urban tapestries
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4th Wireless World Conference, 17 & 18 July 2003

Giles Lane
Associate Research Fellow, Media & Communications, London School of Economics
& Programme Director, SoMa (social matrices) think tank for culture


Urban Tapestries: wireless networking, public authoring and social knowledge


The mobile landscape is changing. Slowly, inexorably there is a shift away from the distinctive differences between voice and data, between circuit switching and packet switching. Our telephone lines are no longer just peer-to-peer devices, connecting us singly to another person, but open up a broader vista of point-to-multi-point communication via the internet, video conferencing and instant messaging. Mobile phones too are beginning to offer more than just voice communication and SMS texting – video calling, online banking, m-commerce and media streaming are all in their infancy, but never-the-less here.

What is the future for these mobile data possibilities? How will people take them up and why? Who chooses what content can be accessed by mobile devices? Where can the mobile service providers learn from their past, and the last decade of growth in the internet to understand what their customers want (or might want) and how they can provide it?

The project outlined below is an action research initiative to explore how users might engage with mobile location-specific content, as well as to build a tangible prototype for public trial.

Project Outline

Urban Tapestries is an interactive location-based wireless application allowing users to access and author location-specific multimedia content (such as local historical information, personal memories, pictures, short movies and sounds). It is a forum for sharing experience and knowledge, for leaving ephemeral traces of peoples’ presence in the geography of the city.

Urban Tapestries is more than a history trail, it is dynamically interactive rather than merely responsive. It enables a community’s collective memory to grow organically, allowing ordinary citizens to embed social knowledge in the new wireless landscape of the city. Users will be able to add new locations, location content and the ‘threads’ which link individual locations to local contexts.

Urban Tapestries privileges the experience of the user over typical ‘publishing’ systems (such as those found in museums) which control and author the user experience. For example, in addition to being able to upload text, sound and images to the system, at each Urban Tapestry location encountered, the user will be prompted to record an audio clip of their sound environment. These audio clips can later be edited together to create a ‘sound map’.

Sound is indelibly linked to memory – often acting as a powerful trigger for recall. Each sound map will be a unique recording of a personal journey – something the users can later share with friends. Urban Tapestries affords its users a novel way of authoring their own experience of inhabiting the cityspace and communicating it to others via an album of memories structured around sound.


Urban Tapestries was conceived and initiated by Giles Lane, Alice Angus and Katrina Jungnickel who comprise Proboscis, a non-profit creative studio and think tank. The project began to take shape in July 2002 when the first visual scenario was developed. Interest in the project was shown by Phil Stenton at HP Labs and a dialogue initiated which led to the project being developed under HP Labs' City & Building Research Centre, as part of the DTI's Next Wave Technologies and Markets Programme. Other partners include the London School of Economics (social research), Orange (network partner) and the Financial Times (media sponsor). The project is co-funded by Arts Council England.

To develop the project Proboscis has assembled a multi-disciplinary team from among its associates: Danny Angus (system architecture), John Paul Bichard (interface design), Rachel Murphy (interaction concept design) and Nick West (information architecture). The project also employs a part-time research assistant and doctoral candidate at the London School of Economics, Zoe Sujon, supervised by Professor Roger Silverstone.

The project has its roots in previous work by Proboscis with the LSE, such as the Private Reveries, Public Spaces project. PRPS looked at how private behaviours are affected by new and emerging technologies in public spaces. We commissioned 14 proposals from other artists and designers and developed 3 into 'conceptual prototypes' – playful but serious projects which could inspire and engage people beyond of the ghetto of digital art and design.

As we nurtured the overall framework for the project, as well as the 3 prototypes, we began to work on our own ideas of how network and communication technologies influence the ways we behave as private individuals in public spaces. The trajectory of this was to lead us to visualise what we thought would be a radical application of the technologies that hadn't seemed to occur to anyone else yet.

