Chapter III: Related work

This chapter introduces work related to digital mobile media’s influences on public space and particularly the Urban Alphabets project. In order to provide for the different aspects that concern the project and this thesis, the chapter is divided into three sections: The first subchapter provides an overview of the existing research in the field between digital mobile media and public space. The second section presents artistic and design reference projects, which serve as inspiration for the Urban Alphabets project. The third subchapter presents two other smartphone applications, which take photos of letters in public space as their starting point.

III.1 Previous research in the field

Urban media research is concerned with the possibilities to facilitate urban life through the help of technologies. Much of the research in this field concentrates on community networks (e.g., Foth 2010; Foth, Gonzalez, and Taylor 2006; Bilandzic, Foth, and De Luca 2008) or networks for communication between citizens and city governments (e.g., Nash 2013). Other papers focus on participation as a form of citizenship (e.g., Burgess, Foth, and Klaebe 2006) or ways to enhance collaborative planning (Foth, Hearn, and Klaebe 2007; Foth, Klaebe, and Hearn 2008 focus on narratives as a collaborative planning method). Another article centers around sensing technologies to be used in public space (Madan et al. 2010). However, none of these articles pays any attention to spatiality.

Similarly, in mobile media research much of the analysis remains on the level of technology and its outcomes (e.g., Häkkilä et al. 2012 concentrate on the reasons why users take functional photos with their smartphone cameras; Nielsen et al. 2006 argue why usability testing of mobile media services in the field is a must).

Jan Seeburger’s investigation of his project “PlaceTagz”, which enabled users to interact with a place or other users in the place by scanning a QR tag, aims to “facilitate interaction with people in the same public space” (2012, 247). Even though the researcher conducted interviews with participants, his analysis remains on the level of sustainability of the used technologies and does not take the step towards spatiality.

Nevertheless, an emerging interest in spatial relations is undeniable:

Alison Gazzard in her article “Location, location, location: Collecting space and place in mobile media” investigates three examples of digital mobile media: Argh and Tweeps Around, two augmented reality applications, and Foursquare, a social network built around places for checking-in. In her discussion of these mobile media applications Gazzard identifies one main shift: Whereas traditionally only professionals represented space ‣1‣1 See chapter IV.1.2, the group participating in the making of spatial representations (e.g., maps) has widened through the use of mobile digital technologies. Today smartphone users can contribute to so-called “cultural maps” by annotating items on the map (cf. Gazzard 2011, 409; Humphreys 2010). Gazzard also investigates the focus of attention when using mobile media: In the case of the two augmented reality applications she identifies the main attention remains on the screen instead of the public space around. In contrast, in Foursquare time for actively perceiving the environment remains while waiting for the application to search for the exact location (Gazzard 2011, 413). The author concludes that the mobile applications she examined change spatiality in two ways: Place overrides movement, and places are only important if they give some benefit in the mobile application (e.g., a badge earned from a Foursquare check-in). Simultaneously the applications can heighten the user’s awareness of a certain area (Gazzard 2011, 410). In the introduction I mentioned Alison Gazzard’s article as influential for the development of my interest in the topic of mobile media and spatiality. Her account is essential for my own work and should be understood as one step towards spatiality in digital mobile media research.

