Viridian Note 00206: The Sunburnometer

Bruce Sterling <>
Wed, 1 Nov 2000 12:31:05 -0600
Key concepts
ozone exposure, health monitors, photochromic stickers, Skyrad, Viridian Disasters, Neologue contest
Attention Conservation Notice
It's some new gizmo you've never heard of, plus the final gush of Neologue coverage. Over 2,700 words.
Link It's up! It's tottering around on its baby feet! Come have a look!

(Alan Wexelblat)

Skyrad, an Israeli startup, is marketing a sunburn-o-

meter. This is a ten-cent adhesive patch that measures the body's accumulated dose of ultraviolet radiation. Should be on the market next spring.

Presently, the average US increase in skin cancer risk

is 15 times higher than 60 years ago, due almost entirely to thinning of the ozone layer.

This leads me to think that in addition to imaginary

products, we Viridians should be promoting imaginary events.

There should be a Viridian "SunBurning Man" festival,

scheduled for the first U.S. town/city/notable location to be exposed by the expanding Arctic ozone hole. I can see any number of sick puns and twisted humor opportunities here.

Here's a pic of the product. archive/2000/05/05272000/sunsticker_13360.asp

Nice cheesecake of girl in swimsuit; relationship to product only marginal, but what else is new. Also includes pic of inventor holding device.

Some other links:

"Sample Stickers are available. Please call (212) 307- 2595."

Viridian Neologue Contest This Contest Is Now Closed. (whew!) A Winner Will Be Announced Presently.

The place to find Viridian competitions:

From:^^^^*** (Adam Pierce)

A box listens for particular phrases and then simply plays a crowd sound effect.

"Applause please"
= Applause
"C'mon, that was funny"
= Canned laughter
"Here I am"
= A fanfare

This enthusiastic personal audience keeps you the centre of attention.

From:^^** (Dave Phelan)

The Viridian Disaster Alarm Clock is an elegant, stylish bedside accessory. It monitors radio and internet newsfeeds and weather reports, listening for travel information and adverse weather warnings. Linked to your personal diary system, it knows where you should be travelling to, and by what means. It can check transport information from relevant websites.

When your alarm goes off at the set time, the Viridian Disaster Alarm Clock can tell you in soothing tones to return to bed. An example:

"Good morning Dave. There are no northbound rail services this morning owing to fallen trees, the roads to the airport are flooded, and all flights are cancelled due to heavy weather. Go back to sleep, you'll not get to Germany today."

I could really have used one of these on Monday when the southern UK fell apart quite spectacularly in an orgy of Greenhouse weather violence.

From:** (Jeanine Christensen)

1. Smart luggage for the weary, jet-lagged and/or ill traveler.

I am tired of trying to remember what to pack in my suitcase. I want my suitcase to remember for me and tell me about it. I'd ask the chip "What did I pack when I went to Shanghai for two weeks in October?" It would tell me the full packing list, including remembering various ambient temperatures (local time-date stamped), totals of all the receipts I stuffed into its pockets, whether I used up all the mosquito repellent last time, and whether any food I packed into it would flunk inspection at any customs checkpoints. My luggage would also remind me if I forgot to pack my toothbrush before I zipped it up and took it out of the hotel.

The bag would need voice-recognition, a speaker/alarm, an electric eye to scan stuff (including anyone forcibly opening the luggage), flash memory, and it should be immune to international airport x-rays and abusive baggage handlers. It would also contain a solar- and piezo-charged power source that would power a transponder with a unique electronic sig in the likely event that this luggage ever got lost or loaded on the wrong plane.

2. Spam filter for annoying telemarketers, with scorecard option. This Recognition Engine chip would answer my phone

with amazing lifelike repartee. The gaming aspect of this chip would track my score in "The Telemarketer's Game," as described in The Happy Mutant Handbook, 1995, Riverhead Books: ISBN 1-57322-502-9. (N.B. the following point system is not my own creation.)

THE TELEMARKETER'S GAME, Basic Point System: For each minute spent telemarketer is kept on the phone: 10 points Getting transferred to someone who makes more than minimum wage: 15 points For each minute spent on the phone with person making more

than minimum wage: 25 points
=== Bonus Points ===
Getting them to repeat part of the "script": 5 points
Getting answers to stupid questions: 5 points
Changing the subject: 50 points

Making the salesperson angry: 175 points Making the salesperson use profanity: 750 points Getting the boss on the phone and telling him/her that the salesperson used profanity: 1500 points Getting their 1-800 number: 10 points Posting their 1-800 number to as a free "Phone Sex" line: 50 points Checking the number a week later and finding it busy or disconnected: 5000 points

From:* (Kevin Marks)

The Aspidistra

When writing software, the best way to find a logical flaw is to sit down and explain what the code is supposed to be doing, line by line. Usually, the very act of explaining it is enough for you to realise what you have done wrong, so the listener doesn't need to comment much. My colleagues used to refer to this as 'being an Aspidistra'.

