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— urbantick

October 2009 Monthly archive

How do we create mental maps? In a story the New Scientist reports new development in the area of brain studies. The research was presented in nature in September 2009.
Over this question scientist have long speculated. The involved brain areas have long been identified, but the how was still subject for debate. Apparently the region in the brain is called hippocampus. The problem so far was that recording the activity required the subject’s head/brain needed to remain fairly stable and this is not possible for normal navigation. The New Scientist reported earlier initial findings related to the brains spatial navigation activities.
Reportedly after paying Quake II researchers came up with the idea of using a virtual reality surrounding for the experiment to record brain activity while navigating.
Researchers at Princeton University developed a Quake based VR environment for rodents as well as a special navigation ball on which the rodents could run (in a stabilizing harness to keep them relatively still) and navigate the VR maze. Basically they created a mini IMAX for the mouse, reports wired.com.
They were the able to scan the mouse’s brain activity as it learned to navigate the maze. Some treats along the way helped I guess.
However, there is little information on what they have actually found. At the moment the main interest seems to be the technique how they used to record the brain activity, so mainly the VR for mice set-up. It looks fancy though.

In these experiments scientists are not really interested in how and what the brain records and how participants (in this case mice) actually understand the maze or the environment they have navigated. Here they simply assume that this is taking place. They are talking about a mental map but are just looking at activity as ‘space’ is navigated. To some extend this is only implicit looking at how the memory and sense of place is building up. History is always biased by the fact that it is in the past and it is remembered back from a present state that might be rather different from the past and this influences the way the memory is recalled. Some sort of processing is taking place and the result is a weighted remembering. Through this the history has a present relevance, but is not ‘true’. In this respect the mental map as a review of the maze experience is probably a rather different case than the activity of navigating it. Let’s wait and see how scientist interpret the rodent’s sketch of the maze…

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New development on the navigation gadget front. This time it comes from Microsoft and that is in it self a bit surprising. So far the company has not been closely linked with navigation. In general they are trailing behind everyone, generally trying to improve the stuff other have developed and promoted. In this sense this ‘new’ development has to be looked at.
The research featured as an article on Technology review this week where its chef researcher Billy Chen introduces us to the concept. They are using video for driving directions. Instead of Google Street View, they are playing video recordings of the route in Microsoft Virtual Earth. The research is partly about the recording and synchronising of the map a video, but partly also about the influence of this method for direction instructions. The results of course claim that the animated instructions enable participants to find the route easier, with 70% to 60% for participants who were instructed only with image (Google images I presume).

Image by Microsoft – (a) Original spacing of panoramas. (b) Final spacing of video frames, after slowing down at landmarks/turns and speeding up between. (c) Straight ahead orientation. (d) Final orientation with look ahead. (e) Widening the view and freezing the landmark thumbnail.

However, the paper written about the project can be found HERE. It has to be noted, that it i not simply a replayed clop. An important feature of the software is the way it focuses on landmark and guides the users view files. It is not a passive record that has just followed the movement. Rather it is a carefully calculated section of the 360 Degree recording. Through this movement emphasis is put on certain aspect along the route, say a landmark. This means that the route somehow has to be processed and interpreted. How quickly and with what kind of system the software can be rolled out is not clear,         

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Former old map app has transformed and teamed up with a large library and is now Historic Earth. The old map app featured earlier this year on the bog with a review and now we want to look back, previous post HERE.
The really big change is the data, the app now has in the background. It draws the data from Historic Map Works a huge database of maps, containing some 1’000’000 maps including United States Property Atlases, Antiquarian Maps, Nautical Charts, Birdseye Views, Special Collections (Celestial Maps, Portraits, and other historical images), Directories and other text documents. Their main business is to provide high quality images of old maps to researchers and map enthusiasts. The main focus is North America, but they stock and increasing number of world maps and others. This means for now that the iPhone app also only covers North America. But this is changing, they have a visual counter on their web page to demonstrate how they are making progress both, increasing the service for the iPhone and geocoding maps in general. The aim is to offer some 130’000 maps in the next month. You can follow them on twitter to check on the status. For facebook lovers here is the fan page.

Image by urbanTick – Screenshot, looking at the Los Angeles Bay area over different times.

