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U. of I. course explores using technology to encourage people to walk

Melissa Mitchell, Arts Editor


From left: Simon Levin, Laurie Long, Piotr Adamczyk, and professor Kevin Hamilton
Click photo to enlarge
Photo by L. Brian Stauffer
U. of I. art and design professor Kevin Hamilton, right, taught a new course, "Mobile Mapping for Everyday Spaces," this past semester. He was assisted by, left to right, visiting Canadian artists Simon Levin and Laurie Long, and Piotr Adamczyk, a U. of I. graduate student in human factors. The course explored the act of walking – which provides opportunities for observing and interacting with one’s environment – as an art form.

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — These days, when people walk down the street “alone,” chances are they’re actually doing so in the company of remote others – connected by a cell phone. Or the tell-tale iPod cord extending from an ear means they’re otherwise focused, marching to the beat of their own personal soundtrack.

For better or for worse, our culture’s attachment to portable electronic devices appears to be here to stay. Meanwhile, everyone – from doctors and researchers to television anchors and newspaper advice columnists – is drumming into our collective consciousness the benefits of a simple activity that had almost become obsolete in our
car-accustomed culture: walking.

This past semester, at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, a group of students from diverse academic backgrounds – from computer science and electrical and computer engineering to painting, photography and music composition – pooled their talents in a course exploring ways to merge the art of walking with the culture’s emerging passion for portable electronic gadgets.

The course, “Mobile Mapping for Everyday Spaces,” was taught by U. of I. art and design professor Kevin Hamilton, with assistance from visiting Canadian artists Simon Levin and Laurie Long, and Piotr Adamczyk, a U. of I. graduate student in human factors. The students’ experimental playground was fairly vast, consisting of the grounds around the U. of I. campus as well as a few off-campus sites. But their base camp was the Siebel Center for Computer Science, which, when it opened its doors in 2004, was billed as a “living laboratory” and an “integrated ecosystem.”

With its wireless networks, sensors, information panels and video walls, the center was designed to function not only as a home to the computer science department, but also as an incubator, where students and researchers could explore ways to combine physical and digital infrastructures with human interfaces.

And from the beginning, plans for the facility called for the integration of art. Not corporate or institutional art – not pretty pictures on hallway walls, but rather, edgy, experimental, immersive and even collaborative art and installations that reflected the nature of the work taking place within the facility.

Hamilton, who is among a new breed of visual artists who glides comfortably between the dual, increasingly interconnected worlds of art and technology, was tapped to serve as Siebel’s resident exhibition curator. For the past year plus, he has organized a series of shows at Siebel featuring work by emerging digital artists. Last summer, he co-taught a computer science-arts hybrid class that used technology to create a museum installation based on the work of artists Ilya and Emilia Kabakov.

Hamilton said the recent “Mobile Mapping” course was an extension of a symposium he organized in spring 2005 in the art and design school called “Walking as Knowing as Making.” Both the symposium and the course explored the act of walking – which provides opportunities for observing and interacting with one’s environment – as an art form.

students suit up for demonstration
Click photo to enlarge
Photo by L. Brian Stauffer
Students in the U. of I.'s "Mobile Mapping" course suit up for a demonstration of their invention that uses portable electronic devices to create sounds triggered by footsteps.

Hamilton said that while the academic world has been slow to embrace this concept, a number of artists – especially in Canada and Europe – have been creating public art projects based on walking for some time. He met Levin and Long, known for their collaborative public art on environmentally conscious themes, a few years ago at “Pre/Amble,” a festival of art and “psychogeography” in Vancouver, British Columbia.

The concept of walking as art, and the goals of the course, can best be summed up in Hamilton’s charge to his students at the beginning of the class:

“We want to create experiences for viewers/users that encourage them to walk. We want to do this because we believe walking to be uniquely suited to gaining awareness about one’s body, the world, and one’s relationship to others in that world.”

So where do computers and high-tech enter the picture?