The Neologue Aspidistra is a potted plant fitted with a speech recognition chip. When it hears the word 'Aspidistra' it settles down to listen to you explain code. It makes appropriate 'uh huh' and 'I see' sounds. If it's more advanced, it might ask a few cogent questions such as 'where do you dispose of that?', then go quiescent again when it hears your response 'oh, I see now, never mind.'

From:^*** (Mita Sen-Roy)

(a) Pee-Wee's Playhouse Secret Word of the Day

Every day, your house chooses a word randomly from an abridged dictionary. If your house overhears that word being said in conversation during that day, the house responds with screams of delight.

(b) Portable backup singers

When activated, this device will doo-wop behind your vocal stylings. Even better, a singing machine automatically harmonizes with your singing voice.

From:* (Julian Brown)

A device that can be attached to a VCR, or other recording device. Rather than listening for words, it listens for the silences caused by pesky censors. It's programmed to contextualise profanity and to reinsert appropriate cursing into those imposed bleeps or gaps.

From: "Brandon Keim" <>

  1. Sensor embedded in the collar of a shirt. It regulates current flowing through a network of wires woven into the shirt fabric. Shirt changes color according to voice commands; perhaps patterns could be downloaded to the shirt. The sensor's vocal capabilities would also emit a soft hum in conjunction with shirt color, a sort of personal sound environment, with people wandering in their tonal coccoons and encountering others to create a new sonic atmosphere.

2. A gadget jacket operated by spoken commands. Contains and carries a lie detector, directional microphone,

camera, recorder, GPS, heating and cooling systems, speaker phone, etc. etc. When this multitude of gizmos is united into one garment with one control interface, they become practical and inconspicuous.

If either of these two items happens to be made, PLEASE let me be in on the fashion end. I have yet to see a piece of cyberwear that wasn't painful to look at.

3. Baby multimedia crib. In response to the tone of the baby's cries/gurgles/laughs/sounds in general,

mobiles are activated/songs are played/video is shown/stories are told/songs are sung/parents are notified and so on.

Djinnetically engineered by Brandon.

From:^* (David Jennings)

#1 Babyminder Blobby


It's nine in the evening. You're sitting downstairs enjoying a beer with your partner and a couple of friends. You have one of those little intercom things linked up to little junior's bedroom. The evening's going well, some raucous adult laughter as you reminisce. But every now and again someone goes 'Hush == did I just hear a noise on the intercom?' Everyone goes quiet, turns down the stereo; waits. False alarm.

But then you can't remember where you left off the discussion, the pace of your friend's funny story is disrupted, and you just missed the great twangy guitar bit. You don't even dare turn up your music again, as you feel the need to monitor the intercom more closely for a while.


Babyminder Blobby is tuned to recognise the various noises specifically made by your infant. It can distinguish between murmur, yell and call for mummy/mommy/maman etc. (Localisation for different cultures will be important.)

It responds appropriately:

  • murmur: increases its own sensitivity ('gain') for five minutes, going on alert for follow-up noises, but not doing anything
  • minor disturbance: pulses a gentle light, softly recites a nursery rhyme
  • major disturbance (defined as repeated yelling or five calls for mummy in less than a minute): increases volume on nursery rhyme, sends alert to remote Blobby downstairs to alert parent or babysitter.

Blobby also keeps statistics for 'management reports', e.g. "In the last week, Junior did an average (per night) of 5 murmurs, 2 yells and 1.5 repeated calls for mum. The worst night was Thursday with 4 cases through the night where human intervention was called for. The best night was Saturday with just 2 murmurs."

A deluxe babysitter version is available. When Blobby sends an alert to the babysitter, it also sends a text message to your mobile phone or PDA. The babysitter may then alleviate your anxiety by using Blobby to send an update status report.

Design features:

  • Blobby sets come as readily anthropomorphised pairs of toy-like objects, designed to look like your older sister and brother. At bedtime, junior is encouraged to 'say
goodnight to Blobby
she's going to keep you safe through the night'. This reinforces the comforting impact of Blobby's responses to minor disturbances.
  • Blobbies come in every colour from loganberry to greenhouse to sleet, but the child's unit has transparent plastic casing (since, for infants, looking good with a range of iMac peripherals is not yet essential).
  • Physical robustness is also essential for infant's Blobby, because inevitably there are times when junior craves to throw 'big sister' across the room.

#2 Walk-to-School Guardian


In the UK, in 1971, 80% of 7-8 year olds walked to school. By the mid-1990s, this figure had dropped to 9%. Most commonly cited reasons are fears of abduction and fears of traffic accidents while crossing roads. Traffic related to taking children to school is blamed for much early morning and mid-afternoon congestion.


School guardians are portable blobjects used as child docking stations. When they are active they ask the child every 2-5 minutes "Everything OK?" or some alternative that is culturally acceptable in the region. Each child has a specific voice response which the guardian expects to hear within 20 secs. If there is no verbal response, the guardian asks again, more persistently == also flashing and vibrating to attract child's attention. If the chip hears nothing after a further 20 secs, the guardian raises an alarm at the home and school docking stations.

