Archive for April, 2006

The Central City by Stanza in Art Monthly

April 22nd, 2006

Image: Stanza artwork shows live CCTV feeds. 2006

This is a review of  The Central City by Stanza in Art  Monthly 2002. Since the advent of modernity the experience of the city has been characterised by a vibrant mix of audio-visual sensations. Signs, streets, buildings, reflections, voices, traffic merge into a chaotic simultaneity that is always more than the sum of its parts. The city’s networks and rhythms are also mirrored in the virtual realm of cyberspace and data transmission. While we all know what actual, living cities look like, many attempts at representing cybercities rely on a reductionist aesthetic of simulation, glossily rendered depictions of ‘liquid architecture’ or complex exchanges of information (as in the projects of Knowbotic Research). What both worlds (as well as much art, of course) have in common is the grid, a cellular structure that inevitably proliferates through arterial streets and cables into urban sprawl or information overload. Stanza has been mining the urban environment for imagery since the early 80s, initially in the form of large, monochrome paintings of South London tower blocks, offices and architectural details, then in photographs that experimented with various darkroom techniques, followed by videos displaying a repetitive grid structure and which are also available from the artist in the form of wallpaper. Stanza’s fragmentary, immersive approach to the transient flux of urban structures reaches its apogee in The Central City, an online Internet-specific work that is now in its third version (www.the Each of its 30 sections, or ‘areas’, consists of several Shockwave movies that combine animated digital imagery based on urban motifs, including maps, buildings, towers and streets, with sound samples taken from the same urban environment. Much of the material is self-generating – that is, as the user mouses over different areas, different sequences are activated as overlays and replicating patterns of organic shapes. The effect is quite stunning, as the user feels empowered to use the mouse like a brush, painting a continually evolving canvas and soundscape, choosing new mixes from a palette of effects. Digital sprawl becomes a metaphor for the living organism that is urban chaos.

While the pristine sterility of the Corbusian city has given way to the dystopian reality of crumbling tower blocks, so too has cyberspace been corrupted by viral infections and rabid, self-generating organisms. This is reflected in the names that Stanza has given to the different areas of The Central City, such as ‘megalopotron’, ‘matrixity’ and ‘germix’. Other sections, like ‘small worlds’ or ‘fibrinet’, are almost painterly in a Futurist sort of way, while others exploit the computer’s well-known ability to make semi-transparent, three-dimensional cubes rotate on their axes. ‘Proser’ offers poetic meditations (appropriately formatted as stanzas) on the urban condition, some of which can also be sung along to in another section that features a jukebox (for streaming audio) and a karaoke machine.
The works are all contained within the window of the frame, itself a grid structure whose coordinates determine the position of the user’s cursor. This is the point at which Stanza’s works become interactive, since they depend on mouse movements.

Having begun as a painter, Stanza still hopes that his interactive audio-visual digital works can somehow be appreciated within the tradition of painting. His Amorphoscapes ( are actually described as paintings and are designed to be shown in the form of projections or large plasma screens which would change according to movements of people in the room. It is even envisaged that multiple users would be able to control the appearance of artworks via online networks using wireless technologies.

Like the movies in The Central City, the Amorphoscapes use generative sounds and navigable images based on an ingenious programming language that offers the user plenty of surprises, although there is a danger that the form achieves more prominence than the content. Stanza has also initiated the website which offers a platform and showcase for other artists working with new audiovisual media. At present it hosts more than 50 projects, many of which use Shockwave or Flash formats to present new forms of graphical interfaces offering users considerable control over mixing the audio and visual elements. Soundtoys exhibits the diversity of the Internet and the explosion as well as the convergence of new digital technologies, particularly in the area of generative and interactive programming.

Michael Gibbs.  Art Monthly. March 2002




Crossbow Motes. Details of experience to date. 2004 – 2006

April 9th, 2006

Crossbow Motes.

What follows is a sort of diary / journey of my experiences of dealing and researching new technologies at the fuzzy edge where ‘stuff’ is getting developed and marketed to end users as research tools. The technology in this case is Crossbow Motes.

My interest and work with Crossbow motes (Mica 2 wireless board and sensors) and wireless technology goes back to early 2004 when I went over to Crossbow head office in San Jose and then attended a workshop in Boston in late 2004. For the workshop which costs over $500 dollars, you have to turn up owning or having ordered the technology,I actually wanted to evaluate it or at least see if it worked before I bought. I was looking for a technology that could fit my concepts (live real time data from a sensor network represented online for monitoring public space) and you have to start somewhere, however I paid upfront for the course and the technology , booked the flight from London, and got myself to a hotel in Boston USA.

It should have been a clue as to how difficult XBOW motes actually are. Out of 200 people at the workshop of which they said ten people would turn up to the free two hour session the day before (for the pre install). Well what I mean is, the clue should have been in the pre install day. Nearly every person or group, who had previously bought this technology needed to be shown how to install them. This audience included some navy seals, software engineers with PHD’s and all sorts of BSC and MSC graduates working in professional fields, ie hardware and software engineers. That is nearly everyone who had bought this couldn’t get it to work and needed their hand holding.

Anyway I went ahead and bought the kit at the workshop except the director of Crossbow couldn’t get mine working and he eventually gave me his used mib 510 board.

Its three years I have been messing around with these motes and there are some simple truths.

The first is this is expensive, the second is there is hope offered but failure is always close at hand, the third is your on your own.

I also wonder out of all the people that bought/buy these kits off Crossbow Technology who has actually to used them successfully. If anyone has can you write to me. I did ask crossbow for a list but they wouldn’t give me one. How many of these kits are deployed somewhere and working, or are they all left in dusty cupboards; my guess is the later.