The iPhone app is probably aiming at map enthusiasts mainly really. As for research one probably wants’ more specific access to the data. However the app serves a fascination and is very addictive. It is developed by Emergence Studios as was the old map app. It is introduced as “Historic Earth allows you to map the history of cities, times, buildings and landmarks. View historic maps showing property owners, see buildings constructed and replaced, and watch the landscape change over time.”
The app is using OSM for the background to reference the layers to the modern map of the location. The overlay, the base can be adjusted in its transparency with a slider, normal gestures as known from Google maps are used to navigate the map. Once in the actual map window it is great you flip between times with the arrows provided and watch the area change. The trouble really is to get into, as the menu is not intuitive and there is for example no link between the map showing the covered area and the actual historic map.
However once figured out that in the settings the “lock frame when switching maps” switch is set to on it is a real pleasure to browse.
Not only the area changes, but also the representation techniques and focus of the maps. In this respect it is also a documentation of a changing space perception.
It is a bit slow to load here in London, I suppose this is down to all the 32’000 maps have to squeeze into the tube to get across the big blue : ) But the frustrating thing is not that it is slow (I don’t mind waiting for interesting content), but there is no indicator that something is actually happening. Usually while loading the screen only displays the, sort of, old paper background, but no progress bar or indicator of any sort. It is also one of the very few apps to choose not to display any information of the usual top bar with basic iPhone stats, like quality/type of connection, time and battery life. So there is no way you can tell the device is actually doing something and this has, at least for me, been very irritating I have to admit.
But sure enough, this is the first release of the app (if you don’t count the previous one) and as usual there are some things that just had to be done quickly in the end, but can easily be solved and improved in a following update. The main thing is the quality of the interface and the value of the data available. For both of these points the app scores very high!
You can get it for some £3.49 from iTunes.

Image by urbanTick – Screenshot, settings, coverage and menus

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It is here, finally for the iPhone. Layar is available and with it a whole series of information packages. There is nothing new on it, but the way it is visualised is new. You get familiar stuff like Wikipedia, Open Street Map, ArchINFORM, Twitter, Panoramio, flickr, Brightkite plus a lot more. There is a high chance that the library will grow dramatically in the next few months. Currently there are a lot of services from Japan as layers available, as well as from the Netherlands. An up to date list of Layar layers can be found HERE.
Layar is basically the browser that visualises the data provided by individual companies offering a specific service. Download the app for your iPhone here.
So lets have a look at how it looks and feels, by testing some services around CASA.

Image by urbanTick – Screenshots, Depending on the angel, Layar adjusts the horizon line of the overlaid plane that serves as a reference for the displayed data.

The reference information is drawn from the GPS / Wi-Fi / Network to establish the current location. The compass built in to the iPhone give the direction of the phone. Layar provides a grid plane to locate the information and presumably give a better sense of depth. The icons used to represent the information are rather simple, a circle, a square, … The interaction with these objects is limited to select them. It turns out that this is a difficult task at times. One because it is a rather small area of the screen that is available for the actual AR display (the rest is cluttered with backup information) and two because the icons are overlapping one another and are obviously displayed even smaller if they are further away from the present location. However there is a automatic selection that works fine if there are only one or two items on the screen and by moving the iPhone you can alter between them, but as soon as you get more items the sensitivity of the compass can not keep up with the millimeter differences between the items.

Image by urbanTick – Screenshots, Brightkite layer on Layar

The top bar holds a setting button that contains a number of options related to the service. For example the range/distance within results are displayed can be adjusted. The second bar on the top allows to switch between a map, a list and the AR mode, here called reality, WOW! Additional information for each selected item is displayed in the box below. It also provides a link to the displayed contend at its original location on the web. Meaning, Layar is really just a window to search for stuff. In this respect it could increasingly compete with Google and this raises the question why Google has not yet developed their own service or when they will buy Layar?
Well at this point is still a very crude application with a rather cluttered and ugly interface, crappy icons and not very intuitive handling. But you know it is a first stab at a commercial platform to display location based information projected onto reality though the lens of a camera and this is exciting enough.
How beautiful and simple this could look like was shown by acrossair, it was reviewed in an earlier post HERE.

Image by urbanTick – Screenshots, London Tube, not as nice as Nearest Tube, but with additional information that it links to.

Image by urbanTick – Screenshots, Panoramio as the Layar layer, link page and panorama on the web.

