Mediated Presence through Physical Objects

I went to BarCampLA  in downtown LA and was pleasantly surprised at how organized the geek-fest seemed (thanks to Crystal’s hard work). Even though the schedule was packed by the time I got there, I managed to squeeze in a short talk: my take on mediated presence through physical objects
In my talk, I presented four main points which I think are central when trying to understand presence in a mediated environment: 
                                  -> tangible -> intimacy -> immediacy -> context
Tangible :: extracting the experience away from the screen and into physical objects around us
barcampla4.jpg350 years ago one of the most glorious structures on Earth was completed because of an emperor’s great grief for his wife, who died while giving birth. He wanted their love to be commemorated for centuries to come. Its presence still awes and inspires people who visit the Taj Mahal. Presence takes on many forms around us: the presence of great civilization and power when visiting the Mayan pyramids, the presence of Jewish tradition by hanging a small mezzuza on the doorway, or the presence of a great tragedy, when two parallel massive light beams decorate the New York sky in tribute to 9/11.We easily relate to physical objects around us simply because they are there, next to us, in our space. Because they each hold a story or even a memory. We know how to interact with different items by their functionality, material or shape – everyone knows to handle paintings with care, as they are fragile, but a ball should be thrown around. Thats what it is made for.
Computers have so many functions, narratives and relate to so many different parts of our lives. Our interactions are extremely simple, when compared to the immense diversity of functions the computer serves in our lives. When we meet a good friend online, we cannot squeeze the computer and send them a hug, but rather type a series of characters and possibly throw some smiley faces on the screen. It is time to break out of the screen and adopt new ways for interacting with different functionalities that our computers ofeer. When we look at theatre, an actor performs and receives immediate feedback from the audience. His presence feeds the audience, who then react back. Theatrical presence usually refers to the relationship between the actor and the audience. In my view it is extremely important to experiment with ‘breaking the fourth wall’, taking things outside of the screen in order to and finding new methods of interaction with digital content.
The fourth wall  is a theatrical term which refers to an imaginary wall at the front of the stage, through which the audience sees the actors. The term has been adopted by other media forms such as cinema, television, comics and video games and more generally refer to the boundary between the fiction and its audience. The fourth wall is part of the suspension of disbelief. The audience is usually passive, accepting the presence of the fourth wall without giving it any direct thought, enjoying fiction as if they were observing real events. The presence of a fourth wall is one of the best established conventions of fiction and as such has led artists to draw direct attention to it for dramatic effect.
“Breaking the fourth wall” generally refers to when a character is showing his or her awareness to the audience. Most often, the fourth wall is broken when a character directly addresses the audience through dialogue or by interacting with objects outside the context of the act. Various artists have used this effect to make a point. In his plays, Bertolt Brecht is known for deliberately breaking the fourth wall to encourage his audience to think more critically about what they were watching. Breaking the fourth wall is quite common in video games. This is usually done as a form of comic relief or even when the game goes into tutorial mode.

Intimacy :: the ability and choice to be close, loving and vulnerable
impulseI’m interested to figure out a way to enhance intimacy and support authentic connections across a distance. How can intimacy be represented in mediated spaces? For me, the most intimate means available to connect with a faraway person is through webcam (voice+image). The imPulse project explores the idea of creating intimacy across a distance by sharing an extremely private and internal attribute – a person’s heartbeat. It often takes much longer for us before we get to feel another person’s heartbeat. This project has gone through several iterations, the latest, a wireless module, presented at CHI’07.
Immediacy :: reciprocity and synchronicity
kotel installationImmediacy relates to the timing and latency of data – how important is it to receive the information right now? The more synchronous a conversation is, the more attention it requires and the more intense it feels. A conversation is usually more meaningful when conditions allow for reciprocity to take place. But it is not necessarily more meaningful when the information is immediate. What interests me is to explore how immediacy and synchronicity affects the strength of a connection to a remote person or place; their presence.
I’ve just about had it with online social networks. Tools like facebook or twitter are great at first. They support asynchronous conversations with people I’d never tried hard enough to stay in touch with. But there are not enough tools which support the deeper, more substantial connections. That’s what I long for and that’s what I think is missing.
Keeping this idea in mind, the Kotel installation explores a real-time connection to a remote location by using live video streams. The cameras broadcast images from the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, and are overlayed within an interactive display. This creates a direct, one-way channel between a person and that place. The display is controlled by touching a rock.

Context :: taking things out of context
Tibetan Prayer Wheels, LhasaLocal cultural norms (or the context in which they exist) play a key role when designing objects for people to interact and connect with. By modifying an already known object it is possible to latch onto a user’s existing habits and take advantage of an existing relationship between the person and the object. Everyone knows how to hold a baseball bat or where to look for the ‘take photo’ button in a digital camera. It is Okay to spit in Canal street, but considered a sin a mere few blocks away in Soho.Though it is important to take into account these cultural and social norms, I find it extremely interesting to place an object out of its’ usual context – placing it in a new environment. When done correctly, there can be a strikingly powerful impression left on the viewers. For example, I will never forget an exhibit I saw in Israel this past summer, where real qassam missiles were taken from real-life bomb scenes in Sderot (an Israeli city bordering Gaza) and reproduced in a central Tel Aviv boulevard. Real rockets, real furniture in real scenes from the Sderot bombings. There was something so powerful about recreating these scenes, taken out of context, and placed in the central part of Tel-Aviv. By placing these scenes in a new environment the topic raised much more attention.