Saturday was the day for the fourth and final field assignment for the ITP class “When Strangers Meet”. The assignment was loyal to the character of the class, which involves attempting to interact with strangers. This time, the platform for the attempted interaction was to be somewhat indirect, mediated by technology. Specifically, we would make use of Bluetooth technology.
“Bluetooth is a wireless protocol for exchanging data over short distances from fixed and mobile devices, creating personal area networks (PANs)”
(from HYPERLINK “http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bluetooth” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bluetooth)
A crucial component of this assignment was the notion of co-location. One “affordance” of co-location is that, if Bluetooth contact was established with a stranger, then we would try to judge who that person was based on their facial expression during the exchange. An intriguing tension is, thereby, built through knowing that your “transient communicating partner” is in the same room, but, at the same time, not knowing who he/she is. It is a kind of fragile anonymity, especially because an element of trust must be present for the actual function of device pairing to occur, even if it stems from curiosity.
We had to choose the public space that would host our mission. Crowded, stationary people, casual vibe, abundance of mobile devices were some of the desired characteristics of our target space. Thus, the upper floor of the Wholefoods market at Union Square presented itself as a perfectly satisfactory option. We had no shortage of Bluetooth-enabled devices: two Mac Book Pro laptops, a Palm palmtop, and two mobile phones.
We met after 1 p.m. and strategically occupied a table right in the middle of the seating area. The place was, indeed, crowded and we were looking forward to see what the experiment would unfold. The atmosphere was bright, busy, and loud. We often had to lean in to speak to each other over all the noise in the dining area, let alone the shopping area downstairs. Since there was free municipal wifi in the area, a few people had out laptops, and there was an abundance of people chatting on their cell phones over hummus, sushi, and other interesting foods.
We started to search for “discoverable” devices through the macbook. A list of five of them was presented on our screen. Most devices were named with their default codes such as ACH-34Q2. Some, however, had been renamed and those drew our attention given their semantic differentiation. “Meat” was the rather unusual, and a bit disconcerting, name that caught our attention. Jon managed to establish some temporary connection, which, however was quickly lost, possibly due to the action of the other side. It was upsetting to get shot down so quickly. Our intended tactic for initiating interaction was by sending a picture. Jon found a recent picture of Pipi Longstocking he had taken the day before.
After three efforts, the photograph did not go through. Moreover, we had no way to infer who the respective person was. We considered asking a few people if they were “Meat” but then concluded that it might not be the best of ideas. At that point, Jon thought of renaming his picture into “Lottery Numbers” just in case such a file name proved to be more tempting to our neighboring Bluetooth-enabled strangers.
Then, we tried to “pair-up” with some of the other devices that were discovered in the vicinity. Jon had told us of a strategy that could be helpful. Often, Bluetooth connection requires a password. However, most of the users do not reset their default password which is usually 0000, 1111, 00000 or 11111. Thus, we kept trying to access some of the other “discovered” devices on our list by entering these passwords when prompted. We found out that some devices require you to create a password on the fly, such as Dmitris’ Palm device, and mirror that on the other device. Sadly, it seemed as if no one in the area would do that with us. We began to wonder if people were even looking at our pairing requests, or if they were simply being ignored on phones stuffed away in purses and bags.
We were having little success. At some point, however, Nahana managed to establish connection with a Nokia 6300. Our excitement lasted for approximately four full seconds. By that time we realized that the Nokia 6300 was Dimitris’ spare telephone that he had brought along. After that confusion, Nahana walked downstairs to see if people in action where more likely to accept a connection request then people eating. Unfortunately she achieved no success in that venture. However, the act of walking around with a phone in front of you and furtively looking around to look for the device you are attempting to connect to is considered a strange public activity judging by the looks she received. We all probably received some odd looks at our table given the amount of technology we had scattered on our tiny round table.
Later, another name had appeared on our list that drew our attention. The name was fallenAnqel. Indeed, not fallenAngel but fallenAnqel, with a “q”. Still, we were not able to pair-up with that one either. The naming of devices added another dimension to the project. A named device is a personal one and acquires characteristics that the discoverer applies to it. Our affinity to “Meat” and fallenAnqel” arose only because of their quirky names that had a similarity to chat-room and email personas. Nahana worked with a older phone which did not show the names of the devices. Her phone labeled things as Phone, Phone, and phone Phone. This created a further anonymity which made it less comfortable to attempt a connection then connecting with a named device did. The macbook however, was able to differentiate between what was just a “mobile phone” and a “smartphone” somehow when it pulled up a list of names.
Jon explained that some companies such as Verizon restrict the Bluetooth function strictly to communication of the device to the headset. Thus, device-to-device communication is not possible in these cases, even if the device is portrayed as “discoverable” to others. This “crippling” of bluetooth is considered heinous by mobile users in other countries, and is in effect here mainly to restrict the exchange of music files between phones that would otherwise lead to ringtone sales for cell phone carriers. It is possible to hack the object exchange protocol in these crippled devices so that they may exchange files with another phone or computer, but most people are concerned with looking efficient with a bluetooth headset, and not beaming their excel sheets and ringtones to and from their computer with their phone. Eventually, we came to the realization that our technical barriers would probably prove insurmountable. Thus, we started taking a few photographs to document our seemingly fruitless attempts at pairing with another anonymously.
We were surrounded by all sorts of digital devices such as laptops, cameras, palmtop, mobiles and that fact brought about an interaction, however, not the kind that we expected. Two girls who were having lunch at the table next to us, asked us to take a picture of them. Becoming the recipient of an interaction can only be welcome, especially in the context of this class. So, we found out that the girls were MBA students from Toronto who were visiting NYC for a few days. We explained our experiment to them and we kept their details so as to send them the link to the class blog so that they see the relevant post.At this point, our experiment concluded. Regrettably, the technical obstacles proved to be intractable.