Posts Tagged: ‘techno-geekery’

Sensory Postcard – Bikes (Binaural edition)

August 16, 2016 Posted by Milena D

I haven’t written about sensory postcards in a while but that’s definitely not because I haven’t been doing them, but because of, well, time, and trying to move more pressing projects out the door. I am applying for various grants to make my urban soundscape project “Listening to the City” (Listening as Intervention) a reality – that includes creating an interactive map of my recordings and short videos, featuring the capabilities of various apps, etc. If I get a bigger grant I’m going to be expanding my project to a more complete urban soundscape ethnography using mobile tools. So fingers crossed.

Meanwhile, one new and exciting development has been using in-ear binaural mics to record in the city: Roland CS-10EM. They do seem to be the best on the market, aside from the newcomers Hooke Audio for mobile devices (iPhone). They start shipping this September so the headset isn’t quite out yet. Here’s my review of the Roland buds: while the design is contoured for the ear canal I still had a lot of trouble keeping the buds in my particular ears, they kept falling out and generally feeling loose and kinda off. The good news: these mics produced amazing quality sound with very very little handling noise. To be honest I expected quite a bit of handling noise and wind noise just from my head movements, but in fact there was less body transfer noise than when using an external mic with a field recorder. It is also particularly nice to be able to monitor and record at the same time and on the same device – they look completely discreet and unobtrusive, and generally less equipment to carry around. It does, however, get exhausting on the ears after a while to hear everything in such an exaggerated manner, so I found I had to take breaks and turn off monitoring.

My initial goal was to record the sound of biking. I have been thinking about creating an ethnographic multi-channel sound story about biking in the city, mixed with listening to music and various city sounds that kind of weave in and out during a typical journey. I had been experimenting with a Zoom H1 for a while, with various placements on my body, upper pocket, back pant pocket, leg strap – but alas, everything produced the expected result – a fair bit of handling noise and tons of wind from the movement itself. Not something I could simply edit away, it’s throughout and it kind of drowns the sound of the bike itself.

With binaural mics it’s not too much different really, except if I am stationary in a place where a lot of bikes pass through (bike lane) I can capture some really neat bike clicking and wheel spinning sounds with Doppler shifts.  Interestingly, I would recommend recording Doppler shifts with a stationary field recorder, because due to head movement it’s actually harder to localize movement with binaural mics. Dopplers are best heard when stereo-flattened (but with decent left-right isolation). Here’s what I was able to record on the Seawall in Vancouver’s Yaletown district with my binaural Rolands.

 

Sensory Postcards as New Media Ethnography

March 14, 2016 Posted by Milena D

For a couple of years now, ever since I ‘seriously’ started engaged my dissertation research, I’ve been forming up this idea of sensory postcards as a methodology for doing everyday ethnography – but also, I guess, sensory postcards as a DIY new media practice that is facilitated by the ubiquity and mediation of mobile smart technologies. I even wrote this little thing for the Ethnography Matters blog. What I want to suggest is that by taking pictures, collecting environmental data and creating and sharing videos and recordings online, end users are participating in a kind of methodological approach to re-mediating experience and environmental surroundings. The only difference between that and a citizen-science or citizen-journalist initiative is that the same activity (of capturing multimodally) has a specific organization and structure, aimed intentionally at a public outcome. This post has actually marinated in my draft folder for a long time and I’d like to just let it go for now because there is a lot lot more to it, and I won’t fit it all in one entry, but one has to start somewhere. This blog is in fact already a collection of different ways of doing ‘new media ethnographies’ or ‘mobile ethnographies’ of the everyday: using visual, locative, measurement-based, and aural materials; putting them together in a variety of ways. The one limitation I have placed on my practice has always been – whatever can be accomplished on the device alone. Nothing leaves the device to be dissected and remediated on the computer as I’m truly interested in how mobile devices can be used, and how designers in fact respond to the on-the-ground use of these devices, so I see it as essential to continuously push the limits and communicate publicly about these experiments. Below is a small collage I made using several different apps: Over, which allows poster-font annotating of photos, SpeakingPhoto, which takes a static picture and overlays 10 to 30 seconds of sound recording over it, and again, SpeakingPhoto which allows collaging – stringing together of different ‘aural postcards’ into a slideshow. What I find interesting in making a slideshow is that it not only strings together individual entries into a narrative, but it also readily highlights the contrast between different sonic environments, by virtue of sharply transitioning from one to another.