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In term sof the environment we live in there is alot of hidden function, that we are not aware of at times. Normally we do not want to know about everything that is going on in the city and a lot of them can not be seen from the everyday perspective. Still the city machine is rumbling and rotating: in the air, behind the block, around the corner and underneath our feed.
A intriguing visualisation developed as an ad for the metro madrid by lahuellafx

Metro de Madrid: “Transparente” from Shinichiro Matsuda on Vimeo.

same approach used for an ad for foxsportsdesign this time for an HD sports channel.

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The origin of cities has been subject of an earlier post with a clear focus on cycles. For an additional post here the starting point is quite a different one. It is the book History of Urban Form – Before the Industrial Revolutions“ by A.E.J. Morris in the third edition. A book of facts and old school history, interpreting the subject rather functional and with a pretend objectivity.
However it is a very popular book and as the third edition demonstrates, able to maintain its popularity over more than twenty years. The first edition was published in 1972.
From the book by Josef H. Reichholf titled “Warum die Menschen sesshaft wurden” the idea of rites and routines where directly involved in the creation of the first settlements and later the creation of the city. In the HUF (History of Urban Form) is acknowledging that the early history of human settlements is still being written, the description blurs early cities/settlements into early cultures such as Aztecs, Maya, Egyptian/Mesopotamia, Greek/Roman or Islamic culture. However, the description in the book starts much earlier in the human history, somewhere in the Neolithic Age when humans are believed to be, in the words of the publication “…on much the same basis as any of the other animals, by gathering naturally occurring foodstuff…” (p 3). Fro this assumed nomadic life (I am not sure this would not necessarily imply a nomadic live, some animals do live a territorial life) the humans moved on, around 14000 BC to live in caves. Suddenly, settling is possible, but I assume this is what the archeological evidence is telling us. This is presented a shift in the concept of living, an improvement over the nomads to settle down in a cave. The logical step to follow this shift is the cultivation of plants around 8’000 to 10’000 years ago and successive the domestication of animals. Logic because it is believed that a settled live would make it necessary to source food locally and this food stock would need to be maintained through out the year. This is then famously described “The escape from the impasse of savagery was an economic and scientific revolution that made the participants active pattern with nature instead of parasites on nature” (by Childe? in What Happened in History)
The book moves then on to describe the “Fertile Crescent” as introduced by J Breasted (1935) in Ancient Times. Some 3000 years of slow development later villages are believed to be established and the first introduction of cities comes at the beginning of the Bronze Age. It follows a statement by Gideon Sjoberg (1965) in The Origin and Evolution of Cities as follows: ”a community of substantial size and population density that shelters a variety of non agricultural specialists, including a literate elite.“ This description is trying to articulate that again a shift is taking place and no longer everyone is responsible for her/his own food, but some sort of specialisation took place and exchange of goods between these specialists is invented.
For this development, the book lists a number of necessary steps to be taken. Named first is the production of surplus food and the storage of such, as well as other materials that would be needed by the specialists, as named before. Then follows the listing of science achievements such as writing,, mathematics, and astronomy. Only in a third set of additional achievement social organisation, is listed. And it is only named in the context of ”to ensure continuity of supplies to the urban specialists and to control labor forces for large-scale communal work…“ Mumford is then quoted to state that these requirement where roughly met by around 3000 BC. Surprisingly social organisation is not examined as a structuring of a large group of individuals beyond the family or clan structure what could be some sort of early politics.
However none of these factors are then explored in more detail and none of them feature as defining in the chapter on the actual creation of the urban form. To be fair all of them are addressed in neat row, one after the other, but not as a determining element, but rather a feature of the city. Almost in the sense that the city made this possible or it is a ”function“ of the city. It goes from topography, climate, material, economic, political, religious, pre-urban cadastre, defense, aggrandisement, gridiron, mobility, aesthetics, legislation, infrastructure, social/religious/ethnic groupings and leisure, Anyway there would be a nice example for each of them, but overall it represents clearly a time of thought, the eighties, were everything was neatly divided, separated and isolated to be investigated and then in the exact same state presented. As if the city is made of bricks.
To summarise this short introduction to the history of urban form as it were, one could say ”it somehow happened“. Out of all these objective descriptions of analysis no clear thread emerges along that the evolution cold be examined.
The book continues to examine the form of cities. Moving from early settlements examples like Jericho and Catal Huyuk to Jerusalem and UR quickly to the Greek City State. Here examples of Miletus, Priene and of course Athens are provided. In this section the defense mechanism of the city are present, but not dominate. This, however, changes in the following section of Rome and the Empire. The examples here strongly build on the ideal construction of the military base camp, the army castra. The idea of the wall and the strong grid are dominant through out the description of the roman city. This pre conception of ”the City“ as the wall and the grid stands in the way of examining the city form from multiple angles. There are very little references to trade, production or everyday life for example religion. The problem of food production and food storage was earlier put as the main problem of urban settlements, but have, surprisingly, ever since not features as a defining element of city form. If it was, and presumably still is in cities today, this aspect must be considered while defining the urban form. As a consequence of this the city can not be defined as the grid and the wall, but would need to include the relationship to the surrounding fields for food production as well as, in terms of typology, the locations and types of food storage should be added to the examination of climate impacts.
As the book progressed through to the medieval Towns there appears to be a big break. The collapse of the Roman Empire also led to the collapse of a lot of roman founded cities. Some of them would be rebuild as medieval towns. However, of course some large and regional significant settlements manage to maintain its base, such as London or Verona. The installed structures by the Roman Empire where neglected through out and the sophisticated road network for example vanished. This meant for medieval times that there was no reliable way to distribute products in bulk. The solution was to establish transport on waterways. Surprisingly Morris states her: ”Neither the location of medieval towns nor their form was significantly affected by industry“ (p 96). Even though he continues to analyse the typology of medieval town houses as a place combining living and working.
The medieval city wall continues to be the defining element of urban form. Even though in Britain the wall was, in the 14th century, not a significant military need due to the state of peace within the island. However the wall was used to clearly state boundaries to for example impose a tax on good coming through the city gates.
There is as an intriguing beauty about the medieval town. It probably derives from a constructed clarity of dominant elements. Apart fro the wall, there is a church, as market place and a town hall. Sir Patrick Abercrombie’s favorite as it appears was Furnes in Flanders, a pretty business town in 1590. But again the connection to the outside is formally not considered. It appears in some example in the form of a port that implies some sort of trade.
Also new elements in the description are aspects of urban design that are mixed into the description of urban form. A nice example is Telc, which after a devastating fire the town had to be rebuilt. An unknown designer had for this reconstruction used a musical allegory. This results in a pretty facade bordering the main market space drawing mainly from its uniformity, while integrating individuality to great extent.

