Cellular automata, social jewellery, and the X Factor

I confess that I was among many who watched the x factor final last night. I know it’s not high culture, but it was fun. During one of the performances (Coldplay in this instance) the lights were dimmed and the cameras showed the effect of many people in the audience wearing glowing electronic bracelets. These were clearly centrally controlled and were either red or green (or was it yellow, can’t remember). There are lots of ways this might have been orchestrated. You can signal using the lights, or by radio, ultrasound, the web, or many other mechanisms. It doesn’t matter which they used, it was a nice touch and worked well. But it did make me realise how little people use electronic jewellery. I predicted LED jewellery particularly would take off many years ago and have been very disappointed how little it has. Apart from novelty Christmas accessories, you hardly ever see LEDs in jewellery. I don’t know why that is, but you can’t argue with the market. Maybe everyone just has less tacky taste than me.

Anyway, to the point.

It isn’t necessary to have central signalling to get nice pretty effects. If each person’s bracelet were to interact only with the nearest ones, you would still get interesting effects, with much more elaborate patterns than you would expect. In the early days of study of evolution in electronic systems, there was much talk of cellular automata. Stephen Wolfram showed that some seemingly complex natural shapes and behaviours could be explained if each cell made its development ‘decisions’ based simply on the properties of its nearest neighbours. If you aren’t familiar with cellular automata, it is worth checking it out on Google, you’ll find it very stimulating and it can easily suck up a day of your time. I loved that theory and greatly enjoyed exploring the patterns on my computer. It worked well. With my own background in finite element analysis it seemed obvious in hindsight, as many great insights do. But he had that insight, not me. I went on to apply it to hardware and network evolution based on digital hormone gradients, but that’s a different story and ancient history now. Since then, a lot of work has been done on the wider class of emergent behaviours, linking strongly to complexity and chaos theory.

I didn’t track down who makes the X Factor bracelets,so I don’t know their full functionality but let’s hope that they will bring out future versions that can talk direct to each other, assuming that these can’t yet. And obviously they could be hats, headbands, bracelets, rings, t-shirts or pretty much anything you can wear. As long as they are easily visible they could work well. It doesn’t even have to be a new piece of jewellery. It would work just as easily with a smartphone app, though I can’t be bothered to write one.

Emergent behaviours will produce interesting effects, many of which can’t be predicted. They could be programmed to behave out of the box with some basic cellular automata algorithms , e.g what is the state of the other devices I can hear best? That would already produce nice patterns to someone watching at a distance, with waves of colour change oscillating wildly around a community as people move around. Many of these would be biomimetic, precisely nature apparently uses similar algorithms. Or they could take manual inputs from their wearers. That would also be fascinating. Users might pick a particular emotional state they want to  project. Then the patterns and colours would evolve according to the social mood in the area. People could play games with the patterns, or use them as an elaborate form of tribal signalling and communication. In today’s age that could be in anything from parties and rock concerts to urban riots. Marketers are unlikely to ignore their potential too.

The X Factor may make debatably good TV, but social jewellery can certainly be good fun, and you can prove mathematically that its effects can’t all be predicted, so we’d get some surprises too. It might not take off, but I really hope it will. In times of economic gloom, we can do with some extra fun.



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