Archive for December, 2009

Scents and Sensibilities

Scratch&Sniff

I am hideously behind in my documentation, so much so that I didn’t have anything up in time for the first day of the Winter Show. Which turns out to have been kind of a blessing, as I hadn’t really devoted much time to thinking about the project beyond trying to get it working. Which is uncharacteristic for me, though this project has been nothing if atypical.

The projects [1][2] I submitted to previous shows were polished and worked exactly as intended but were complicated to explain. They came with highly polished spiels that explained the hows and whys and, at least in my mind, completely airtight rationalizations for their existence.

But smells don’t bend to the will as easily as wire and LEDs. They’re invisible, often uncooperative, and, as I learned yesterday, highly subjective. The beauty for me of Scratch&Sniff has been the ease of its explanation (partly because the concept is simple: it’s a scratch and sniff television screen, and partly because I just haven’t had time to rationalize its construction beyond “wouldn’t it be cool if”) coupled with the growth of its meaning and interpretation while watching it in use.

Experiencing the wonders of scratch and sniff TV

In the past I’ve been afraid of allowing too much human element into my work. Both T.H.A.W. (a synthesizer interface that used a hairdryer and “melting” ice cubes) and Al-Gorithm (the paper output of a computer program written for a human being) minimized the subjective experience of the viewer/participant. They were both hermetic systems. You could like them or not, but you couldn’t really argue about how they worked or your role within them.

Scratch&Sniff on the other hand eschews all discourse in favor of an extremely simple concept that the viewer’s experience validates (or doesn’t, depending on the viewer). As at every show, the people I’ve spoken to have fallen into the three rough camps they always seem to:

  1. The Wowers: “This is so cool, how did you do it?”
  2. The Insiders: “This reminds me of a project by x at y, and have you thought about z?”
  3. The Skeptics: “What is the point of a smelly TV? How are you going to monetize it?”

The fascinating thing, though, has been how many people have taken issue with the project based not on how it works but on the smells themselves. “This smells like air freshener, not grass.” The technology vanishes! And what exactly does your TV smell like when you scratch it, I want to ask.

Another surprising thing has been the trepidation with which people approach scratching the screen (“Can I really push hard? Won’t it hurt the screen?”) coupled with the brute force to which they subject the obviously delicate surrounding foam core.

In any case, really interesting. I will post more once I get caught up with my documentation (and sleep) in the coming week.

tweepetry

My father-in-law is obsessed with Twitter poetry, or tweepetry, as he calls it. As someone incapable of succinct expression, I’m a great admirer of the masters of the 140 character quip, foremost among them the inimitable Anderson Miller and the by now overfollowed Shitmydadsays. I’m not sure anyone really knows what the point of Twitter is, but it does lend itself to recording felicitous turns of phrase, so I applaud my pop-in-law’s to up the literary ante.

As a gift last year, I made him a site that aggregates tweepetry using Seaofclouds’s nifty little Twitter-scraping javascript. The concept was super simple: tag any tweet with #tweepetry and it automatically appears on tweepetry.com. I added a couple of snippets to the code to remove the hash tag and done!

It worked great for a couple of weeks. Then the bits of tweepetry that had appeared on the site began disappearing. After three weeks, they were all gone. I did some research into the Twitter Search API and it turns out that only the last 10 days or so are indexed. Anything older than that can no longer be fetched dynamically using search. So tweepetry.com sat empty for six months gathering internet dust.

After three months of database programming, I realized I’d amassed the tools to resolve this problem so I revisited the site, rewriting everything but its visual elements from scratch.

Some recent tweeps

HOW IT WORKS

The site is still dynamic, but the dynamism is all backstage.

There’s now a php script running on my server that polls Twitter every 10 minutes (the maximum number of searches from one IP is limited to 150 per 24 hours). It talks to a MySQL database with two very simple tables, the first to recorded the id, username, time, and text of a particular tweet and the second to keep track of the id of the last tweet. I used two tables to keep my database queries fast. Every time the script runs, it searches Twitter for tweets that include the “#tweepetry” hash tag. If it finds some, it compares the id of the latest with the id stored in the second table. If they’re the same, nothing happens, but if they’re different, each tweet is stored in the database until the id of the last recorded tweet is reached, at which point it is updated to reflect the new additions. Then there’s a simple script that fetches all this information and displays it. That’s it!