When Matthew Mamo placed a cardboard marker in front of the iMac screen on the opening night of the Master of Fine Arts (MFA) in Digital Art degree exhibition held in Valletta recently, a map of the city the audience stood in reflected back at them as the artist moved the card gently from side to side.
As Mamo demonstrated the way in which his project functioned, the question on everyone’s lips centred upon the project’s role within society. What makes this application different from Google maps and other gizmos?
In a society suffocated by digital media and smartphone applications, readers have become accustomed to living in a world in which one cannot flip through a magazine or look at the wrapper of a chocolate bar without being presented with Quick Response (QR) codes. These apps not only allow users to track products, manage time and expose readers to even more marketing material, but QR codes can also be used to store bank account and credit card information.
So how will Mamo’s project contribute to society in a local context? His reply is one which encompasses the artist’s intentions for a project that engages the user with the application as well as with the city itself.
He says the idea behind the scheme initially stemmed from attempting to devise a way in which to increase the visibility and the accessibility of museums and other cultural institutions around Valletta. By making use of digital technology, Mamo’s contribution aims to supply users with the necessary information by absorbing the users themselves.
“Through the digital content itself, users can experience the project in two ways by moving their smartphone around.
“If you are scanning the marker from one side, it’s an advertisement or an image, and if you are looking at it from the other side, it’s a map. That way, you are getting people to move it around and have some fun with the project too,” he says.
The project, aptly named Dérive Valletta, stems from the central focus of deriving your mental state through your surroundings.
Mamo explains: “Dérive loosely translates to the act of self-discovery through walking, which is why I wanted the project itself to be interactive. If you’re doing something, like moving around an object with your smartphone to get to see this 3D content from every single possible angle, you’re actively engaged.” Dérive Valletta does not simply attempt to allow the environment to guide the user, it seeks to affect the user by what is going on around them.
Generating from his dissertation, Dérive Valletta was a way for Mamo to solve a problem in a practical manner. “The whole field of study from which the project is derived suggests that on a subconscious level, provided people are open to it, their path through any environment is affected by the environment itself.
I plan to get the project implemented by 2018. One of the main objectives is to create a cultural infrastructure not just within Valletta but Malta itself
“What if I can affect Valletta’s built environment in such a way to direct people towards museums?” Mamo found his answer by merging the cultural with technology.
“As it stands at the moment, you could walk across all of Valletta and not really know where the museums are. There is a signage system in place but it’s not exactly all that comprehensive, and it sort of gets lost in the rest of the city.”
The piece offers an insight into how the information available for tourists may be limited and how developments like this may in turn help improve tourism in Malta.
“I plan to get the project implemented by 2018. One of the main objectives is to create a cultural infrastructure not just within Valletta but Malta itself, and I feel the project could actually contribute as it helps share a lot of knowledge via digital means.”
The concept is attractive because it allows users to access information about the historic city by way of a new form of media which is readily available. By simply moving around their smartphones, users will be able to generate the coded information by a quick wave of the hand.
The increasing popularity of smartphones is evident, as Apple reports that in the last quarter of 2012 alone, the company sold 37.4 million iPhones.
The impact of the ability for users to access this information through their smartphones is obvious to Mamo, as he recognises the importance nowadays of having all the information you need accessible through one device.
Building his dissertation on such a concept, Mamo believes the next step for the application is architectural mapping. “Eventually I would like to actually move away from markers and start using the city’s architecture itself. I plan on using augmented reality technology that recognises windows and doors and uses them as a marker.
“So you could just point the smartphone at a building and have all this information about the building. The marker would be static on the wall, and you would access the information by moving around your smartphone.”
Initially, Mamo was going to try and use QR codes to advertise locations of the museums. But as Dérive Valletta started taking shape, he believed QR codes to be a bit static.
“It didn’t offer the kind of interaction with the city and the signage system itself I had wanted for the project. I started looking into augmented reality as an alternative because the technology works in a similar way to QR codes – you point your smartphone at a marker and information comes up.”
Augmented reality is fast becoming a central means of generating information by combining sensory input and computer technology. However the interaction with the technology that augmented reality offered was not the only reason why Mamo chose to follow the path of augmented reality.
As an augmented reality system, Dérive Valletta enables the user to view the project in real time, allowing interaction with the project.