Celestial Chiaroscuro

An interesting new project called Satellite Lamps, by Einar Sneve Martinussen, Jørn Knutsen, and Timo Arnall, attempts to visualize the ever-drifting, never exactly accurate workings of GPS.

As the above video shows, the project uses “a set of lamps that contain GPS receivers, that change brightness according to the accuracy of received GPS signals. When we photograph them in timelapse, they reveal how the accuracy changes over time.”

You’re basically watching the indirect effects of signal drift, transformed here into ambient mood lighting that acts secondarily as a graph of celestial geography.

[Image: From Satellite Lamps].

In what the group calls a “selective history of how a piece of the Space Program has ended up in our pockets,” they explain that the everyday reception of signals coming down from the constellation of GPS satellites is always subject to temporary errors, inaccuracies, and misalignments; this can be seen easily enough by glancing at nothing more than your own physical location, as mapped on your cell phone.

They also point to an interesting observation, made by artist James Bridle, that “if you leave a running app such as Nike+ or Runkeeper on your bedside table while you sleep at night, you will wake up to see that the app reports that you ran a significant distance, without doing anything. This, we speculated, is due to the way in which these apps are recording the GPS inaccuracies and counting these as actual, physical movements. In reality, these odd asymmetrical star-shaped tracks offer a map of the shifts of the phone attempting to locate itself.”

This ghostly movement is not “real” in any spatial or geographic sense, but it nonetheless leaves digital tracks in our information profiles, like phantom trips being taken by our data-shadows in secret.

[Image: From Satellite Lamps].

So why not visualize this ongoing slippage—these minor tectonics events taking place inside the tools of geography—in a different form, not with, say, an iPhone scooting around all over your neighborhood at night, trying to keep up with the haunted midnight fugues of an errant running app, but with something stationary, something all the more uncanny for the invisible movements that seem to pass through it like an aurora?

This, then, is the point of Satellite Lamps, which flicker and dim to help reveal the invisible glitches in earth-to-satellite coordination, paradoxically unmoving chandeliers that shine in a chiaroscuro of side-effects leaking in from a parallel world.

[Image: From Satellite Lamps].

In any case, the project is voluminously explained and documented. Considering reading about GPS itself, about the team’s strategy for giving visual form to invisible information, and, finally, about the physical realization of the lamps.

2 thoughts on “Celestial Chiaroscuro”

  1. The lamps may only depend on GPS, but our phones depend on much more: particularly minutely-mapped wifi signals, and the algorithms that try to blend the resulting data into a sensible picture.

    I live in London, and if I switch off wireless location (hence relying only on GPS), it often takes my phone several minutes to pin-point my location. Only once it has done so can the effects noticed by the noctambulant running app become visible. If I switch wireless location back on, they will, presumably, change: the signal properties of Wifi and the way it is used being utterly different from GPS.

    This is then a far richer story than the lamps tell: overlaid on the celestial mechanics of the satellites, with their disappearances behind the planet, and the astronomer's annoyances of signal interference from weather and line of sight, is the terrestrial population of isolated homing beacons: internet end-points that don't talk to one another (except to negotiate or compete with their airwave neighbours), mapped geographically by Google's panoptic fleet of cars (a permanent slow migration) and then, combined with map data (another slow migration, this time of aeroplanes), presented as a coherent picture of location.

    This process seems very similar to the way the human brain tries to piece together a coherent picture of reality, not just from visual data, but from all sorts of sensory information, not to mention memories and knowledge.

  2. You might want to look into this:


    These guys come from a engineering direction but want to make measured data visible for the user using all kind of lights.

    As in producing a fountain of LEDs when a vulcano is about to pop, or an avelanche of LEDs when a landslide is about to happen.

    Pretty sure y'all can come up with some interesting applications.

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