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Artificial Intelligence: Article

Underground E-Mail

A network of wireless bicycles gives subway riders free wireless Internet access

Bicycles outfitted with off-the-shelf technology to act as wireless access points or hotspots create an innovative way to send e-mail from below street level.

Momentary panic, euphoria, and a technological breakthrough all took place within a New York lunch hour on December 11, as New School University's Parsons School of Design instructor Yury Gitman and his Design and Technology students successfully transmitted the first e-mail from the subway. The Parsons project, called "Wireless Bikes and Urbanites," was carried out in collaboration with the education division at Eyebeam, a nonprofit new media arts organization.

Using two MagicBikes - bikes outfitted with off-the-shelf technology to act as wireless access points or hotspots - the students sent the e-mail to Mayor Michael Bloomberg, copying New School University President Bob Kerrey and Parsons School of Design Dean Randy Swearer.

"All of the students worked hard on this project and I'm thrilled that it was a real success," said Gitman, an emerging-media artist who has made a name for himself by harnessing wireless technology and popular culture to reinvent interaction. In addition to inventing MagicBikes, Gitman is the creator of Noderunner, a popular wireless game that fuses open spectrum activism with digital gaming. Gitman was also the recipient of the prestigious Ars Electronica Golden Nica for Net Vision award in 2003.

At first, the MagicBikes project experienced a few minutes of technical difficulties when an initial attempt to send the e-mail failed. The students and Gitman huddled around one of the wireless bicycles to troubleshoot, buzzing with possible solutions.

Minutes later, cheers erupted as the following e-mail, the first to be sent from an underground subway platform, was transmitted:

Dear Mayor Bloomberg:
Happy holidays from the Union Square subway platform!

We are proud to send you the first ever underground e-mail from NYC's subway system, using MagicBikes, a network of wireless bicycles! (magicbike.net)

The Design and Technology Department at Parsons School of Design and the education division at the nonprofit new media arts organization, Eyebeam, collaborated on a class titled "Wireless Bikes and Urbanites."

In the season of giving, our class's "humble" final project is to make history by being first to give New York subway commuters free wireless Internet access. As Mayor, you know how New York steadily brews with remarkable spirit and capability, and as students, faculty, and artists, we're glad to add to the collective history of this great city!

We would like to thank all those who have made New York both bicycle friendly and a place where public spaces are increasingly becoming infused with free Internet access, including Union Square Park, NYCWireless, Transportation Alternative, and many others. Keep up the good work! Have a great New Year!

Sincerely,
Yury Gitman and the Design and Technology students at Parsons School of Design

"What the students and I did was part performance art and part technological breakthrough: we showed people that the technological boundaries we live with are conceptual and not actually technological," said Gitman, self-described as "one third geek, one third artist, and one third scientist."

The Parsons classroom project is fueled by Gitman's belief that technology need not wait for corporate funding to make great advances. A member of NYCWireless, an advocacy group for free Wi-Fi in public spaces, Gitman sees Internet access as a quality of life issue, and free access in public areas as a basic necessity for the vibrant growth of a city.

"Companies would have you believe that providing access is overwhelmingly expensive and that's just not true," he said. "Bryant Park, the first free wireless park in New York City, spends more on providing trash bags for the park in one year than they spend on providing free access."

With slow negotiations between city transportation authorities and telco companies, Gitman knew he had a perfect opportunity to put his technological knowledge and artistic sensibilities to good use.

"In an age of technological overload, more technology doesn't always lead to meaningful breakthroughs," Gitman explained. "Sometimes all we need is more imagination and creativity."

Case in point, Gitman usurped the current telco "old guard" network by harnessing entirely off-the-shelf technology in a creative way.

"There are some companies out there selling bandwith in a way that is inefficient and expensive. With the subway event, I was making the statement that sometimes a wireless bicycle network can be more powerful and flexible then a monolith telco company," he said.

When asked why he chose to outfit bikes, Gitman, a bicycling enthusiast explained, "By putting a network inside an existing culture, it disappears. Humans are so used to adjusting around technology, and instead, I wanted the technology to adjust to them. Bicyclists are an extremely mobile, socially conscious, and a politically active force - who better for technology to accommodate?"

Getting the bikes to actually work required an intense period of experimentation. Though warned by many computer technicians that pursuing this line of technology would result in damaging his laptop - "they would say things like: you shouldn't try this, it will crash your computer really bad" - the New York University ITP graduate kept testing new methods and new hardware, finally settling on a working formula. Using an iBook, USB Wi-Fi adapters, and the Mac OS X operating system, he created the MagicBikes, which are built to act as a mesh network - with one exception. While most mesh networks use some form of artificial intelligence to decide which nodes will act as hotspots or repeaters, Gitman decided to use human intelligence.

"Reinstating the human into the process was the best next step," he said. "It was inexpensive and forward thinking. Each bicyclist will understand whether or not their bicycle needs to be a hotspot or a bridge, and they can move the antennas themselves by repositioning the bike and handlebars."

In addition, the bike is designed to be as flexible as possible to connect to any network available, from cellular to Wi-Fi, to technologies yet to come. And flexibility, to Gitman, is what it's all about.

"I believe that the future of Internet access is about getting us further from our desks and back out into the world," says Gitman. "As a mobile, functional tool, MagicBikes is a step toward that type of future."

MagicBikes can be used to set up ad hoc Internet connectivity for emergency access, public demonstrations, cultural events, and communities on the struggling end of the digital divide. More information on them can be found at Gitman's site, www.magicbikes.com.

More Stories By Mira Jacob

Mira Jacob is the co-author of fashion designer Kenneth Cole's memoir, Footnotes (Simon & Schuster); was a writer for the Emmy-nominated television show "Pop-Up Video;" and has written for numerous publications. Mira holds a BA from Oberlin College and an MFA in creative writing from The New School.

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