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The daft and delightful Ommatidium

An ingenious digital installation that lets you use your smartphone in a new way

Tom Chatfield | September 21st 2015

Head to 243 Old Street in London from September 25th, and you’ll see something beautiful and eye-boggling with an unhelpfully abstract name: the Ommatidium. It's 4.5 metres of street light topped by an insectoid parasol of 1,500 crystal lenses. During the day, these lenses will turn sunlight into refracted rainbows. By night, LEDs will provide illumination. The installation comes courtesy of the London Design Festival—but, this being Old Street (aka “Silicon Roundabout”), it’s as much digital craft as engineering that’s on show.

This is because the Ommatidium is both sculpture and information repository. Simply “catch” a “virtual drop of water”—as the London Design Festival website puts it—using an app on your smartphone or tablet, and you’ll unlock a nugget of local information: a map, an update from nearby people or companies, a transport tip; a historic photo, voucher, video, or free music. You can also leave such nuggets—sorry, droplets—for others to discover.

At this point you might detect a touch of cynicism. My smartphone is already a location-specific device. Strolling down Old Street poised to knock back several flat whites and talk loudly about innovation with a hirsute friend, I am already amply able to immerse myself in information about local bars, businesses and history. I don’t need a design installation to liberate me into a richly localised relationship with people or ideas.

Yet the Ommatidium (it takes its name from the compound eyes of insects: I just Googled it so you don’t have to) has an excellent point to make, and not simply because it’s a beautifully vernacular hunk of street furniture. What it wants to do is not so much set me free as constrain me. It wants to take the anything-anywhere-anytime freedom of my mobile device and bind it to a particular location: to standing rather than walking; to pausing rather than charging along face-in-screen; to an explicitly narrowed and serendipitous range of options, for a limited time, in one place.

For this, I am sincerely grateful. You may already have heard of the app, Traces, on which its information-retrieval system is based. Released to some acclaim a year ago by Beau Lotto—a neuroscientist at University College London who would go on to co-create the Ommatidium—Traces is an enticing blend of messaging service and treasure hunt. If I want to send a message via Traces, I must specify not only my content, but also the location you need to be in to access it—and how long it will be available there. Under the strapline “make your mark on the world,” it offers a beautifully liberating set of restrictions.

Within Traces, your default mailbox is a particular location where video, image and word gifts can be left for you. Messages appear in the form of bubbles on a map. To catch one, you enter the right zone and then manoeuvre your device while an onscreen arrow shows you where to capture a bobbing sphere overlaying your camera’s view. It’s daft, inconvenient and delightful: the inversion of a traditional inbox, where the screen pulls you away from wherever you are into a bright, flat rectangle that is precisely the same anywhere.

There’s an element of childhood games in this kind of messaging, together with something I value more and more in technology—an interest in the user as more than two abstracted eyeballs and a single jabbing finger. That is, as a fully human being: a mind, in a body, in a particular place, among particular people, processing the world not as a machine does but with all the strange biases of an embodied, emotional animal.

Take memory. In a machine, memory is a binary business of storage and retrieval. The faster and cleaner and larger it is, the better. In a human, memory is more akin to the exercise of muscles or talents. Friction is good: recall and understanding are intimately bound up with emotion, pauses and contrasts, variety and narrative form. When we remember, we don’t simply look and listen and file the world away. We build it into ourselves—and we transform it through the act of remembrance, carrying the store of our past in a perpetually reconfigured present.

This matters when it comes to human-machine interactions, because what’s good for them is not always what’s good for us—let alone best at helping us think, feel, debate, consider, connect and generally live as richly as we might wish. In their different ways, the Ommatidium and Traces seek to carve out qualities of time and attention that stand apart from the placeless flow of the screen. Try it. You may find yourself returning to technology—and to others beyond the screen—with more and stranger questions than you left behind.

The Ommatidium is at 243 Old Street London from September 25th until September 2016

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