A Crowdsourced Orchestra And Robotic Artists Bring The Internet To Life In Google's Web Lab
The internet: It’s all around us, in our pockets, on our laps, and soon to be directly in front of our eyeballs. It’s this non-physical thing that permeates the air, travelling invisibly over wifi to allow us to tell perfect strangers what we thought of our lunch. It’s omnipresent, but immaterial. But perhaps not as immaterial as we think.
It’s more likely that we perceive it to be immaterial, when in fact it has a very strong presence in the physical world. The laptop I’m typing on, the cables carrying the data that will allow me to upload this post to the network, the fact that someone will read this (or maybe not…) and will probably feel no emotion whatsoever. But, if I was riling the fanboys on Rotten Tomatoes, then we’d see how immaterial data can effect a corporeal being halfway across the world.
As wearable computing comes to replace your iPhone, technology will increasingly become more invisible, and the physicality of the web and the virtual world might well become more hidden, but its effects and presence will grow. Web Lab, an online and offline exhibition from Google, Tellart, and B-Reel opened yesterday in London’s Science Museum. With interior architecture and furniture designed in collaboration with Universal Design Studio, it aims to show kids and adults alike how the web has physicality. Just because it’s digital, doesn’t mean it can’t be tangible. They also aim to bring the workings of the web to younger generations, inspiring kids who’ll be taking up the mantle from today’s developers.
Matt Cottam, founder of Tellart, who spent just over a year putting the show together with his team and their collaborators, kindly showed me around yesterday morning. The exhibition is presented through five different installations/experiments (below), each showcasing a different aspect of the internet and all, crucially, presenting these various components in real-time. It’s also the first 24 hour exhibition. As the museum shuts, people online can still interact with the exhibits, playing the instruments and getting their portraits drawn.
To start, each person who visits the site or exhibition is given a unique identity in the form of a Lab Tag represented by three geometric shapes, developed by Karsten Schmidt and Tellart. This allows you to link together all your activity in Web Lab and save and share it. And it also means the exhibition can live on after you walk out the museum door, as by showing it to your webcam it will bring up all your activity.
It’s a unique way of presenting an exhibition about the internet and it feels exciting and new. Cottam described it to me as smoke on lasers, revealing the form and structure behind this invisible network. It’s a great way of thinking of it.
Lab Tag Explorer
As you walk down the stairs and into the basement area, you’re presented with a graphic, displaying all the people who are at the museum and all those interacting with the site online, expressed as their floating Lab Tag. Behind the screen is a custom built robot created by Tellart which groups the tags together, forming the outline of a country to show where the tags are from.
This installation allows you to find out where the information you’re looking at is being hosted. In the museum, you put your Lab Tag card in a slot and you’re able to search for images on the web and the data tracer shows you the server where the image is located. I searched for a JPG of a leafbird and found out it was routed from a server in Plano, Texas. As you search, a graphic on the screen in front of you shows you the information travelling in real-time across a transatlantic cable sitting at the bottom of the ocean, which carries data across the world. It also gives you the time it takes for the information to reach the server in Plano over 4,000 miles away (in this case, 0.109 seconds). It got there 271,707 times quicker than an airplane would.
This features robots that sketch your portrait in sand. The robots—built by Tellart right down to the bicycle frames used for their necks—take a photo of you. Then, with their algorithmic brains, they analyze the component parts of your face and draw it in the sand as a simpler derivative. While this is being done, you can see other sand pits which are dedicated to the internet, getting requests from places like China, Saudi Arabia, Italy, all over the globe, and drawing that person’s face in the sand. It’s quite incredible to be there while these requests are coming in. It gives you a real sense of the interconnectivity and ever-presence of the internet, and the huge mass of people constantly interacting with it. Below is the live recording of my own sand portrait, which got uploaded to YouTube once it was complete.
This is effectively three 24 hour webcams: one set up in a bakery in Carolina, one in a miniature wonderland in Germany, and the other in an ocean aquarium in Cape Town. Set up like periscopes, you peer into these other realities taking place in real-time somewhere across the earth. Turning the scope allows you to look around in the chosen place, a bit like Street View for interiors, but with video. It has a button on the right hand side which lets you snap pictures of what you see, which are saved to your Lab Tag.
The last installation is the Universal Orchestra, which allows you to collaboratively play robotic percussion instruments with people online and at the museum. You click on different spots on a graphic to play different notes, laying down some beats with the hive mind. Below is me jamming with some people from Taiwan and Israel. It’s inspired me to want to get the band back together, even though I was never in a band.