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October 2006

I Spy Eye Spy Advertising: Urinal Based Display Marketing and Captive Micro-audiences

I had lunch at Illusions Fayrouz Dining and Entertainment Club yesterday, and when I used the men's room after the meal, I discovered a set of small, currently inactive, display units above each urinal.



The web site listed on the display unit,, is "currently under construction" and I can't find any other information out about the company on the web. The manager of the restaurant told me that the units were working for a while a few months ago, showing 15 - 30 second videos (primarily advertisements) in a 15 minute loop, with the content being downloaded via a [wired] Internet connection.

I'm reminded of the EZ Show Network, which originally planned to deploy a digital signage network encompassing 500 convenience stores in the Pacific Northwest. They encountered formidable logistical challenges -- technically and in the sale cycle -- and recently changed ownership -- and business plans -- and are now focusing their deployment efforts on university bookstores.


I would not be surprised if Eye Spy Advertising encounters similar challenges, and I hope I will eventually get to see the system in action ... but meanwhile, this gives me a pretext within which to ruminate a bit about a topic of great, if somewhat prurient, interest to me: urinal-based display marketing, a niche within the larger area of captive micro-audience marketing.

I have encountered a variety of urinal-based displays -- interactive and non-interactive, low-tech and high-tech -- over the years. Shown below are photos of a chalkboard "interactive display" and a static display.



One of my favorite examples of this concept was the You're In Control (urine control) project at MIT Media Lab, an interesting blend of technology, sociology and culture:

Yicamanda The You’re In Control system uses computation to enhance the act of urination. Sensors in the back of a urinal detect the position of impact of a stream of urine, enabling the user to play interactive games on a screen mounted above the urinal.

While urination fulfills a basic bodily function, it is also an activity rich with social significance. Along with the refreshing release it provides, the act of micturition satisfies a primal urge to mark our territory. For women who visit the bathroom in groups and chat in neighboring stalls, urination can be a bonding ritual. For men who write their names in the snow, extinguish cigarettes, or congregate around lampposts to urinate, urination can be a test of skill and a way of asserting their masculinity.

Then, of course, came a multi-player version of this engaging concept, On Target, designed by Marcel Neundörfer (via Yanko Design):



Recessed into a urinal is a pressure-sensitive display screen. When the guest uses it, he triggers an interactive game, producing images and sound. The reduced size of the “target” improves restroom hygiene and saves on cleanings costs (like the “fly in the urinal” at Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport). It also makes a trip to the urinal “fun and games” – more than just a necessary nuisance. By projecting the game experience into the public space, viewers are treated to a new way of visualizing the abstract, and the entertainment value is boosted. The projection of the project into a museum space was conceived of as a critical-ironic measure, questioning the concept of art, but extending it at the same time. “On target” is an interactive installation with the functional purpose of improving hygiene.

I remember encountering a photo of another example of a multi-player, or at least multi-station, system of urinal-based displays ... unfortunately, while I downloaded the photo of the installation, I did not note the source.


The manager at Illusions said while Eye Spy Advertising offered the restaurant a slot in its content rotation, the company did not offer the restaurant any revenue sharing options (unlike the earlier business plan for EZ Show Network, which did include a small cut for the convenience store operators). He also said that while people (well, men) came back from the men's room talking about the brands that were advertised on the displays (e.g., a Smirnoff ad), he didn't think that the ads actually influenced any purchase decisions.

I don't know whether Eye Spy Advertising will ever get its units up and running again (sorry, couldn't resist), but I look forward to a future in which I have something more interesting to look forward at, and perhaps interact with, during men's rooms visits.

[Update, 2008-01-09: Michael's comment prompted me to return to Illusions to see whether/how the Eye Spy Advertising displays are working - they are currently working, cycling through five ads (photos below).]

