BUFFALO, N.Y. -- In an urban environment, how can technology
cultivate a sense of community and connect us with the world around
Two new projects by University at Buffalo media architect and
researcher Mark Shepard address that question, enabling city
dwellers to leverage their cell phones as tools for discovery as
they navigate city streets and other public spaces.
The first, Serendipitor, is a navigation app Shepard developed
for the iPhone, iPad and iPod touch. The program is Google Maps
with a twist.
Users enter an origin and destination, and adjust the complexity
of the recommended route to fit their schedule and preferences.
Serendipitor then generates step-by-step directions punctuated by
surprising instructions: Pick a stranger and follow that person for
a few blocks, for instance, or go to the nearest flower shop, buy a
flower, and give it to a passerby.
More than 1,000 people have downloaded the free app, Shepard
said. The program is one of seven nominees for the transmediale
Award 2011, a prestigious digital and media arts award whose
international jury received more than 1,000 submissions.
A second program Shepard created allows users of mobile devices
to "plant" and "prune" sounds in WiFi hot zones, creating community
sound gardens in urban spaces.
Shepard, an assistant professor of architecture and media study,
has installed these Tactical Sound Gardens at museums, festivals
and art events in cities in the United States, Europe and South
America. In November, he will head to São Paulo, Brazil to
work with a group of local sound artists to set up a sound garden
as part of the Vivo ARTE.MOV festival.
"Mobile and other situated technologies are increasingly part of
the material world that we move through," said Shepard, an editor
of the Architectural League of New York's Situated Technologies
Pamphlets Series. "Corporate interests, government and law
enforcement agencies are taking advantage of these new
technologies. But what are some of the other opportunities that
exist for the future of urban space?"
Though iPhones, iPods and BlackBerrys often distance users from
their direct surroundings -- think of the teenager who never
travels without headphones, or the businesswoman checking e-mail
over lunch -- Shepard's work demonstrates that mobile devices are
not, by nature, isolating.
"The sound garden draws on the culture of urban community
gardening to shape the sonic topography of cities in a
collaborative way," Shepard said. "Serendipitor is more for the
individual. It encourages you to look around you, to be more aware
of your surroundings. It assists with navigation, but really, it's
designed to help you find something by looking for something
Serendipitor, Shepard said, facilitates encounters and
experiences that users could never have pre-planned. He exhibited
the app this month at the Art Center Nabi in Seoul, Korea, and
developed the program this summer as an artist-in-residence at V2_
Institute for the Unstable Media in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, as
part of a joint residency with Eyebeam Art + Technology Center in
But while the goal is to create a more intimate connection
between people and their environment, Shepard notes that
Serendipitor raises an ironic question: In the digital age, he
asks, "What does it mean for society when we have to download a
mobile phone app for serendipity?"