Sound Study: Yaletown (Part 2)

March 13, 2015 Posted by Milena D

After a longer hiatus than anticipated comes the second installment in my Yaletown sound study. Where we left off things in the last post, I started out recording without a specific idea and ended up making some interesting comparisons between sound environments in close proximity to one another, as well as observations about how the visual and sonic surroundings sort of coalesce in my perceptual (and culturally informed) sensibilities.

Pushing beyond these initial observations I began walking down the Sea wall, listening. I want to take a moment to comment on the fact that I’ve never been a ‘recordist’ in the sense that a lot of acoustic ecologists (those that record anyway) have a tendency to record continuous long stretches of their soundwalking experience. To me, recording, while accentuating certain sonic characteristics, kind of detracts from the holistic experience of listening for me. So I don’t tend to record unless there is *really* something I want to be recording. Sure enough, as I walked and listened, staring as usual into the alley-side town homes and condos I was struck by the presence of something I hadn’t noticed before – water features at every building. Different types of fountains, artificial creeks and waterfalls adorned every single multi-million dollar condo along the Sea wall. For the first time I was struck by the juxtaposition of natural water (oceanside) a few feet away from a gated water feature; water features being a luxury only a place like Canada can afford, which, for now, possesses unlimited water resources. Still, why would the residents need their own water feature when their property is ‘oceanside’ for starters, is beyond me. This is when an interesting idea occurred to me – survey the different water features in surrounding areas and see whether the type of water technology and soundscape is related to the (assumed) property value of each building. Once again i used SpeakingPhoto to record short vignettes of water features. The following is a compilation of these that illustrates some of the variety and configurations.

Still not sure whether or in what way precisely water feature soundscapes correlated to property values but in short it did appear that the buildings directly on the Sea wall (so most expensive) had the most elaborate, extensive, fastest running water features. Alternately, a big building a block away had only a contained fountain basin shared with a large courtyard. Another block away was a large building complex which shared an artificial waterfall with rather slow-falling water that barely masked the constant traffic noise, however provided a visual reference for its proximity to the ocean, even though the ocean wasn’t visible from there. Another building, similarly located, contained a small bubbling fountain right by the front door as if to simply tip off its hat to the expectation that a building in this part of town *must* have a water feature.

In any case, I’m presenting these approaches and observations as a kind of methodology for using mobile tools to conduct sensory ethnographies of place and culture; to probe lived, everyday experience, urban design, built environment and culturally-informed perceptions and assumptions.

Sound Study: Yaletown (Part 1)

January 14, 2015 Posted by Milena D

This post has been coming for six months. I created this study in the summer of 2014 and I felt that it was so successful as an ethnographic methodology and experiential, inductive form of inquiry that I presented about it at the 2014 Social Science and Humanities Congress, at a special session called “The Digital Gymnasium”. What I like about it the most is that it developed as a totally organic activity. Here I was, cat-sitting in Yaletown for a friend of mine, and with the beautiful weather and being so close to the Sea wall I kept going out and enjoying the neighbourhood. Now these days I usually get into an intensive process of audio recording + decibel readings + notes and observations when I travel somewhere different than my usual surroundings. It’s hard to maintain a constant attentiveness and interested – not so much in listening – but in carefully documenting the surrounding soundscape (a topic that I dedicated an upcoming entry at the CASE blog series). But seeing as I was now staying at Yaletown, a place I don’t spend that much time in, but a staple of a neighbourhood in Vancouver anyway, I decided to treat it as a ‘foreign’ place and go around recording and documenting sound, seeing what might emerge from being attentive to the soundscape. As I’ve mentioned before, I think of these media vignettes as ‘sensory postcards’ of a place, that together, as a digital archive, sort of reveal something bigger, holistic, more than the sum of its parts about the community, geographical place and its culture.