Eye Spy Advertising: Table For Six Eye Spy Advertising: Oasis Casino Eye Spy Advertising: Smirnoff Eye Spy Advertising: Eye Spy Advertising Eye Spy Advertising: Place Ad Here

Eye Spy Advertising @ Illusions Supper Club

The Newest Member of the Family: A Bearded Dragon

Beardeddragon1_1 Beardeddragon3 Beardeddragon2

We welcomed a new, as-yet-unnamed, member of the family this weekend: a bearded dragon. Evan really wanted a lizard for his birthday, and although I had my reservations about another pet, Amy's kind heart prevailed. As she will be the one who will have to pick up any slack if Evan does not follow through on his stated intention to take care of his new charge, who was I to say "no"?


Easing our entry into the world of lizardry was Josh (shown above), an extraordinarily enthusiastic, knowledgable and helpful employee at the Petsmart in Woodinville. Lacey was also a great help when we first arrived at the store, taking us to the back and showing the bearded dragons that had just arrived but had not yet been put in the display case. Josh is the expert on bearded dragons, though -- having one of his own -- and helped both inform us and allay our concerns over the magnitude of this new undertaking  ... particulary with respect to the diet: the bearded dragon eats fresh vegetables and live insects. Josh assured us that caring for a bearded dragon is relatively straightforward -- once you get used to it -- and well within the capabilities of an eleven-year-old. Of course, someone will still need to drive to Petsmart about once a week to pick up a fresh supply of live crickets (the lizard's daily recommended allowance is between 10 and 15 per day, and Petsmart sells bags of 100 crickets in "bulk" ... and they only last about 7-10 days).

The bearded dragon grows to a length of about two feet, and can live for 10 years or more ... assuming it is fed and cared for properly. We haven't quite achieved an ideal solution to heating the terrarium, but have managed to keep the lizard's new home within the range of acceptable temperatures (75 - 85 degrees F) ... and stocked with an appropriate supply of crickets. I'll post an update, with more photos, and perhaps a video of the lizard eating a cricket, once it has a name.

Spiritual Computing: Toward Meaningful, perhaps Transcendental, User Experiences

Craig Warren Smith visited Nokia Research Center, Palo Alto, on Thursday to present and discuss some ideas relating to Spiritual Computing. As Craig describes it:

Spiritual Computing (Spiricomp) elicits the potential of digital networks for fostering the spiritual growth among individuals and communities. ... The investigative method of Spiricomp is unusual. Made possible by HH Dalai Lama’s interaction with the late Francisco Varela, the method taps the “multi-model” approach combing “first person” methods used by spiritual and philosophic traditions with the established methods of neuroscience.

Craig wants to assemble a collaborative multi-corporate group to help push the agenda for spiricomp forward, and to this end has already met with individuals and groups within Intel, Microsoft, Google, Yahoo as well as other groups at Nokia.

Craig sees two primary ways for spirituality to contribute to more meaningful user experiences with and through technology: epistemologically, or the "ways of knowing" offered through spiritual traditions; and methodologically, through the practices and rituals of such traditions. He also illustrated and advocated ways that technology can help enhance spirituality: through online communities, spiritually-inspired games (including, perhaps, a subset of serious games) and a number of other dimensions (some of which I mentioned in an earlier post on Techno-spiritual Practices and New Technologies of Enlightenment).

Many of the themes that Craig discussed were inspired and inspiring, and he is pulling together ideas from a number of sources I want to investigate further, e.g., Francisco Varela and his notion of autopoiesis, the Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience, concepts from neuroeconomics, and several [other] dimensions relating to the art, science, business and politics of happiness. One of the most interesting statistics he quoted was that 83% of U.S. adults consider themselves "spiritual", while only half that number consider themselves "religious" ... and the numbers for the former group are increasing 1% annually while the numbers for the latter group are decreasing by 1% each year.

Among the topics that attracted the most discussion -- and debate -- was the collective seeking of a clearer definition of spirituality, a metaphysical concept that seems to have different meanings to different people and cultures. We eventually cycled back to a notion that Craig had mentioned earlier, that of Meaningful User eXperiences (MUX) ... though I [still] think of spirituality as something that is more transcendental, so perhaps Transcendental User eXperiences (TUX?) would be a better label (for me). The other contentious topic was whether there was a strong connection between customer empowerment and brand value (one of the value propositions Craig offered as to why technology companies, like Nokia, should be getting involved in spiritual computing).

