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


Only very recently have we seen the playful re-appropriation and novel uses of wireless devices and personal technologies in urban spaces. Such spaces contain trace elements of themes often found in traditional HCI literature such as those exploring actions in the home, office, school, automobile, etc. However, urban landscapes are both crowded and lonely, comforting and frightening, public and private, and shared and exclusive. Urban places and our actions there are critical to forming our understanding of community and belonging often without directly interacting with members of the community.

Overall, while Urban Atmospheres can draw from foundations in HCI, we argue that it diverges significantly from traditional computing spaces, actions, objects, and communities. It also intersects a broad range of disciplines ranging from computer science and engineering to sociology and psychology as well as architecture and urban planning. As a result this work has been successful at engaging practitioners across these diverse research disciplines.

Furthermore, with mobile and wireless devices in their infancy of adoption in urban life, we argue for a research methodology aimed at promoting a broad inspiration of urban possibilities. We have a unique opportunity, right now, to invigorate the very role that technology will play in our cities. For example, current research into urban systems such as location based services will undoubtedly provide important feedback for guiding the development of location based applications; and we applaud such research. However, we claim that a new methodology can complement the existing research by providing answers to broad challenges in this rapidly emerging space. The problem is that it is difficult, but not impossible, with current research approaches to inspire radically different devices, interaction styles, and novel views of our city and its inhabitants.

We argue for an approach that encourages a more divergent brainstorming style explicitly away from the dominate research themes that continuously promote efficiency and productivity. Let us embrace the full scope of urban life with all of its emotions and experiences. This research investigation must begin before urban inhabitants acquire strong mental models and expectations from the current emerging suite of standardized urban applications. Finally, we encourage urban inhabitants to become proactive in the evolving and future design of our urban landscapes. In the spirit of technology probes and domestic probes we propose a lightweight, provocative, inspirational research methodology for exploring computing in urban environments Urban Probes.


The overall research goal of Urban Probes is to understand how our future fabric of digital and wireless computing will influence, disrupt, expand, and be integrated into the social patterns existent within our public urban landscapes.

While this is, admittedly, a lofty goal, the actually process of Urban Probing will almost certainly contribute in significant ways to the research space of urban computing. These probes will allow researches to collect inspirational data about urban place and people. They will provoke city inhabitants to think about the roles they play and pleasures they experience in urban places in their everyday life. The probes will hint that resulting urban technology designs might suggest new roles and new experiences of urban places. Finally, we hope that through its use, Urban Probes will develop as a methodology that can be used in further focusing urban computing research and influence future urban social computing technology directions.


The Urban Probes methodology consists of 4 main steps -- each outlined in the links atop this page as well as an actual completed Urban Probe exploring urban public trash called Jetsam.

Observation (Body Storming)


Artifact Production

Deployment and Reaction


Urban Atmospheres at Intel Research