Playtesting for loneliness

Following on from our first experiments a few weeks ago, on Friday we (Tarim and I) ran a short playtest of the system we’ve been developing to measure what will eventually become the extent to which the critters are connected to the rest of the Colony.



I built the circuits from before into some tupperware containers in order to make them more suitable for being jollied around the city centre, and we added a feedback system of heartbeats to indicate how panicked (lonely) the critter (tupperware) was feeling. If the critter became so removed from the rest of the group that it was no longer able to receive the radio signals from any of the other critters, then the heartbeat reach a ‘hammering’ state – something it could only sustain for 23 seconds before the critter died. So, if your heartbeat gets that fast, you have to quickly find someone from your Colony. Really quickly.

We repurposed the LEDs from before into ‘lives remaining’ indicators and also built in a mechanism by which dead critters could be reincarnated so they could rejoin the playtest: once dead, if you could surround yourself with enough colony members you would be revived. Only up to 5 times, though.


Our first group was given the task of making their way to the centre of Millennium Square whilst making sure they had exactly four lives remaining when they finished their journey.



There was an interesting split in the group nearly immediately, but we did manage to reconvene in the square and reincarnate those who needed it.


The second playtest involved a slightly longer walk over to Castle Park. In order to seed a few conflicting dynamics within the group, we gave different people different target numbers of lives to end up with.


I think I had only one spare life for the whole journey, so at one point I ended up diving into a lift with one of the other playtesters in order not to get stranded alone upstairs in Watershed.


This longer challenge had a coulple of distinct phases to it: initially our tendency was to walk together in clusters, chatting, however as we drew closer to the park and people realised they still hade lives to lose, things got a bit more interesting, with people dashing down side streets, crossing over to the other side of the road or making a quick dash for the church.

Some of us even finished up with the right number of lives!


The next variant was to allow people to choose the number of remaining lives they were going to aim for. This resulted in some extremes of behaviour as some frantically tried to first die off and then re-join with enough other colony members to reanimate.


I’d donated my tupperware critter to a fresh playtester who had tracked us down at Castle Park, so I was in a purely observational role for the return journey. I really enjoyed a little exchange where someone hid behind a tree, then crept up on someone she knew was trying to lose a lot of lives, preventing them from doing so. Apparently this dastardly life-preserving tactic didn’t go down so well as shortly afterwards both players were spotted sprinting down the road – I assume one trying to get away from the other!


We tried a few experiments in Queen’s Park to see how big the colony could get and then we headed back to the Pervasive Media Studio for a chat and a debrief.


It seems the technology mostly worked as expected, so we were able to mostly focus in on the psychology of the experience: at what points did it feel like a game; did the critter’s perception of separation from the group match with your own; how did the task of losing/preserving lives affect your awareness of the location of the rest of the group?

It was a very interesting chat with lots to think about now as we start to move the mechanics closer to what will eventually be integrated with the GPS-based movement behaviour. All looking very promising for a first playtest though, and it was great to see an actual colony moving around the city for the first time!

Prototyping for loneliness

After a few days a while ago finding my feet, I’ve been back at the Pervasive Media Studio in Bristol getting started on the next wave of development of Colony – the walking experience I’m developing that involves a group of landscape-reactive animatronic ‘critters’ being carried through the city.

Colony Playtesting 12/09/2014

I was here in the summer of 2014 for a previous residency working on the project, and it was so productive that I’m back again as part of another batch of R&D activities – thanks to Arts Council for funding both of these residencies.

Last time around I arrived at an interesting design for the physical form of the critters and we did some playtesting to get a feel for how people responded both to this and the behaviour we (Tarim and I) had programmed in response to the interaction of GPS radio waves interacting with the built environment.

Last time the question was “can you see the sky?”; this time it’s “can you see your friends?”


Again working with Tarim, we’ve been working on the second strand of critter behaviour to do with how connected they are to the rest of the colony. We’re using XBee radio modules to set up a communication network amongst the colony so each critter can monitor how long it’s been since it last heard each of the other critters announce their presence. If it goes quiet for too long, loneliness sets in and the person carrying the critter will have to hurry to rejoin the rest of the group.


That’s the plan, anyway. For the last couple of days we’ve been using breadboarded prototypes to get a feel for how this might play out in practice.

