This is an Urbanscale Weeknote titled “Week 33: Growing,” written by Adam Greenfield in New York on the 20th of August 2011.

Week 33: Growing

Adam Greenfield on 20 August 2011

With the enormous collective effort of getting our biggest proposal to date out the door now behind us, it’s time to take a deep breath and catch up on some of the other things that have been going on in the studio.

- Unquestionably this week’s most exciting news: please welcome the newest member of the Urbanscale team, übercartographer Leah Meisterlin.

I first became aware of Leah through her work on Laura Kurgan’s Million Dollar Blocks project, and have followed her career with a reasonably embarrassing fanboy fervor ever since. With so many of our projects involving maps, data, and, well, the mapping of data, I’m here to tell you that the assets she brings to the table will be of considerable value to us. I’m quite sure you’ll see what I mean over the next weeks and months.

- J.D. and Jeff are busy working on the stand-alone Transitflow application, meaning that Jeff’s getting to know the ins and outs (and mostly the outs) of Apple’s iOS Developer Program.

One of the things we’ve learned is that for all of Apple’s impeccable claims to being a digital company, they will not accept digital proof of our own little enterprise’s existence. This circumstance has forced us to apply to the Secretary of State for an actual, made-of-atoms, red-wax-and-stamp certification of same.

Fortunately, we’ve been able to make headway via the existing dev credentials both Jeff and J.D. possess, but some day in the not-at-all-distant future, there will come a point at which we’re going to want to ship this thing. I sure hope it’s all ironed out by then.

- GROUNDlab’s Benedetta and coil man Todd just swung by for the biweekly Project PERRY status update, and Dropped some Science on us. Very happily, it turns out that the laws of physics — and maybe even of economics — are going to let us get away with stuff in the proof of concept that we’d thought would probably be off-limits.

Particularly, e-paper technology seems like it’s evolving so quickly that we may just be able to specify a full, active-matrix display for the next phase of prototyping, in the right form factor, with the right number and array of pins on the connector, at a manageable per-unit cost. This means that we can move away from segmented type — which even at its best, has always struck me as looking vaguely “angry,” and not a great match for this particular application — and toward type in whatever font we select or devise. (The hit on power consumption isn’t even from the display itself, but rather from the additional microprocessor you have to include in the circuit to manage the presentation of type.)

I’m hugely encouraged by all of this, for reasons that extend beyond the technical. I have to say that at the inception of this project, we were bombarded by folks — some well-intentioned, others obviously less so — insisting that PERRY was impossible, even in principle. One such characterized the system we described on our site as “a design fiction, technically not feasible.”

And that’s just not what I want to hear. I’m fine with the usual engineer trope of saying something’s impossible, and then going away and doing it. I expect that; in fact, I’ve even grown to look forward to that happening on a project, as confirmation that what I’m trying to do is far enough out the difficulty curve to be interesting. What I do not get is why some people seemed so offended by what we were trying to do with PERRY that they’d invest time and energy in trying to convince us it wasn’t worth the effort.

Today Todd brought us the guts of our Phase II prototype, along with the relevant circuit diagrams, and, well, there’s nothing one could possibly say at this point other than that the thing exists and it works. There are plenty of dimensions yet along which our proof-of-concept still needs to be optimized in order to constitute a viable product; beyond even that, as I continually caution, it may be some time before the components become available at a cost that would permit the whole thing to be a particularly compelling value proposition. But when I reflect on how far we’ve come in just a few months, on a low (low) five-figure R&D investment, I find it sadder and more mystifying than ever that anyone would have tried so vehemently to talk us out of doing this.

We’ll move pretty swiftly now to wrap up this phase of development, and arrive over the next couple of weeks at a traveling demo set (plug-in base station + card) we can pack in a Pelican case and bring to see our development partner. Beyond that comes the selection of a production vendor, and a significant round of optimization and refinement.

- A quick report on the mini-fieldtrip we took the other day to the BMW Guggenheim Lab on Houston Street at Second Avenue:

The structure itself, by longtime faves Atelier Bow Wow, strikes me as just about the closest thing to a built Fun Palace any of us are likely to experience (albeit one of suitably miniature, central-Tokyo proportions). The thing is basically all infrastructure: an openwork assemblage of carbon-fiber girders and tracks capable of transforming, over an impressively tight timeframe, from a congenial discussion pit into a mess hall into a tidy box locked up against the night.

Between ABW’s craft, and the constant presence of a well-trained Guggenheim staff attending to the needs of the changing program, the Lab neatly circumvents the all-too-familiar dynamic whereby a nominally “multifunctional space” winds up an entirely none-functional space. It seems to support a nice range of program activities comfortably, and to use all the tricks the structure has up its carbon-fiber sleeve in so doing.

But it’s precisely the programming I’m less certain of. BMW’s marketing department will likely be pleased — and their counterparts at the Guggenheim miffed to a similar degree — by the fact that, in my hearing anyway, the Lab has invariably been referred to as “the BMW thing on Houston.” Nobody I know is quite sure what to make of it, nor what it’s “for,” nor what will happen to the site when the structure decamps for other cities — and that includes the many folks we know who have been invited to present there. Anything this ambitious needs time to find its authentic voice, and I’m just not sure enough time has elapsed yet for that to have happened.

In fact, there’s a lot about the project that makes me wonder if it mightn’t have been better off as a permanent installation — something that through the summer months, anyway, would function as a standing venue for small-group presentations and discussions. I understand this particular set of interventions wasn’t designed that way, but a strategy of allowing the structure and its uses to have grown into the site seems like it would have given the package due time to find a genuine place in the city, maybe even become something like a real platform for the kinds of civic discussions the program merely alludes to now.

At any rate, totally worth swinging by, if you happen to be in downtown Manhattan. The caliber of contributors is for the most part pretty high, and if you’re reading this I’m sure you’ll find plenty of interest in the physical structure and social interactions it supports.

- A quick heads up that, in addition to giving a talk at this year’s PICNIC Festival, I’ll be joining the anycitywhatever event that Ben Hammersley and Juha van t’ Zelfde are running concurrently with the main event. I’m excited to be appearing alongside folks like Michelle Kasprzak and Senseable City Lab’s Carlo Ratti — and, of course, if Juha and Ben are at the helm I’m reasonably certain we’re all in for a good time.

I’ve also accepted an invitation to speak at Moscow’s Strelka Institute for Media, Architecture and Design immediately thereafter, subject only to the usual visa hassle. Moscow! More details about that latter talk forthcoming, i.e. as I get them.

- Logistics: Mayo is in the UK; J.D.’s still working his way up to the city; and Leah, Jeff and I can be found in the studio just ’bout every day, doing that thing we do. See you next week.