Well-connected

Neil Spiller records the evolution of Red Fig, a company dedicated to identifying and exploring opportunities in interactive communication.

Red Fig is the name of a design organisation formed to exploit the gaps in communication technology. It was established in July 1996 by directors Julian Ellison, a Web designer and writer, and Nick McMahon, an architect.

The rest of the group is made up of a technical manager, a business development manager and an in-house team of technical people and designers.

The company sees its aim as ameliorating the hassle of conversion, or surfing, from one digital medium to another. Everyone has had problems with information transfer and conversion, whether it is trying to get your disk to work on someone else’s computer or simply wanting to use a public phone without a phonecard.

These are all examples of ways that technology can foil even the most basic desire for information. McMahon says creating “many to many” communication systems is the company’s task. Data and information is blurted down very distinct routes in very distinct forms, and at present these forms and routes quite often work against the user’s interest.

Red Fig thinks the dream of universal access to large bandwidth information delivery systems could be achieved more easily if attention was focused on a new philosophy of system boundary. It works like this: systems should be “married”, creating coalitions. These may be fleeting, but stable enough to allow users to navigate wherever they wish to.

To achieve such coalitions, Red Fig needs to produce innovative software, and to bring organisations together that may previously have been competitors. Competitive consumer economics continues to hold many advances back so the market can be milked to the full. Having the ideas, I suspect, is a whole lot easier than putting them into action. Red Fig delivers, in this respect, a type of invisible design. I think the art world calls it social sculpture.

The last year’s work has revolved around the ubiquitous, relatively cheap and light mobile phone. There are approximately seven million users of mobile phones currently in this country (I wouldn’t like to even guess the worldwide figure). Over the next four years this is set to double. Almost one in four UK inhabitants are expected to have a mobile phone by 2002. What is more, service providers are injecting huge investment into telephone infrastructures to increase access and range – GSM phones being just one example.

Red Fig is well aware of the importance of these statistics and their implications. It takes the phone and uses it in a slightly different way “adding something to the mix”, as McMahon puts it.

Last winter, Red Fig’s first public installation, Loglos I, was shown in London’s Farringdon. A large Sony Jumbotron screen showed images by artists such as Brian Eno and David Bowie which could be manipulated by passers-by via their mobile phones.

Loglos II took the ideas even further. Shown in Red Fig’s London office, the project allowed anyone with a mobile phone to dial up and choose a private audio link to the screen, play games or access a video conference.

Red Fig also developed a series of screens and software for other public crowd situations such as football crowds. The volume of the crowd’s cheers can be used to canvass crowd opinion, from the choice of a new football manager to goal of the month. It envisages screened accompaniments in many other public areas.

Channel Four is collaborating with Red Fig on other installations in public places and believes its approach opens up “unique advertising development(s)” and is “a new exciting media venture”. The third evolution of the Loglos system promises to push the possibilities of the user interface further but details of where the screen will be are still under wraps.

Red Fig’s interests don’t just lie in the public arena, but also in the domestic. Connectivity is crucial within the home. As Rayner Banham wrote, “a home is not a house” (the title to his seminal essay published in 1965), advocating a more technologically-liberated lifestyle. While Banham’s vision was to do with the portable comfort of Sixties’ technology he would surely understand and applaud Red Fig’s efforts at the Nineties digital coal face.

Red Fig is actively pursuing ways to create slightly different manifestations of our normal domestic gadgets, to fill in the voids between technologies, to allow their users greater independence yet greater value from their communication aids.

The on-going specialisation of professional disciplines and their characteristic maintenance blind spots are crippling the building industry and holding back product design. The domestic environment is becoming much more complicated and data dense. This is also where Red Fig is looking to help.

So watch out: Red Fig will be adding value to a space near you any day now.

Neil Spiller is an architect, teacher and writer. His book Digital Dreams will be published by Ellipsis next month, price 14.95.

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