Ocean Search

This page outlines the basic process and results of my graduation project, and hints at what I've learned through it. A more extensive report on the project can be downloaded below, more extensive reflections on my developments over the past semester can be found under 'About me'.

With this project a vision on a future way of living is explored through a combination of design and research. Although design is in essence about the future, since we don't design things that are here already, research is generally based on observations of the current or the past, since it can't see into the future. At the core of this project therefore, lies a search for how these two factors that determine the education that it closes, Design and Research, can be combined to learn something about a possibly different future.

The future context that it aims to explore is defined as 'Liquid Living', which I am currently trying to experience at first hand. It is a personal view based on a number of trends currently happening in society and technology, and looks at a future in which we construct our own identities, through mediated connections, in a place loose from location. In order to address this abstract future way of living, a relevant and current day design case is found in 'Ocean Search'. This is a large project initiated in Sweden, involving different partners, running over a long period of time. It creates a platform for oceanic data collection and communication.

Liquid living
This is a personal view on a future way of living that I am excited about. Over the last years I have always been drawn to new places, unfamiliar and far away. However, I can still keep an eye on the place where I was born from my current kitchen window. This tension between the familiar -with many personal relations to people and places- and the exciting, free and open, has been prominent in my life and I believe it is relevant for many others. It triggered my interest in the way daily life can happen across borders and I feel somewhat estranged from the notion of a single 'home'.

Although the meaning of home is very personal, it seems to always be about a place, a location. Is still a proper definition in an age which wireless technologies and mobile connectivity seem to make us less dependent on fixed locations? At the start of the project three theoretical pillars to Liquid Living were defined, each from a different perspective: Networked Technologies, Liquid Identities and Hybrid Place.


Networked Technologies
Over the past decades, information technologies have become increasingly important for the way we live our lives. Their shrinking and the parallel rise of wireless technologies have allowed these technologies and the computing power they entail to be increasingly embedded in the world around us. The spread of new functionalities on continuously connected smart phones is one example in which e.g. the news, banking and our friends have become omnipresent, at least in some ways.

These trends are expected to continue and evolve towards a computing paradigms such as Ubiquitous Computing, Ambient Intelligence and the Internet of Things. In addressing these concepts, the concept of universal access is critical. That is, access at anytime, from anywhere and possibly through anything. We have already seen applications being developed within these paradigms that are currently entering the world around us; at work, at home and in public space. They use technologies such as GPS, RFID and AR and typically combine physical sensors and actuators, computed and networked digitally. Especially with the spread of smart phones equipped with a set of sensors and actuators and connected through mobile internet, many new functionalities have become omnipresent.

Liquid Identities
Bauman, Liquid Times (2007): "Social forms can no longer keep their shape for long, because they decompose and melt faster than the time it takes to cast them, and once they are cast for them to set."

With the rise of electronic, mobile communication devices, societal boundaries are blurring. The internet in specific has had a major influence on the weakening of divides in place, time and social roles. We can now work from home while joking on social networks that connect us to our friends, family and colleagues simultaneously and continuously. Now that many of our activities have become digital, we have identities in this digital place as well.

Sociologist Zygmunt Bauman uses the term 'liquid identity to describe this constantly changing state of being (Bauman, 2000). These modern identities are created by ourselves, not by the communities we live in. "We no longer unconditionally identify with the people we are with physically, or with the situation we are in" (Michiel de Lange, 2010). Having the freedom to make personal decisions regarding life we are thus automatically constructing an identity ourselves, whether intentionally or not.

Hybrid Place
Souza e Siva, Netlocality (2011): "Urban spaces are becoming hybridized, meaning they are composed through a combination of physical and digital practices."

Most humans seem to live their daily lives in certain patterns. Whether nomads following the same migratory routes every year, or city dwellers on their daily route to work. 'Amsterdam Realtime', a project by Esther Polak and Jeroen Kee followed participants' positions within the city, over time using realtime GPS tracking. It is an interesting example that visualizes these patterns beautifully. Although quite a recognizable map of the city emerges when tracks are combined, individual routes often seem to focus around a few places. This "tendency of people to spend the bulk of their time in only a few places they regularly frequent" is also recognized in research by González, Hidalgo and Barabási on human mobility patterns (2008).

Regular locations to be visited will probably include the home, school, work space, supermarket and possibly the homes of friends or relatives. We visit these places to fulfill certain needs that are currently available through the infrastructure of our built environment. Could we also fulfill some of these needs without such a resource intensive infrastructure? As more of our activities are becoming digital, we no longer have to be fixed to geographical locations.

Project Design perspective

Design Perspective
'Liquid Living' sums up these three theoretical pillars as described before: Networked technologies, Hybrid Place and Liquid Identities. It can be seen as the overlapping area in between these central themes. Although the three pillars have been described as loose entities here, the way in which they overlap will be different depending on the perspective taken. This perspective is the design case through which the liquid living concept will be explored and developed. Different contexts will fit in different ways, examples range from businessmen to immigrants to travelers. The Ocean Search project was eventually used as a design case from which to explore Liquid Living.

Ocean Search
Ocean Search is a large project initiated by Swedish ICT, partners include the Interactive Institute, Journeyman, The Swedish Polar Research Secretariat, Imego, Acreo and Stockholm Water Institute.

