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Dencity and the Augmented Environment
Jamais Cascio, 6 Sep 05

dencity.jpgI'd seen a few references to the denCity project in the various sites I read, an effort to build an emergent urban augmentation system by creating barcodes which, when photographed with a cameraphone and compared to a phone-accessible website, return detailed information about whatever is tagged by the barcode. I find such location-based technologies to be intriguing, and the use of the cameraphone as the interface for capturing local tags has obvious connections to my ongoing examination of the Participatory Panopticon. DenCity struck me as interesting, but somewhat derivative of other projects such as Yellow Arrow, the New York-based art project, which also allows users to create their own notes for given locations. At present, the denCity system works only in the city of Aachen, Germany.

Curious about the genesis of the project, I wrote to the creators of denCity, Philipp Hoppe and Kai Kasugai, asking them about what they had in mind. Philipp and Kai were kind enough to reply, and to allow me to quote them on WorldChanging. Their answers, although brief, got me thinking about what these kinds of urban meta-tagging tools might really mean.

DenCity emerged as a student project in urbanism at the RWTH Aachen University, and was inspired by the Keitai City competition sponsored by Japan's NTT DoCoMo. "Keitai" means "portable," and is commonly used to refer to mobile phones; recognizing the growing importance of the mobile phone in Japanese culture, DoCoMo is looking for novel applications of the technology. The focus of the competition is on the ways in which the keitai can mediate the user's experience of his or her urban surroundings.

Hoppe and Kasugai had a similar goal for denCity, albeit with a bit more of an academic approach:

The project is a theoretical and experimental approach to ideas around the integration of urban reality and virtual dimensions. We seek to influence/change perception by the virtual augmentation of physical spaces.

The denCity barcodes become a means of sharing information about a given location in a way that is, in principle, easily accessible to others with commonplace technology. An interesting parallel here is the growing use of tags as a way of organizing information on myriad websites and blogs; these tags aren't assigned by a single controlling organization, but are decided upon by the site owners, the site readers, or both. This emergent form of classification of information has been given the somewhat ungainly term "folksonomy," but it is really just the extension of one's own organizing principles to a shared space. Through the use of tagging, one can keep notes on a variety of websites or issues in an easily searchable and sharable manner.

DenCity, then, could be thought of as "locational folksonomy" -- a kind of metadata overlaying the physical environment.

The same could be said of Yellow Arrow, but, as fun and interesting as the Yellow Arrow project is, it clearly is first and foremost a kind of collaborative art. Most of the arrows seem to link to stories about a given location that can provide insight or amusement; prosaic, functional information is less common. DenCity, conversely, is clearly meant as a framework for "useful" links. Moreover, Hoppe and Kasugai intend for the technology to scale:, in our opinion, goes beyond yellowarrow in some ways, particularly in its direct networking of the tagged locations and the mapping and urban-analysing possibilities that are opened up by this. Also, via WAP, it is even simpler and cheaper to use than yellowarrow. Furthermore, you can create and print you own tags. But we loved yellowarrow, it has a more artistic approach than our project.

Fortunately, this is not a kind of system in which only one actor can thrive. I would expect to see multiple tags on a given location, from a variety of tagging networks, all accessible to the user but not necessarily using the same keywords and concepts. They may have demographic or sub-cultural emphases, for example, or have differing balances of open comment and spam/troll moderation. Some would be surreptitious, everything from stickers in somewhat obscure locations to graffiti in a restroom stall; others would be more official, a 21st century version of a "Better Business Bureau" seal.

The pieces are not yet all in place for the augmented city, but we're getting close. Projects like denCity and Yellow Arrow help us understand the various ways in which such tagging can be used and abused; while neither project is a perfect seed for real augmentation, both offer insights into what can work. At the same time, we may want to look more closely at currently extant folksonomy tools (such as to see what we might need to think about before we start annotating the world around us. How is spamming minimized? How do people decide upon the "right" set of tags? How are serial abusers identified? We'll also need to start thinking about the ways in which the desire to annotate the space around us facilitates a system for annotating our own relationships.

And we'd better start thinking about it soon, because denCity, Yellow Arrow, and the various other experiments in location-based information will only get more detailed, more extensive, and easier to access.

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This could very well be done with RFID tags. I've been thinking about this for quite a while: you enliven public spaces with citi-tags.

With RFID readers (which will become a gadget like a iPOD) you just point to the public tag, the information of which is available on the internet, and you get to read it on your gadget.

I imagine blogs with small "tags" (like hyperlinks) and entire online communities updating and playing around with these public tags.

Very interesting.

Posted by: Lorenzo on 6 Sep 05

This is only vaguely related because it deals with dense cities - how could cities deal with a pandemic flu?

Given that most people in the world live in such places, it's an important question!

The idea to have "a grid of firewalls" has been put forward - you know, limit movement between parts of the city so as to contain the pandemic and not spread it too fast.

"Dismantle cities in a week" would not be easy or desirable, but it might happen all by itself - taking infection to the rural areas and causing all the "social disruption" the WHO is worried about (pandemic = disease, death, disruption).

Can readers versed in architecture give this some thinking and share what's on their minds? Possibly go to


Posted by: Lucas Gonzalez on 7 Sep 05

I've been following your posts on the Participatory Panopticon for some time now, and I've started using the phrase myself to describe the ubiquity of cameraphones and their effect on society as a whole. However, I'm not sure that RFID and real world tagging are quite the same do you make this link? Personally, I see the participatory panopticon as both a deterrent to anti-social behaviour ("sousveillance") and an extension of the life-caching trend described on I've just written a post on my new blog which tries to link up these ideas:

Posted by: Pete Cashmore on 7 Sep 05

Altering the environment for the sole purpose of adding metadata is a Bad Idea. We could just as easily use GPS to "tag" a location and some transparent software that associates certain data with those particular coordinates.

There are smartphones that have WiFi and GPS already. I think it's a waste to undergo a project that will be replaced by a MUCH better implementation less than a year later.

Posted by: cold wolf on 7 Sep 05



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