First tests involved a couple of LEDs and me wandering up and down the PM Studio corridor in a slightly shifty manner looking for when the connection between two radios was lost.


Yesterday we scaled things up to five prototype boards and many LEDs!

After more odd behaviour in the corridor (the sacrifices I make for my art!) and a quick venture outside, we gathered a team of volunteers to get a feel for how things might be with a group of people.


We gave ourselves a basic rule-set: scatter until you have only one LED lit (but try try not to lose all of them and become totally disconnected from the group) and then try and link up with everyone again. We were curious about how attenuated the group might get in the urban environment and what sort of shape it might take at that point. We were also wondering about what might happen at that inflection where some of the colony were still trying to get down to one light whilst others had already started to seek out more companions again.


Our first test was in amongst the Watershed buildings along the harbourside, so quite linear (although I did see Tarim heading down a jetty at one point!), so then we went around the corner to Millennium Square and a big open space. We all radiated out to get away from each other, but even at the edge of the open space we were still within range and had most LEDs lit. Then it got interesting with people ducking behind vans and nipping into buildings to try and block the signal radio waves. We liked that!

All in all the first experiments have been very positive. We’re discovering some quirks of the XBee system – of course – but there’s a definite sense that we can translate the behaviour of the radio modules into something that can be read as loneliness. Mostly I’m super happy to have caught a glimpse of an actual colony moving through the streets.

I’m going to build up a few more prototypes, we’re going to tweak the code and the feedback system and then, next time I’m in Bristol, I think we’re going to run another playtest where we observe how people move between two pre-determined points. Stay tuned…

Prototype Creatures from the Colony Project – commission for The Lowry

Two prototype creatures from the Colony project have been commissioned by The Lowry for exhibition in Right Here, Right Now; their current showcase of contemporary art relating to digital systems and cultures. It runs through until the end of February 2016, and opened to the public yesterday.

I was up there last Wednesday for the preview and launch event. It started well with a visitor in the cafe doing a double-take-including-putting-glasses-on as I passed by with one of the creatures we’d walked with to gather data a few weeks ago. This acted as my magic vest and we chatted for a bit before I continued up to the galleries.

I like that the creatures act as permission objects in this way, and we experienced the effect several times whilst we were out with them on the data walks. Since I’m designing for a certain amount of spectacle and stranger:stranger interaction as I continue developing the Colony project, it seemed only fitting to bring along a creature for people to interact with at the launch (in addition to the two that were attached to the plinths!).

Here are a selection of the reactions they generated:

critter reaction

critter reaction

critter reaction

I also really like the two modes of engagement captured in this image posted @chrisinculture by on Twitter

Lowry Two Modes

The rest of my images from the launch are in this Flickr album, and the official selection from The Lowry is here, too.

Below are a few installation views of the gallery the morning after the night before – the rest of that album can be seen here.

critter installation

critter installation

critter installation

There’s an exhibition catalogue, including an essay by Beryl Graham that you can download and read. In the meantime, I’ll leave you with this, which is what the Colony creatures will be doing for the next three months (with a few variations!)

Critter wriggle

Colony installation at The Lowry

Without giving away too many secrets, here are a few behind-the-scenes glimpses of the two days I spent installing the Colony prototypes at The Lowry earlier this week for Right Here Right Now.

Many thanks to Dave, Emily and the rest of the team who helped. (Especially Dave, who transformed my cardboard maquette and rough sketches into a rather lovely plinth.)

The finished plinth and the cardboard maquette I'd originally made to show what I wanted

The finished plinth and the cardboard maquette I’d originally made to show what I wanted



A plinth in two parts...

A plinth in two parts…

Cable nemesis

Cable nemesis

Committing to a fixed position of the first critter

Committing to a fixed position of the first critter

Final fixing of panels in position

Final fixing of panels in position

The critters settled into their accommodation for the next three months.

The critters settled into their accommodation for the next three months.

