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When art meets wireless sensors

Ashok Sukumaran, an artist in residence at Sun Labs, has conjured up a high-tech project that's colorful and interactive. Photos: From wireless sensors to interactive art

In the real world, we have buildings, lamp posts, the breeze. In the virtual one, there's an amount of data from devices like cellular phones, video games and surveillance cameras.

To Ashok Sukumaran, art is what happens when the two worlds collide.

"Surveillance cameras, almost everywhere now, form an almost alternative city, from what the camera sees and who has access to it," said Sukumaran, an artist-in-residence at Sun Labs, the applied research and development arm of Sun Microsystems. "The larger question is, in what way will these devices affect our physical lives?"

In his most recent work for Sun Labs, which debuted last weekend in San Jose, Calif., Sukumaran attempted to illuminate the virtual world with an experiment using Sun Labs' SunSPOTs (Small Programmable Object Technology) wireless-sensor technology.

Sukumaran's project, called "Park View Hotel," borrowed from the old saying that a camera's "gaze" changes the way a person looks. His project flipped that expression, to change the way the world looks to a person. By pointing an infrared beam at a nearby hotel, passers-by in a local park could activate sensors inside hotel rooms up to 200 feet away, and cause them to light up and change the surrounding environment.

The interactive art exhibit took place in Cesar Chavez Park and the adjacent San Jose Fairmont Hotel last weekend. For Sun, it was more than just interesting art: It was a real-life use of sensor technology that could be used in something as mundane as home appliances or in something as complex as a computer network.

"Ashok's art adds a new dimension to our understanding of technology and its impact," Glenn Edens, director of Sun Labs, said in a statement.

Invisible beams
Trained as an architect, Sukamaran, 31, has been a new-media artist for six years. Sukumaran, a native and current resident of India, earned a master of fine arts (MFA) degree in media art at the University of California, Los Angeles in 2003. That same year, he was project director for an exhibition that blended multiple scientific disciplines to explore the intersection of digital art and nanoscale science, held at LACMALab in Los Angeles.

He accepted Sun Lab's first-ever artist-in-residence position in September, and his work ended with the Park View project. It was on display at the Inter-Society for Electronic Arts (ISEA) Symposium in San Jose through last weekend.

The project used two telescope-like devices equipped with an invisible infrared beam. People used the scopes, which were mounted on tripods and set up in the park, to peer inside rooms at the Fairmont.

Sukumaran art

With the scopes, onlookers could scan the rooms to find any one of six rooms in the Fairmont that were equipped with wireless sensor technology, which was connected and controlled by SunSPOTs. The infrared beam in the scope triggered sensors in the room, which then triggered the lights to change to yellow, red, blue or green. No one in the hotel could see the beams, but the SunSPOTs picked them up and controlled lights in the room.

When the room's lights began to change color--from yellow to blue to green--the onlooker with the scope could push a button to activate the sensor network and literally cause the color of the room to leak out into the park. The SunSPOTs sent a radio message through its network--there were about 45 sensors wired to the exterior of the hotel--from the hotel room to the swimming pool, to the street lamp post, down to a tree in the park.

"Suddenly you see street lights turn yellow, or blue," Sukumaran said.

"It takes a private experience in the hotel room, which is unoccupied, and leaks it into the park," he added. "It feels dangerous, it feels like an invasion of privacy, but legally, it's not."

According to Sun Labs, the SunSPOT technology has applications for everyday objects, not simply for art. For example, a sensor on a coffee mug could detect and notify you when the coffee reaches the desired temperature, or send a command to the coffeemaker to start a fresh pot when the cup is empty.

"We've learned to operate the phone. But when you talk about devices in any form--like touching a table, and it can have any number of results, depending on what the table is or waving at something for it to identify you--this is a different domain than the electronic spaces we're used to," Sukumaran said. "The normal things we do in the physical world, like pointing, looking, touching, moving, rolling, have new meaning because (of new devices)."