Critical Design

HAL 4000 - Raising awareness

Ever walked around the streets and spotted all the surveillance cameras there are? In this project I reflect on how surveillance cameras could be designed so that people will start caring more about their every move being recorded.

Surveillance cameras are a commodity today. The UK, Orwell’s home country, has one surveillance camera for every 14 people. And this is just the tip of an iceberg. In modern train systems, for example, cameras are designed so they cannot be spotted easily. Usually they ought to give us a feeling of safety. Yet, getting ever more intelligent, the software running in the background can even detect objects and the people in front of it. Intelligent surveillance is on the rise. In this project I ask how a surveillance system has to be designed so that we start engaging with it. Bringing us to a point where we question mass surveillance as a whole.

Field observation

In a two-day field trip to London I observed the presence of surveillance equipment in public spaces and the people walking in front of it. CCTV in London is omnipresent and is not hiding away, instead, it is visible in plain sight. People on the other hand seem to ignore it. However, the moment I put up my own video camera, people started noticing. With many people glancing in my direction, some started talking to me, wondering why I was filming them. Yet, CCTV cameras were just as present.
Talking to people left me with an impression of why they felt uncomfortable being filmed by a person: The person directly confronts them with a camera at eye level; the person has consciousness and intelligence; the person has an unknown agenda and may use the video material for illegal or uncomfortable activities. It is very interesting that a surveillance system is seen as being dump, although there is people in the background, too. I started wondering how a CCTV systems can provoke similar reactions people showed toward me. With the three aspects in mind I developed a surveillance prototype.

Lo-fi physical prototype

A lo-fi prototype helped me understand the effect of having an artificial character. Using an Arduino, a microphone, a speaker and red LEDs, I built a surveillance box. The box simply run on a feedback loop: Once it recorded sound, it returned the amplitude as sound itself. The LEDs flickered and lit up with every sound fragment recorded. Yet, there was no long-time recording of video or audio material.

User observation

The prototype was perceived as having its own personality. People enjoyed speaking to the box and perceived its sound and light as affirmative feedback. Although all was based on a very simple feedback loop, people started wondering about the intentions of the box and what was going to happen to their recordings.

How to design HAL 4000?

The lo-fi surveillance box linked my undertaking to the Uncanny Valley Theory. It describes how a technological figure arouses a sense of unease in the person viewing it. I found that the sound had a very positive and affirmative effect, yet the red light caused revulsion in some people.

Final concept

I envisioned an experience in which the final product was somehow obtrusive, sparking a sense of unease to its viewer. This vision fundamentally guided both the interaction and the form of the final concept. The surveillance camera has a red eye at its center. Just like HAL 9000 in A Space Odyssey, and the lo-fi prototype, the eye seems to be a crucial part of accrediting a technology a sense of self awareness and personality. The concept can move quickly to detect people. Its body can be colored to fit into any scene. The interaction is very passive: One just has to move in front of the camera. Yet, the camera's feedback to such interaction feels intrusive. The concept shows how a camera may trigger awareness of surveillance. In addition, it gives hints on moving into the other direction, too: How could a camera be designed so it feels to be trustworthy?
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