The Wireless Artist

By Naomi Graychase

May 06, 2004

What happens when you combine Wi-Fi with Flash, QuickTime and social networking? The technological artwork of Julian Bleecker seeks to answer that question.

Every entrepreneur or technophile prides herself or himself on thinking outside the box. Very few however, actually succeed in escaping all the confines which shape our ideas about what technology is and how we can apply it. Julian Bleecker -- inventor, grad student and software developer -- has not only found a way to truly think outside the box, he's found a way to take the box with him.

His project, Wi-Fi.Bedouin is an ambitiously alternative approach to wireless communication. The project takes its name from the Arabic word bedu meaning "inhabitant of the desert." Bedouins are the desert-dwelling nomads of Arabia, the Negev and the Sinai. In the case of the Wi-Fi.Bedouin, shifting sands, flowing robes and loping camels have been replaced by urban pavement, a pair of jeans and a modified laptop backpack.

Bleecker describes his project as, "a wearable, mobile 802.11b node disconnected from the global Internet." With it, he intends to challenge assumptions about Wi-Fi by emphasizing physical proximity and literal mobility.

The device itself is a nondescript black backpack originally designed to contain a laptop. It weighs in at around seven or eight pounds and feels to the wearer -- well, like a backpack with a laptop in it. Of the experience of wearing it around, Bleecker says, "You get looks every once and again, mostly because of the antennas and the LCD screen, but you keep ambling on with a little smile."

The idea is that wherever the wearer goes, he or she creates their own little wireless world. For instance, a user could wear one to a music festival, a conference or a tradeshow and broadcast their own tailor-made streaming audio or other form of data, which could be received only by people with mobile devices in close physical proximity to the Wi-Fi.Bedouin wearer.

"Users become grounded to their surroundings," says Bleecker. "I'm trying to run counter to the idea that you can connect to anyone anywhere. If you're in a physical place, you should be able to connect to the people around you or the immediate social or physical context of the place you're next to. I'm trying to establish a different sense of what Wi-Fi is or could be, instead of another way to get on the Internet."

Along with the Bedouin project, Bleecker is also working on a more artistic endeavor he calls Wi-Fi.ArtCache . As with Bedouin, ArtCache is a free floating 802.11 Wi-Fi node purposely disconnected from the public Internet.

"There are artistic experiments -- on-the-ground practical ways you can bring together proximity, technology and social interaction in productive ways," says Bleecker.

Instead of accessing the Internet, ArtCache consumers can only access the ArtCache network. Users then download to their Wi-Fi-enabled devices artist-created Macromedia Flash animations whose narratives, Bleecker says, "respond to social and location-based activity occurring within range of the Cache's 802.11 network."

Unlike Bedouin, however, ArtCache is stationary and requires users to move within range to access its files. To connect to it, you must be physically in the presence of the ArtCache installation. The range varies, but in general someone within roughly 30 feet could access the network. (The Bedouin has a tested range of roughly half a square city block.)

While the art is hard to conceptualize without actually seeing it, the two most important elements are that each piece is designed to dynamically respond to its environment, and that each piece has a limited number of copies, or times it can be downloaded.

"On the Web," explains Bleecker, "there's an infinite number of PDFs or images -- you can download them forever. Ours creates a sense of preciousness to digital media. There's a limited number; things can change. You can take out and put back a piece, or take it out and walk off -- but now that art is more precious because only a certain number are left."

One example of the kind of digital art utilized by Art.Cache is Plant Life created by Marina Zurkow. She has created an imaginary forest. When a user downloads the piece to their wireless device, they see only a single tree. But as time passes, and as more people download the Plant Life objects, the forest responds by becoming more lush, and a home to creatures. As more time passes -- or as the user moves away from others who have downloaded it -- the season in the forest changes. Leaves fall to the ground, animals leave, etc., to reflect the passage of time and distance from others.

"I'm playing with the idea of creating these social networks, so that if two people download the piece of art from an ArtCache installation, they can communicate with each other. The art can become brighter, happier, fatter. One artist is playing with the new sort of wacky pharmaceutical anti-depressant guy [the sad little oval-shaped cartoon character that is used to sell Zoloft] and sort of inverting that guy. [The message of the ads is] 'take a pill, be less shy,' but in this art piece, if there are too many things -- too much social activity -- then the thing gets upset."

For now, there is only one Wi-Fi.Bedouin backpack in existence. But Bleecker recently had a request from someone who wanted to wear one to the Burning Man festival in Black Rock City, Nevada. He also hopes to begin wearing his on airplanes.

"Maybe there are other people on the plane with a Wi-Fi laptop who could tap into my broadcast of Quicktime movies," he says.

So, if you happen to see a guy wearing a little smile and something that looks like it might be a bomb in a backpack -- or a Star Trek costume -- on your next flight, no one will blame you if you alert the authorities or run screaming from the plane. But, if you're brave or crazy enough to stick around, try tapping into his Wi-Fi broadcast; you may just discover that your in-flight movie options get a lot more interesting.



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