Historical Friction

edit June 6 – following on from collaboration with Stu Eve, we’ve got a version of this at http://graeworks.net/historicalfriction/

I want to develop an app that makes it difficult to move through the historically ‘thick’ places – think Zombie Run, but with a lot of noise when you are in a place that is historically dense with information. I want to ‘visualize’ history, but not bother with the usual ‘augmented reality’ malarky where we hold up a screen in front of our face. I want to hear the thickness, the discords, of history. I want to be arrested by the noise, and to stop still in my tracks, be forced to take my headphones off, and to really pay attention to my surroundings.

So here’s how that might work.

1. Find wikipedia articles about the place where you’re at. Happily, inkdroid.org has some code that does that, called ‘Ici’. Here’s the output from that for my office (on the Carleton campus):

http://inkdroid.org/ici/#lat=45.382&lon=-75.6984

2. I copied that page (so not the full wikipedia articles, just the opening bits displayed by Ici). Convert these wikipedia snippets into numbers. Let A=1, B=2, and so on. This site will do that:

http://rumkin.com/tools/cipher/numbers.php

3. Replace dashes with commas. Convert those numbers into music. Musical Algorithmns is your friend for that. I used the default settings, though I sped it up to 220 beats per minute. Listen for yourself here. There are a lot of wikipedia articles about the places around here; presumably if I did this on, say, my home village, the resulting music would be much less complex, sparse, quiet, slow. So if we increased the granularity, you’d start to get an acoustic soundscape of quiet/loud, pleasant/harsh sounds as you moved through space – a cost surface, a slope. Would it push you from the noisy areas to the quiet? Would you discover places you hadn’t known about? Would the quiet places begin to fill up as people discovered them?

Right now, each wikipedia article is played in succession. What I really need to do is feed the entirety of each article through the musical algorithm, and play them all at once. And I need a way to do all this automatically, and feed it to my smartphone. Maybe by building upon this tutorial from MIT’s App Inventor. Perhaps there’s someone out there who’d enjoy the challenge?

I mooted all this at the NCPH THATCamp last week – which prompted a great discussion about haptics, other ways of engaging the senses, for communicating public history. I hope to play at this over the summer, but it’s looking to be a very long summer of writing new courses, applying for tenure, y’know, stuff like that.

Edit April 26th – Stuart and I have been playing around with this idea this morning, and have been making some headway per his idea in the comments. Here’s a quick screengrab of it in action: http://www.screencast.com/t/DyN91yZ0

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2 thoughts on “Historical Friction

  1. Shawn, this is so close to my heart and I love the idea, I want to make your app with you!

    But rather than musical notation, what about whispering the wikipedia articles? Get a text to speech algorithm and have it whisper the abstracts of the wiki articles, all over each other at slightly different pitches. So you get the whispers of the past – maybe playing a bit with volumes depending on the number of articles about a certain period or something. The constant sound of the voices from history overlapping, but allowing you to hear snippets of what is around would probably be pretty compelling. Then you could have an interface that would allow you to isolate the different voices – and concentrate on one or the other. I wonder if there is anywhere you could go where the whispering would stop… or a place where it becomes so loud and distracting that you have to pull off your headphones… Never mind the smell interface that I’m going to blog about very soon!

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