The specific apps I used to create sensory postcards include Faber Acoustical’s app dB, a Recorder app, audio-photo apps Picle and Speakingphoto as well as social podcasting apps soundloud and audioboo. The dB app listens silently through the mic input, and displays a running decibel level. Picle uses a photograph and overlays 10 seconds of sound onto a picture. Yaletown is a wealthy area that overlooks the English Bay and is in the heart of downtown Vancouver. I wanted to explore how different spaces are characterized sonically and visually, and compare the recordings I made with my direct experiences. One of the first things that caught my attention was how the landscape and soundscape interacted to form an almost intentionally designed experience, and in particular, the way the careful arrangement of the visual environment tricked my ears into hearing less noise, and ultimately experiencing my surroundings as peaceful and serene (in correspondence with the ‘sailboat’ postcard view on offer).

This first example is literally two sides of the same street, a few feet away from each other. On one side we have a popular open patio restaurant, a lot of music and people talking leaking out to the street. Across from it we overlook the marina and the Sea wall, which is often used by people biking and walking. Here’s what they sound like. Notice how crossing the street shaves off almost 10 decibels. And yet even for the ‘quiet’ one, we’re still in the high 60s, not exactly the serenity one would expect.

Now my personal view is that this perceptual convergence I’m experiencing in putting together the soundscape with the landscape is less of an intentional design (as if city planners actually considered sound in any aesthetical, rather than purely functional and logistic sense!), and more a result of habituation to constructed media images, where soundscapes are always ‘replaced’ and carefully matched to the ‘mood’ or atmosphere of each image. Here is another example just from around the corner, where a grocery story (Urban Fair) overlooks the Roundhouse courtyard. Notice that once again we have an almost 10 decibel difference.

The expected irony of course is that the supermarket is way noisier than the outside, even though the area is fairly busy with local and distant traffic. And speaking of traffic, staying at my friend’s place near the Sea wall but a few blocks away from the water – boy was it loud! Here, for comparison we have a kind of ‘urban’ playground’ across from the Roundhouse, and the soundscape leaking into an 8th floor apartment a few short blocks away.

 

Sound Study: Olympic Village

November 11, 2014 Posted by Milena D

So in the past six months I’ve been thinking about the concept of sound study as something more than a ‘postcard’, a sustained exploration of the geographical, sensory, cultural and social environment through the channel of listening. At the same time understanding that listening is always connected to the other senses and to the social experience of being in place.

Skylanders Lost Islands

February 21, 2014 Posted by Milena D

So I’m addicted to a new little game – a pretty, catchy ‘farming’ game. The graphics and joyful atmosphere do a lot to draw one in, and if I may add, the game mechanics are clever and do a lot to hook you. Before I knew it, I had been playing for 4 hours and had spent $20 of my own dollars on in iOS game!

But this is about the game soundscape. I have been fascinated for a little while by the soundscapes of farming games. Like the brightly colourful graphics, naive world in which happy workers plow fields and the sun is always shining, the sound usually contains matching elements – a mellow, uplifting melody in some form of polyphonic orchestration in major tonality; the sound effects are sparse and typically triggered by click or touch. They are usually a variation between representational sound (e.g. liquid sound for interacting with water) and a timbral riff or blimp – some sort of abstract short sample that affectively represents the game action. What hasn’t clearly been given much thought is the flow of game sound – since sound samples are triggered in close succession in farming games this results at times in a bit of a harsh cacophony  of interrupted sound samples. Some of the sounds that are likely to be most common are most shrill-sounding by nature, which again isn’t the smartest design. That said, the overall feel is addictively joyful and uplifting.

