Urban Probes

A methodology for conducting Urban Computing Research

"Let us embrace the full scope of urban life with all of its emotions and experiences"

Urban Atmospheres Research at Intel



Recall that a probe is an instrument that allows measurement of an unknown – returning hopefully useful or interesting data. While probes can fail, their use is often used early on in fields where broad and rapid data is desired. Technology is emerging in urban landscapes where our complex social roles in urban communities, our movement and traces through cities, and our interactions with place and public artifacts intersect. We argue that these conditions are ideal for probes.

An Urban Probe is a fail-fast approach for asking early questions about urban computing in order to focus and influence future urban research and application choices. It is also a useful methodology for conducting rapid urban application discovery and evaluation metrics.

Urban Probes employ a series of lightweight provocative urban proto-tasks to inspire direct discussion from people about their current and emerging public urban landscape. These tasks involve physical construction of simple, functional artifacts and accouterments that are introduced into the urban landscape. These are not paper prototypes, but working models of potential systems. Contrary to traditional methodologies surrounding large scale research projects, each Urban Probe is designed to bypass many classical design approaches – opting instead for rapid, nimble, often intentional encroachments on urban places rather than following a series of typical design iteration cycles.

Urban Probes must capture provocative elements of urban computing questions while incorporating opportunities for play, Happenings, and various Situationists themes such as détournement (rerouting of events and images), and dérive (the urban flow of acts and encounters). Similarly, Urban Probes exploit methods of deep observation coupled with experimentation and concrete interventions in urbanism. In practice, Urban Probes develop and deploy novel physical artifacts into everyday urban settings.

Urban Probes draw large inspiration from the work of several leading researchers in developing technology probes and domestic probes. Such probes combine the social science goal of collecting information about the use and the users of the technology in a real world setting, the engineering goal of field-testing the technology, and the design goal of inspiring users and designers to imagine new kinds of technology to support their needs and desires.

Urban Probes complements these bodies of work by addressing similar themes with respect to urban life. As technology moves from office to home to street, we want to avoid bringing along with it “workplace” values such as efficiency and productivity at the expense of other possibilities. Urban Probes provide methods that aid researchers in gathering fragmentary glimpses into the rich texture of people’s daily urban street life.

You can also read the full research paper on this project:

Urban Probes: Encountering our Emerging Urban Atmospheres
Eric Paulos and Tom Jenkins
ACM SIGCHI, April 2005


Urban Atmospheres at Intel Research