Responsive Mobile Environments

Spring 2021, Carnegie Mellon University

Course Prefix & Number 48-528 (Undergraduate 9 units);
48-758 (Graduate - 12 units)
Meeting times Eastern: 3:40PM-5:20PM
Locations Zoom / Remote
Instructor Daragh Byrne
Teaching Assistant Policarpo Baquera

Course Content

About this course

tl;dr; As part of this project-based course, we’ll get hands-on with emerging technologies, concepts and applications in the internet of things through a critical socio-technical lens. Over it’s 15-weeks, we’ll prototype and explore new tools and tech to explore and speculate on the strange, supernatural and mystic qualities of the smart home.

This 15-week course will introduce students to responsive mobile environments and encourages them to explore speculative terrains that intersect art, technology and design and space. Iteratively, introducing students to the idea of responsive mobile environments, the first half of the semester will tour facets of connected devices and intelligent spaces through readings, applied explorations and guest lectures. The second half of the semester will be organized as an applied, open-ended, collaborative project.

The theme for 2021 will be the exploration of “Spooky Technology” and will encourage students to reflect on the invisible and otherworldly qualities in everyday technology.

Together we’ll investigate the supernatural, mythic and as an interpretive framework to explain and explore how we navigate unexplainably complex systems, breakdown and frictions in connected experiences, and increasing pervasive presence of internet of things. We will do this chart new and potential relationships between ubiquitous computing and our emerging belief and behavior. Students in ‘Responsive Mobile Environments’ will begin by investigating the underlying theory, research, experiences, and implications of ‘spooky technology’. We’ll then use this insight to inform critical prototyping; we’ll imagine and prototype new and alternative systems that reflect the strange and unsettling present and future of the smart home.


“In the case of telegraphy and wireless, in other words, many believed telegraphs and crystal sets could be used to contact incredible and unseen yet equally ‘real’ worlds, be they extrasensory or extraterrestrial. The ethereal ‘presence’ of communications without bodies suggested the possibility of other similarly preternatural interlocutors, invisible entities who, like distant telegraph and wireless operators, could be reached through a most utilitarian application of the technology.… the telegraph and early wireless held the tantalizing promises of contacting the dead in the afterlife and aliens of other planets.” - Jeffrey Sconce, Haunted Media, p10

We often hear that the technologies in our everyday lives would appear to be ‘magic’ and potentially terrifying to people in the past—instantaneous communication with people all over the world, access to a vast, ever-growing resource of human knowledge right there in the palm of our hand, objects with ‘intelligence’ that can sense and talk to us (and each other). But rarely are these ‘otherworldly’ dimensions of technologies explored in more detail. There is an often-unspoken presumption that the march of progress will inevitably mean we all adopt new practices and incorporate new products and new ways of doing things into our lives—all cities will become smart cities; all homes will become smart homes. But these systems have become omnipresent without our necessarily understanding them.

“Today the cloud is the central metaphor of the internet: a global system of great power and energy that nevertheless retains the aura of something noumenal and numinous, something almost impossible to grasp… It is something we experience all the time without really understanding what it is or how it works. It is something we are training ourselves to rely upon with only the haziest of notions about what is being entrusted and what it is being entrusted to.” - James Bridle, New Dark Age, p7

They are not just black boxes, but invisible: entities in our homes and everyday lives which work through hidden flows of data, unknown agendas, imaginary clouds, mysterious sets of rules which we perhaps dismiss as ‘algorithms’ or even ‘AI’ without really understanding what that means. On some level, the superstitions and sense of wonder, and ways of relating to the unknown and the supernatural (deities, spirits, ghosts) which humanity has felt in every culture throughout history have not gone away. Instead, they have transferred and transmuted into new forms.

This course is part of an on-going design-research project, led by Dan Lockton and Daragh Byrne, that has already created an inventory of ‘spooky technologies’. Continuing this inquiry, we will examine people’s understanding of systems in their homes, such as connected devices, information flows, voice assistants, and highlight beliefs and superstitions that emerge around them. What are unsettling moments in the smart home—what do people assume when things breaks down? In tandem, we’ll examine work across art, design, and human-computer interaction, explore the history of the supernatural, myths, and superstitions, and extract possibilities, insights, and opportunities.

From this, we will prototype and experiment with working examples of spooky technologies. What happens when Alexa speaks in tongues? Can computer vision read your tea leaves? What would a haunted smart home be like to live in? Can we create new superstitions—or technologies to counter them?

Notes on IDeATe

This course is part of the Integrative Design, Arts, and Technology program at Carnegie Mellon University.

This course is a collaborative studio as part of the Intelligent Environments or Physical Computing minor and concentration offerings.

For more information, read the information about IDeATe and it’s resources included in this site and consult the resources site for current information on IDeATe and its facilities during the COVID-19 pandemic.


  1. Before the first class complete the skills survey (see Canvas).

  2. Our Slack community is the main hub for course updates, discussion and content. Read more about the slack and its role in the course. Use slack communications with the instructors and TA’s too (i.e. don’t email us!). Highly recommended: Download the Slack client for your smartphone or desktop and enable notifications!

  3. Projects should be documented on the Gallery. This site contains a guide to using the gallery. These are due before class.

  4. It’s your responsibility to be familiar with the course policies and standards. If you cannot attend classes make sure you know what to do.

  5. At times you’ll need special software, hardware or tools to complete your projects. Many of these tools are resources available as part of this course. If there’s something else you need let us know.

  6. No late work accepted. Please don’t ask.