Tuesday, 16 December 2008

Recycling Technology

Damian Kimmelman from Vivid Image gave a fascinating talk at our recent event on re-using and recycling technology - Intersections in Sustainability. He has kindly given us permission to reproduce the talk in full below. Enjoy!

E-Junk Gems: Re-purposing Existing Technology

Thanks to the recent wave of consumer guilt, we have become pretty clued into the fact that one of the great problems facing our society is a gross dependence on the disposable. We are all, willingly or unwillingly, slaves to a social obsession with the latest and newest technologies around. We have worked ourselves into a constant state of paranoid demand for continuous upgrades. In this climate of fast product turnover, everything can and will be replaced by something that works better, looks better and sells better.

In the world of new media, this fickleness when it comes to technology puts pressure on creatives to continuously come up with something brand new. Yes, I believe progress is essential to our society. But, why must progress always involve inventing something new? I want to explore how we, as new media creatives, can set out to design the future by making use of the technologies that already exist. Opposing the culture of the disposable, something new can be created from something that already exists.

As I’ll go on to illustrate, the advantage of having this vast amount of technology available is that it opens up the possibility of repurposing technologies in a multitude of new and unforeseen ways.

The catalyst for this discussion came from a movie I watched as a child named ‘The Gods Must Be Crazy’. (http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=66pTPWg_wUw&feature=related- 8.33 mins in)
When a Coke bottle lands in the middle of the African desert, a bushman discovers the foreign object and decides to put it to good use. Strangers to its primary function, they use it to make music, carry water, grind seeds, print patterns and stretch snakeskins. This got me thinking about the benefits of being able to see the world around us from a point of innocence. If we consider something in a different light, perhaps we can put it to a different and even better use?

I’m sure a lot of you are familiar with the anecdote of the Apollo Space Program. This is a perfect example of when spending more money on new inventions isn’t always the best option. Whilst the US spent upwards of $1 million inventing a zero gravity pen that could write upside down in space, the Russians kept it simple, saved some money and used a pencil.

Someone once said that the greatest innovation comes from necessity and therefore poverty. Now we could argue the semantics of this statement till the cows come home, but I’ve got to admit there is some degree of truth in it. Change can certainly be seen as a product of need, invention a product of deficiency.

Coming from a new media background, we’re constantly trying to look at ways in which we can use current technologies to new effect. There are a broad range of re-purposing projects around that encourage and inform the work we do. From Apple’s innovative use of motion sensors in their iPods to the use of inkjet printers to print hearts, people have and continue to use existing technology to amazing ends.


Here are some of the more obvious examples. Some time ago Apple decided to define itself more as a software and hardware design company than a manufacturer. This in some ways gave them more time and energy to come up with design ideas for new products. Using sudden motion sensors, which traditionally act as hardware safety devices in laptops, Apple created a range of functions for the iPod and iPhone. The common accelerometer is used to rotate screen images on the iPods and play games on the iPhone by moving the device itself. http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=Wtcys_XFnRA
Then there’s the Nintendo Wii which also relies on accelerometers for its motion sensor games.

This is the sort of stuff very much in the public eye that inspires others to design products that can change the world on a profound level. Check out the Apple Smackbook. http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=6uvQTTPr9Rw

Printing Hearts

From the cool to the life-changing, my next example of incredible re-innovation is Bio-printing. The future of tissue engineering no longer involves the laborious growth of organs in the lab from existing parts. Instead, thanks to biophysicist Gabor Forgacs, we can quite literally print hearts using the fundamental principles of inkjet printers.

Droplets of ‘bio-ink’, which are clumps of cells a few hundred micrometers in diameter, are deposited on ‘bio-paper’ and built up to create the specific 3D cell structures required to generate various organs. Depending on where the cells are placed and what the printer is instructed to do, any given structure can be created. And it all started with a chicken heart. Having printed layers of chicken cells using the device, they slowly started behaving like a real organ and after 19 hours started beating synchronously like a real heart. Really revolutionary stuff, and all from the inkjet printer, a 20-year-old technology.

The Village Phone

The next example of current technology being used for progressive purposes is the transfer of money via mobile phone. The Sente system is a good example of modern day social capitalism at play. Financial aid is sent to small towns and villages that lack the infrastructure that a stable banking system would provide via a pay as you go system. The money sender buys a mobile phone top-up voucher from their local seller and sends it to top up the phone of a village based middle man. This middle man then detracts his commission and passes on what remains of the credit to the person it is intended for. This means that funds can be transferred to communities at the touch of a button, despite the absence of banking structures.


Many of you will be familiar with the Captcha system, if not by name then by those distorted boxes of text that we spend time typing out when entering secure web pages. The hours spent typing out these words, using human rather than computer labor, can be harnessed and put to another use. Already the guys at Carnegie Mellon have found a way to capitalise on these online hours by using the Captcha system to digitise books. By re-capturing phrases from scanned books, digital copy for the online texts is generated. This is making use of what I term the ‘human cloud’, in other words putting the existing infrastructure of human online activity to new use.

If this can be done with Captcha, what other online hours can be harvested? Think of the many thousands of hours spent online playing Solitaire. Could these processes be simultaneously contributing to a greater good? What is certainly ground breaking about Captcha is that it exemplifies this alternative way of ‘creating’ that fascinates me: the idea that the new can come straight out of the old and even mundane.

Where Do we Fit In?

So how does this all relate to what we do at VI? As I mentioned before, creativity can certainly be seen as a product of poverty. What I find exciting in web design is the great amount of restrictions placed on us that force us to work that bit harder to come up with new and exciting functions and applications. We are limited by factors such as bandwidth, connection speed, screen resolution, file size and usability. Unlike other media areas, web developers are restricted to the world of the online. We have very strict parameters to work within.

However, I strongly believe that there is a lot out there in the online world that we are not making use of. We should force ourselves to confront our limitations and exploit them in order to be more creative. For instance, there is so much more to explore with microphones and webcams. However, what’s stopping us from putting these systems to other and perhaps more useful purposes. One of the projects we are working on with a US partner demonstrates exactly what can be done by taking existing forms and bettering them. A step away from the video streaming that sites like YouTube have familiarised us with, our recent project for the Lockout music label uses video streaming at high definition no real loading time and no buffering.The video streams through a network of nodes that constantly communicate with each other to determine the fastest route from the source of the video to the user wishing to view it. http://videoplayer.wearevi.com/

This is the future of video streaming but is the result of improving on what exists, not striving for something totally new.

I hope I’ve given you some insight into the new media gauntlet that has been thrown down. In a society in which so many of our immediate technological needs have and continue to be met, change and innovation needn’t always involve inventing something new. Progress is just as achievable if we look back to existing technologies, rethink their uses and give them a new value. Sometimes the best idea is the most obvious, yet we shy away from it on the search for novelty. Why reinvent the wheel? Improve and evolve what exists and we can certainly shape the future with the tools of the present.

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