Throughout much of the discussion, I was reminded of two influential books I've read recently, VIctor Frankl's "Man's Search for Meaning" and Doug Rushkoff's "Get Back in the Box: Innovation from the Inside out" (especially as Craig articulated the notion of a renaissance several times, a key focus area of Doug's book). As I mentioned in an earlier blog post on work, play and suffering that drew from both of these books, Doug notes that

Luckily, renaissances celebrate immaturity and idealism.

I think that this spiricomp initiative is both immature and idealistic ... and as a self-identified renaissance man, I look forward to future exploration of this convergence of spirituality and technology.

The Beginning of the End of America

Keith Olbermann is my hero

In a scathing commentary on George W. Bush's recent signing of the Military Commissions Act, Keith takes the president to task, comparing him and this act to earlier presidents and similar actions that gave them the authority to ignore and abuse the constitutional rights of our citizens:

  • John Adams' Alien and Sedition Acts, in which hundreds of American newspaper editors were jailed for speaking out against the government.
  • Woodrow Wilson's Espionage Act, in which thousands of pacifists were jailed for speaking out against the government.
  • Franklin D. Roosevelt's Executive Order 9066, in which over a hundred thousand Japanese Americans were placed in internment camps, simply by virtue of their ancestry

With a presidential administration that is more secretive, less truthful and more vindictive than any other in history, I share Keith's concern that anyone, including me, could be arbitrarily labeled an "unlawful combatant" and be shipped off somewhere, anywhere.   

It's never been clear to me whether the so-called terrorists want to do away with the American way of life (or simply stop our unwelcome interventions in their ways -- and places -- of life), but it's increasingly clear that this administration is doing away with the very constitutional liberties that underly our way of life ... liberties George W. Bush swore an oath to uphold.

As Keith notes:

"One of the terrorists who planned the September 11 attacks," you told us yesterday, "said he hoped the attacks would be the beginning of the end of America."

Habeas corpus: gone. The Geneva Conventions: optional. The moral force we shined outwards to the world as an eternal beacon, and inwards to ourselves as an eternal protection: snuffed out.  These things you have done, Mr. Bush, they would constitute the beginning of the end of America.

Big Brother is watching, and he is happy.

Nokia Research Center's 20th Anniversary: Cultivating Freedom, Accountability and Risk

Nrc20Nokia_ruoholahti_lowresLast week marked the 20th anniversary of the founding of Nokia Research Center. I happened to be in Helsinki to attend a strategy workshop on Thursday, and arriving a day early enabled me to attend the festivities at the main office of NRC. Antti-Jussi Suominen was the master of ceremonies in an event that featured presentations by Olli-Pekka Kallasvuo (CEO of Nokia), Pero Ojanperä (CTO of Nokia) and Bob Iannucci (Head of NRC). The emphasis of the event was in alignment with the mission of NRC: renewal.

N9000c Wibree2 A number of NRC's successes from the distant and recent past were highlighted, e.g. the Nokia Communicator 9000 in 1996 and the announcement of Wibree last week. These celebrations were accompanied by a warning against complacency (an attitude whose dire, Orwellian consequences I commented on in an earlier post). Recent organizational changes have given NRC researchers new freedoms and tools for taking more risks, engaging in longer term research and looking further out, creating or at least preparing for potential disruptions over the horizon. To this end, Bob encouraged NRC researchers to "follow your dreams".

There are, of course, still processes and constraints intended to help focus the research at NRC, but from all that I've heard in the little over 20 days I've been with the organization (and so all of this should be taken with a grain or two of salt), NRC is embracing a new model of openness, both internally and in its external relationships, and doing away with some of the hierarchical structures that may have unnecessarily innovation in the past. As I noted in my Orwellian post, hierarchies do have a way of regenerating themselves in human societies of any kind, so it will be interesting to see how this flatter organizational plan evolves.

