TransitTime-Oratorio for Transit
by Stephen Wilson, Professor, Conceptual/Information Arts Department, SFSU


TransitTimepresents an "infomatic" digital media event based on the real time movement of buses and trains at the moment of viewing.  Using the Web to extract data from the NextBus system it tracks the movements of all MUNI light rail trains via GPS and advanced signaling. (MUNI is San Francisco's public transit system.)

The installation projects digital video and sound which change in real time based on the precise current position of Muni trains and busses.  Each train and station has its own sound/video "signature" which develops with real movements in the city.  The sounds include processed versions of sounds from the city, a range of spoken perspectives on the way transit affects life, and tonal compositions related to transit.  The voices form a kind of oratorio.  The video includes maps, city scenes, satellite maps, historical images, and other poetical reflections on transit.  Viewers can pick which Muni line to focus on the strategy for mapping position to media.  The goal is to  give visitors a feel for transit as the life pulse of the city.

Another part of the event allows visitors to ride in a driver's and passenger seat which had been discarded from an old train. The resurrected  seats vibrate in accordance with the real movements.  When the real train stops so does the vibrating seats in the gallery.  The projected video matches what real riders on the train being tracked are seeing at that precise moment.  (The views from every meter of track in the system had been previously documented.)

View the Documentation

A short digital movie (approximately 5 minutes) presents documentation of the event including the rationale, scenes from the installation, and excerpts from the experience.
View TransitTime Quicktime movie documentation
(Note this is a 36.5 mb file - not advised for low-bandwidth)

See documentation images of people interacting with installation (76k) at Somarts Gallery.

Other images of TransitTime


Information Systems:  The movement of streetcars and buses can be viewed as the movement of blood in a body.  The changing flow of the transit system is an important part of the vital signs of life in the city.  What does it mean that we now have information systems that provide a 'gods-eye'  view of people's actions?  What are the opportunities and dangers?

Transit as Poetic System:  Public Transit has inspired many artists.  Who are these other passengers? Where are they going?  What is suggested by the passing sights and sounds? What is the meaning of the flow of neighborhoods?  Which is more important - getting there or the process of the ride?

Political/Ecological Questions: Some see public transit as way to save the ecological life of the city. Others see the autonomy of the car at a symbolic core of American life.  What should be transit's future?

Public Knowledge of Emerging Technologies:  New technological developments such as GPS tracking and dynamic information visualization are often poorly understood by the public.  This installation attempts to make emerging technologies come alive for general audiences by exposing them to functioning systems and hinting at the opportunities the new technologies open up beyond the mundane.  This system attempts to promote environmental awareness by showing a global view of the city as a functioning system and by promoting public transit as a viable alternative to use of private automobiles.


TransitTime offers a meditative view of this information system.  It includes several features:
  • The 'Single Train Tracker' which allows the viewer to see video views of what passengers on a real train moving through the city are seeing at the same moment as the viewer is at the installation. See screenshots (88k).
  • The 'Magic Muni Seat' which vibrates as a particular target train moves through the city and stops when the train stops.  Viewers control installation choices by driving a simulated MUNI driver control panel.
  • 'God's View' which allows overviews of the current movements of all trains at the moment of viewing. They can look down on maps of the city and see the positions and movements of all trains.  Viewers can decide to create event linked to music and/or voices.



The event was part of the YLEM 20th anniversary show at the Somarts Gallery in San Francisco during September,2001  This event was possible because San Francisco is home to the visionary NextBus demo system which uses GPS (global positioning system) position sensors and other technologies to let web visitors know in real time where Muni train and designated busses are.  NextBus uses this information to let viewers know how long before a bus or train reaches their stop.  The event showed that the system  had potentials far beyond the utilitarian and used it to provide conceptual, data-based resonances to the underlife of the city.

Another version of TransitTime was presented as part of the Second Wednesday series  at the Exploratorium, San Francisco's museum of science and art in Frebruary, 2002.  That particular program, curated by Spnge,  was called Teleopolis and focused on art that reflected on the urban experience.

Thanks to the following who helped realize this project:  Michael Smith and Next Bus for adapting their system for the art event; Aerlia MacLaird for videography, Andrew Chung for Magic Muni Seat and dirver's unit construction, Lisa Siewert for coordinating information services at Somarts, David Dick for interviews of Muni riders, Catherine Witzling and Sophia Wilson for aesthetic consultation, and Eleanor Kent and Ylem for mounting the show.  For the Exploratorium show thanks to Pam Winfrey, head of the artist-in-residence program, Chris Saulter of Sponge, and Lesli Wood and Jessie Gould.

View the stations/lines/and events chosen by the viewers at the gallery and the Exploratorium..

See the listings.