Image Google Earth – Telc historic centre with distinct market place

The Renaissance the emphasizes once more on the military defense structures, mainly in mainland Europe, especially Italy. Ideal structures are developed mainly with characteristically arrow wall extensions. Where as in medieval times the wall was designed to be the shortest and most efficient ways to surround the largest possible plot of land the defense strategies became much more sophisticated resulting in a very distinct urban form in the sense of a picture. These ideal towns like Palma Nova or Naarden became icons for the time with a dramatic impact on how towns are perceived. As a one of object, an artifact in itself. The idea of the city as an object remains through out the book.
In the context of how these cities have developed ever since again shows how interwoven, urban form and urban design in this approach are. Cities evolve and even if there are types of design elements are established the form evolves. Examples such as Copenhagen or Karlsruhe can illustrate these thought.

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Karlsruhe old/new)
Image from GHDI and Wikipedia Commons – Karlsruhe line drawing around 1739 and Karlsruhe today

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Image from Wikimedia Commons and Monash University – Copenhagen circa 1700 and Copenhagen today

The connection between travel pattern and morphology of the city is a topic of the research that has not been explored much yet.
A starting point could be the perception of space drawn from the UD interviews.
from UD txt – “Usually participants have quite a different perception of their spatial habits and will describe them at the beginning of the tracking as divers and spread over a large area of the city. The first few times they see the data they actually have collected, it is quite a disappointment to them to see that they follow a rather strong routine. Routine seems to be rather negative perceived and participants often would describe themselves as active, flexible and spontaneous implying a widely spread range of activities with a diverse movement pattern. To describe it they often refer to someone they think is very flexible or very inflexible just to provide for them selves an example of comparison. Routines and rhythm seem to be a not so much discussed subject but rather a topic people make a lot of assumptions.”
If individuality and flexibility, range of patterns and path are current values of our society, how would this influence and change the current development of the urban morphology? Would it be possible to conclude on current styles and designs or even the next ten years? Also retrospectively could the social values and the urban morphology be connected? Say the Victorian morphology, what would it say about the people of this times’ perception of habits and space?