Sensory postcard: People & Urban Spaces

February 12, 2014 Posted by Milena D

Following the previous post, I continue my offerings of Speaking Photo and Picle-inspired slideshow recordings, a series I’d like to call people in spaces. Meaning, what interests me is the type, level and timbre of ambiance that happens when you put one, two or many people in a given space. Once again, because I’m using the same software for all of these, it is interesting the compare the different sound envrionments through the slideshow. This one below begins in a mall on a typical weekend, followed by a dense house party over Xmas – apartment sized space without music; after that we zip over to a busy popular restaurant at night time, a large space with many nooks and crannies – sounding almost identical to the house party; finally we have the overall quieter ambience of an apple store.

One thing that frustrated me in these exercises using the apps was the lack of annotation on the pictures. It is weird when you think of it – even for a slideshow program, not to be able to input a title or heading or something of that sort. The program certainly doesn’t input anything itself. So, I decided to extend the experiment and involve another app – Over. Over allows you to annotate pictures with funky fonts and titles. But, the problem is, what I’d have to do in the otherwise spontaneous moment, is pull out my phone, take a picture, open it in Over, enter a title, save it; open Speaking Photo, select the annotated picture, and press record. Basically takes the spontaneity out of it a bit. What should be a 10-second maneuver, becomes a 1 minute maneuvre, and if there was a transient sound I really wanted to capture, there it goes. It is also cumbersome and makes me want to do it less. This is exactly how apps and technology encourage – not define – but encourage specific behaviours and not others, specific expectations too. I expect for an app to do everything I want it to do. And when it doesn’t, I’m upset.

I don’t know why, but I like the recording better in this next video. Perhaps Speaking Photo has a higher quality of recording but these are better. I won’t explain the locations because they are listed this time. All I’ll say is that these spaces and actions sort of encapsulate my day working in gastown – including inside the office space, at lunch break, in the elevator, etc.

Tainted Love – floppy music

February 11, 2014 Posted by Milena D

And since this is going viral, I’ll repost it. I do love the sound quality of the floppies. Reminds me of tinkering with my old PC in 2000 and hooking up dial up internet, and listening to it connect, with all its buzzes and grunts and purrs. Happy listening 🙂

Are smart phones ruining the world?

December 11, 2013 Posted by Milena D

Convergence_device1There is a lot of buzz of recently about the nature of presence in public spaces, including inter-personal communication (or lack thereof) and individual behaviour. Countless pieces have surfaced on the microblog universe and become ‘viral’ across different ‘virtual’ venues and online participants. WIth over 5 million views there is the interview with comedian CK Lewis talking about how we use our smart phones to avoid loneliness because we’re too scared to experience being alone (“Why I won’t let my daughter use a cell phone”). The recently popular youtube video “I forgot my phone” offers a poetic warning for how devices disconnect us from the present, from ‘authentic interaction’ is going strong with over 32 million views. In the TED-universe Sherry Turkle’s talk “Connected but alone?” predates the more recent pop culture contributions with a more well-rounded discussion of how the presence of ubiquitous technology is re-shaping the relationships we have with ourselves, with each other and with technology itself. In addition to numerous  articles on the bloggo-sphere organized around the theme of ‘how the iphone is ruining the world’, the presence of this critical mass of cultural resistance points to some important collective fears we have with regard to presence, communication and relationships.

When I say ‘we’ I really think digital immigrants fit this condition most accurately for a number of important and unique reasons. As occupants of a truly transitional world between print/old and new/digital media we inernalize the angst and moral panic of a technological culture that is rapidly surpassing our ability to adapt; we are naturally mired in nostalgia over the very different nature of our childhoods that were built on face-to-face interaction, yet we cannot get on the exclusive “text is best” horse our parents and grandparents seem to be riding. Meanwhile, what is probably more accurate of the present day is a gradual shift towards withdrawal from the public sphere, retreat into our silos of family and close friends, particularly in urban centres that have overtime become concrete jungles filled with strangers and institutions. De-personalization of the public sphere in this sense way predates the emergence of the mobile phone – it is more appropriate to see it as a symptom of an already shifting social and inter-personal relations and an evolving nature of presence.

