Archive: science fiction

Month Links: February 2013

Hello, March – it”s really good to see you. It”s been a while. It feels like I hardly got to know February, before it spirited away for another year.

Still, in those brief twenty-eight days, we kicked off three new pieces of work as well as continued work on a good half-dozen live projects. Good, busy days with some exciting things on the go. In the quieter moments, here”s a bunch of things we found interesting and provided happy diversions.

Olafur Eliasson, Model For A Timeless Garden.

- The Light Show at Hayward Gallery is a marvel, and really worth sticking your head in. Even if just for the Eliasson piece above.

- One of the best things so far this year is one of the smallest and simplest: Jargone. Jargone is a bookmarklet that scans websites for jargon language and suggests common, day-to-day alternatives. It”s made by Roo Reynolds and is an excellent by-product of the dedication to simple, clear, quality work being done within Government Digital Service.

- Continuing the “doing simple well” thread, James has gone back to Twitter”s post from last summer about their process in overhauling their mobile site. It”s easy for us to advocate mobile first practices, but how do you go about that when you have half a billion users and thousands of devices to serve across the world?

- We”ve been enjoying the open epistolography of Hubbub”s Recess! project – a published discourse around games between Kars, Alper and Niels.

Asshole Mario 3, Stage 1.

- Die Gute Fabrik”s Doug did a “best games of 2012″ end of year post. Normally you”d expect a top ten of indie, AAA and folk games, but Doug”s list is a brilliantly of 2012 – specific moments of play that stuck out. From a trampoline-controlled mod of Proteus to competitive yoga and the Hokra “world championships”. All incredibly exciting and envy-creating.

- Our thoughts have started about 2013: what it is, what it will look like, who we”d like to speak, things we”d like to hear more about. It”s an exciting bit of the project, the first flushes of romance before the realisation that oh god 400-odd people are expecting a good time. As ever, we”ll be looking for interesting ideas and cold hard cash for sponsorship – so get in touch if you have either of those things.

- A few times I”ve caught James making some odd movements in the corner of my eye; he has been playing with the Responsive Typography demo by Marko Dugonjić. It”s an interesting project, and feels like it touches the ideas about Perceptive Media, not just a straight up “responsive” approach.

- In other face-tracking news, the brilliant Henry Cooke has created Faces In The Cloud – a thing mixing computer vision and humans” tendencies to pareidolia.

Sruli Recht A/W 13, Runway Presentation.

It”s been an excellent month for apocalypse fans, the best since December. I read a very cold, but beautiful, collection of graphic short stories recently published by Fantagraphics, Beta Testing The Apocalypse. It”s part Ballard, part design fiction, part straight up comics. Never seen architecture used so well as a character in comics.

- Channel 4 have put out plenty of paranoid drama lately, in the form of Utopia (eugenicists, preppers & conspiracy theorists) and Black Mirror“s pop-apocalypse of glowing rectangles.

- Utopia led me to this excellent article in the NYT about TEOTWAWKI (“the end of the world as we know it”) and the prepper scene in New York. Particularly interesting in the post-Sandy context.

- Black Mirror (for all of its many, many, many failings) has provoked a few discussions in the studio. One of particular interest is its approach to interaction design, which seems at times insightful (who doesn”t want the curved digital drawing board?) and sloppy (the mixed metaphors of tactile and gestural interactions clearly come from a Surface Tablet user).

- Black Mirror is interesting in terms of how non-designers are designing interactions that are eventually adopted. That has seen us revisiting the excellent post by Einar about wifi in Sherlock, an interesting read about how Minority Report has locked people into bad IxD, obligatory Dan Hill post about world building, as well as this wonderful blog looking at HUDS and GUIs in film/games. All of which is very helpful for unnamed project #2.


To advance the cause of the world, Al Gore wants you spam climate change deniers.

- Things that have been in our ears: , , .

- A great reason to get a Little Printer from BERG.

- A blogging platform designed for transience.

- Richard took the black, in his “finest” Sean Bean accent.

- An archive for a classic of Modernist design, Vignelli”s NYC TA Standards Manual.

- A “mood data sculpture” that waters (or not) a Rose of Jericho based on scraped feelings.

- Machine manuals out emo tumblr users.