Then there was a lot of watching and tweaking of angles. Also a lot of ladders, but I think they’ll be gone by the launch next week!
Colony installation at The Lowry

Salford metropolis in the fog

Salford metropolis in the fog

Salford Quays data-gathering walks

Phase III of The Tour of T’North:


I’ve been building some Colony ‘critter’ variants for exhibition at The Lowry as part of their Right Here Right Now showcase of contemporary digital art. During the exhibition, the animatronic forms will be moving in such a way as to ‘remember’ a walk taken around the surrounding Salford Quays area. This was the data-gathering part of that task where I did the walks and collected the data that would determine the critters’ movements.


Day 1 was my first visit to the Quays and a chance to – literally – suss out the lie of the land. Amidst the drizzle and general greyness I walked around with what I hoped was a not-too-suspicious-looking rucksack full of batteries, GPS equipment, Arduino and data loggers.

dodgy rucksack

The critters are effectively claustrophobic and move more (get distressed) in response to being taken to places where buildings restrict their view of the sky (this links back to the quality of the GPS signal they receive – see the previous post for more information). In order for them to not just be doing the same thing all the time during the exhibition, I was therefore seeking out a range of built environments and collecting the data in order to get a feel for the ranges encountered. Media City provides a selection of massive office buildings with comparatively narrow walkways between them, but the quays also have some plazas and bridges out over the water as open spaces by way of contrast.

No two bridges the same, it seems.

Here’s the non-swinging swing bridge the Detroit Bridge.

Detroit Bridge

I checked the list of banned anti-social behaviours and arting wasn’t on there, so I did a few circles of the viewing platform en route across to the other side.

Bridge antisocial

The data I collect are in the form of many (tens of thousands) lines of text and numbers. To help me quickly see what sort of values I got and to relate these back to the landscape, I often convert the data into visual form and view them in Google Earth. Here’s the visualisation of the walk from that first day:

Recce walks

I had two different sets of kit in my rucksack, so each is represented by a different colour. The quick way of understanding what the visualisation shows is to think that the length of the lines corresponds to the extent to which the GPS signal is being affected by the built environment. It’s also important to remember that the lines can be deflected away from the actual path I took – I didn’t get my feet as wet as some of these traces might suggest! For example, the lines over the water towards the bottom left of the image above, were produced when I walked along the base of the wall of the Imperial War Museum; the effect of this massive piece of architecture being to throw the calculated GPS positions off by several tens of metres.

Imperial War deflections

The imagery currently in Google Earth is somewhat old, showing Media City as it’s being constructed:

buildings to be

I really like this combination of seeing the promise of the buildings that don’t quite exist yet and the invisible effects they then went on to have on the radio waves that also fill that space.

Having retired to my accommodation and spent some time examining spreadsheets and ranges, I returned for day two of the data-collection. This time with two critters.

clear sky

The skies were clearer this time around and I was met by Aliki Chapple, who had generously volunteered to spend the afternoon doing odd things in public places with a stranger off the internet.

Once fully bedecked in our moving wooden sculptures and their fabric slings, we set off to explore.

window reflection

By the end of the afternoon we had completed two different pairs of walks: the first was a bit of an epic loop around the edge of the Quays, mostly encountering different residential environments; and the second was a shorter one centred more on The Lowry and the Media City end of things.

Again we experimented with the effects buildings would have if we walked close to them; but we also encountered smaller masses and also had some interesting conversations with befuddled, inquisitive people we passed on our journeys. This is what Colony is really about: using the critters as a tool and as a permission object to pay attention to and explore the spaces we inhabit. They are also deliberately intended to be a conversation-starter.

Imperial War wall


rusty slabs

Needing somewhere to safely leave the critters whilst we went to find some food, we also had some nice interactions with the staff at The Lowry – the cloakrooms were briefly home to some unusual inhabitants!


Here are the visualisations of all four of the walks:

data vis

I was surprised by how little variation we got in the first, more residential, areas we walked in, although I was naturally expecting the overall effect from buildings to be less pronounced.

data vis

These screenshots are from Google Earth with the 3D buildings layer switched on. This is more up-to-date than the flat, base imagery, and it gives a real sense of that relationship between concrete and line length – check out the area in front of The Lowry (top right in the image above, with the tower) and also alongside the multi-story car park for the Lowry Outlet shopping centre (top centre – the blue lines are me walking from right to left along the base of the carpark wall, and then returning on the opposite side of the water, on the far side of the blocks of flats.):

Here are the lines from all six of the walks – quite a lot of ground covered!

