Sonic City

Mobile electronic music making with the city as interface.
In the Sonic City project (2002-2004), we designed, prototyped and tested a wearable system that enabled users to create a real-time personal soundscape of electronic music by walking through and interacting with urban environments, literally turning the city into a musical instrument.

As the user was walking through the city wearing sensors on the body, the prototype sensed the user’s urban contexts and actions, mapped this information to the audio processing of live urban sounds in real time, and output the resulting music through the user’s headphones.

The prototype was an open-ended platform for iterative prototyping of sound content and musical interaction and for testing in real-world settings. With this prototype, we could explore new uses of public space and everyday behaviours for creative purposes, for instance the city as an interface and mobility as an interaction model for electronic music making: bringing together perspectives on interaction from ubiquitous computing and from interactive music, Sonic City investigated the idea of everyday embodied movements and gestures – such as walking – as resources for aesthetic digital interactions and experimented with notions of creative affordances of everyday physical artefacts and environments – such as urban space.

The concept behind Sonic City and its early implementation were described in [1], and the complete design process and final implementation in [2]. The results of our user study – which showed how music making can weave itself into everyday urban behaviours in a novel and creative way – were described in [3] and further discussed in [4] (see publication list below).

Realised between 2002 and 2004, it was one of the pioneer projects of the mobile music field and contributed to establishing it. The project has been well-published and well-cited in academia, received a lot of attention in the new media arts scene, and has received extensive media and blog coverage (El Mundo, Receiver, We Make Money Not Art, Metro, Danmarks Radio, etc). Among other places, Sonic City was presented at NIME and Cybersonica, and was demoed at UIST and the EU’s IST 2004 event. It was featured in the Leonardo Electronic Almanac special issue on locative media, discussed in a number of academic articles about sound and urban space, and was included in the book “Worldchanging: a User’s Guide to the 21st Century” as an example of future technologies for urban living (see website below for more details about presentations and coverage).

Sonic City was a collaboration between the Future Applications Lab (Viktoria Institute) where I was working at the time, and the PLAY Studio at the Interactive Institute. It was funded by the Swedish Foundation for Strategic Research (SSF) through the Mobile Life SSF project, by the European Union IST program through the Smart-Its project, and by VINNOVA through the IT+Textiles project. The project was realised in a multidisciplinary team that combined competence and perspectives from architecture, engineering, acoustics, product design, sound-art, sociology, cognition psychology, fashion, human-computer interaction and an cultural studies. I was the project’s initiator and co-lead it together with Ramia Mazé. I am responsible for the concept development, implementation, and user study. I also actively participated in the sound mapping design and in the wearable design.

Project lead: Lalya Gaye (Future Applications Lab, Viktoria Institute), Ramia Mazé (PLAY Studio, Interactive Institute)

Project collaborators: Margot Jacobs (PLAY Studio, Interactive Institute), Magnus Johansson (Interaction Design programme, IT-University in Göteborg), Sara Lerén (Cognitive Science Programme, IT-University in Göteborg), Daniel Skoglund (Sound-artist, formerly part of 8Tunnel2)

Project website: Sonic City – Future Applications Lab

Selected publications
1. Gaye L., Holmquist L.E., Mazé R. Sonic City: Merging Urban Walkabouts with Electronic Music Making. UIST 2002, Paris, France (2002). [pdf] [poster pdf]
2. Gaye L., Mazé R., Holmquist L.E. Sonic City: The Urban Environment as a Musical Interface. NIME 2003, Montréal, Canada (2003). [pdf]
3. Gaye L., Holmquist L.E. In Duet with Everyday Urban Settings: A User Study of Sonic City. NIME 2004, Hamamatsu, Japan (2004). [pdf] [poster pdf]
4. Gaye L., Holmquist L.E. Performing Sonic City: Situated Creativity in Mobile Music Making. Leonardo Electronic Almanac (LEA), Special Issue on Locative Media (2006). [link]