One of the interesting aspects of Wednesday's celebration, to me, was that although Nokia is a technology company, there was a strong emphasis on personalities and relationships that have come and gone over the history of NRC. As one of the other speakers noted, long after the technologies have faded, the personalities persist. The influence of personalities -- and the willingness to take risks -- are also echoed in several places throughout The Nokia Revolution, a book by Dan Steinbock I recently started, and I hope that this new spirit of open innovation will allow the personalities within Nokia Research Center -- and the personality of NRC -- to shine forth more clearly.

1984, Big Brotherhood, Hierarchies, Power and the American Way

1984centennial I just finished re-reading 1984 (the Centennial Edition), by George Orwell, and as he himself says

The best books are those that tell you what you already know.

1984 depicts a dystopian future wherein three superstates -- Oceania, Eurasia and Eastasia -- are engaged perpetual warfare, which is used to maintain the poverty and ignorance of the masses, and hence the power at the top of entrenched hierarchies within each geopolitical entity. The Party in Oceania uses a combination of technology -- such as ubiquitous telescreens with cameras and microphones monitored by the Thought Police -- and psychology -- such as the training children receive through a group called the Spies, which encourages them to alert authorities whenever their parents or other elders commit thoughtcrime (thinking -- or saying -- anything against The Party) -- to maintain a culture in which everyone distrusts and fears everyone else in Oceania (except the dictator, Big Brother, who is beloved by all), and hates everyone outside of Oceania.

There are no laws in Oceania, but any hint of ownlife -- individualism or eccentricity (think think different) -- is a punishable offense, and most people adopt the safe approach of compliance and complacency in the name of comradeship ... with the exception of the protagonist, Winston Smith, who works in the Records Department of Ministry of Truth (where he participates in the ongoing effort to rewrite history to ensure that The Party is never retrospectively wrong) and his girlfriend, Julia, who works in the Fiction Department (where she runs the versificator machines that automatically churn out books and music for the masses).

The book offers many insights into -- and raises many questions about -- human nature, sexuality, truth and reality, and I could write at great[er] length about many of these topics. However, for this post, I'm going to focus on Orwell's ideas about hierarchies, wealth and power, and how these ideas are playing out today.

Many of these ideas are expressed in a book that is banned in Oceania -- often referred to as the book, or "The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism", allegedly written by Emanuel Goldstein, the allegedly traitorous archenemy of Big Brother.

Throughout recorded time, and probably since the end of the Neolithic Age, there have been three kinds of people in the world, the High, the Middle and the Low. ... The aim of the High is to remain where they are. The aim of the Middle is to change places with the High. The aim of the Low, when they have an aim -- for it is an abiding characteristic of the Low that they are too much crushed by drudgery to be more than intermittently conscious of anything outside their daily lives -- is to abolish all distinctions and create a society in which all men shall be equal.

Over time, the High become inefficient, insecure, or otherwise ineffective (e.g., being too "liberal or cowardly" or unwilling to use adequate force) at governing, the Middle seize the opportunity and enlist the aid of the Low to rise up against the High, on the premise of liberty and justice for all, after which elements from the Middle become the new High, and the Low are relegated to their former status, and the cycle starts up again. Or at least, it had been a cycle before the rise of The Party (and its contemporaries in Eurasia and Eastasia):

The new movements ... had the conscious aim of perpetuating unfreedom and inequality ... the purpose of all of them was to arrest development and freeze history at a chosen moment. The familiar pendulum swing was to happen once more, and then stop ... the High would be able to maintain their position permanently.

And the best way to maintain their position of power was to embrace perpetual war:

The primary aim of modern warfare is to use up the products of the machine without raising the general standard of living. ... If the machine were used deliberately for that end, hunger, overwork, dirt, illiteracy, and disease could be eliminated within a few generations. ... [b]ut ... an all-round increase in wealth threatened the destruction -- indeed in some sense was the destruction of a hierarchical society. ... In the long run, a hierarchical society was only possible on a basis of poverty and ignorance. ... The problem was how to keep the wheels of industry turning without increasing the real wealth of the world. Goods must be produced, but they need not be distributed. And in practice the only way of achieving this was by continuous warfare.