All data

Next steps: converting these lines into code that the exhibition critters will remember and play back.

Colony software trialling in York

Right at the end of last year’s residency at the Pervasive Media Studio in Bristol, Tarim and I uploaded the new code he’d been working on to a critter and went for a quick wander before I packed up and headed back to Birmingham.

With a couple of Colony critters having been selected to form part of the upcoming Right Here Right Now exhibition at The Lowry, I wanted to give this code rewrite another try-out to find out more about how it behaves.

Phase II of my recent Tour of T’North was a few days’ stopover in York, so out came the Arduino and the GPS modules…

For the geographically-challenged:

York be 'ere

…or if you like your maps a bit more abstract, here’s the data I collected from my walk:

York lines

A recap for those of you who might not have been following this from the start (5 years ago!), I’m processing GPS data to get a measure of the error that gets induced in the positional calculations by the built environment. If you’re standing near some tall buildings, these often block the direct path of the timecoded radio signals from the GPS satellites, meaning they instead reach the GPS receiver by a longer path having bounced off assorted architecture. The extra time taken for the waves to travel this indirect route throws off the calculations based on the timecodes in the signals and the accuracy of the latitude and longitude co-ordinates decreases. There are other things that can happen too, but that’s a simplified version of the main effect. I’m interested in how this process can effectively give a fingerprint of the stuff that makes up a place.

The lines in these images are a visualisation of the data collected overlaid, roughly, on the areas where the data was collected. The longer the lines, the greater the error and, typically, the more bricks and mortar there are in the vicinity.

Here are the same lines as above, this time viewed in Google Earth. (I do this as part of my process of looking at the collected data, so I can relate the behaviour of the lines back to where I was and what might have caused that behaviour.)

York overview

Getting to this stage was a bit of a learning curve because the data is now being logged in a different format and I had to figure out a way of extracting the numbers I needed to then feed into the script that produces the file that is read by Google Earth. Got there in the end, though! (Nothing too high-tech, just some spreadsheet-fu with 32,000 lines of data.)

Although the Google Earth views aren’t really one of the outputs of the project, I like them as illustrations of the process and, as mentioned above, they are very useful to me in helping to interpret what happened. Switching on the 3D buildings layer is a bit of fun, too!

Here’s the data from around York Minster:

York Minster deflections

I walked down from the top right corner of the image, meandering through the narrow streets near The Shambles. If you look carefully you might be able to spot where the lines disappear for a bit, as I go down an alleyway and the GPS receivers loose the signal completely. I then swooped out along the bottom edge of the open space in front of the church [first photo below], walked along the outer edge of the grounds, then came back towards the front by walking along the path that runs along the left-hand side of the building. From here I walked along the foot of the wall along the front of the building [second photo below], by the steps and the rather magnificent doors.

You can see how much the lines have been deflected out from the actual route walked, particularly when I return to the front of the building – the lines are in nearly the same place as when I first walked along the bottom edged of the paved area!

York Minster

At the foot of York Minster

After a quick detour to the post office, it seemed like a suitable nod to the city to walk a section of the old walls.

York walls

I was a bit surprised at how much the top bit of the ramparts affected the GPS reception, but that’s the whole point of all this really: looking at the results and going “oh, that’s interesting”! Later on in the development of Colony, I’ll be developing a visualisation of the data collected so that the group coming off the walk has an aide-memoire for recalling their experiences and observations.

By way of contrast to all that stone, Phase II finished off with my favourite tree in all of the (just outside of the) city:

York tree

Coming up: Colony at The Lowry

Two of the landscape-reactive animatronic creatures from my Colony project will be exhibited at The Lowry as part of its Right Here, Right Now exhibition:

Right Here, Right Now brings together 16 international artists who use and explore digital technologies. Together they address how technology affects our lives – be that through surveillance, artificial intelligence, voyeurism or online dating.

