Obsolete Spectacles

Posted on Sep 28, 2013 in Physical Computing
Obsolete Spectacles

Everyday, as I run down to jump on the L, I pass a payphone in the subway. I don’t know if it works. I don’t know who I’d call, since, socially, everyone I know is ‘long distance.’

Mobile phones have radically remapped the old geographies of telecom access and pricing (duh), complicating the way we even consider using ground-lines (or remember numbers). My guess is that the phone is for emergencies and exceptional cases: local 911, 311, operator assistance calls, tourists with phonecards.

Anyways, it’s a bit dicey to grab video (hours and hours of video) in the subway to document that lack of use, but it got me thinking about surreal and spectacular interactions with half-obsolete public objects. And, in keeping with those technologies that have been rendered altered or obsolete by the growth of smartphones, I’ve decided to document photo-booths.

15 Minutes of Fame

The photo-booth has been obsolete for decades in purely democratized photographic terms: brownie cameras, polaroids, 1 hr photo, etc. But, due to this obsolescence and its physical framing of subjects, it’s gathered a certain series of social meanings and role in culture (or cultural criticism).


warholLike, if we think of Warhol, his favorite thing was to have a clients pay for portraits and, then, he would send them out for photo-booth shots: It was the mechanical eye, true. But within those iterative exposures, there’s something about the inhuman intimacy of its regularity. One (or three or four) people in a photo-booth are held and objectified; it’s a sort of sculptural, corporeal experience of spectacularization… as though Warhol wanted his clients to ‘feel,’ in condensed form, the visual culture of fame, quick-but-indifferent interest, and unfiltered capture that was continually polished and served to the public as TV news, or Life. He wanted them to be jostled by it. It becomes almost a surrealist pun: the photo-booth is ‘live’ in ways that mass mediated content always try to be (and it’s disappointing or awkward or indifferent like most unmediated human and mechanical contact).  More recently (and a bit lighter), films like Amelie have played on the anonymity of the photo-booth, making it a sort of quintessential urban, tourist, transitory emblem of unknown (and anticipated encounters). It’s the visual equivalent of how we image ourselves trying on persona’s, switching subjunctives and appearing, as individuals or small groups, to the world ‘at-large’.


Somewhere between these light-hearted and darkly humorous positions, I was just curious about our increasingly irregular interactions with the photo-booth.  Have they shifted in the age of the ‘selfie’ and the ‘antiqued’ images of instagram? Why jump into the booth?

reconnaissance and remarks

What follows is a) a description of literal physical structure of a photo-booth (how it works, where buttons are, feedback ‘objects’ and output), b) comments, observations and  patron behavior (designing for drinkers and altered reflexes?). So here are the results from my and Michelle’s evening watching, timing, and engaging the booth.

physical structure & interface for a photo-booth

(how it works, where buttons are, feedback ‘objects’ and output)


[stock image in full light (better than our grainy shots)]

The outside surfaces are  a mixture of lit signage, steel mirrors, and shiny preening surfaces. On the left, near to the photo output slot (“Ready to Flash,” above), appears to be the case holding chemical film developing mechanisms. It’s flat and frontal with minimal surface articulation. Most of the attraction and advertisement for the machine itself comes from the overflow lighting from the interior, the shuffle of feet, the curtain movements, etc.

The inside compartment contains all of the actual interface: instructions for use,

IMG_0960 IMG_0961

the insertion slots for bills (current) and quarters (older),

IMG_0964 imagejpeg_2

the continually lit strip which works in tandem with the internal flash (that is timed),


a two-way mirror with a) signage for eye level b) a red timing flash bulb (akin to re-timers on contemporary cameras),


To use (classical instructions):

  • one enters and turns toward the lights
  • glances at the instructions (which are half-obsolete, but in dual english-spanish)
  • perhaps, at some past point, switched backgrounds to your liking
  • one closes the curtain (if you desire intimacy)
  • insert your money, thus starting the timer
  • and poses for the camera

The feedback for your actions is based both on familiar electronic sounds (money being ‘eaten’) and variants of camera signage (the red-dot). About half the couples that entered the booth expressed cries of  mock shock and disappointment on each flash- suggesting that the timing ‘red flashes’ and fill ‘flash’ were spaces too far apart. (They’d broken their poses before capture?) In addition to that contemporary mis-match, the output of photos is now perceived as inadequately ‘instant,’ as additional signage reminds patrons that processing takes time.


Although ‘timing’ may be a bit off (and it is a bit quick for perfect sequential shots, even sober), there’s no great difficulty. Most couples finished in approximately 3-4 minutes and retrieved their shots within an additional 3-4 minutes. Fresh photos, at 4 minutes, are still wet and need to be waved like a polaroid. It’s an amplified ‘nostalgic’ feature- chemical smell, paper substrate, and ‘slow’ development. The timing between users seemed to be tied to ease of pocket/cash access… which may or may not be an excuse to ‘neck’ given the tight internal space. I wonder how the behavior/timing alters in a predominantly credit card neighborhood, verse, cash-ready arena like Bushwick. Likewise, with the booth by the restrooms, but between the bar and patio, it’s hard to say if there was more or less lingering to encourage folks. We’d have to return in the winter to investigate different patron flows.

comments, observations and  patron behavior

Watching folks contemplate or take photos didn’t really alter their behavior. Most approached with a sense of engaging in spectacular actions (no rush, no urgency, no expectations of unconscious flow of actions): conferred amongst themselves, hesitantly entered or lingered after 20-30 seconds on the outside.


Other than myself, everyone who took photos was a couple and, we speculate, a long terms couple (cohabiting couples?) as opposed to a ‘pick-up’ encounter. It’s hard to imagine splitting a row of photos, particularly today when physical prints are increasingly rare.

I’d anticipated far more appropriation of the space and/or lights. One woman ducked in to check some messages. Given that she was surely using a ‘smart device’ with backlit, touch-sensitive interface, the booth was more for privacy than illumination.  As with patio access and ‘lingering’ space, it seems like winter and disgusting restrooms would propel more ‘alternate’ booth usage by limiting desirable options for privacy. There’s also the greater relation to smartphones, in that napkin sketches, napkin phone numbers, and all the ephemera of dark bar exchanges are lost to contemporary ‘friend-ing’ and ‘digital’ notes. I’m sure a decade ago I might have ducked into a photo-booth or a phone-booth to dig directions of a bag or try to decipher/re-write a potential phone number before it disappeared into beer-based watercolor patterns. But none of these private-public behaviors relay on ‘public’ light anymore… If the photo-booth was a very democratic yet concrete enclosure in Warhol’s day, it seems that much of that spectacularily privatized or intimate space has been internalize today.


[clearly, new fb avatar needs to come from this over-exposure]

On a complete different note (ha ha), labs documentation:

(Turn the volume down… these are pretty harsh sounds. The Arduino kit speaker + iphone pickup is not for audio connoisseurs.)

simple sound:


shifting tones:

forward and back (potentiometer meets motor):

(lateral observation: So not only did the bar we visited have a photo-booth, but also a mini-golf course. It had a miniature Dutch windmill and horribly uneven turf. It’d be amazing and a tad sadistic to put down an array of pressure sensors in the green leading up to the windmill. Map the variable analog resistance to the windmill speed and some boolean direction commands. Every time someone steps forward to mentally calculate and putt, the windmill behavior changes; Xtreme Mini-Golf!)


transistors to be done monday am…