As I (and others) have noted before, the current "war on terror", of which there is no end in sight, results in a massive shift of economic and political capital away from investments that could have [more] widespread benefits. The primary beneficiaries of the current situation are the High (friends and business associates of the Bush administration, e.g., Haliburton). While the administration likes to claim the purpose of the war is (was?) to make us safer, it is increasingly apparent that the U.S. and its citizens are far less safe than we were before the start of hostilities (and it is worth noting that we are also far less popular, currently ranking below China in world opinion) .

Orwell notes that there are additional benefits to being at war:

[T]he consciousness of being at war, and therefore in danger, makes the handing over of all power to a small caste seem the natural, unavoidable condition of survival.

Since ignorance is an essential component for maintaining power by the High, education is replaced with indoctrination and fundamentalism, and science is only supported when it is in the service of conducting war and/or controlling or "monitoring" the population ... reflected today in the proportion of funding for scientific research that is channeled through the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), recent changes in the White House Science Advisor policies, and initiatives such as the Total Intelligence Awareness (TIA) initiative.

O'Brien, the Inner Party member who "interrogates" Winston Smith toward the end of the novel, elucidates The Party's views on power:

The party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power. ... Power is not a means, it is an end.

In addition to perpetual warfare, the other way that The Party maintains power in 1984 is through reality control -- reminiscent of the way the Bush Administration (and the press) handled "intelligence" about the weapons of mass of destruction purportedly being developed in Iraq -- and newspeak, redefining language so as to reinforce sanctioned ideas and eradicate unsanctioned ideas (thoughtcrime) -- reminiscent of George Lakoff's observations in Don't Think of an Elephant. As O'Brien notes:

Whatever the Party holds to be truth is truth.

The book also talks about a "general hardening of outlook" and practices that were becoming common (in 1984) after years of abandonment, such as "imprisonment without trial, ... torture to extract confessions ... [and] deportations" ... practices we see today. Fortunately we have not [yet] returned to the public executions or use of war prisoners as slaves that are a normal part of life in the fictional 1984.

One of the most troubling aspects of the future depicted by Orwell is the ascendancy of hatred. In Oceania, there is a daily Two Minute Hate and an annual Hate Week, which are used to maintain support foa constant state of war (... for some reason, the arena of sports also comes to mind):

Even the humblest Party member is expected to be competent, industrious, and even intelligent within narrow limits, but it is also necessary that he should be a credulous and ignorant fanatic whose prevailing moods are fear, hatred, adulation and orgiastic triumph. 

This hatred -- indeed, all hatred -- is based in large part upon drawing artificial distinctions between us and them, which is why all contacts with foreigners are strictly forbidden in Oceania:

If [the average citizen of Oceania] were allowed contact with foreigners he would discover that they are creatures similar to himself and most of what he has been told about them is lies.

In the age of the Internet, it is difficult to prevent people (outside of current totalitarian regimes) from having access to foreign people, places and perspectives, but at least in this country, I see an increasing polarization of the population, and suspect that few, if any, supporters of the current U.S. regime are risking exposing themselves to alternative views ... as Orwell might observe, a sort of self-imposed reality control ... or as Pogo might say, we have met Big Brother, and he is us.

Bruce Sterling on Shaping Things through SPIMES: Technosocial Transformations for a Sustainable World

Shapingthings_1Bruce Sterling's keynote at UbiComp 2006 inspired me to go back and re-read his book Shaping Things, in which he introduces the notion of SPIMES -- physical objects with digital histories that can be recorded and tracked through SPace and tIME. I didn't think all the ideas from this book shined clearly through in his talk, so I thought it would be helpful [for me] to revisit some of them.

The subtitle of this post is intended to convey the motivation that Sterling articulates: using technology to help ensure a sustainable future (or futures).  He starts out by offering a brief history of technosocial epochs:

  • Artifacts: objects made by hand, powered by muscle, used by hunters and farmers, startring around the dawn of humanity.
  • Machines: complex, precisely proportioned artifacts with many moving parts that have tapped some non-human, non-animal power source, used by customers, starting around the eclipse of the Mongols in the 1500s.
  • Products: widely distributed, commercially available objects, anonymously and uniformly manufactured in massive quantities, used by consumers, starting around World War One.
  • Gizmos: highly unstable, user-alterable, baroquely multifeatured objects, commonly programmable, with a brief lifespan, used by end-users, starting around 1989.
  • Spimes: manufactured objects whose informational support is so overwhelmingly extensive that they are regarded as material instantiations of an immaterial system; they are sustainable, enhanceable, uniquely identifiable and made of substances that can and will be folded back into the production stream of future Spimes (this last feature is one that I don't entirely believe -- during his keynote, he referred to organic plastic semiconductors as the substance of choice).  Spimes are used by wranglers, starting around, well, now.