Created in the last five years, their critical, playful and illuminating artworks challenge our understanding of the digital systems that surround us, while making visible those that are hidden. Many are interactive, while others transcribe data into stunning visual displays or strange music. All invite us to re-think our own increasingly connected and systematised lives. [source]

Developing Colony: presentation at Networked Urban Mobilities

I’ve just got back from a few days in Copenhagen where I was taking part in the Networked Urban Mobilities conference organised by the Cosmobilities Network. If you were there and just want to get to my talk, then click here, otherwise read on for the background context…

I’d submitted an abstract under the Art as Mobile Research special session strand:


In recent years, it has been argued that new research methods are needed to study current mobility practices, discourses and materialities. Next to more traditional social science methods, mobile methods have included participatory observation, virtual and autoethnographies, and various kinds of mapping. Building on these methodological innovations, this session theme explores art as mobile research. Since the early 1990s, artistic research has developed as a distinct field of study. Making art is taken to be a form of doing research and the works of art that result from that research are presented as a form of knowledge. Practical testing is frequently an essential part of this ‘journey of making’ process, enabling ideas and techniques to be resolved before making finished work as part of the whole creative process. Art is not only relevant from the perspective of the aesthetic experience, it is argued, but also as knowledge claim. For artistic practice, this development undermines the modern dichotomy of autonomy and instrumentalism, thus breaking away from the alleged ‘otherness’ of art as a societal domain that has clear boundaries and can be separated from science.

In this session, we investigate how art practices might contribute to mobilities research, as well as how artists reflect on mobile worlds in their work. How can artistic research practices and discourses be drawn upon to develop new ways of understanding and researching the performative ontologies of travel? How can artistic production be seen as a meaningful context to explore mobilities? How can the creative process of the ‘journey of making’ inform mobilities? We invite papers and art works examining these questions.

The session will be organizaed by Kevin Hannam from Leeds Metropolitan University and Peter Peters from Maastricht University.

Nikki Pugh (UK) is an artist working at the intersection of people, place, playfulness and technology. Over the Summer of 2014 she will be in residence at Bristol’s Pervasive Media Lab developing her ongoing project Colony.

Colony is an exploration of how we navigate public space: a small group of people each carry a landscape-reactive ‘creature’ that uses real-time processing of GPS data to generate either a claustrophobic or claustrophilic personality.

Responsible for its well-being, can you find a route across the city that minimises the enclosed or open spaces that distress your creature? How do you balance the elastic pushes and pulls acting on you: guardianship for your creature; the need to get from A to B; the desire to stay with the rest group; the points and stares from onlookers observing your unusual behaviour?

Colony has been developed through a series of prototypes and playtests. Early experiments saw people carrying vibrating bundles of bubblewrap through the post-industrial landscapes of Birmingham, finding excuse and entitlement to explore slightly grimy alleyways or listen to what doorways felt like. A later iteration explored assumptions about secrecy and convenience with large, heavy, cumbersome wooden tubes that hammered out signals according to how built up the surrounding were. Landscape-reactive Sashes (part of the arts programme at the Global Conference on Mobility Futures, Lancaster, 2013) explored what it was like to move as part of a networked group.

At the Networked Urban Mobilities Conference, Nikki will recount how these modules of research build on each other as she investigates the design of the animated, networked, landscape-reactive creatures, the narrative of the events through which they are used, and the affordances the combination of these give for providing new experiences of moving through the city.

My proposal was accepted into what evolved into the ‘Artistic Interventions’ session held last Friday, also speaking alongside Jen Southern, David Pinder, Mike Collier, Peter Peters and Samuel Thulin in a series of 7-slides-each-of-a-minute’s-duration presentations.

This gave me slightly less manoeuvrability than the recent talk at Pecha Kucha Coventry, but I tend to bring props with me and, well, they have a pretty good frame rate!

Accompanying me on the flight over to Denmark was a flat-packed creature fresh from the residency at the Pervasive Media Studio and a couple of heartbeats.

The flatpacked critter being reassembled on the first day of the conference. Adjustable spanners have a habit of being a few millimetres too narrow, but fortunately I had made a lightweight wooden one of the right size to bring with me!

Heartbeat device v4: I took one in a relaxed state and one in a panicked state for people to spend some time with.

The heartbeats were passed around at the start of the session as we waited for further audience members to successfully negotiate the navigational challenge of getting to the room we were in. (The building used to belong to Nokia and seemed to have inherited some of their security quirks. We never did see the sauna, though…) It was interesting to watch people place them on their bodies and feel the different pulses.

Meanwhile the critter was draped over a table and purred away contently throughout my talk.

