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Black Box: Invoked Computing

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Here’s a way to ease off the carbon: retrofit everyday objects as well as buildings, writes Rory Olcayto

If you could use your antique 1918 Underwood typewriter and Louis XIV-style mirror to Google or tweet from your living room, rather than your beige Packard Bell, you would. I’m taking that as a given, whether you’re a Postmodernist, Metabolist or even a Gothic Revivalist. Thing is, with Invoked Computing, you can. Sustainability has found its killer app: why make new things when we can retrofit everything we already have?

Invoked Computing (IC) is a pervasive computing technology that changes household objects into communication devices. Developed by Alvaro Cassinelli and Alexis Zerroug at the University of Tokyo, two proof of concept prototypes were demonstrated at Tokyo’s Digital Content Expo last year. The first turned a banana into a telephone and the second saw an old pizza box used as a laptop. Magritte would love it. 

It’s all based on gesture. If you swipe a banana to your ear, local ambient computing recognises the action and uses parametric speaker arrays (Google it) to make sound apparently emerge from the banana. It’s the same deal with the pizza box; open it like a laptop and video and sound are projected onto the cardboard. IC inverts our relationship with tools: instead of having to master a device, IC tailors them to suit your behaviour.

IC is an outgrowth of Ubiquitous Computing (UC), a term coined by Silicon Valley visionary Rich Gold, whose 1993 essay, This is not a Pipe, described the speculative technology as ‘an enchanted village in which common objects have magically acquired new abilities’. It also recalls Richard Brautigan’s 60s beat poem All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace (I like to think (right now, please!)/of a cybernetic forest/filled with pines and electronics/where deer stroll peacefully/past computers/as if they were flowers/with spinning blossoms.)

IC is the punkier version of the UC, which so closely resembles Brautigan’s hippy future. Design critic and sci-fi author Bruce Sterling is convinced. He blogged on Wired, ‘I’m pretty much buying this vision of future computation, not because it’s all fubar sci-fi awesome, but because it’s so plausible and, most of all, cheap.’ Sterling calls it sustainability’s killer app. ‘You’ve got no material footprint. You’ve got a recyclable cardboard pizza box to your name, basically.’

It’s the next step in our deepening relationship with the past. ‘Maybe writing on a typewriter is more efficient than using an iPad. IC gives you the opportunity to use what you know best and continue to use it, even if it doesn’t work any more,’ Cassinelli told the Observer. ‘It’s like having an old car you like very much; you don’t want to throw it away but there are no spare parts to repair it. Never mind – let’s just make it work from the outside. It’s using powerful resources to make things live again.’

The future is cheap. The future is vintage. The future is a banana retrofit.



Here’s a snapshot of Robin Lee Architecture’s latest project: a live/work tower and podium block in Peckham, one of six schemes designed during the AJ/Philips Peckham Charrette last week.

Its warehouse-style form and ‘stacked’ elevations draw upon the industrial buildings and ‘wholesale’ shops of nearby Rye Lane, whose shopfronts are hidden behind stacked goods. Constructed from locally sourced recycled brick, the facades incorporate a lighting strategy that frames each opening.

The tower is located on a car park site designated for residential use, where Peckham Rye Park blends with the townscape. Lee, chose to work within Southwark Council guidelines during the day-long event. ‘It’s a gateway building, marking the entrance to Rye Lane,’ he said.

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