Another step was Jason Farman’s book “The Mobile Interface Theory – Embodied Space and Locative Media” (2012). His research focuses on the way we embody spaces through and with mobile digital media. Farman takes a non-technology-deterministic standpoint, arguing that the current shift towards mobile digital media is “less about the devices and more about the activity” (2012, 1). He describes that the relationship between embodiment and spaces are very intimate and follows that mobile media cause changes in spaces and the way media are utilized within them (Farman 2012, 12–13). Farman understands embodiment as an essentially spatial practice, as a simultaneously “site-specific sensory engagement and a reading of bodies as always culturally inscribed” (2012, 31). The researcher argues, similarly to Gazzard, that through mobile devices new forms of representing space are enabled. He emphasizes that users locate space and experience the world as a mixture between digital and material interfaces, that there is no clear distinction between space and its representation. Therefore the representations of space become more diverse, which essentially highlights space as a socially produced experience ‣2‣2 See chapter IV.1.1. The Mobile Interface Theory contributes a theoretical foundation of embodiment in the mobile digital media age while concentrating on the activities mobile devices facilitate. It is therefore an important theoretical contribution while highlighting the activities rather than the spatial consequences. Farman also points out that his interest is not in covering various examples but in a deeper understanding of embodiment enabled through digital mobile devices (UMD College of Arts and Humanities 2013). He acknowledges that every example he mentioned was obsolete by the time the book was published. In contrast, the emphasis in this thesis is precisely on investigating one example, the use of the Urban Alphabets application, to reveal the relationship between the mobile application and public space in detail. From this detailed analysis I shall then proceed to develop recommendations for the development of other applications aiming to re-connect users with their physical surroundings.

Martijn de Waal’s book “City as Interface – How New Media are Changing the City” argues that the nature of public space changes through the use of new technologies (2014). Public space is no longer the place where all inhabitants of the city are likely to meet. Instead, de Waal argues, today the overlapping of several parochial domains constitutes public space. Parochial domains, a concept by Lyn Lofland, are intermediate spheres between public and private, where people are acquainted with each other. The participants in a parochial space are involved in interpersonal networks, such as neighbours or members of a sports club. In the contemporary society citizens are usually part of several different parochial networks simultaneously (Waal 2014, 15). According to de Waal, places where several parochial domains overlap constitute a public space. De Waal’s interest is mainly in a theoretical approach to the city in the digital age. Similarly to Farman, de Waal is not interested in a specific example but rather an overall understanding.

The research referred until this point shows two tendencies: In much of the urban media research debate spatiality is left out completely. If spatiality is considered the analysis persists on a theoretical level, or examples are employed to illustrate hypotheses.

However, one stimulating approach is found in the work of Luigina Ciolfi (2007). In the design process for “The Portal”, an interactive installation installed in an airport setting, the designers took people’s perceptions and experiences of the airport as the starting point for their design. They collected their material through observation and interviews, in order enable themselves to study the connection of the different dimensions of lived space (Ciolfi 2007, 185). Additionally, during the installation the researchers gathered material to evaluate the success of their installation, whose goal it was to provide for more affective experiences in interaction with technology. The analysis then stays at this level of affective experiences, which the installation successfully provided thereby transforming space into place. For my own work the design and evaluation process of “The Portal” is a confirmation that practice-based research is needed and useful for the evaluation of the relationship between mobile digital media and public spaces.

III.2 Artistic and design reference projects

Examining the field of typography in art I come to the conclusion that letters fascinate humans. Examples of the relationship between photography and letters in public space range from Rhett Dashwood’s project “Google Map Typography” (2009, ‣3 ‣3 Figure 6 ‣4 Figure 7 ‣5 Figure 8 ‣6 Figure 9 ‣7 Figure 10 and Link 4 for the full Instagram stream ), in which he searched for letters on Google Maps, to “Type the Sky” by Lisa Rienermann (2007, ‣4), who photographed the sky shaped in the form of letters in the courtyards of Barcelona. Artist and nature photographer Kjell Sandved has searched for letters on the wings of butterflies (“Butterfly Alphabet”, 1972, ‣5), and Eric Tabuchi photographed the back of trucks on empty highways to complete his “Alphabet Truck” project (2008, ‣6). Whereas the later examples demonstrate a comparatively traditional approach to photography, Dashwood employs the possibilities that the Google maps engine offers for his artwork. Similarly Nick DiLallo utilizes Instagram to showcase his fascination for the numbers of New York (Instagram user: @NewYorkNumbers, ‣7).