…And here are the slides and basic content of my presentation (although I did go off piste a little bit).

Hi, I’m Nikki and in 2010 I realised I was working here.

I’d just spent a few years involved with hackspaces and pervasive gaming.
So, peer-to-peer skills-sharing with a technological bent and also grownups doing playful things in public places.

What I took from the hackspace stuff was a sense of possibility that someone like me – with next to no formal training in electronics or coding – could design and make my own technology.

I don’t really get on with screens; I’m much more interested in working with pounding hearts and the hairs on the back of your neck. Making my own devices means I can choose alternative ways of interfacing with the tech, with each other and with the world(s) around us.

My practice is centred on exploring how we interact with and perceive our surroundings. By adding in sensors and microcomputers to sculptural and worn forms, I could now explore extending or adjusting our familiar senses and our everyday experiences of place.

I wanted to work on a project that would enable me to explore my relationship with that territory in the Venn diagram. That project is Colony and I’m going to give you an overview of key stages in its evolution so far.

I had a fleeting image of a small group of people, each responsible for the well-being of some sort of creature they were carrying.

I was interested in the different pushes and pulls that I thought would be acting on the people carrying the creatures. Curious as to how all those would interplay to affect the experience of navigating across a city in a group.

The first version I made was a simple bundle of bubble wrap with vibration motors down its length, programmed to go off at randomly-selected intervals and intensities.

One of the participants blogged this comment.

She also described how it was a passport to go down grimy alleyways and look over walls.

I like to think of the things I make as being permission givers.
Permission to go to new places, permission to behave differently, permission to be playful, permission to talk to strangers.

Feeling I had a successful proof of concept, the next step was to make the bundles landscape-reactive rather than just behaving randomly. This was to be the extended sense and the cue for selecting one path through the city over another.

I had a technique I’d been using that relates errors in GPS positional calculations back to the built-up-ness of the urban environment, so I used that to make the creatures claustrophobic.

I’m not going to go into detail about the system now, but feel free to talk with me about it afterwards..

What we got from this location-aware version was an excuse not just to go to different places, but to interact with those places in non-usual ways as people experimented with prompting and sensing different levels of distress in their creatures.

We all agreed there was something very nice in the soft, warm, light, secretive cuddliness of the creatures so far, so there was really only one thing to do next.

I made 3 of these wooden, heavy, cumbersome drum versions. They run off the same technology, but rather than using vibrations to secretly communicate their state to the person carrying them, these beat out a tapping noise that anyone standing nearby can hear.

I needed to challenge our first-reaction thoughts about what a ‘good’ design might be. What would be the affordances of something contrary to these?

In a world where our mobile devices are constantly sold to us on the basis of being smaller and sleeker and lighter, I also wanted to investigate carrying something burdensome. To constantly be aware of its presence.

The drums were not padded and they would get painful on your shoulder.
The cloth they were wrapped in was slightly abrasive, and would graze your knuckles as you gripped onto the cord.
The bulk of the thing would block your vision.

And people carried them around for much, much longer than I anticipated!

It’s like it became something of a mission. I’m not quite sure what it is, but I think there’s something there in becoming emotionally and physically invested in carrying an object that I’d like to return to later in my research.

Time to think about the Colony as a group. So I networked together some ramblers.

One person carried the equipment that was processing the GPS data and then radio tranceivers broadcast corresponding instructions out to sashes like this. Each sash had a single vibration motor in it that again buzzed with increasing intensity depending on how built up the surroundings were around that person who was doing the broadcasting. Being in rural Northamptonshire, that more often translated to density of tree cover.

We were walking for quite a long time and, unlike the Heavy Objects, I think there was a tendency for the sashes to become invisible to the people wearing them. The regular buzzing eased into the background.

Visually, however, those splashes of bright yellow made us stand out from the point of view of a spectator. They marked us out as being a group. I’m interested in that transition point between one lone person doing something odd and being seen as an outsider vs a number of people doing something odd and the spectator feeling that they’re on the outside because there’s something cool going on that they don’t know about.

This Summer I did a month’s residency at the rather marvellous Pervasive Media Studio in Bristol in the UK. 9 days with a laser cutter too. This was a chance to start pulling together all these little investigations I’d done so far.