Coming at it from the old paradigm of defining communication technologies by their sensory affordances – yes, it seems as if we bury ourselves in the screen, privileging a visual, virtual field; however, if we let go of this type of conceptualization of communication technology, we can see mobile smart devices as micro-worlds that are receptory as much as they are participatory for activities we control (see pic above) – so we are in fact burying ourselves primarily into a world we control, full of connections, sounds, images, gestures and haptic interactions. I’m not saying that smart phones aren’t changing the world; but I have to reflect on my own pre-conceived notions – both theoretical and personal – before I aim to point out exactly how, or why. As McLuhan said, rear-view mirror vision is 20-20, and we often discover that the changes we ascribe to technologies were in fact at play long before technology arrived to the stage of social action and cultural practice – particular technologies such as in our case the “smart phone” simply captured and promoted those changes especially well.

Some fun blog posts on this:

http://runt-of-the-web.com/ruining-everything-smartphone

http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/technology/micwright/100010648/louis-c-k-is-right-smartphones-have-become-a-blight-on-our-society/

http://www.thejanedough.com/burnout-101-why-the-smartphone-is-ruining-everything-for-everyone/

Sensory Postcard: The Ghost Train

November 10, 2012 Posted by Milena D

This is going to be a picture-less, sound-less postcard, but nevertheless I feel compelled to comment because it was such a unique, simple, yet savory experience. I was really charmed by the simplicity of multi-modality – an open train or real tracks, in the brisk cold night, huddled with strangers going through a narrow passageway with scenes from various fairy tales unfolding off to the sides. A combination of real actors, props, detailed fabrications of scenes from fairy tales just enough to evoke memory of each one, really gave the train ride a sense of presence. In some ways it made me aware  (and hopefully others) how used I am to the flatness of experience provided by media – whether it’s my TV or my computer, or even my beloved iProducts.

Auditorily, the delightful part was that each fairy tale scene was announced by sounds first, before it became visually present. But let me backtrack. The train itself has cheapo variety park speakers built in and played music constantly. Let’s see if I can describe it. It was a cartoonish melody but it wasn’t contemporary or popular, and not too childish. Had a fairy-tale character, perhaps reminded me of old vinyl records I listened to of dramatized fairly tales, or perhaps other people were reminded of their Disneyland experiences and so on. In any case, even tho it appeared to be ‘generic’ in a sense, it was actually a custom mix, because it mixed in elements – melody, voice and sound effects that represented in a refreshingly subtle way the fairy tale scene that was just about to materialize out of the darkness ahead. A particular highlight for me was the sound effect of hundreds of mice scattering and screaming in that pattern mice do, sound intensifying as we came up on a fabricated scene on the side of the tracks of a fake corpse covered in at least 50-ish plastic mice/rats.

Reflecting on this experience, again, I just can’t say enough how refreshing it is for me to re-conceptualize this notion of ‘multi-modal’ display/interface that gets thrown around a lot in the interaction design community, and for that matter, in education(al technology). The way this train ride was multimodal, with the darkness of the forest around us, eery branches and leaves, fog-covered pond, water reflecting the moon hiding monsters below, cold biting night air, analogue metallic clanking of wheels on rails with its distinguishable crackling when direction changes, the low-fi sound melody and effects played via speakers, plus the immediate sounds of the live actors on the various fairy tale sets. It was a truly multi-modal experience with a presence that the most sophisticated piece of technology hasn’t been able to get close to. The sheer depth of – that’s how I can really think about – the depth, dimensional effect of different sensual experiences layered together, sight, sound, touch, temperature, smell, emotion….Makes me realize – duly so – how limited the conceptualizations of even the most contemporary forms of multimedia, multimodal, tangible technology are.