Affinity-Based Networks and Mobile Devices
The Blur Building and the Next Application of Mobile Computing
In 2002, the centerpiece pavilion of the sixth Swiss National Expo was less an actual building and more a man-made atmospheric presence. The Blur Building, as designed by American architects Elizabeth Diller and Ricardo Scofidio, was a suspended platform in the middle of Lake Neuchatel in Switzerland. The metal structure of the building used high-pressure spraying technology to blast little water droplets from the frame, essentially shrouding the pavilion in what looked like a cloud of mist. The spray, temperature, wind, humidity, and other atmospheric conditions necessary to maintain the cloud of fog were all computer controlled.
As visitors left the clear of the shore and headed out on a walkway to the Blur Building, they donned the second feature of the installation, braincoats. In addition to guarding against the moisture, these waterproof ponchos also were a form of wearable computing. While on the shore, visitors to the pavilion were asked to complete a personal preferences questionnaire that was uploaded into an online social networking profile housed in a central Blur Building computer and wirelessly accessible throughout the structure. As visitors were given their braincoats, their preferences profiles were downloaded into their ponchos. While people slowly wandered through the fog within the Blur Building, LEDs within the braincoats would begin to glow red or green as they came in close proximity of another person whose personal preference questionnaire was a match to their own. A sonic pulse within the coats also changed frequencies to indicate shared affinities as they neared other visitors.
Diller and Scofidio, in collaboration with Ben Rubin for the creation of the braincoat, were able to able to create a cultural-technological experience that combined nature with man-made structure, as well as human psyche with smart computers, to both bring people closer together and hide them from each other. In an interview, Elizabeth Diller said of the smart raincoats with their changing red and green lights, “Ben collaborated on the ‘Braincoat,’ working with us on the desire to invest technology with complex communications skills — some involuntary, such as blushing.”
Smart raincoats may seem like novelty items in 2010, but we already carry with us a foundation for creating and recognizing personal affinity networks. As more consumers make smartphones and mobile devices essential components of their daily wanderings, a population of geo-networked individuals is emerging. We are being conditioned to reference our phones for location-specific information, thanks in part to apps like Foursquare and Gowalla, Yelp, and mobile maps. But what if our phones started referencing us?
We currently have the technology to make accurate guesses about consumers’ preferences in music, movies, books, and more. Both social networks and personalized product recommendation engines look at individuals’ actions and behaviors, and then use this information to show trends, make preference-based predictions, and to match up individuals with shared tastes or behaviors. The next evolution of Pandora could be a mobile app that vibrated in your pocket or played an auditory chime whenever the person sitting next to you on the bus shared a similar taste in music. Conference goers could meet other conference goers if their phones began to glow or vibrate whenever they passed someone who had a similar profile and session schedule. Plancast users could upload a taste or event preference questionnaire to their profile and begin discovering new events or venues that might interest them via people outside their social network, merely by coming in close proximity to someone with shared interests.
The technology infrastructure isn’t fully ready to support a network of mobile people whose personal computing devices must be always on the prowl for other individuals with similar or compatible preferences. However, as mobile technology continues to focus on location-specific and transitory actions, we will start to see the rise of affinity-based networks and preference-led encounters.