OurTube: Socially-controlled mobile urban cameras

23 September, 2009

OurTube on the street

Imagine a camera, loose in the city, mobile, controlled by the people and connected to the web. It's in a battle-hardened case, protected from the elements and the various urban predators. It's heavy, solid metal. But also somehow cutely human-scale: purse dog-sized. You see it skittering down the sidewalk, lurching left and right and forward, pointing its cyclops eye at interesting things. Then, whenever a crowd gathers to leer at something, you notice that more of them are around, like squirrels gathering around a fallen bag of peanuts.

Fantasy Device: mobile social-controlled web cam

Each camera is a simple tripod. Two forelegs point the camera up at interesting things and a back leg pushes against the ground. Each leg has a pneumatic actuator that can thrust the camera either forward, left, or right. Letting it lurch and veer around its environment. An invisible antenna connects it to the ubiquitous urban wifi that saturates the city. And hence you can log into its web interface to see what it sees and participate in its control.

Its controls are simple. Around the live web-cam view, you have buttons to trigger each of the three pneumatic pistons: one to push it forward, one left, one right. Each camera's URL is public and universally accessible. Once you've created an account and logged in, you can participate in controlling any given camera. Want to know if there's a long line at your favorite coffee shop? Use the site's map to find the closest camera, click through to its page, and drive it over. Since anyone can control any camera at any time, if other people have other ideas for this particular camera, you'll have to negotiate with them via each camera's chat interface. [Play with a mockup of the interface here.]

Cameras could make their way into interior spaces with special public import such as courts and legislative chambers to allow the remote public to monitor important civic events. But there would be a strong social stigma against capturing them and bringing them inside your own private home and a major disincentive to do so since they would remain visible and controlled by random strangers on the internet.

The OurTube cameras would be a new form of urban fauna, socially-controlled and rendering the city remotely visible and interactive. As the system evolved additional sensors and actuators might be added to the units to make them better able to control and observe their environments; APIs might be developed to allow programmatic control and coordination between cameras via software. At their best they could become a platform for coordinated creative development of civic life and urban space.