If the child feels under threat by a possible abductor, they simply throw the guardian away.

Each guardian is programmed with an upper limit journey time between school and home. Docking stations at either end will go into an 'amber' or 'red' alert if they don't receive and dock the portable guardian.

At road crossings, the child simply states "road" and the guardian recites standard safety instructions. In the UK, this has become known as the Green Cross Code: look left, look right, look left again, if all clear, start to cross and keep looking and listening. Again. cultural localisation will be important (e.g. driving on different side of road).

Design features:

  • This use of this technology has potentially serious impact on the civil liberties of children and young adults. A key design consideration is to make sure that the children concerned feel safer and stronger with their guardians, not like prisoners subjected to electronic surveillance. The child user should decide how much slack to give for trips to local shops en route, or the occasional diversion to the playground with friends.

  • Other docking stations can be placed in private and
public spaces as 'safe ports'
a friend's house, the local mall. The home docking station displays current status of the guardian.
  • Use of guardians may disrupt child's use of portably minidisk players, mobile phones etc. Many parents will see this as a feature, not a bug.

  • Guardians are themed for tie-in with "responsible" characters in the latest movies. They may have interchangeable 'skins' (like some mobile phones).

  • Retail and dining outlets aimed at the 6-12 yr age group will have their own special 'docking stations'. If you dock your guardian at a particular outlet several times within an 'offer period' you qualify for special deals.

From:^** (Tim Lovitt)

a bit big-brotherly, but a voice activated li'l blob that could sit in public spaces and just pick up proper nouns would do wonders for our opinion polling systems. Interesting for parents too: want to know what was said around or by your child today?
lapel pinnable device with an extremely foul vocabulary that happily plays a bleep when it detects the first syllables of any expletive. Protects speaker and listener alike, but could provide for some discomfort when watching Tarantino movies.
A desk based system detects your verbal reticence in any conversation (physical or phone) and provides an immediate excuse for you by dialling other line to your phone, providing you with the opportunity to excuse yourself for that "urgent conference call," etc.

From:* (Bonnie K. Johnson)

  1. "Nocturnologue" for eavesdropping on your own nocturnal conversations. The device records a sleep talker's discourse. As it's voice activated, only actual talk is recorded, eliminating any need to listen to hours of tape. For the extremely self-curious, a camera could be triggered as well, recording associated sleep motions with complete sound track. Could be a useful safety device for sleep walkers.

  2. ROX-BOX: Ever get a tune stuck in your head and not been able to identify it? This tune recognition device has all the answers and can even replay your tune correctly, making for a very cool Jam session with you and your machine.

From: (Bruce Sterling)

The Alexander Calder Tribute Site

A Calder-style mobile sculpture has flexible piezoelectric elements built into its joints, and wired to a Recognition Engine. The mobile wafts gently around from the "pressure" of people talking about Calder or mobiles.

The Man Ray Tribute Site

Man Ray's "Object to Be Destroyed" (a ticking metronome with the eye of Lee Miller attached) has an engine chip inside. When the names "Man Ray" or "Lee Miller" are said, the metronome stops dead and utters a surrealistic cry of despair.

The Marcel Duchamp Tribute Site

An inverted men's urinal is hung upside down on a

gallery wall. Whenever anyone says the keywords "Marcel," "Duchamp," or "conceptual art," the Recognition Engine chip sends a sudden terrifying spray of yellow soap bubbles out of the urinal and straight into the audience.

Conversational Fans

Dozens of colorful ceiling fans, equipped with chips,

are attached to a tall ballroom ceiling. The chips count audible phonemes in the immediate area below the fan, then cause their fans to revolve quickly or slowly, in direct proportion to the density of conversation. Lively conversations can therefore be quickly spotted from anywhere in the room. As a byproduct, talkative cliques at the event generate their own cooling breeze.

The Jargon Strobe

A darkened discussion space is lit only by strobe lights. The strobes are wired to Recognition Engines, which fire off bursts of enlightenment according to a specialized glossary: say, hip terms from cybernetic techno-art. Therefore a lively and knowledgeable lecture will steadily light the whole area, whereas a halting or off-topic one leaves the crowd in spasmodic darkness.

The New World Order Firing Squad

An automated firing squad confronts a large, bounding balloon in an installation shooting gallery. The guns dramatically respond to the keywords "Ready," "Aim," and "Fire." On "ready" the guns chamber a round, on "aim" they unsteadily converge at the target, and at "fire" they shoot pellets. But the cybernetic guns cannot be directly touched, are unbearably quirky, and are frequently disobedient. Furthermore, the balloon itself is surprisingly tough and slippery, bounding around at random directions and speeds. The intent of this installation is to increasingly excite and frustrate an ever-growing and ever-more-bloodthirsty crowd, demanding the balloon's annihilation. The frantic voices are recorded and played back after the balloon finally meets its end.

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