Hamilton said the aim was to introduce new technologies, such as global positioning systems, into the equation “because we believe there are some unique perceptual and social possibilities in technologically augmented movement.”

Over the course of the semester, the students – with continued feedback from the instructors – worked in four four-person teams on two initial assignments, leading up to a final project. Their end goal, Hamilton said, was “to prototype a suite of inexpensive devices to be used in support of mapping everyday spaces while walking.”

Throughout, they remained focused on four content areas: walking, mapping, collaboration and locative media.

“The project’s vision takes cues from developments in GPS and locative media technology, the drive to portability in consumer electronics, a resurgent interest in walking among health experts, new shared online informational sources, and a desire to renew curiosity about everyday spaces.”

Simon Levin (left foreground) and Kevin Hamilton document student presentation
Click photo to enlarge
Photo by L. Brian Stauffer
Simon Levin, left in foreground, and U. of I. professor Kevin Hamilton document a student presentation in the amphitheater outside the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts.

Besides taking orchestrated group walks and doing readings, students tackled projects that required them to try their hands at such challenges as “reverse engineering” – essentially taking apart cheap electronic toys and making new devices to augment a walking experiment. They also learned to use and incorporate into their work some of the latest online tools, such as, a Web-based photo-file-sharing database, and Wikis, communal Web pages where students and instructors can share course content.

The course culminated with an all-day presentation of the four groups’ final projects, at locations around campus.

The first group created a “walking score,” which resembled a musical score but included notations indicating the directions, pace and rhythm that walkers – outfitted with GPS units – were to follow. Walkers also carried digital cameras, and were cued by the score to snap pictures at various times. The GPS data and images were then posted on a Web site to create a visual collage that documented the walkers’ paths.

The next group featured a person who, outfitted with a portable lectern and microphone, took a walk while reading and recording a pre-selected text. After that, a second walker attached the device and listened to the recording while walking.

The trick was that the recording played back at the speed of the original walker’s pace, so in order to hear the text read at the correct speed, the second walker had to duplicate the first one’s pace.

The third group’s project involved recording audio files linked to specific locations along the sidewalk of the campus’s main Quadrangle. When walkers – outfitted with headphones, a GPS receiver and laptop computer with custom software – duplicated the recorders’ paths, they were able to hear exactly what the original walker-recorders had heard.

The final group presented their invention at the amphitheater of the campus’s Krannert Center for the Performing Arts. With one person outfitted in a backpack with portable speakers, the other walkers, with sensors attached, were able to create a range of different notes, or audible sounds, triggered by each footstep. The result resembled an often-amusing improvisational dance set to self-generated “music.”

While it’s entirely possible that some of the ideas and devices the students invented could lead to the development of new consumer devices one day, that wasn’t really the point of the course.

“The real focus was on collaboration itself,” Hamilton said. “The students had to document everything with text and photos, and learn to work within a group dynamic.”

Naturally, that translated to a lot of long days and nights for the students. But the instructors also got a workout, Hamilton said.

“It’s been pretty intense – the most work I’ve ever put into a class, probably.” But in the end, he said, he was “especially pleased at how the groups have worked together.”

So was Alan Fleming, a painting major from LaGrange Park, Ill., who took the course with his twin brother, Mike.

“I learned how much the computer science department wanted to work with artists,” he said, and “how sim
ilar their research projects are to some of our art projects.

“They are creative people. I have a better appreciation for computer science. I learned a lot about technology through the hands-on experience of the class. What was great was that nobody had done what we were doing before, so we had to figure it out together.”

From Hamilton’s perspective, the course has been “a perfect melding of research and teaching.” This summer, he and Adamczyk hope to document the course content and outcomes and submit the results to a few academic journals.

He also expects the work begun with the symposium and the course will continue. In the future, he hopes to draw in students and researchers from other disciplines as well, among them, faculty and staff members in a campus kinesmetrics lab who are conducting research on walking and GPS technology.