Kinect and the Posture of Context-Aware Computing

I walked into Dr. Rieder’s office yesterday, and he said “do this,” making wild hand motions. I thought, “what is he up to now?” (I can always expect something out of the ordinary from Rieder as his academic work is more like running–a process of seeing what things and ideas can do when you run with them and stop focusing on critique.) So, sensing the excitement, I imitated the gesture. Then he said, “Look. There you are. I captured your skeleton.” He was referring to the skeleton outline of my body on his computer screen; using the Kinect, he effectively made a context aware office and tracked my movements in real-time on his computer. We experimented with the capabilities a bit, figured out the distances of the motion tracking, etc. Then we discussed some potentials of information rich and “smart” environments, and he shared some thoughts on the relationship between the screen and the body as he focuses on re-thinking “digital rhetoric.”

“I hope this thing becomes more than another dog to sniff us or fetch the paper for us,” he said. “Yeah, then it will just be a dog without the dog,” I said. We laughed.

After our meeting, I went back to my office to plan a lesson, and I was thinking about one of the readings by Dr. Tim Lenoir that I assigned for the coming week. In “Contemplating Singularity,” Lenoir considers the effect of new representations on human development.

He states, “[N. Katherine] Hayles’ theory of intermediation alerts us to the need to understand how the complex transactions between bodies and our inscription practices might take place and how to understand the ‘entanglement’ she describes of media with the formation of human subjects. How can we think beyond the notion of virtual creatures as rhetorical devices and explore instead how the embodied human subject is being shaped by a techno-scientific world?… In this perspective, media machines are not just prosthetic extensions of the body, they are evolving assemblages capable of being absorbed into the body and reconfiguring the subject” (3-4).

Amy Caron’s Neuro Art – The Thalamus

But how do we explore this “entanglement” on the local level, say, when engaging something so small (although novel) as a new computing environment powered through hacked consumer devices? To what extent do these representations of our bodies transform our behaviors, our cognitive patterns, our sense of living in the world? Can we know? Will ubiquitous, context-aware computing make us the first witnesses (or guinea pigs) to broad-scale shifts in the human subject, or will these technologies only be a link in the continuation of human-technic co-development at a snail’s pace?

I’m not sure… but if Lenoir is right (and by extension Terrence Deacon and Donald Merlin) then perhaps the biggest alterations to human capabilities have happened exterior to the body before interior mutations. Such is the need to pay attention to our environment.

Of course, I don’t necessarily require advanced cognitive science to interpret all of my own local adjustments to these new technologies. I straightened up my posture when I saw the skeletal representation of my body sitting in a chair in Dr. Rieder’s office. I looked “slouchy.” At that moment, I experienced a real-time self-awareness of my physical body that could’ve been provided by a video camera but which arrived somewhat differently when the background was subtracted out and when my person became unidentifiable except through the body’s outline. I am sitting straight against the back of my chair at the moment.

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