A process of fine-tuning digital gadgets to make our cocooned home life even more curious produced six prototype mini machines that were given to volunteers to road test. After around two months the volunteers were visited by film-makers who knew nothing of the innovative gadgets and a short film was made of the experience that was to be had living with these brand new toys. The resulting films are now showing on loop at Science Oxford, with a montage documenting the stages of the design process. Sketchpads are stacked up in size order, personal jottings are pinned up and associated research is stacked on the floor in a giant mixed media collage.
In the filmed interviews, volunteers generally state that they were initially cautious of the gadgets as they were not something they were in control of. For example, ‘Local Barometer’ looks similar to a mp3 player but instead relays data taken from the neighbourhood's information highway. The scrolling text on the small screen advertises an apparently random selection of cars for sale, pets needing re-homing and rooms for rent. The question of whether the machines fit in with the volunteers’ life or whether the volunteers adapt their lives to fit around the device is an open one. The portable ‘History Tablecloth’ tackles this question best. The solid plastic sheet sits on a young couple’s kitchen tabletop and lights up areas where plates, books and other objects are placed. A digital tessellation forms as the couple is filmed living their life around the table. Sparkling floral patterns emerge and glow in a reassuring way at night. Another prototype allows a volunteer living in the Heathrow flight path to make an advantage of the location by using the ‘Plane Tracker’ technology. ‘Drift Table’ is a coffee table with a small square section cut out that is lit with an image of British landscape. The pressure placed on the table from items left there determines the geographical location of the landscape displayed.
Emotional benefits are gained by using ‘Key Table’, a psychologically useful barometer of mood. As the person places keys, purses or bags on a small entrance hall table, the quality of movement is registered in the angle of a picture frame. The frame falls at an angle should keys be dumped down heavily, indicating a temperament that friends and family should be cautious of. The table is linked to a wall-mounted frame depicting a cute dog and this increasingly endears itself to the volunteer. However, ‘Home Health Horoscope’ becomes less palatable to its volunteer as time wears on. The horoscope hands out behavioural recommendations in the form of a till receipt, offering tips such as 'slow down', which become less welcome as time passes.
A question raised in the film is whether we should describe these prototypes as art, technology or tools. The technology is phenomenal and the tool applications are definitely commercial (even though marketability is not part of the brief) - but ‘The Curious Home’ is an exhibition primarily about recording people’s experiences of these gadgets, and for this reason it is surely art.