It aims to visualize the oceans around the world through user-driven data collection and storytelling. The project aims to take the essential data gathering process beyond expensive research vessels and use the enormous fleet of sailors interested in the oceans much like space enthusiasts (pro-ams) helped astrologers to map the universe when telescopes became affordable to a wider public.

The idea is to create a kit of sensors that measure different values of water quality that can be installed on regular sailing boats. As sea sailors travel around the oceans they will collect data for oceanic researchers to use. These researchers are depending on data from specific research vessels, which are very expensive to run. As a result, these vessels can -by no means- gather the amount of data required to research the ecosystem that takes up 75% of our planet, and find out more about the ways in which we affect it.

The second aim is to raise awareness on the state of our oceans with a wider audience through a more accessible and visual public interface to the platform. All oceanic data are currently gathered through specialist tools. Whether through vessels, buoys or satellites, the whole process takes place far from the everyday lives that seem to have a devastating effect on this essential ecosystem. Using the personal story of the sailors that actually connects to the context of these data as they collect them, the platform makes the data more relevant. In that sense it is also a research communication project.

My Role
For the duration of my project, the Ocean Search project is in a pilot phase. The first test platform is Journeyman, a sixty foot sailing cruiser. It will set sail in the summer of 2011, with the first set of sensors on board, some of which are specifically designed for this project by a technical partner within Ocean Search. The work described here, done as part of my graduation project, is focused on the way communications between the different stakeholders could happen through such a platform. The design efforts can be seen as an exploration of interesting directions and an initial iteration of what will become the platform setup. During the development of the pilot this has not yet been a focus, but this will become important in phases of the project to come.

As part of the Liquid Living project, the main focus within these communications is with the sailor and the interface through which he/she connects to the outside world. It is the sailor that lives an extreme example of the future ways of living described in Liquid Living, yet happening today. Although the physical location of the sailor is literally loose, the communication requires him/her to be actively focused on connecting to the rest of the world, through networked media.

Context, Design Space
Although I had come to the theme of Liquid Living from a personal perspective, the context of Ocean Search was completely new to me. It can be good to look at a subject from a distance but to be of any relevance it is important to have a basic idea of how things work, in this case in the world of sea sailing. I quickly developed a birds eye perspective on the context of this project framing sailing life in general, related projects and possible directions. These were developed through a series of speculative DESIGN PROPOSALS. These were still loose ideas based on naive understandings of the sailing reality in relation to research and storytelling. To develop a coherent and complex platform in which different people with different motivations, backgrounds and actions come together, more experienced people are required.

Through a workshop the three main stakeholders were involved: an oceanic researcher, a sea sailor and a 'public' with a basic interest in the ocean. My initial ideas were translated in POSSIBLE SITUATIONS that the participants could relate to from their own experiences. In confronting them with these options, different needs and drives of the participants in such situations were discussed. Next, they were guided to collectively get to a scenario, in which they would all benefit from the transactions. With each of the main parties represented and critically assessing the scenarios on being interesting for them to join in, the project could focus on the design of an actual platform.


The platform consists of a central marketplace where ideas can cross-pollinate and discussions between locals, researchers, sailors, educational institutes etc. Can take place. It is a marketplace for knowledge sharing and action. Here they can influence each other and bring their agendas closer together. This online platform reaches these people trough different profiles.

On this marketplace specific 'projects' can be formed. This happens when specific parties agree on a collaboration based on matching agendas, interest and trust. In the following example scenario, this 'project' concerns a specific oceanic eddy. A group of researchers is involved because they study that part of the ocean, the sailor and reserve manager are involved because of their own location. As the researchers need to be there quickly, they approach a sailor in the area, which they found through the online marketplace. The project might also catch the attention of another expert that is specialized in this phenomenon.

On a satellite image [4]of an offshore area, scientists discover a region of unusually high primary production, which appears to be related to an unusually large oceanic eddy. The scientists are interested in getting a snapshot of water characteristics as well as estimates of nutrients and to actually measure the primary production (to verify the measurements taken from satellite). They also want information about the presence of other organisms such as fish, seabirds and marine mammals, which may use this unusual structure as a feeding 'hotspot'. Also, since these eddies often trap debris, local marine reserve managers are worried that an oil slick from an oil tanker that just cleaned its tanks in the vicinity will get trapped in the eddy and cause disturbance to the animals drawn to this feeding hotspot.

Next to the sensor data that come in during this trip, the sailor also captures the 'context' trough video, things that are not necessarily visible on the sensor readings, but that might catch the attention from aboard a boat. The short movie clip at the top of the page is an example of such material, resulting from a trip organized in the previous scenario.

Within the platform the focus was on the sailors interface, since this is where the ocean search case becomes relevant to Liquid Living. Next to a more general interface based on a screen, a physical interface specifically aimed at the sailor was developed. The scenario as described above is used as a context in which to place this interface.

It is a monocular which can project the data gathered and the data still to be gathered in addition to recording a contextual layer of data through photo and video. It uses augmented reality to add the digital information related to the otherwise empty ocean around the sailor to his/her physical surroundings. Through prototyping the interface was taken on board a boat and developed through step by step use. An exhibition set up mimics the experience of being at open sea, taking the experience of using the interface to a different context.