Figure 6: (left) Google map typography by Rhett Dashwood

Figure 7: (right) Type the sky by Lisa Rienermann

Figure 8: Butterfly alphabet by Kjell Sandved

Figure 9: (left) Alphabet truck by Eric Tabuchi

Figure 10: (right) Example from NewYorkNumbers Instagram feed

Another area of design work has been on archiving letters in different forms, a practice related to Urban Alphabets’ collecting and classifying features. Berlin’s Buchstabenmuseum (letter museum) exhibits a collection of letters dismantled from public spaces and preserved in the museum. The project “Visual dictionary” archives photos of “words in the real world” (The Visual Dictionary 2015). The project started in 2006, but only remained active till 2008. It is still possible to upload new words but the makers do not pursue the project actively at this point.

The third area of interest in art and design work is in commercializing letter photography. In Chapter VII I will propose opportunities for marketing the Urban Alphabets projects in future. However, looking at related ways of commercializing letter art facilitates this process. Three existing projects are of interest in this area:

The Finnish company Character Oy repurposes unused outdoor signs as indoor lamps. Two of their lamps have been rented for the exhibition in Helsinki ‣8 ‣8 Figure 11.

Figure 11: Letter lamps in the Lasipalatsi gallery

The team of “The Found Alphabet” markets framed black-and-white high-quality prints of custom-made words. In the print, a letter photo from the website’s character collection replaces each letter of the chosen word.

Author Simon Jennings created “Outdoor Types”, a book including more than 500 photographed letters, which, according to the book’s marketing description, is “his tribute to the anonymous talents of vernacular artists around the world” (Jennings 2015). Remarkably, some versions of this book also include a package of 100 magnets.

Especially The Found Alphabet and Outdoor Types will be considered when developing Urban Alphabets further. However, a more extensive market analysis will be needed in future.

III.3 Related smartphone applications

While there are many artistic projects combining photography and letters, there are surprisingly little smartphone apps in this area. However, two mobile applications, which relate to Urban Alphabets’ in different ways, shall be introduced shortly:

Ampergram is an Instagram-based application, which enables the user to write their own words using photos of letters. The photos used in Ampergram are posted as Instagram photos with the hashtag #ampergram and #letter (e.g., #ampergram #A). Writing own words is possible via the smartphone apps (supported platforms iOS and Android) or the Ampergram website. Since the emphasis of this project is on writing, there is no possibility to see a full alphabet, which is one main difference to Urban Alphabets. Users need to use two different apps to make their own words: they upload letters via Instagram and utilize them for writing in Ampergram. This concept of two different applications results in the difficulty to write words only with one’s own uploads. While the community-approach to reusing the typographical elements is certainly appealing to some users, it is also my point of critique: The Urban Alphabets’ workshops have shown that many users find writing with their own letters very exciting.

Urban Type was an art puzzle game, which was available for iOS during 2013/2014. The artist used the sliding puzzle mechanic combined with his own letter photos to create a gameplay with the aim of arranging the letter pieces into alphabetic order. While the puzzle was an unusual use case for letter photos, the application lacked the opportunity to input own letter material. However, this idea will be kept in mind when thinking about the future of Urban Alphabets.

This chapter presented an overview of three areas of work related to this thesis: Firstly, it pointed out that there is little existing work considering how mobile media change the spatiality of public spaces. The previous work remains on a theoretical level and does not aim at developing a practical approach to stimulate new experiences in public spaces through new media. This is one of the areas this work focuses on. Secondly, the chapter showed that there are various projects related to letter photography and also different ways of commercializing its outcomes. Thirdly, two smartphone applications related to this thesis’ case study object, Urban Alphabets, were introduced. It was shown that only few similar apps exist and these lack the emphasis on filling a full alphabet, writing with the users’ own letters or even generally the opportunity to use own uploads.

In order to go further into the analysis of spatiality of public space as influenced by New Media the theoretical foundations for the field are examined in the upcoming chapter.

>> next: chapter IV: Theoretical framework