Do You Haiku?
By Justin Hall, Tue Aug 28 00:00:00 GMT 2001

HaikuHaiku: Mobile art exchange. Grassroots location-based publishing for the people.

Information is now bouncing around between us. Pictures of Tallulah Bankhead, octopus sausage recipes, Rahajir Nurejev MP3s; the wireless world of Internet data is flying free. It's a data atmosphere; air charged with information. It's tempting to think that our minds might someday dip directly into the flows around us; perhaps this is what schizophrenia feels like.

Like schizophrenia, this immense invisible wireless whirling datastorm is unsettling, disconcerting. There's nothing in this atmosphere to grasp; nothing to anchor the ether net to the hard ground. When we're online, there's little to remind us we're sitting in Oakland, except perhaps the buying profile of our neighborhood on And still the full flowering of the Internet is hard to find on a streetcorner.

We can only visit this intangible information space when we're parked in front of an information device. There are online outposts that mirror the real world, like web cameras, and places in the real world that reach into the infosphere, like computer kiosks. By and large these worlds still exist separately; doubtlessly, some serious part of the future consists of knitting them together.

Coupon walking

Location-based commerce over wireless has received a lot of attention. Imagine walking down the street when your phone interrupts your train of thought to offer you a deal on some cheap doodads from a nearby store! While surveillance coupons have been touted in many location-based business plans, no one has yet pushed this application for popular use.

The electronic tag game " It's Alive" might be the only memorable location-based wireless entertainment application we've seen so far. It's Alive allows players to play a sort of electronic tag or Assassin with other mobile phone users in their immediate vicinity; but besides this "killer app" there aren't too many people envisioning wireless applications for engaging strangers out in public.


Jay Bain has a powerful notion to conjoin the real and the virtual worlds. HaikuHaiku will use your phone to make a tangible link between data and geography. It's a simple idea - allow anyone with a wireless device to write a few short lines and attach them to a location. Someone who later walks across that part of the world would find your words pushed to their mobile phone.

What would this look like? Imagine you are visiting Frenchs Forest in Sydney, Australia and this message pops up to explain the ugly grass: "Mob of cockatoos / having a bloody good time / tearing up the lawn." Or peering around a corner in the Mission district of San Francisco, you receive this message from Rachel, "Every day at four / underneath Sutro Tower / the wave of fog breaks."

These messages were drawn from the web site set up by Jay with his programmer partner David Fetter. Messages have already been put in the database, city by city, neighborhood by neighborhood, street corner by street corner. These early posts there give a sense of the range of human interactions we might expect when we tie a thin net down to places across the globe and give everyone a small place to post. Much of the early posts seem along the lines of "Kilroy was here" the famous WWII-era acknowledgement of personal presence, though some posters tread into profound or poignant territory.

The abbreviated three-line haiku form is a perfect match for the small screen and limited bandwidth of phones for the foreseeable future. Haiku is, as Jay says, "an observational form - a commentary on the world at that moment." He envisions the same sort of wireless architecture applied to more media types someday. "Text or video or jpegs - any type of data you can tag with geospatial attributes."

Which means to say, imagine if you could give yourself a WTO protest tour of Seattle with your mobile phone, watching video segments captured by protestors in the streets. If you can chop up the QuickTime into little bits, you could someday attach it to a particular bombed out Starbucks coffee shop or a ripped up section of cobblestone street.

A democratic datasphere

Location-tagged multimedia data is not a new idea, but HaikuHaiku proposes a remarkably human scale. It's a wildly democratic vision of the datasphere - anyone being able to tag any place. How would the system handle millions of posts? Who would get to control the dominant data objects and their links to real estate? How would you keep from wearing out your mobile phone batteries as messages hit your device every few steps?

It's a problem Jay would like to have; "we've created tools for users to define information hierarchies based on geography, we also hope that users will, to a degree, use the system in ways we're not anticipating. We'll adapt the system to the needs of the users and their mobile environments." Imagine tens of thousands of people writing little bits about their life to mark up the physical landscape, and then imagine collaborative filtering, friendship priority, or posts attached to certain categories.

But even without millions of active haiku scribes, the wireless web itself is not yet ready to serve Jay's grassroots publishing system. Aside from It's Alive, there have been a few experiments in location based entertainment. Companies like SignalSoft and SnapTrack are today testing person-pinpointing power and boasting of a bold new future where all our commercial service providers will follow our every step.

Still, even most police today can't tell where a mobile phone user stands. This should change over the next few months. Jay hopes to find a powerful partner to help bring this idea to fruition. The infrastructure is in place; HaikuHaiku awaits a connection to real-time global positioning data for all the potential participants.

As the bigger players roll out their location-based broadcasting services, participatory visions like HaikuHaiku excite us for that day when we can stumble out of a bar in Brisbane, Australia, and see these words pop up from Obelisk: "autumn sun writes nothing / a reclaimed street / has space for many senses."

Justin Hall wrote his first article exploring technology culture in 1990; since then he's written over 2,000 web pages at Today he writes and speaks on electronic entertainment and he's bootstrapping his own TV talk show.