Here’s where we’re up to now. This one isn’t processing GPS because we’re indoors, but when it’s got the proper version of the code it’ll thrash its tail around when it gets distressed.

It’s a bit clunky and you have to concentrate to carry it around, but it doesn’t actually give you bruises!
We’ve been experimenting with slings to help support some of the weight, and there’s something very interesting in the almost ritual action of binding yourself to the object.

That’s the point where I start to see it as being a complete entity – when it’s a creature-human assemblage.

We’ve taken 3 or 4 of them out for a few walks around Bristol, and what I hadn’t expected was the amount of stranger:stranger interactions they invite. We had so many people coming up to us asking if they could touch them, photograph them, draw with them…

This makes me happy as I’m a big fan of urbanist William Whyte’s ideas about the importance of conversation starters for contributing to the conviviality of public spaces.

So, that was a whistle-stop tour of some of the main chapters in the development of Colony. As different opportunities have presented themselves I’ve used them to home in on different questions that have bubbled up.

And a lot of different questions have bubbled up.

In terms of a research process becoming a finished piece of artwork, it seems I’m converging on designing objects that I’d like to be used as tools for sensing the behaviour of radio waves in urban environments. On a macro scale in terms of the signals from the GPS satellites – GPS shadows, concrete canyons and multipath errors – and on a comparatively micro scale using the same radio tranceivers I used for the sashes to bring in a line-of sight test for whether you are still connected to the other members of the colony.

That’s what the heartbeats that have been going around are for – if you get separated from the group, the creature panics and you have a limited amount of time to get to a position where you regain contact. Leave it too long and it’s game over.

The end!


Artist Lise (surname unknown, sorry) was live-drawing the session. Here’s her take on my presentation:

Strange. But in a good way!

Colony residency: Lunchtime Talk at Watershed

On the 19th of September, nearing the end of my residency at the Pervasive Media Studio, I presented at one of their Lunchtime Talk events. Doing what I do, this also had a Lunchtime Walk element afterwards, where a few folks came outside with the critters to experience what it’s like to explore the urban environment with them.

Watershed have done a very thorough write-up of the talking bit here.

Nikki then brought her project to the Studio with Arts Council funding, on a residency to experiment with haptic mechanisms and methods to convey the creatures’ emotional state. She made a laser cut heartbeat machine with a solenoid and an arduino, programming it to beat faster when GPS signals were distorted. Cushioned inside of a jiffy bag, or a little card-board box, the solenoid felt like the thumping heart of a small creature. It was bizarre to hold a jiffy bag and to feel so attune to its needs and responsible for its well-being.

Here are some photos from the walking bit:

Colony never stops moving, however, so as soon as the guests had left we loaded up some brand new code, rejigged the wiring of the circuits and headed out again to do some initial testing of some code that Tarim had developed.

More photos here.

Colony presentation at Pecha Kucha Coventry

Here’s a words-and-pictures version of the presentation I did for Pecha Kucha Coventry on the 30th of September…


2010. I’m working with GPS data and walking around Birmingham, on the cusp of starting to try and weave together thoughts about public space, DIY tech, playfulness and the ways in which combining these can change our relationships with the places where we live.

By November I’m starting to get the headpictures – the fleeting images of a half-seen thing that compel you to make the thing so that you can get the rest of the detail.

In my mind’s eye I could see small groups of people carrying creatures that would give them some sort of extended awareness of the built environment around them. I wanted to know how this group would affect – and be affected by – the city as it moved through it.

This project became Colony, And this is a whistlestop tour of what happened next…

I wanted the communication between the person and the creature to mainly be through touch. We’re so used to interacting with things through screens, but I wanted to leave sight free for everything else in the world, not looking down at this thing.

The first prototype had a long contact interface across the person’s body.

Here’s an abridged description from Holly Gramazio:

It has half a dozen different types of vibration (a central shake, for example, and a long ripple that moves from the narrowest end of the bundle to the widest).

It decides when to vibrate – and what sort of vibration to make – entirely at random.

The first thing we noticed was that was that holding the bundle gives you an immense feeling of entitlement.

It’s a cross between a Magic 8 Ball, a personality quiz, a pet, and an emperor.

Out of that first proof of concept we saw how readily people would invest the random vibrations with personality and intent. It also gave us permission to explore the secret corners of Birmingham.

