SmartSpace:   RFID art installation

Abstract:    SmartSpace is a media installation of Internet-connected spaces that explore concepts of ubiquitous computing and intelligent spaces.  Using medium-range RFID technologies, these spaces know the identity of the persons who enter and project customized animated collages of images from history, art, fiction etc. on topics that people have indicated are important to them.  The images have been collected via automated programs that search online image archives.  It explores both the opportunities and dangers of these technologies.

SFSU Galleries, Fall, 2008 

contact: Stephen Wilson

SmartSpace more information


View video documentation of SmartSpace Concept  (mpeg4 - 5mb)
SmartSpace high resolution video and stills 


SmartSpace focuses on the concept of "smart rooms".  Smart rooms are seen as a significant future trend in the Information Technology and the architectural worlds.  The term refers to 'ubiquitous computing' environments where many of the objects and architectural features of a space are embedded with computational and communication capabilities and interact with people and each other in unprecedented ‘intelligent’ ways.

It is critical that artists investigate this technology and the conceptual frameworks surrounding it.  The space/room knows who is there anytime a person enters. This is accomplished through the emerging technology of long-range RFID.  The installation  projects animated collages of images of things that are important to the person.  The installation gathers the images by using automated intelligent searchbots that exploit online image databases such as Google and Flickr. If several persons are present, it projects collages based on the profiles of all the various persons present.  If the projected collages get near each other, the system uses semantic algorithms to generate additional mini-displays that visually composite the profiles of the individuals represented in each of the displays.

The systems are linked by the Internet so that anywhere there is one of these systems, they will be able to access the person's information and start generating the appropriate displays.  The systems could be in different parts of a building, the city, or the world.  All these smart spaces would know the person and react accordingly.

Sample of ID tag images  illustrating both the opportunities and dangers

Theoretical Considerations: 

What is smart?  In discussions about smart spaces and objects, the term ‘smart’ is often used without much careful analysis. Throughout history humans have had complex interactions with the spaces they move through - functional, aesthetic, psychological, spiritual...  Also there has been discussion of the 'immanence' of space - that is, spaces that seemed sentient and alive.  Indeed these ideas are part of the historical discourse in architecture.  Intelligent spaces offer unprecedented possibilities of how spaces can interact with people and how they can facilitate interactions between people. 

The SmartSpace installation aims to begin this analysis.  What does it mean for a space or an object to be smart?  What does it need to know about the persons it is interacting with?  How does it discover that information?  Does the use of technologies such as rfid, which can read presence without any special actions by the viewer enhance the semblance of intelligence?

What does a space do with that information?  How does it indicate and respond to the unique identities of the people who are nearby?  How does it change its actions to respond to the simultaneous presence of several persons?  Most discussion in the technology development world focus on response to superficial characteristics such as sound level or light preferences.  For example, a room adjusts the sound levels when a person walks in. 

The opportunities and challenges of smart spaces are too profound to leave at this shallow level.  The SmartSpace installation only starts these conceptual explorations.  SmartSpace asks people for non superficial information – who, what, where, and when? – that is, who is their favorite artist? what is their most treasured object (sentimental or utilitarian)? where in the world are they most interested in? when was the most intriguing period in history?  What could an intelligent space do with this kind of knowledge about a person’s interests and values?  

Also, it has the same information about all the people in the space.  What might it do with this knowledge to facilitate interactions among strangers standing next to each other? It attempts to open up the possibilities of non-trivial discussions between persons. Typically, strangers often reveal little beyond superficialities to each other  Could it induce a new kind of interaction between people?  (Consider that use of this kind of knowledge would be a challenge even for a person, let alone a smart room.  How does knowledge of a person’s values change the way you interact with them?)

All the SmartSpace installations are linked together by the Internet.  At any moment they know who is present in each space and what their profile of interests are.  The network of smartSpace forms a kind of distributed intelligence.  What can be done with this kind of geographically distributed mind?

Danger and opportunity:  Much attention is currently focused on the dangers of tracking systems such as RFID.  For example, is it desirable that a space could "know" who is present and link that presence with background information?  One can easily imagine frightening scenarios of privacy violations by intrusive governmental systems linked to networks of smart spaces.  In this view artists must be wary of accepting the hype of increased possibility without critical awareness of the underlying narratives.  SmartSpace attempts to explore both the opportunities and dangers.

It is important  that artists not be totally overwhelmed by the critique.  Using the technique of appropriated play, artists can participate in the research and help to elaborate possibilities outside of the commercial and technological mainstream. 


Process - Illustrative Scenario: 

A person enters a space and notices intriguing projected collage animations on the walls.  They soon discover that the collages are linked to some of the persons in the room.  The displays change in relation to how long people stay in the space. When the persons leave, their associated collage fades away and when new persons enter new collages generate.  When the collages move near each other, they spawn smaller images that somehow integrate the underlying meanings of the two parent collages.  For example, the intersection of a collage of someone who indicated an interest in Spain and someone who indicated an interest in Syria  might result in smaller images focused on the intersection of Arabic and Spanish culture.  

The person decides they want to be part of the system.  They sit down at a data entry computer.  It asks  them a quick series of questions about things that matter and may require reflection.  It visually offers animated displays that ask questions such as what is their favorite person from history or fiction, what place in the world are they most interested in, what era in history is most important, what is their most prized object (sentimental or utilitarian).  The machine registers these predilections in the system and burns identification information onto an id card.  The card contains a medium-range RFID chip that is readable up to 5m.  The person can hang the card around their neck or put it into their pocket.  (The signup process could be completed via a web page prior to them arriving at one of the spaces)  From then on, any time they enter a space, anywhere in the world,  hooked to the system, it will know their data and respond appropriately.  The RFID reader identifies that a person with a certain id is near, accesses their profile from the Internet that it will use it to generate the animations.



Physical Description: 

The installation consists of several ‘smartspaces’ networked together via the Internet.  Each smart space has a computer, a large display or projector, a surveillance camera, and a rfid reader (uhf medium range).  The RFID readers sense visitor ID cards at a distance up to five meters and generate a variety of displays customized to which visitors are present.  The spaces could be in a gallery or distributed in a building, city or anywhere in the world.


Visitors obtain id cards (with embedded RFID chips) at a signup computer, which asks them to engage a short interactive media event probing to find out what is important to them. (The signup process could be completed via a web page and the tags picked up later.) The signup computer sends the information to another computer which launches searchbot programs on the web to search image archives for images related to their indicated interests.


When no one is present in a smart space, the display presents animated displays that consolidate the camera images from all the smartspaces.  These images also include information about specifically who is in the other spaces and their profiles.


Equipment support from ThingMagic, Cambridge Mass
Technical Support: Alan Giorgi, Scott Deeter;    Production Support: Andrew Bramer
Grant support from Tribeca Film Institute
Multiuser telnet xtra: Dan Cummings; castxtra modifications:Valentin Schmidt; TTCxtra: Daniel Rozin; SerialXtra: Geoff Smith