Sunday, April 12, 2009

Earbud Urbanism

via Where by Marc Couillais on 3/24/09

I was walking down the in downtown Chicago recently wearing my white earbuds, loud tunes pumping out of my iPod into my head, and it got me thinking. When you have earbuds in, it's almost as if the music is inside your head. It overtakes your thoughts. Ok, maybe not completely, but it would be hard to deny the fact that what we listen to affects our mood and our perception of our surroundings.

On this walk, I started to become aware of how many people were walking around with one of their five senses -- hearing -- completely disconnected from their environment, and I thought to myself: how does this disconnection alter our perception of the urban condition as we experience it? I wonder how many urban designers take into consideration the fact that people are walking around detached from their environment, being highly influenced by a source that the designers themselves cannot control. Personal technology is taking over how we interpret our surroundings and changing the way we feel about places, and this should be considered as we move further and further into interactive technologies.

So, imagine: your music is playing in your ears, and you're walking down the street with a certain demeanor dictated by the recent events in your life, the weather, and of course your music; what's the last thing you notice? Advertisements. Ironically, the ads placed all around the city to get you to buy devices with white earbuds are suddenly ineffective, blending into the grey zone of focus deprivation caused by the mood enhancing device sending electrical waves to your brain. In the end, it is the corporation, the large companies that build and control our urban experiences. Storefronts are often completely detached from the context of the buildings they are plugged into, creating a street level experience dictated more by the corporate retailers than the architect or planner. So it is fair to say that these businesses have a significant stake in our urban experience, and will not keep pumping money into failing advertising mediums but will instead resort to new mediums, capitalizing on our newfound technological dependency.

I can imagine, in the near future, holding your electronic device up to a window display and downloading music from a record store. The technology is already here; its just a matter of how that tech is eventually used as a marketing tool that will change the way we experience the city and our daily life. Instead of billboards, there will be giant digital displays. Using the technology showcased in the Mini ad a while back, called "augmented reality," these displays will reflect you as you walk by, but will project a certain brand of clothing onto your image, detecting your body size and instantly altering the clothing image to fit you using a complex algorithm. These displays will show you in real-time with a Snickers and a Coke in your hand asking "Why Wait?"

So I wonder: how much of what we experience is predetermined by a planner, an architect, or a corporation, and how much of it is dependent on sources we create and introduce ourselves? My guess is that we will increasingly be adding our own sources and corporations will tap into this and use it to promote their agendas, thereby creating a new urban condition. Earbud Urbanism, anyone?

(Photos from Apple and Designboom . The original full-sized color version can be viewed by clicking the photo.)

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