Faces in the Sand

August 5, 2012 at 10:25 am (art, computers, interesting, internet, science) (, , , , , , , , , , , )

I had an hour spare in London yesterday so took some time to visit the Science Museum.  Now this is something I like to do from time to time, if nothing else just to pop in if I’m passing that way to see if the Listening Post is still there.

This time I had two aims in mind.  First to catch a little of the Alan Turing exhibition, although most of it I already knew, from having visited Bletchley Park in the past.  Then, from the birth of modern computing, I wanted to visit the Google Chrome Web Lab.  This is a recently opened exhibition, running until June next year.

So, I find the museum, wander in and immediately see the Turing exhibition, so walk through that.  Mission accomplished, I walk on through the main gallery, past the steam engines, through the space section, past the ‘building the modern world’ gallery, home of the cut-in-half mini, the cray supercomputer and the ‘decades’ displays.

I had a brief pause when I noticed the prototype Clock of the Long Now.  This is something I have literally just read about in Richard Watson’s book ‘Future Minds’ (which I totally recommend).  In the book he presents a search for slowing down, worried about how the ‘always on, always interrupting’ nature of the modern, connected world leaves no time for quiet thinking, reflection and the kind of deep thought that really leads to new ideas.  He mentions the clock as a symbol of “thinking slowly”.

The prototype of the 10000 year clock ticks once every 30 seconds and has been installed in the science museum.  The final clock is being built inside a mountain in the US (like the fictional Colossus)! The web page lists the prototype as being created December 1st 01999 – not many projects will list a 5 digit year! (reminds me of As Slow as Possible, but I could digress about such topics for ages, so I won’t!).

Once past the main galleries and into the newer Wellcome Wing, an immediate right turn will take you down some steps to the Chrome Web Lab.  And after all this old, long term thinking you are brought right into the current, connected present.

The idea behind the lab is to make the Internet seem real.  A very topical subject for me right now as I’m currently reading Andrew Blum’s ‘Tubes’ about his discover to find the real, physical Internet (but more on that another time).  Of course whilst educating the populace, it has the side effect of raising awareness of Google’s own web browser technology, Chrome, showcasing its future looking HTML 5 application development ability.

Google have created 6 experiments that can be run locally in the museum and online at chromeweblab.com.  Visitors to the museum can see the online participants and those online can see elements on the physical displays too.  Based on the kinds of Internet projects I’ve seen Google push in the past, I was very interested in seeing what they will do themselves.

When you first walk in (or register online) you get a “lab tag” which you put in the experiments to “log in”.  You can also hold it up to your webcam when you get home and link back to your time in the lab.

There are five experiments in total, but the ones that really appealed to me were the Universal Orchestra and the Sketchbots.

The Universal Orchestra is a set of six digitally controlled musical instruments.  A marimba, xylophone, drums, tuned drums, shakers, wood blocks, etc.  It is controlled by programming using a system of dots that appears to owe quite a lot to a Tenori-On.

Three instruments can programmed from within the physical lab and three are programmed only online.  A computer provides an ethereal accompaniment track based on the notes chosen at any one time.  The continuously changing nature of the music provides a fascinating aural background to the rest of the lab.

But the experiment that prompted the title of this post is the collection of sketchbots.  Again, six in total, three controlled only online and three from the lab.  You insert your tag and stand in front of a webcam.  It takes your picture and then goes through a series of image processing steps to isolate the key lines of your face.  These lines are then drawn in some smooth sand by a robot arm.

There is a wonderful irony at play here.  On the one hand, the robot draws your picture, the table rotates a quarter turn and in the space of three rotations your picture is no more.  Washed away just like a picture in the sand at the beach.  Forgotten to all.

But in parallel, the digital version that allowed the robot to draw the picture in the sand has been remembered.  It sits on Google’s servers, linked to your own tag to be recalled at a moments notice.  How long will it remain?  Who knows.  “Storage is cheap”.  The cloud is forever.  (Note that the T&C say data will be deleted when the exhibition closes).

We are in an age of digitally never forgetting.  Whilst once it took lots of effort to remember – initially sharing a song around the fire, passing on tales and stories, then writing and language allowing written records.  Finally the printing press allow mass distribution.  Still, recording was an effort.

Today it is almost totally the reverse.  If it’s digital, it is remembered by default by something, somewhere.  We have the technology to record every moment of our lives, but when would we find time to watch it?  Many digital photos are “write only” taken and automatically preserved, but never looked at again.

It is now more effort to forget digital information.  Google knows what you’ve done – what you’ve searched for, what emails you’ve sent – in some cases where you’ve been.  To ask it to forget is next to impossible.  It will maintain your digital footprints in their digital sand for as long as its useful to them.

Hence the wonderful irony enshrined in the Google sketchbots – my picture is long gone in the sand, but lives on (as does the record of my visit) online.  And to me it points to a future where what was once transient is becoming permanent.  Interesting Times indeed.

It is very well worth a visit to the web lab – in the physical space if you happen to be passing, or online.  A very nice way to spend an hour.

Kevin.

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