When the city talks back
This summer, the street furniture of Bristol in the UK will start talking to you via your mobile phones. It's the internet of things as art.
I like Bristol. It’s a city in the south west of England, and it’s where I got married nearly 10 years ago. It has a growing digital economy and, as of the summer, it’s post boxes will talk through your mobile phone.
The majority of the city’s physical infrastructure of small objects – bollards, lampposts and postboxes – have a code attached to them, which the local council uses to maintain and repair them. As of this summer, these objects in Brostol will have a virtual life of their one, one you can interrogate – and interact with – via your mobile phone:
Every post box in Bristol has a six figure code, every bollard has two, some of the benches have seven and the storm drains have 14. This summer you will be invited to text the word ‘Hello + the name of the object + its code’ to the special phone number and the item of street furniture will immediately text you back with a question. Will it be pleased to see you? Irritated at having been left in the rain? Or will it tell you a secret? The more you play, the more the hidden life of the city will be revealed.
Hello Lamp Post! – as the project is rather appropriately called – was one of 93 submissions in the 2013 Playable City award, which sough projects that would surprise challenge and engage people across the city. The winning idea came from PAN, a London agency, who are understandably rather pleased with the £30,000 they’ve won to implement it.
Hello Lamp Post! stood out with a potential for both art and play using existing urban furniture. It points to a future made up of the physical objects already around us, the ‘internet of things’, and the underlying complexity is made simple and easy for people by just using SMS for this project. Poetry and technology combine to create subtle and playful reflections of the world we live in. It filled me with a childish delight.
It’s an interesting take on the internet of things. The objects aren’t network connected themselves, but they do have distinct and inter-actable online identities of their own. I suspect a lot of the success or failure of the project will be determined by how well those identities evolve over time through the interactions people have with them. Luckily, I’ll be in Bristol a few times over the summer, so I’ll explore the street furniture, have a chat with them, and report back…