cities, where foul air, produced by burning garbage and ancient cars, is a critical issue. In March 2007, he deployed handheld and taxi-mounted sensors around Accra, Ghana.

Not only is the smog problem more intense in developing nations, but if Paulos could insert sensors into mobile phones, a grassroots campaign could also take more immediate effect. “In the developing world, people are leapfrogging over desktop computing,” Paulos says. “The mobile phone is becoming the computing platform.” There! Did you hear it? Just for a minute, Paulos sounded less like an art freak or a student organizer and more like a corporate employee.


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