Mobile Apps for Serendipity and Sound Gardens Connect City Dwellers to Their Surroundings

More than 1,000 users have downloaded UB professor's free app

Release Date: October 26, 2010

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Mark Shepard's award-winning Serendipitor mobile app helps users navigate city streets and maybe surprise themselves by following its additional instructions.

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- In an urban environment, how can technology cultivate a sense of community and connect us with the world around us?

Two new projects by University at Buffalo media architect and researcher Mark Shepard address that question, enabling city dwellers to leverage their cell phones as tools for discovery as they navigate city streets and other public spaces.

The first, Serendipitor, is a navigation app Shepard developed for the iPhone, iPad and iPod touch. The program is Google Maps with a twist.

Users enter an origin and destination, and adjust the complexity of the recommended route to fit their schedule and preferences. Serendipitor then generates step-by-step directions punctuated by surprising instructions: Pick a stranger and follow that person for a few blocks, for instance, or go to the nearest flower shop, buy a flower, and give it to a passerby.

More than 1,000 people have downloaded the free app, Shepard said. The program is one of seven nominees for the transmediale Award 2011, a prestigious digital and media arts award whose international jury received more than 1,000 submissions.

A second program Shepard created allows users of mobile devices to "plant" and "prune" sounds in WiFi hot zones, creating community sound gardens in urban spaces.

Shepard, an assistant professor of architecture and media study, has installed these Tactical Sound Gardens at museums, festivals and art events in cities in the United States, Europe and South America. In November, he will head to São Paulo, Brazil to work with a group of local sound artists to set up a sound garden as part of the Vivo ARTE.MOV festival.

"Mobile and other situated technologies are increasingly part of the material world that we move through," said Shepard, an editor of the Architectural League of New York's Situated Technologies Pamphlets Series. "Corporate interests, government and law enforcement agencies are taking advantage of these new technologies. But what are some of the other opportunities that exist for the future of urban space?"

Though iPhones, iPods and BlackBerrys often distance users from their direct surroundings -- think of the teenager who never travels without headphones, or the businesswoman checking e-mail over lunch -- Shepard's work demonstrates that mobile devices are not, by nature, isolating.

"The sound garden draws on the culture of urban community gardening to shape the sonic topography of cities in a collaborative way," Shepard said. "Serendipitor is more for the individual. It encourages you to look around you, to be more aware of your surroundings. It assists with navigation, but really, it's designed to help you find something by looking for something else."

Serendipitor, Shepard said, facilitates encounters and experiences that users could never have pre-planned. He exhibited the app this month at the Art Center Nabi in Seoul, Korea, and developed the program this summer as an artist-in-residence at V2_ Institute for the Unstable Media in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, as part of a joint residency with Eyebeam Art + Technology Center in New York.

But while the goal is to create a more intimate connection between people and their environment, Shepard notes that Serendipitor raises an ironic question: In the digital age, he asks, "What does it mean for society when we have to download a mobile phone app for serendipity?"

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