Urban Tapestries began as an experiment for our Sonic Geographies project, which aims to develop a series of new ways of experiencing the city based on sound. As research activity it straddles the two key themes of our research programme (SoMa: the social matrices think tank): Species of Spaces and Liquid Geography.

Initial Concepts
An Urban Tapestries system might be hosted by a school, local library or local chamber of commerce, perhaps to create an organic local archive of memory and history, or to embed local tourist information. Local residents and visitors would be able to add their own knowledge to the system, making it a dynamic public authoring platform.
Many of the locations (tagged via GPS coordinates) would be covered by public wireless hotspots, such as those provided by WiFi nodes (802.11).
Others might rely on the user having a GPRS / UMTS service enabled on their mobile phone. The Urban Tapestries PDA application would use Bluetooth to communicate with the mobile phone to access content and locations not covered by WiFi hotspots.
Combining both mobile and WiFi radio technologies will give Urban Tapestries flexibility both for accessing and publishing to the system, and in the range of devices that might be able to be used.
User Experience

Urban Tapestries seeks to create new ways of appreciating and interacting with the fabric of the city. It can both excavate and enrich the layers of experience that weave together in our everyday lives.
Users of Urban Tapestries will be able to select threads to follow (such as historical or social threads linking individual places), or drift across all the threads. Having selected a thread, the user will receive a map of the locations in the area associated with it. They can either follow it as a trail, or set the system to give a proximity alert when they pass a location.
On arrival at a location, the user receives an alert. They can then access the content associated with the location. Content can be 'clipped' to the PDA and stored for later perusal.
At each location the user is invited to record an audio clip of their sound environment. These form the basis of the sound maps which users can create as sonic albums or mappings of their journeys through the city. Each clip is linked to the location and its content.
Public Authoring
Public Authoring is crucial to the unique vision of Urban Tapestries.
Users will be able to add locations by tagging the GPS coordinates and uploading to the system. Content such as text, sounds, movies and images will also be uploadable, either from the PDA or via the internet.
For more immediate social interactions, a time-limited street graffiti system will enable users to leave messages tagged to locations. Perhaps to announce a local event or just to leave an observation.
All these elements of public authoring will hinge on live uploading to the system.

A key element of Urban Tapestries' interactivity is the sound maps that users can create from their recordings and associated location content. These maps will be saved in a format that will allow users to share them with others.
Users can create their own threads through an area: perhaps linking their favourite cafes, or sites of social or historical significance. These can be uploaded to the system for others to access as system threads.
Sound maps, threads and content can be shared directly with other users via Bluetooth.
Or the sound maps can be uploaded to a desktop computer for editing and sharing via the internet.

In developing the services for the convergence of telephony and internet protocols, many hardware manufacturers, network providers and universities have followed a singular route conceiving of the user as purely a consumer of pre-authored content, selected and 'published' by the service provider or an approved partner. In our own research, a large number of the projects we have come across hinge on the concept of the user as an eTourist, or eShopper (e.g. France Telecom). Only a very few attempt to create a richer dialogue with the user, or explore cultural and social contexts beyond consumption (e.g. Mobile Bristol's Slave Trade Trail).

The extraordinary and unforeseen take up of SMS and the failure of WAP and other data services suggests that what users appreciate most is the ability to author and communicate, whether it is messages to a friend or a group. The attempt to switch customers from SMS to multimedia messaging is still in its early days, but already the signs are that users enjoy having phones with cameras, but prefer to keep the pictures on their phones to show to friends rather than sending them. It will be sometime before we are able to gauge to impact of mobile video telephony on 3G, or the take up of premium services such as media streaming, but I would not be surprised to see these fail in relation to services which increase the users abilities to create and communicate with each other. What I would expect to be a 'killer app' for GPRS/3G always on phones is instant messaging.

As phones converge with the internet it seems that service providers are ignoring the reasons for the popularity of the internet, which has in under a decade reached into almost every aspect of daily life for the majority of the population in the first world. If the popular interest in the Internet can be said to derive in a significant part from the ability of anyone to create their own domain and take part in the creation of culture and civil society directly, then it would make sense to pursue the development of mobile technologies with similar capabilities?