- A nice bit of IoT that processes a lot of complex data to let you know the best route to work.

- Russell”s back in café”s, revisiting some of his greatest hits.

Introducing MemCode PLC.

Time is a big part of the Mudlark studio. Barnes is all about the future — jetpacks and that — whilst Richard is obsessed with time travel (even running a micro-publishing imprint for it). I”m stuck in time, having spent too much of it reading recollections of events and being an amateur eschatologist.

MemCode, then. MemCode is the formal, launched, face of the project formerly known to us in the studio as “Memory Thing”. It came from a lunchtime conversation about not needing to experience something to actually experience it. Sometimes finding out about an event, getting excited about it and buying the ticket and putting it in your diary – sometimes that’s the most exciting part. Or even false memories (implanted, perhaps, by something collective like cliche or advertising) such as “sitting on the bleachers drinking Coke from a glass bottle”.

Memcode Plc headquarters
Memcode Plc headquarters

The idea of the thing is enough, you can imagine the experience.

Memory is a funny, unpredictable, brilliant thing, and so is imagination. MemCode is designed to play around with this. It”s a story-toy, and part of our infrequent series of scalable models, following on from SCVNGR at the V&A and Derby[2061]. In essence, MemCode is a sort of short-form publishing project, with a large dollop of fictional context for good measure. You may recognise MemCode as the memory preserving/sales agency from Derby[2061], which was developed in parallel.

The first bit of the story is now live. It’s the corporate website of MemCode Plc. It’s better if you go and read it in MemCode’s own words, but here’s the story in brief:

  1. MemCode are compiling your digital memories and formatting them for the experience of others.
  2. Memories are being tested by ‘Readers’, and created by ‘Writers’. You can be a Reader or Writer, or both. Just sign up to the mailing lists on each page.
  3. The first Memory they have developed is about to be released.
  4. It will be released by e-mail this month to people on the ‘Alpha Readers Mailing List’

There are so many influences and inspirations behind this project. Some are buried deeply (, Assassin’s Creed, Philip K. DickMurakami, Dirty Projectors” version of Damaged), and some have been cropping up even as late as last week (Imaginary Image Blog, My Earliest Memory, Facebook Timeline, ten years of 9/11 propaganda, Thinking In Tumblr, the 20th Anniversary of Nevermind).

MemCode isn”t designed for truth. It”s designed for evocation. So, I’ll stop here.

Soon, MemCode will release their first memory, and we’ll see what people make of it. Much like Derby[2061], we’re not really sure what this is, exactly. We’ve got our own ideas, but we’ll leave that until you’ve seen the ‘thing’.

Some Links:

Alpha Reader’s Mailing List
Submit A Memory

Secret Robot House: a trip into the heart of the uncanny valley.

Last Wednesday, I attended an evening at the ‘Secret Robot House’. I’m not sure what images that conjures up for you — an underground laboratory? White coats and flying sparks? Heath Robinson‘s spare room? A house made of robots, for robots, by robots? I wasn’t really sure what to expect. It was all in the spirit of the thing to not really know.

“A minibus will collect you from Hatfield station at 6:30 and escort you to the Secret Robot House”, was the only information from Alex (Internet of Things luminary and organiser of the evening). The minibus took us through a comfortable suburban estate and pulled up outside a residential house. A regular-looking semi-detached in a sleepy middle-class area of Hatfield. Alex waved us in and we entered.

Robot 1
Robot 1


It’s a real house, but not a real house. The first things I notice are cut-out spacial markers on the ceiling, dozens throughout the room. A desk covered in computers. Then a pair of robots by the bookshelf. One looks like an oversized Nespresso maker, the other Wall-E’s slightly junkier sibling. Everyone shuffles in an amused, but slightly confused, way. It’s a real house, but not a real house. It’s a robot’s home, a research space for domestic robots to understand human-robot relationships. We’re walking in the uncanny valley.

