15. October 2011
Wolfgang Domke is one of the few IT experts that can actually explain technology to normal people, even computer dummies. He's constantly working on new ideas with his team and has now built the online presentation for “Sprechende Steine” (talking rocks).
The Name of your project reminds me of the types of cobblestones that carry some of this city's devastating history. Is my mental connection purely coincidental?
Sprechende Steine is a project where old buildings and landmarks are quipped with a QR code (quick response, a two-dimensional bar code), through which they are able to communicate.
Sort of like facebook for buildings?
It's a mix between wikipedia, facebook and a little bit of myspace. It's a social network. We want to combine technologies and utilise them so that they can make history readable at the actual sites. Everyone can go up to the buildings, read the code and find out things about the monument's history. Parallel to this, someone can post information about a house on our website and connect it to the building's code.
So there's a website where the data is entered and then, seperate from that, there's a quick response code.
The codes work like on-site digital encyclopedias. The website is the base. It's where new information is added, but it's not structured like a conventional website. You can integrate facts – on the style of the architecture, the architect, or year of construction, as well as pictures, history, links and personalities that have come in contact with the building. The website exists strictly for acquiring and releasing data.
But the actual interactive interface is created by the QR-codes on the houses and monuments. They can be scanned with a smart phone, immediately providing a three-line teaser, a principle which you'll recognize from search engines like Google. If people are interested they can download an app with facts, pictures and stories.
How many people are involved in the project?
We want as many people as possible to work on it. Right now, we've got four to six volunteers and four programmers. Three of them make the apps for windows, android and apple systems and the fourth works on the back end, collecting data. And there are a couple of others.
We also have five volunteers working on artistic themes, editing and classifying the details in building photographs. They will categorize building ornaments according to architectural style. I myself realized that I know very little about Berlin and especially its city center.
… no one really does.
Mitte used to house the national theater, for example. It's great getting to know not only the city but also the people that used to play a role. I have to admit that curiosity is such an interesting part of my work that it even tends to distract me from what I'm doing sometimes.
But that's great: Curiosity is evoked and instantly rewarded. Who handles the QR-code on the site?
Everyone should be able to add QR-codes on site. We're playing around with ideas about how that code should look – chiseled in stone, carved in enamel. But either way it should reflect the buildings' character.
It's set up so that everyone who accesses the platform can print out their own code. You cand download it as a picture file and just tape it to your door or hang it on the window to read. There are also aspirations to making it an instantly recognizable logo, like the logo for monument protection (Denkmalgeschützt-Logo). We're not opposed to the idea at all, but the implementation would require a huge amount of resources, especially because it takes several stages to work out which stakeholders can or cannot be included.
How long did you work on the project's technological implementation?
The first meeting was held in mid-March. It took twelve weeks to get the technological model to actually start running. It's going to take another three months to finalize it so it can actually be available to the public. It should be finished in the beginning of October.
So it's a peripheral matter that once the project has been finalized, there are practical measures that need to be dealt with.
Building owners can decide if and how they want to participate in the project. Another idea was working with a type of guerilla tactic and seeing how many people would actually stand infront of houses and scan in the codes. There really isn't a fixed set of rules and I really wouldn't want there to be any.
Speaking of rules – how do you secure the reliability of your content? How much room is there for oral history and gossip??
There is some freedom when it comes to oral history. We're not only going to publish scientifically substantiated results. Our goal is to reward people's curiosity. Of course, scientific data should be included but we also want to leave room for popular science. Content that people understand. The system is configured in a way where if the architect died in, say, 1742 and not in 1752 you can externally correct that information immediately. It does the medium proper justice if there is no information that has been set in stone. We don't want texts as long as your arm that are going to make readers chocke with boredom. We're not opposed to a possible “scientific aspects of this building” category. We want a city guide with substantial, all-encompassing information. We all know the feeling when you're visiting a city and you're standing around looking at a building and you can't find anything on it in your travel guide. We want to make those situations a thing of the past.
You've developed different ideas for the project's financeability. How are things looking with that?
We've talked about some approaches, but not very seriously. We're looking for patrons that recognize the purpose of the system. Commercially speaking, it could be possible to offer some of the apps for sale and leave some free of charge. The only thing we have planned for the public domain so far are our plans that we submitted at different banks – we're planning a museum app for which the structure is basically finished. It's important that there is at least some money coming in and we're not just spending it.
So I could walk into the Nationalgalerie and read a code with my smartphone that would provide information about the building...
… or on one of the paintings inside the building.
So I could take a virtual tour?
Basically, yes. You could generate an exhibition guide who could filter the results so that you would only see information on Rembrandt if that's what you're interested in. The museum app would include the painting's contextual history, technical information, a photo of the painting and even detailed sections that include symbols the painter might have added in. All of that information is readily available in digital form already, so it'd be a piece of cake for them to add it into the app. If all museums earned 15 cents per app, then not only museums would profit but also the people buying the apps. Money is an uncomfortable topic because it blocks out the core idea of the project. But the financial aspect could be worked out in a way that all parties could profit from the project.