The technology that will power the spime revolution is a combination of radio frequency identification (RFID) chips -- he calls arphids -- to tag objects, the global positioning system (GPS) and various local positioning systems (such as we heard about at UbiComp 2006, especially day 2) to track those objects, backend processing and storage systems to maintain their informational microhistories, and various "wands" (reminiscent, perhaps, of Andy Wilson's Xwand developed at Microsoft Research) and "monitors" with which we can interface with the spimes.

Among the many issues that must be addressed to realize this vision is the granularity of tagging (Chris Oakley's brilliant short video, The Catalogue, comes to mind), and the provisioning of all the supporting equipment. Sterling seems to place a great deal of faith in designers to figure all this out. I suspect that as it becomes increasingly valuable to tag and track objects, more designers will find ways to hack or game the system, in the same way that Google has spawned an entire industry of designers devoted to search engine marketing, splogs and click fraud.
Describing the spime revolution, Sterling notes that Spimes form the core of what he calls a synchronic society, wherein every entity has informational microhistories:

The truly sustainable society has to be sustainable enough to prevail against the unforeseen ... [so] serendipity is necessary ... accessing knowledge you didn't know you possessed is both faster and more reliable than discovering it.  This is the new form of knowledge at which a Spime world excels. It is not doctrine, but the school of experience -- not reasoning out a solution a priori, but making a great many small mistakes, and then keeping a record of all of them.

And, I would add, making those records available to everyone. This notion is reminiscent of David Brin's book, Transparent Society, wherein he argues that in a future society filled with [fixed] cameras, it is better to make their output accessible to all than to restrict the output to the "authorities" (and my recent revisitation of George Orwell's 1984 makes me ever more supportive of Brin's opinion on the preference of the former policy). Spimes would presumably subsume cameras, and encompass nearly every physical object in existence, meaning our lives could be far more open and vulnerable than ever before, a state not likely to be welcomed by many.

Sterling argues for transparent production, where the legal, social, ethical and environmental factors involved in the production of any thing (spime) is encoded in its microhistory (a theme being explored through Marc Smith's AURA prototype at Microsoft Research). Transparent consumption would also add a layer of accountability for -- or on --those who invest in spimes, moving well beyond the values being exhibited ostentatiously by those who purchase modern products such as a Hummer or Prius.

I'm not sure that most people -- or businesses -- would welcome such transparency. Sterling wants a world that is "auto-Googling", but this would require significant wrestling, or wrangling, with privacy and intellectual property issues, which he appears to believe are insoluble.

This ownership question in Spime can never be settled. The fact that it's unsettleable is why there is money in it. There are no permanent solutions to Spime questions. Only customers and consumers imagine that there are permanent solutions to physical ownership and intellectual property issues: end-users know it's all a shell-game, while Spime wranglers don't even bother with the shell-they are the shell.

Wherever there is an insoluble intellectual-property question, there is a Spime career. That's where I wrangle. When and if it gets more or less figured out, I bump up the S-curve and I go wrangle somewhere more advanced.

I suppose that if one is a science fiction writer, then proposing insoluble issues is part of your business, but it leaves me with a less than satisfying impression. The book certainly succeeds in sparking ideas and raising important issues, the early hints of which are visible today. And, just as Sterling loves the neologisms he reads about in UbiComp, I enjoyed the neologisms he writes about in Shaping Things ... but naming things isn't the same as shaping things, although as Noam Chomsky has pointed out, naming things can go a long way toward shaping the conversation about things.  It will be interesting to see whether and how spimes penetrate the discussions about -- and actions toward -- technosocial futures.