Nicolas Nova presented a short-talk that took us through the role of sci-fi in developing robots; robots being fictions from the very beginning, that people want to be real. We keep trying to make science fact out of science fiction. Nova talks so simply that it’s easy to imagine he’s not saying anything at all, but – and this is main the point of the whole evening – demonstrated how hard it is to design robots as robots. They will always be an expression of the designers’ beliefs, culture and understanding of others. Nova led us around the various ways in which people respond to robots and the ways that people don’t want to interact with robots (if they are humanoid, or animal-like; slide 11). It was an interesting wander over the developing rules of engagement of Human-Robot Interaction, what we are willing to interact with and what we are rationally uncomfortable about. Too human and we fear Nexus 6 Replicants; too much personality and we fear HAL 9000. And nobody really wants an internet fridge.

In response to Nova, Patrick Bergel suggested that robotics research owes more to old magic than it does sci-fi. He pointed towards the Sorcerer’s Apprentice as the defining example, an original manifestation of the desire for self-automated helpers to do our work for us. The brooms are robots in disguise. It’s true, inasmuch as the Golem is a clay robot, but it’s a little sophistic. We generally try to understand our futures by extrapolating upon the things that exist in our present. Magic and sci-fi are the same, except that magic is now electronic and cybernetic. Perhaps, if Walt Disney had been born thirty years later, the brooms would have been bots with screens.

Prof. Kerstin Dautenhahn (founder of the Adaptive Systems Group responsible for the robotics research in the house) gave us a deeper backstory to the research and the role of the house. She offered a better understanding of the limitations of robots and the perennial challenges that face the researchers. The research was about developing robotic companions — for the elderly, disabled or house-bound — to support and complete simple tasks. It is less about having fully functioning automatons that do everything, without input. Their challenge is to design and build Companions that are ‘useful’ and ‘social’, but also adhere to current and future standards of robotics.

An interesting point Dautenhahn made was about robotics (particularly the robotics research they are doing) being a synthetic science. It is a mixture of engineering, psychology and sociology. The robots aren’t a species, and are inconsistent. They change regularly with each new design/build. Intelligence is redefined with each iteration, emotionally and in processing ability. A robot of today is not the robot of the future, today. What the ASG are trying to do is develop a kind of social language, the laws of interaction between humans and robots beyond Asimov’s Three. How does a human react when a robot does this, and why? What is the best way for a robot to deliver a drink, how can a robot avoid injuring humans in delivering simple tasks?

Robot 2
Robot 2

Coming back to Nova’s talk — citing Kevin Slavin, “it becomes real by behaving real, by demonstrating the behaviour of things that are real” — we keep asking ‘how much of a human personality should you put into a robot?’

Over the course of two demonstrations, it became very clear that the role of human-ness in robotics is important. The Care-o-Bot 3® had two clear facets to its construction: a human-facing front, delivering objects and scanning the room; a mechanical reverse with massive arm for task-completion. The Care-o-Bot 3® moves like Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca, eerily smooth and slightly jarringly. It is neither wholly robotic nor wholly humanised. The uncanny valley is dipped into as the non-human movement sticks out more than it bleating “HERE IS YOUR DRINK” to complete its task. Communicating with human terms after decidedly non-human movements.

The second demonstration was of the Sunflower robot: a machine that definitely chimes with our expected ideas of a robot. Short, boxy, arms and a head with ‘eyes’. The eyes aren’t real, but are simply there for human benefit — to focus upon them, rather than looking for meaning in the rest of the machine. The Sunflower is the stranger of the two robots. It navigates a space, stops, recalibrates where it is. Occasionally it looks a bit lost and frightened, before it gets where it should be. It nags for attention when the doorbell rings, and is satiated when its master acknowledges it. It is, in the words of Bashford, a bit like Reality Clippy. Unlike Care-o-Bot, it uses flashing light systems to communicate if it needs attention or if a task is completed.

The other interesting concept at play in Sunflower is the ‘Migration’ mode, to make your robot portable. The Sunflower system is being designed as an “UbiCompanion“: the robot is not the machine, but the personality users have refined and customised. It is the functions that users have tweaked for their personal preferences. In Migration mode, users can transfer the robot’s consciousness, for wont of a better word, to other objects (think transferring a Mii character on your Wii to another console). This makes for a smarter system that jumps between a dumb-box on wheels, to skype, to desktop computers and anything that is connected. It’s a connected thing of the future, and very real.

Inside the house
Inside the house

The trip to the Secret Robot House was hugely enjoyable, and made for some interesting thoughts about behaviour and future-relationships. Huge thanks to Alex for organising and to LIREC for opening up their dizzying research. More organisations should invite plebs into their labs.


