Yellow Chair Makes American Debut

By Naomi Graychase

July 28, 2006

Wi-Fi is just the tool used to interest participants in this social experiment regarding "social spaces in our urban landscapes."

In early August (7th-13th), what began as a week-long social experiment by a design student in Great Britain will make its American debut as Yellow Chair San Jose, during ZeroOne San Jose: A Global Festival of Art on the Edge & the Thirteenth International Symposium of Electronic Art (ISEA 2006).


The Yellow Chair project was conceived by Anab Jain while she was a student at the Royal College of Art (RCA) in London studying interaction design.

“One of the areas of interest is to understand the implications of emerging technologies in our everyday lives,” says Jain.

Interested in the way “emerging technologies can create new social spaces in our urban landscapes,” Jain decided to open up her home wireless network to her neighbors and passers-by. She painted a chair canary yellow, put it on the sidewalk outside her apartment beneath a sign offering “Free Access From This Chair!” and waited with her video camera to see what would happen. 

Jain was surprised by the reactions of the people who encountered the chair and its offer of free Wi-Fi access.

“I found it difficult to believe that people were not interested in sitting on the chair and using a free network,” says Jain. “There was a lot of cynicism, and people thought they had a crazy neighbor who would bring the real estate prices down with her antics.”

Jain, who is Indian, realized that she was looking at it from a different cultural perspective than her London neighbors.

“If I had put the chair outside my house in India, I would have had a long queue of people waiting to sit on the chair. And here I was, sitting on the steps, begging people to sit on the yellow chair,” she says.

Eventually, though, the idea caught on.

“I began to get regular visitors,” says Jain. “And I had the most enjoyable conversations with the kids on the streets, with the courier man, with my neighbors, with passers-by and so on. These conversations gave me a deeper insight into people's behavior and understanding of technology.”

By making the Internet freely available in such a public way, and by staying around to interact with and ask questions of those who passed by, Jain learned some interesting things about the people in her neighborhood.

 “One of my neighbors, who was a 34-year-old adult, was still not allowed to use the Internet or make phone calls -- his mother had barred the phone line,” says Jain. “And two 14-year old kids told me that they were experts in networking and hooking up computers, so I should put up an advertisement about their skills on my signs.”

Some people enjoyed the social interaction involved in sitting on the chair, while others refused to participate, but used the network anyway.

“One man parked his car and tried to use my network from his car. I approached him to come out of his car and sit on the yellow chair, but he refused to do so, saying he could access Internet from anywhere else. He refused to let me film him,” says Jain.

In contrast, three people who had been long-time residents of the neighborhood, but who had not seen each other in a very long time, ran into each other while sitting on the Yellow Chair.

For Yellow Chair San Jose, Jain is collaborating with colleague and former RCA student Tom Jenkins. In this incarnation of the project, one Yellow Chair will be positioned outside each of the homes of two San Jose-based families who have agreed to share their wireless networks for free.

“I see the project as a service design experiment,” says Jain. “It started with a research theme, which led to the identification of a certain need. I put up a sign outside my house and made my network free and open. I created touch points and advertised my service in ambiguous ways. That got a few people interested, but I needed more 'users.' So I started advertising enticing offers along with the yellow sign. People who got interested in the offers could come and pick up stuff from the shared folder on my computer. This was a second stage of the service design experiment. I still did not quite know what offer I would put each day. Depending on the feedback from users, I kept placing new signs and offers every day in order to increase the use of my service. Since this was a live and ongoing process, I term it as a ‘live service design intervention.'”

While the Yellow Chairs represent a free, shared Wi-Fi network in much the same way Yellow Bikes offer free, shared bicycles, the two are completely unrelated.

“To be honest, I had no idea about the Yellow Bikes project,” says Jain. “It is obviously a very popular project in the U.S. I was working with yellow as a color for this project even before the chair idea came about. My work in the second year MA program began with an investigation around people's 'sense of belonging.' I had developed a 'probe pack' as a research tool, and had distributed it to five people. All the elements of the pack were yellow. The most important ones were three types of yellow tapes with printed text which said ‘this belongs to me,’ ‘this belongs to you,’ and ‘this belongs to us.’ People were asked to stick these tapes to their personal objects, environments and even people, and take a photo. The yellow tape signified border and territory, just like the yellow signage seen everywhere in our urban environment. Then I also distributed cards which said 'Wanted...' which were also yellow, to keep the color theme going. The cards are seen in the film 'Yellow Chair Stories.' This led to the chair experiment, so it was only natural to paint the chair yellow.”

Jain expects that Americans will react somewhat differently to Yellow Chair than her British neighbors did.

“I am not quite sure about the response of the Americans,” she says. “I have been told that the Californians are curious and eager people, and so I am hoping that they would be enthusiastic about the project. I am looking forward to the experience, and am trying not to anticipate the outcome too much yet. It should be fun. That’s all I am hoping.”

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