Spectacle Computing

This research introduces spectacle computing as a novel strategy for inspiring engagement and awareness of personal and societal concerns across public spaces. Unlike prior work in participatory sensing, which focused on personal data collection and visualization, spectacle computing leverages expressive mediums to vibrantly project information into the public sphere, thereby inviting stakeholders to explore, interact with and demarcate spaces with environmental concerns. We demonstrate an example of this computing meme by developing large balloons that glow based on surrounding air quality. Each balloon reacts to input from an attached sensor that measures one of exhaust, diesel, or VOC’s (volatile organic compounds). To evaluate our low-cost and easily replicable design, we organized two installations (spectacles), tethering balloons along a city street and in a public park. In addition, we distributed balloons to six non-expert, everyday citizens (study participants), inviting them to place, carry, play with and photograph the balloons over the course of one night. Our creative and tangible visualization of urban air quality highlights curiosity and play as essential elements for public participation and activism. We conclude with design implications for future spectacle computing projects that engage stakeholders with environmental data and ultimately empower them to transform urban landscapes.

Image Credit: Chloe Fan

Artists have a long history of integrating “the spectacle” into their work: from Allan Kaprow’s Happenings and the writings of Guy Debord and the Situationists in the 1960’s, to a range of more contemporary tactical media artists such as The Yes Men, Critical Art Ensemble, RTMark, Preemptive Media, and Institute for Applied Autonomy. The Situationists differentiated between passive subjects- consumers of the spectacle- and those that transform their own ideas, concerns, and passions into the spectacle itself. This movement applied commodity fetishism to contemporary mass media and exposed the common spectacular politics of their day.

Spectacle computing intentionally and overtly foregrounds these ideas through the use of expressive technologies, inspiring new thinking, curiosity and beliefs in the public. As a result, stakeholders that otherwise may not be aware of or care about an issue are drawn into the spectacle. Contrary to contemporary concepts of “invisible” interfaces and paradigms of seamless computing found within the rhetoric of ubiquitous and pervasive computing, we argue for a complementary computing strategy explicitly designed to generate spectacles.

Spectacle computing invites several new interaction experiences. First and foremost, spectacles are difficult to ignore. The barrier to engagement is thus effectively lowered since individuals do not need to download an application or carry specific hardware. The spectacle is intentionally designed to distract all attention away from the current activity of the individual or group. Moreover, it invites people to engage in otherwise socially unacceptable behaviors such as overt public voyeurism, gossip, and curiosity. Finally, it presents an acceptable context for individuals to participate in the spectacle, in the spirit of a Happening, even if such participation involves odd, unusual, or socially awkward activities (i.e. willingly taking and carrying around a glowing balloon).

We view these insights as experience design opportunities. In our work, we observe how spectacle computing moves people from a personal and private context through public voyeurism and into readily carrying balloons around the city, thereby creating their own spectacle. To be clear, spectacle computing is not designed to mimic the experience of yelling “fire” in a crowded theater, but to more tactfully and expressively engage public audiences in issues of personal or societal concern. While spectacle computing is tangentially related to FlashMobs, which draw large groups of people to suddenly assemble and perform unusual acts in public places, the goal of spectacle computing is to foster discourse between stakeholders, technology, and space through the use of dynamic computing elements. Also unlike FlashMobs, which may create a feeling of inclusion and exclusion, spectacle computing invites open participation from everyone.