Not only is it difficult to appraise what they should do, they don’t even do what the company promises (more on this later) but to try to develop your own ideas you have to read one of five manuals (which I did) this isn’t the problem, I mean at least there are some manuals. The problem is lots of the stuff is either not true or misleading.( the online forum is useless.)

Maybe I just ask the wrong question, however for three years my question has been the same. Can I get the data online using motes. I want to make real time online environment with the live data, not the local saved data. And after much questioning I was told use XML RPC. The answer to this has always been yes, but how?

They actually sold me software which they said does this out of the box. Well I can tell you and them it does not. It does not take XML RPC into flash for example. The version of XML RPC is proprietory and unique to Crossbow. Believe me it took months to figure this out. ie it’s a non standard version. I repeated the same question after I bought more stuff and they said I would now need to develop either a bridge or a PHP or CGI script in order to do this. (Which I have now also achieved as of 2007.see below.)

I asked them for examples or to at least show me that you at Crossbow have done this and their reply was to say that the code is Crossbow property ie proprietry intellectual property. OK what does this mean. Well first it means that the product doesn’t do what they say it does. Second it means either they are still developing this and also that they weren’t prepared prove to me that this worked. Thirdly it meant that I still hadn’t got my sensors blasting out data online over a network so that I can manipulate it.

However this isn’t the point.

The distributors in UK Willow and Crossbow in USA all said I can get real time data online to my website using the software they sold me for £800 pounds, err that’s why I bought it. They said it is built in. I made several requests about this and they assured me before I purchased that it was. Anyway you can not get realtime data to be presented to an online source using the kits and the software they supply you with. What they said is not true and as such is misrepresentation.

However, I did get my real time data but only after having written my own custom software which was mote proxy bridge in java. (Thanks to Eamonn) There is also way to do this via PHP and postgreSQL , but they didn’t help with this. In other words, you have to do a lot of your own software development to get this to happen, so be prepared.

The other issue with the motes is that I am always having issues restarting the program Xserve and trying to establish re -connections. In other words getting them running is one thing, keeping them running is another.

And of last month (mid 2007) Xbow announced they are now giving the software Moteworks away I bought this from them two months before for £800 ie $1600 us dollars. (No Joke) from their UK distributor Willow Technology. ER can I have my money back?

Recently I updated from version 1.4 moteview to version 2.0 and my mote bridge stops, working. They probably have updated their XML structure, so I rolled back to an earlier version. Well OK I here you say its the cutting edge of technology….er bleeding edge. So my bridge was re-wrote and updated again so I am now running version 2 of moteview with my own mote proxy.

I also bought a “stargate” wireless gateway (It cost £700 pounds via UK Distribution Willow Tech). This was advertised with built in micro wireless camera, err they could have said what it was. The built in micro camera was in fact an external USB Logitec webcam, this is what I got when I opened the box. They charged about £120 pounds $240 dollars for this webcam. The other thing about the “stargate” is it needs a regular power supply. It should be solar or battery powered. It makes no sense to have a battery unit for a wireless sensor network for remote monitoring. (True I can adapt it) At this price I should have just bought another laptop, and that’s what I recommend to anyone else..

There has not been one stage in this process when I have felt like I have had good service either off Willow ( Xbow UK distributors, although Willow tried their best, since their interest is making a sale in redirecting products that come from the USA with 100 percent mark up) or from Crossbow USA who I have dealt with directly.

Although I am still pursuing this project and my research, (I have started so I will finish)…this is more of a warning. Really I feel like should just ask for my money back with all this as it feels like sales misrepresentation.

You see I actually went to San Jose head offices from London and told them what I was going to do and what wanted before I started to invest my time and money in this, this was early in 2004.

Maybe all the researchers use other peoples money so it doesn’t matter and nobody speaks up; but this is just a word to those that might even want to invest in this. WARNING; look at any other wireless technology for sensors platform and avoid Crossbow Motes, maybe gumsticks are better, or build your own. Anyway you have been warned.

Oh, one more thing, I even bought housing to protect them, this does not fit properly and you have to break solder connections to get them inside, and they arent waterproof. This felt like more money wasted.

To conclude you have to do a lot of your own software development to get real time online visualization.

I have also been doing tests for continual running, mainly battery life but also stability and data polling. So far thirty six hours is the longest period I have had my sensor networks running without either a re-start or some other related health issue. Well maybe there is a memory leak in moteview 1.4. Also on this endurance testing during the last month of this two motes have now stopped working in my system. This means that they are fairly unstable for anything beyond “play” development.

Some positive points

I now have written my own custom software which was mote proxy bridge in java to get real time data online. I have tested this now and I making several online real time visualizations. A version mote proxy middle has been made. Current Version 1.23

There is also way to do this via PHP and postgreSQL though opening ports, I have also done this and an online PHP kit Vers 0.9 has been developed.

I am still trying to develop with this, for my Sensity and House project. Its part of my AHRC creative fellowship and I have now set up my studio ie main operational headquarters in the Digital Studios at Goldsmiths College University of London.

Maybe Crossbow would like to support me by giving me a complete set of the new motes and sensors boards with GPS that can network over larger distances.(Imotes and Iris), so I can continue my research..


Wish list

Smaller more stable motes.

Data of much larger distances.

Plug in solar power cell to power them.

Stargate with solar polar or battery

Some decent housing that easy to clip wrong and fits well.

Much better technical support.

Easier set up.

More sensors available that can just clip on and piggyback the set up.


A mote with Ethernet that just clips into a new work ports and configures to send data…that would be cool.