What distinguishes Urban Tapestries from eTourism-type projects can be summarised in three categories:

1. Cooperative Not Hierarchical
Urban Tapestries relies fundamentally on communities, not on service or network providers. It is not meant to be a citywide ubiquitous applications, but rooted in each community which hosts its own system. A local Urban Tapestry could be a small as a street, or as big as a district.

2. Co-creation Not Consumption
Urban Tapestries relies on the co-creation of its own content by its users, rather than the consumption of pre-prepared content. The experience of the last five years indicates that what drives adoption of technology is not the pre-authored content served up by corporations and institutions, but the abilities to communicate on a one to one and one to many level that the internet and mobile phones offer.

3. Accretive and Organic Not Static
An Urban Tapestry is aimed to grow with time, at the pace set by its users. It is both the layering and excavation of layers of knowledge and experience – a real-time microcosm of how our cities and communities develop, prosper and die.


Possible hosts or maintainers of an Urban Tapestry content server might be a community group, school or local history archive, or perhaps a local trading association or chamber of commerce wishing to enhance the experience of visitors to their area.

Urban Tapestries also aims to be a platform for anonymous people-to-people communication. It is clear from both personal experience and recent research that a large percentage of mobile phone calls and text messages are based around gossip and observations rather than mission-critical communication. An integral part of the system will be a time-limited ‘street graffiti’ system to enable people to leave messages for others that will fade with time. This aspect of the system will form a key part of designing patterns of use for new technologies, rather than simply products or services for consumption. Enabling users to define their own uses of the system rather than authoring their experiences is critical to the project’s aim of enhancing user-authored experiences rather than directing them.

[Show Concept Scenario Film: Experience]

Key Issues

Some of the key research issues we are investigating are:

• Citizenship: Potential users of Urban Tapestries include both individual and community, local residents and visitors. The system’s ability to engage people with local geography has the potential to encourage greater knowledge of and sense of ownership of an area. This could have the effect of promoting a ‘cultural investment’ in the environment or a newcomer to the area may use the system to discover their new locale and to leave graffiti messages in order to meet and network with the community.

• Public Authoring and Sharing Knowledge: As a user moves through the streets passively accessing the location based information, this inspires them to add their own locations, favourite threads and leave messages for others. Regular visitors or local residents using the system would be able to engage in extended anonymous interactions with others. This addition of individual memories is like an organic oral history, such as one might find in Local History and Heritage archives. Yet in this case it is informally developed – authored and shaped by its users, extending the archiving of local history beyond the library and encouraging greater everyday interaction.

• Potential System Hosts: The system could be used by schools, colleges and community groups to encourage learning through investigation, exploration, interaction and play. Other hosts, such as museums might wish to adopt the system to allow visitors to share their observations and add to the ‘official’ knowledge. Local authorities, chambers of commerce, tourist boards might wish to adopt the system in an area to promote or enhance the experience of tourists.

• Creating Experiences: A user whose family lives at a distance or overseas could use Urban Tapestries to create an audio map of the area in which they live or work to send to their family or to friends who are partially sighted or blind, much in the same way we create photo albums to create an experience of a place. Or a resident may wish to create a series of threads linking their favourite locations linked to a theme or idea (a literary exploration of Bloomsbury or the best coffee stalls at the market).

Location Sensing: the prototype will use GPS as its primary location sensing technology, but we will also be investigating the practicality and benefits of other (perhaps complementary) technologies such as Cell Triangulation and the European Galileo positioning system.

User Device: the prototype user device will be a PocketPC PDA with integrated Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and GPS. This device will provide all the access and publishing functionality that Urban Tapestries offers. However such devices are costly and exclude the possibility of different layers of access: therefore we will create client software that is compatible with different devices (such as more advanced mobile phones) that will allow their users to access some, if not all that Urban Tapestries offers. Instead of forcing users to adopt a specific technological solution, Urban Tapestries will allow its users to interact with it on their own terms: as consumers simply accessing content or as co-creators accessing and publishing to the system.

