You pull out your phone and open a map. A blue dot appears, pinpointing your location. Here you are, the dot says. It’s reassuring, accurate, reliable...mostly. But every now and then, the unity of self and dot falters. The dot skips away across the map, wandering drunkenly about while you stay rooted firmly to the ground. Eventually, the dot finds its way back to your location, but not before your faith in the conformity of the digital with the real has been stirred.
GPS, the global positioning system, is a bedrock technology of the Internet of Things, one of the earliest ways of representing real-time data about connected devices and objects. We’ve come to rely on it in our daily lives, trusting in mapping software to help us navigate the world, find our friends, and explore distant places.
But in the parable of the dancing dot, the limitations of GPS are laid bare. GPS relies on a network of satellites orbiting 12,000 miles above the earth. At any particular spot, the signals from these satellites grow weaker and stronger as they pass overhead, and it’s those fluctuations that cause the phantom movement of your wandering blue dot.
Satellite Lamps, a project of design researchers Einar Sneve Martinussen, Jørn Knutsen, and Timo Arnall at the Oslo School of Architecture and Design in Norway (also the group behind the ImmaterialsWiFi and RFID exploration in 2009), illuminates the changeable nature of GPS signals. Each lamp is attached to a GPS receiver, but instead of triangulating its location, the brightness of the bulb represents the strength -- and therefore the accuracy -- of the signals it receives.
In time-lapse videos, some lamps shine bright while others flash fitfully between off and dim. Even in a single location, a lamp placed too near a building or overpass may struggle to find a signal while its twin, just a few feet away, glows happily. The fickle flicker of the light mirrors every juke and sidestep of the ubiquitous blue dot, providing a tangible reminder that GPS, like all digital technologies, can only represent the world as accurately as we can measure it.
As designers, the trio behind Satellite Lamps want to encourage new ways of thinking about a technology that remains largely invisible.
“GPS is symbolically underdeveloped,” they write at the end of an essay that accompanies the project. “It’s a sophisticated technology, but we haven’t got an equally sophisticated language for understanding it. We end up with unhelpful folk mythology and development tools that limit the application of GPS to primarily locating oneself on a map.”
By creating a physical representation of the ever-present global positioning signals, Satellite Lamps is intended to “anchor a discussion about how GPS takes place in the city and everyday life, but also how we engage with the technology as designer. This, hopefully, reminds people of a taken-for-granted and out-of-sight technology, and opens it for new perspectives, critique, and further investigation.”
When it comes to the Internet of Things, design exists at the intersection of digital bits and the physical world. The trick for designers is to make the two overlap as seamlessly as possible -- and as Satellite Lamps proves, that sometimes means making ourselves view familiar technology in a different light.
See for yourself in the video below.
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