Behind the Work: Jack Schulze goes deeper into Nearness

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In a recent installment of CAT, we featured "Nearness," a playful demonstration of RFID technology and Near Field Communications created by Berg (formerly known as Schulze+Webb) and designer Timo Arnall. Berg's Jack Schulze gives us some in-depth background on the project.

Nearness from timo on Vimeo.

Tell me about the origins and thinking behind this project. Why did AHO/Touch commission this?
The Touch project is a three year research project lead by Timo Arnall investigating the importance of touch and gesture in nearfield and RFID based technologies. Timo commissioned BERG at various points across the project to investigate the technology and develop work which communicates to the internet (and broader) public.

Our focus has been on visualising and exploring the invisible nature of the technology and dealing with the nearness aspect, the magic in triggers at a distance. Our role is to develop communicative products and evidence that helps designers who work with the technology to understand it as a material; offer playful handles for writers and futurists to describe and frame the space and for the public to hold a model away from the familiar uses in logistics, ticketing or digital wallets.

What inspired you to do this experiment, creating a sort of homage to Fischli and Weiss?
The Fischli and Weiss film is obviously one of the finest instances of the "chain reaction" form. I'm particularly fond of the bumpers in the Japanese kids show Pythagora Switch. RFID is a complex and fairly abstract technology to grasp—Timo describes it as a technology that found its way from the obscure to the mundane without any real fame or apex in the public eye.

We have to be careful in how we communicate with it. There are many leaps of imagination and understanding required to grasp it and hold a useful model of how it works and what is happening, let alone see how it maps usefully and elegantly into the world around us. The familiarity of the chain reaction form, means the audience quickly grasps that the normal kinetic transfer of force in the sequence is replaced by invisible forces that work very closely together. Like invisible digital breaths between objects. Because the form was familiar, our hope was the concept of nearness without touching would be clearly understood, and I think we succeeded.

Can you quickly walk us through the interactions in the film? Some of it is clear, but, for example, what is happening between the two mobile phones?
Well, we decided we wanted something symbolic to represent the RFID elements in the narrative, so everything blue represents an RFID tag. When RFID tags pass in front of readers, they trigger events from that block, or other connected elements. So the light turns on, and strikes an LDR (Light Dependent Resistor)—this is a simple light sensor which triggers the next event when the light striking its surface exceeds a certain level.

The phones are the in-joke really. The phone is receiving a trigger which tells it to send an SMS to the phone sitting next to it. There is some ridicule in this since it is still more straightforward to transfer data from one phone to the next by sending it over a national network, even when the destination phone is sitting next to you. This event plays with the idea, that in the context of nearness, the two phones can still only really communicate at that level.

Can you talk about the production process and explain the technologies involved in order to create the interactions and the film? How long did it take for you to construct a workable scenario?
The shoot was fairly straightforward. Since most of the objects don't have a physical connection the relationships are reliable, all of the models were planned carefully and built beforehand, so the only adjustments were in how they sat for the camera. It was shot with a Canon 5DMk2 and a long lens. This gave it an awesome quality, but presented problems in making sure that the narrow depth of field was sitting on the action. Some elements of the production changed. For example, the electromagnet was originally going to use iron filings, but in the end, with the angle, we needed something clearer, so we used paper clips. The shoot took three-four days to construct and get right.

What sorts of practical applications will this technology have in the future? On your blog you mention there was more to come regarding "explorations into designerly applications for RFID". Can you expand on that a little bit for us now?
Well, RFIS as a technology is already ubiquitous. Most of the applications are in fairly mundane contexts, where it represents a saving in terms of logistics for a company managing the bureaucracy for something like a car park, or delivering parcels, or goods. Over the coming four weeks, we will be releasing two more evidencing projects with Touch, one which examines ways of visualising the radio spectrum used in RFID and another is an prototype for an RFID- enabled product, to illustrate how such technology could find its way into our lives more playfully.