Configuring the System: An Urban Tapestry will have both a host and users. We feel that it will have the most relevancy to its community of host and users if they can configure the system to their own needs. At the host level this could simply be limiting the size of files that users may publish to the system, or defining and limiting the kinds of threads that users can add. At the user level, it may be possible to design private threads that users can configure and manage themselves.

Trust: the prototype system will assume a basic trust between host and users. However, it is possible to imagine scenarios whereby malicious use of the system could compromise both host and users. We will be exploring ways and means of embedding trust levels into the system, that protect both host and users from potential abuse.

Society, Culture and the Prototype

Running alongside the technical and creative development is a social research project being conducted by Professor Roger Silverstone and Zoe Sujon at the London School of Economics.

The research aims to dig deeper into what consitutes social knowledge and to identify the social opportunities and costs of Urban Tapestries and the influx of mobile wireless technologies on society. It aims to explore emergent properties of wireless technologies to determine the technological identity of users (how do they see themselves in relation to technology) and the possible role of Urban Tapestries in translating local and embedded knowledges. Furthermore it aims to investigate questions of difference across ethnicity, class and social groups.

Fieldwork will involve interviewing and observing a research sample of seven Bloomsbury residents and commuters (the area where the prototype will be demonstrated): a Teen; a Visitor; a Middle income resident (e.g. home owner); a Low income resident (e.g. council tenant); a House-bound person (senior citizen or hospital patient); a Worker (commuter) and a Disabled / differently-abled person.

For Proboscis, as initiator of the project, this kind of cross-discipline approach to researching and developing technology and its impact on society and culture is fundamental. SoMa (Proboscis' research programme) is predicated on blending creative and social research methodologies in an attempt to create a rich dialogue between those who attempt to understand the impact of technologies on society and those who design and implement them.

For Urban Tapestries, the social research being undertaken by Roger Silverstone and Zoe Sujon presents an opportunity to test our assumptions about the relevance of mobile technologies to a small sample of potential users, whilst not limiting their responses to a single system. As part of an iterative design process, the results of the fieldwork will prove invaluable in understanding why users might adopt or discard aspects, or even the whole, of a system like Urban Tapestries. It offers important insights that can be incorporated into the prototype for further exploration and testing.

The Prototype System
We aim to build and demonstrate a working Urban Tapestries system in London at the end of 2003. The proposed test site is the Bloomsbury district, an area rich in cultural history and social activity where both Proboscis and the LSE are based. In addition there are opportunities to engage some of the other local cultural and social institutions in the demonstration such as the British Museum, the British Library, Birkbeck College, UCL, Great Ormond Street Hospital and the local libraries and community centres. We propose to tie in access to some of these institutions own WiFi networks, as well as populating the area with our own test network and provide some of them with user devices that they can loan to the public to test the system. In this way we intend from the beginning to test not only the technical proficiency, but the social and cultural context too.


Our goals in designing and building Urban Tapestries as a demonstrable prototype are to create an open, device and network agnostic platform that can be configured to allow for the free-flow of human creativity to determine its function and purpose in culture and society. We aim to challenge some of the prevailing nostrums about the relationship to community and place held by the commercial sector, and develop a working sketch of how people might actually be involved in the creation of the environments they inhabit.

Ultimately the success of Urban Tapestries will be measured not in how many users access its content, but in how its users adopt and adapt it to their own purposes – how readily it is subject to creative and productive misuse. In this way we hope to provide a template for others in this area to explore and devise mobile solutions which privilege the role of the user in content creation.

Just as SMS has proved a 'killer app' for GSM, so we believe that mobile systems with public authoring capabilities similar to the flexibility of internet will prevail over closed systems. The future appears not to belong to a single platform, but to the interoperability between platforms.

The key role we see for mobile service providers is acting as the trusted conduits allowing users to roam across whatever wireline or wireless connection their current circumstance or context requires.

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