The next iteration had vibrations that were linked to the built-up-ness of the immediate surroundings – this led us into more corners and alleyways.

What we also got from this location-aware version was an excuse not just to go to different places, but to interact with those places in non-usual ways.

We all agreed there was something very nice in the soft, warm, light, secretive cuddliness of the creatures.

So there was really only one direction to go in next!

Big, heavy and cumbersome, I made three of these wooden drums that tapped at different intensities depending on whether you were out in the open or not.

With consumer electronics constantly striving for smaller and sleeker, it was interesting to see the effects of a mobile device you have to work hard at. Really hard at.

The residency those were made through also presented some chewy problems regarding how to exhibit these objects. I usually use galleries as hubs for activity, so exhibiting actual things isn’t something I do a lot of.

When I see the objects as being only half of the constructed assemblage, how do I usefully represent them after the experience and when the person half is not there?

Another residency. This time with a few days to think a bit about the Colony as linked individuals.

I did some experiments with these little radio units and playing around a bit in carparks at night to find out when they stop being able to communicate with each other.

Later, I built on this to make Landscape-reactive sashes. Here the members of the proto-colony are wearing these yellow sashes that have a radio and a vibration motor in them. There’s a central node who is analysing the GPS data and sending out the vibration instructions to all the sashes.

Become separated from the group and your sash goes still.

With Drift, I wanted to find out if it was possible to ‘read’ – to interpret – the vibrations from the sashes.

Given a choice of 3 possible broadcasters – these magnificent creatures – could you deduce which one it was from thinking about the different places where they were stood?

Last year the heavy objects came out again. This is David and Sam from the wonderful If Wet… walking them around rural Worcestershire after I challenged them to use them as musical instruments.

All three of us walked for something like an hour, and I’m fairly sure they saw them more as instruments of torture rather than as a way of sonifying the landscape.

Then I was invited to present a workshop as part of the Global Conference On Mobility Futures at Lancaster University. These are the sashes being walked around a drizzly campus.

Mobilities Studies is a youngish area of research that explores the movement of people, ideas and things, as well as the broader social implications of those movements.

Although the weather was uninspiring I’m getting a lot out of Mobilities Studies as a way of thinking about my work.

This Summer I got an Arts Council grant and finally a chance to dedicate a bigger chunk of time to developing the creatures. Priorities were 1) investigating how to design the bodies so they could communicate the creature’s emotional state, and 2) building in an awareness of the Colony as a whole.

The latter was beyond my skills, so I delegated that to Tarim, who actually knows how to do computer programming. The former started here with bits of string, post-it notes and dissecting pushpuppets for scientific purposes.

The next step was a heartbeat inside cardboard boxes. Even that had the power to make people feel empathy towards the thing and curiosity towards their surroundings.

Over a total of about 35 days we’ve gone from that, to 3 of these.

I spent 9 days working with Sarah Barnes at the laser cutting facility at UWE. Here we built many, many iterations of hearts and spines and brackets and levers.

With physical manifestations to play with, we could figure out the mechanics and also the intricacies of how it all related back to the human body in motion.

We were confident we were onto a winner with this design, and this was confirmed when we put the creatures into the arms of a small group of playtesters.

Humans of course being the part of the system that it’s hardest to design for.

I’m starting to understand about how to manage the getting-to-know-eachother stage where empathy is formed, the Colony is bonded and a shared language is developed.

I was hoping the Colony would provide something of a spectacle, making other people nearby curious about what was going on. I wasn’t prepared for quite how many people came up to us and wanted to touch, wear and talk about the creatures.

I love that these things make a space for stranger: stranger interactions.

And then there was all the unexpected stuff too: one woman spent ages drawing with one of the creatures by dragging it around by one end.

We can also confirm they’re unexpectedly good at skateboarding and that they do not like being dangled over deep water.

I think it’s important for people to have a framework for sitting down and sharing their stories and experiences after walking with these things. I’ve also been working with David Haylock to map the data collected by the creatures, so we have a visual reference for when different things happened and a starting point for thinking about why they happened.


I didn’t really have a snappy closing line, so instead I invited the evening’s organiser, Janet, to come up and meet the critter I’d bought with me

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