A robot in the house
A robot in the house
Blade Runner and the Inevitable City.

I”ve been at Mudlark a month now, which feels a tiny bit weird as an almighty amount of activity has happened in that time. My first full week was spent jetting off to Bangkok to deliver the exhibition for the British Council, and to stop Toby going barmy. The second, third and fourth weeks have been a non-stop braincruncher of ideas, proposals, pitches and kicking off .

I meant to write about Bangkok when we returned, but the pitch treadmill has kept us occupied and Toby”s only just finished uploading his terrabyte of photographs. Whilst there, we spent a few days walking the soles of our shoes bald, meandering through the streets, underpasses and markets, taking in far more sights than our brains could cope with. It turns out we were doing a “Systems/Layers walkshop“, but that just seems to be nature and human inquisitiveness coded.

Now that we”re ready, I”ll have a stab at trying to explain it. I think it”s important for you to put this on first.


To start: Bangkok is the future.

This seems a bit of a strange thing to say of a city that has been around for hundreds of years, with ostentatious remnants of legacies dotted so freely around it, but it feels like the logical conclusion of something. It is potentially the way all cities will be. It is so full of life, everything is turned up to eleven and senses are wholly washed in noise. Even the weather is all in — 90% humidity and thirty degrees C.

Like every major city: commerce is the dominant beast. It is what Bangkok”s city planning is built on. Planning is used loosely, here; Bangkok doesn”t have urban development regulations — the perfectly gridded map of Manhattan is completely foreign to them — buildings sprout where there is space. If something is knocked down, a market will spawn there before new developers can get get their fences up.

In Bangkok, existence is a sales opportunity. Every possible way you turn there are pop-up shops selling huge knives, twigs, good times, mobile phones, fruit juices of all kinds, scavenged metals and simulacra watches. At times it felt like the streets are organised by product, not purpose or design — Material Street, Sports Street, Tourist Services Street, Red Light Street, Mechanical Parts Street. Entrepreneurial pop-up shops and stands rub shoulders against the globalised Super Brand malls with their air-conditioned conception of reality and skin whitening cream. Overlooking the city are skyscrapers flashing LED screens with ‘JOY IS BMW’ or ads with Manchester United covering entire office blocks.

The lack of regulation extends to the infrastructure — the city”s infrastructure is exposed and the “Networked Urbanism” is ever present. Water pipes lurch out from buildings into the ground whilst electricity and telecommunications cables dangle at head height, sagging to acute angles. Information flows within arm”s reach, not buried underground. The city”s development is already so far gone that digging up the pavement to hide water pipes, electricity, telecoms would cause too much disruption.

The traffic in Bangkok is similarly intuitive. There are systems (traffic lights, pedestrian crossings etc) that are observed, but loosely. Mopeds encroach on junctions as lights change, cars weave in and around each other with Swarm Intelligence. Traffic lanes adjust to flows, a dual carriageway becomes a three-lane/one-lane during busy periods. Movement is constant, and always seemingly with a purpose. Aimless walking is viewed with suspicion as tuk-tuk drivers beckon you, to get you where you”re going faster.

Even faster is the Skytrain: the overhead train of the future, today. Nestled in the kind of brutalist concrete that makes our hearts flutter, the Skytrain curves its way around the more salubrious parts of the city. It offers perfect eyelines of model skyscrapers, whilst obfuscating the shanty towns and underpass markets below it.

It is this strange relationship between poverty and opulence that makes Bangkok feel more futuristic than anything else. It is possible to walk out of a hotel with two pools straight into a massage district, walk from a riverside shanty town into an air-conditioned, Westernised mall. It feels more like Blade Runner than Monocle’s sanitised, Scandinavian dream of the urban environment — and all the better for it.

As cities’ resources get stretched, and land becomes scarce, they will turn into Bangkok. Poverty will flock to opulence, shops will sprout where there is enough space, every activity will be for sale and we’ll continue to build upwards. This can happen to the benefit of all, or can be horribly exploited if we’re not careful.

This is a very Modernist vision, but it’s still very much true. We shouldn’t give up on the ideals of Le Corbusier because they didn’t work once.

We are still capable of designing better futures.