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CoMob is an iPhone GPS tracking application developed at Edinburgh College of Art in collaboration with Edinburgh University. “The CoMob iPhone Application was developed as part of a research project exploring the creative use of collaborative GPS mapping.”
It is a simple tracking application that sends the location to a customisable server. It was designed for an art project presented at ISEA2009. Some images of the event can be seen on flickr here by jensouthern. The application determines the position and ends the information to a pre configured server. The update frequency is customisable as well as the server. You can change the server and for example send the location to your own server. It does not give you a visual feedback, all you can see is numbers. The interesting data is saved on the server.

Image from CoMob – Logos CoMob (red) and CoMob Net (blue)

The CoMob (in red) application has only recently received a sister application CoMob Net (in blue). It is built on the base of CoMob, but adds some group functionality and a visualisation using Google Maps. A group of iPhone users can use the application simultaneously and see the location of each group member on the screen. Locations are shown with a connection line between them producing shapes across the urban fabric. Usage is really simple, all you have to do is put in a user name and choose a name for the group. If joining an existing group simply type the name in the box provided and you’re linked up. Here too it is possible to customise the server to store the data.
So get your iPhone friends to come out into the streets and start mapping… Download CoMob or CoMob Net directly from iTunes here. You can then join our casa group by entering the name of the group to the settings page (lowercase and you have to hit return to verify the entry).

Image by urbanTick – Screenshots CoMob Net

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A brilliant Timelaps, stop motion, tilt shift, tracking movie. Actually it is an advertisement clip for a internet platform maptype.com. Unfortunately it is all in russian language so I am not on top of the information, I simply like it. It looks like some event site, with symbols for party locations, museums, theater venues, universities, shopping, eating and cinema locations. I assume the tracking in the clip refers to people going to these locations.

MapType from MapType on Vimeo.

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The online pool at flickr to collect mental maps from all over the world is slowly starting to take shape. I have just added some examples drawn at the mapping workshop down in Plymouth. So the pool has grown quite a bit and it is featuring mental maps from China, Caada, America, United Kingdom and Belgium.
I would also like to showcase some examples here. First there the sketch by devine74 with very detailed drawn landscape and building features.

Mental Map

And then there is also the beautiful map of a commute focusing on sound with the audio experience along the way. There is a big difference between the morning and the evening journey. This is illustrated through two sets with each a slightly different focus.


As before you can also join in and share you map sketch on:


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Some 25’000 visitors on urbanTick today… over actually!

urbanTick – Graph blog visits per hour, per day and per day per hour

The blog remain stable on the high numbers of visitors over the summer month. It started to increase in May and visitor numbers now are stable around 155 per day over the week.
Regarding the graph, it represents three sets of data in three rings. From inside to outside, he inner bit is the visits per day per hour. The big peaks are still around midday, mid afternoon and four in the morning representing the shift between Europe and America. The middle ring is representing the number of visits per day. Differences here between weekdays and weekends, where the mid week is still a bit between than the beginning and the end. Wednesday remains the most popular day, closely followed by Tuesday. The weekends generally have about half the visitors of these popular days, so it is a dramatic difference. The last ring is the total visits per hour. The peaks are mainly the same as last times, the overall line is smother however with less wiggles.
The topic of body and city as proposed was the topic for the summer and I am just finishing a working paper on this. Some stuff will of course also go on to the blog. A second working paper focusing on the urbanDiary project is also under way. Here a lot of bits and pieces have already featured on the blog, but some stuff is still to come.
I am currently working on my upgrade and will give a presentation, sort of a mini viva either next month or in December. For this I am trying to finish the two papers.
There is also a publication of this blog coming up. Having this platform for a year now, I am planning to publish extracts of it. For this I have joined up with a bunch of researcher working on related topics and they will contribute a short essay to each section. It is all under way and should be ready towards the end of the month. I don’t want to give a way too much of this but the structure of the publication will be roughly:
urbanDiary        urbanMachine        urbanNarrative        timeSpace        bodySpace        LocInfo        Review

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