Mobile Makes Its Way Into Art

Newfangled devices like mobile phones are often dismissed by old-school cultural elitists with disdain, while more forward-thinking types see them as a way to draw the wider public into the arts. A couple stories have popped up along that front. First, in Edinburgh, researchers have created a system that displays “invisible art” on some of the city’s buildings when people take cameraphone pictures of them and send them in to a service called Spellbinder. It’s pretty cool sounding, and encourages people to interact with the city and their environment.

It’s about using a camera phone as a magic wand,” said Dr Mark Wright of the Division of Informatics at the University of Edinburgh who came up with the idea.

At the heart of Spellbinder, as the project is known, is a database of all the places that participants have added data to. People query it by taking a snap of a location with their phone then using multimedia text messages to send it to Spellbinder.

Dr Wright said powerful image-matching algorithms are used to analyse the image that can deal with snaps of the same place being taken under different lighting conditions or orientations.

Once Spellbinder has worked out the location of an image it consults the database and sends back an image with the extras added to it.

The other story is a personal one: I was in LA a few weeks ago, and went along to the Museum of Contemporary Art there. As you entered the galleries, along with the brochures about the exhibitions, they had a simple sheet with a phone number and a list of codes corresponding to the different works and artists. This was something of a replacement for the audio guides museums often have, as instead of walking around with a speaker held to your ear, you just called the number on your mobile and punched in the relevant code, then you got more information about the works, usually from the curator or the artist.

That’s not particularly groundbreaking (and I’m sure it’s not new), but it’s novel, and I thought, quite cool. The content is free apart from the cost of the call to a standard number, which is a minimal barrier given the low cost of mobile service here in the US. And even if the company is giving up some revenue by not renting out the audio guide devices, it’s gaining more flexibility and it’s opening the content up to a very wide audience. The content is also available as a podcast or download, but by using the phone system, they don’t have to worry about making users aware of it beforehand so they can put it on their media player. They simply fall back to the simple voice call, the most widely compatible mobile service of all.

I’m fairly isolated from the wider art scene here in Las Vegas — does anybody else have some interesting examples of how art and mobile are interacting?

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