TEXT | ‘A New Sense of Place?’

Mobile ‘Wearable’ Information and Communications Technology Devices and The Geographies of Urban Childhood

Owain Jones, Morris Williams, Constance Fleuriot
Children’s Geographies, 1:2, 165-180, 2003


‘A New Sense of Place?’

‘A New Sense of Place?’ is a research design initiative to explore and develop the interface between children and new mobile wearable computing and communication devices. The research team is particularly interested in how these new technologies might be applied to help children (re-)engage with urban spaces. ‘A New Sense of Place?’ is a research project under the umbrella, Mobile Bristol.

Mobile Bristol


Mobile Bristol is a collaborative partnership between Hewlett Packard and the University of Bristol, Department of Computer Science and the Appliance Studio. The partnership develops wearable devices and their supporting infrastructures, but also explores the social implications and potential of these new technologies.

The wearables developed will integrate three general functions:
1. Replace or combine the mobile phone
2. Provide internet access, as an always-on two way communication source
3. Provide a new range of functions that will be based upon the spatial capacities of the technology
  • Be aware of user location and movement
  • Allow access to the digital information posted to an environment
  • Allow contribution/participation in adding location sensitive information to the digital environment
Wearables : A Brief Introduction

Wearables are a key element in the expansion of ‘ubiquitous computing’. Wearables are becoming more assessable as increasing capacities and speed of processors are made available and the shrinking of device and component size and costs. These devices are increasingly becoming easier to network through the use of wireless communications. The wearable system, in terms of devices and networks, has the capacity to place components of spatialized digital information in the physical environment (indoor and outdoor) to form what have been termed soundscapes. Hull and Reid, 2002, suggest that one way of thinking about soundscapes is to imagine the emergence of new digital dimensions overlaying the physical world. (167)

Two Conditions of Childhood

The relationship of children and technology has become a source of fear for adults. There is also a concern for children’s safety in public space because of the dangers of traffic and other factors which has led to the increasing confinement and control of children. Electronic media, such as television, video games, and the computer, have been criticized for generating children that are passive and encourage sedentary behavior. These technologies are seen as a threat to the romantic ideals of childhood, the child as innocent, the child in nature, children as physically active bodies, and creatures of creative, spontaneous, and imaginative play.

Childhood and Mobile Wearable Technologies

Wareable technologies are being looked at to break the cycle of negative connotations about forms of media. Wearable technologies are mobile to incite physical activity in spatial conditions and are more flexible to self-authorship and self-direction. The possibility of these devices to be used as means of surveillance and control cannot be over looked, but the intention of these devices is to provide a level of security to children and parents so that more freedom may be granted.

A New Sense of Place?

The research project asked specific questions concerning empowerment of children through participation and ownership through self-governed mobility and play, the easing of parental concerns about child safety and mobility, will this technology be beneficial to childhood, and what types of environments would children create and want through the use of the technology.

The Workshop

The two day workshop took place in Bristol, England. Ten children, 11 to 12 years old, were placed in pairs (2 groups of boys, 3 groups of girls) and were introduced to the ideas of wearable technology and their functions demonstrated. The groups were allowed to build their own soundscapes and then were to experience their own in addition to the soundscapes of the other groups. Focus sessions were then conducted with the groups to discuss their thoughts on the technology and other applications that would be of value to them.

The Five Soundscapes

Image : 1.) The Ash, ‘World Music Radio Station’. 2.) The Beech, ‘Match the Flags’. 3.) The Holly, ‘Going to the Beach on a Day Trip’. 4.) The Oak, ‘Tiger Cub Riddle’. 5.) The Willow, ‘Sounds of Animals and James Brown’. 6.) The atrium space in which the soundscapes were placed.

  1. The Ash, ‘World Music Radio Station’. The soundscape was a musical soundscape associating spaces with music without any sequences or designation of route to be followed.
  2. The Beech, ‘Match the Flags’. This soundscape was a game in which flags from different nations were matched to music and sounds of the country. Paper flags were supplied to the users who were supposed to mark the spot where they heard the appropriate music/sound for that country.
  3. The Holly, ‘Going to the Beach on a Day Trip’. The soundscape consisted of 20 sound regions, one large region with smaller ones ‘on top’ of it. This soundscape was composed of music and instructions that included a designated route around the space. The designated route was meant to take the user on a journey starting with sounds of a car to the sounds of the sea and beach.
  4. The Oak, ‘Tiger Cub Riddle’. This soundscape formed a trail of virtual and physical clues guiding the user around the space. The surprise end revealed through sound a tiger cub.
  5. The Willow, ‘Sounds of Animals and James Brown’. This soundscape consisted of one large sound field playing a James Brown song, with smaller sound fields ‘on top’ which consisted of animal calls.
The Focus Sessions

The focus sessions conducted with the children branched into three dimensions. The first was mobility and safety. The children clearly understood that this device could be used as surveillance by their parents. However, they saw this as an opportunity of safety that would afford them more freedoms by their parents. The second, was a social dimension, where the technology could be used as a method to communicate with their friends about shopping, play, listening to music, and sharing experiences. The third, was an informational dimension, relating to school, transportation, shopping, and news.

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Empowerment Through Participation

Wearable technologies are being used to enable methods to encourage child empowerment through participation and physical movement. The technology of wearables in this research promotes child safety through location monitoring in an attempt to allow children to explore the physical environment. The concern of parents for the safety of their child against the dangers of the street and traffic has enabled a culture of keeping children indoors or in private spaces.

Freedom Of Exploration

A major component of the ‘A New Sense of Place?’ project was to have children create the soundscape and be part of the production process. Another goal of the project was to foster children’s curiosity and devise a way to allow children to engage with physical space, specifically public urban space that has been viewed as a location of caution because of various dangers that are associated with it. The less intrusive nature of soundscapes is thought to empower children and create a place for them in spaces oriented for adults. This aspect of the project could have been executed in another way. The atrium space which was organized for adults, encourages different behavior in children and produces a more conservative method of exploration, such as walking. In comparison, to if the space was a playground the children may have explored the space in a more organic and physical way. The playground is a space that promotes certain behaviors and facilitates for climbing and running. In these possible methods for exploration and variation of body movement (walking, climbing, running) an appropriate project to reference may be Sonic City, a collaboration between Future Applications Lab (Viktoria Institute) and PLAY Studio (Interactive Institute).

Sonic City


Sonic City (2002-2004) was an adult oriented interactive music instrument using the urban environment as an interface. “The system retrieves information about environmental context and user action, and maps it to the real-time audio processing of urban sounds, resulting in music heard through headphones.” In videos of participants interacting with the environment, their body movements vary from regular walking postures to repetitive body movements in order to control the music being generated.

Image : Sonic City participant walking around a highly trafficked hill next to the harbor on a Sunday afternoon in Göteborg, Sweden.

Flexibility and Variation

The flexibility of soundscapes to be altered or reconstructed may provide the level of variation that will keep children (or anyone) interested for a greater period of time and encourage revisiting. This situation of lack of interest created by foreknowledge was previously discussed in terms of video games. In Patricia Greenfield’s, Mind and Media, she described a situation where a child had advanced through all the levels of a particular game and therefore rarely returned to that game to play. The child had learned the patterns of the game and was no longer challenged or surprised by what the game had to present.


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