Material Experiments and Playful Disruptions: Interrogating Boundaries, Meanings, and Aesthetics of the Smart Camera

Richmond Y Wong, University of California Berkeley; Neilly Herrera Tan, University of Washington; Nathaniel Gray, University of Washington; Jason Valdez, University of Washington; James Pierce, University of Washington

Toronto 2021: Inventive AI

This critical making project repurposes commercial “smart home” cameras to interrogate the cameras’ workings, and its social meanings as an information technology and media artifact. By repurposing and redeploying commercially available smart cameras in our own home environments, we intentionally and playfully create disruptions, misuses, and breakdowns to help us learn about the current capabilities of the cameras, highlight new seams that emerge from their use, and to imagine how we might use and live with them in alternate ways. We use a variety of tactics to play with the cameras and their networked capabilities (such as automatic sensing and detection algorithms), how data are captured, and how the captured data get used. Through these interrogations, we explore themes related to: the cameras’ social and power-laden relationships with different types of users; social meanings created around the aesthetics of smart camera recordings; tactics of surveillance and obfuscation; and how cameras contribute to the social imaginary of the “smart home.” We juxtapose our redeployments and disruptions next to dominant popular discourses surrounding the “smart home.” Our explorations are presented through a multimedia presentation that includes video and photographs taken of and by our camera deployments, as well as from smart camera feeds.

Keywords: Critical making, smart camera, smart home, disruption, breakdown

Smart Camera Interrogation Tactics


Obfuscation with light (0:03 – 0:24)

In some of the self probes, I used obfuscation techniques that mirrored some of the obfuscation methods used in the wild. In one reddit thread, I read about the use of cameras that pointed into a neighbor’s yard. In the replies, one redditor suggested that people point motion sensitive lights in their backyard to go off in order to obfuscate the line of sight of the cameras. In some of my self-probes, I played around with light to see how the video footage would be affected. This included attaching the cameras directly to lights within my home. — Jason Valdez

Powerlessness to always-on computing (0:25-0:58)

Through online comments and posts, there is clear evidence of a sense of powerlessness by people as these IoT devices begin to encroach on all facets of American life. An overall sense that something is always-on and always watching us. Without destroying the devices, I attempt to use the cameras against themselves. By using the camera’s built-in infrared lights to confuse itself, I was able to obfuscate the imagery it is recording, cause endless notifications, and make two cameras communicate with each other throughout the night. I used a simple headlamp with another camera attached to it to obfuscate my face. — Nathaniel Gray


Head Mounted Camera (1:01 – 2:10)

We discussed how recorded footage may land somewhere from creepy to delightful. In one of my exercises, I attached the camera to my hat through the use of magnets. I then held another camera in my hand, and proceeded to take footage of taking out my recycling. Aesthetically, it looks like found footage. Aesthetically, it was ostentatious in terms of how it looked as a wearable. — Jason Valdez

A fear of motion (2:11 – 2:44)

Our research taught me that fear drives the market for many of these IoT devices. The fear of partygoers at your rental or a package being stolen or your A/C running too long when you are away; yet the comments underneath the surface were of the fear of someone always watching you or your personal data being stolen or your rent increasing because your fridge comes with an app. Fear was embedded in my actions with the probes. It caused tensions in my house and left me feeling uneasy with their watchful eye. I could see how these devices could lead to people subconsciously fearing the most ubiquitous of things, movement. However, nothing is ever static. This theme was reflected in the simple task of setting my camera to face out the window of my living room; a view of a garage, a driveway, and of large pines on a suburban road. — Nathaniel Gray


The home surveillance aesthetic (2:45 – 3:18)

Another theme in our discussions was the aesthetics that are used to market these IoT surveillance devices. Depending on the market, these devices are either hip, luxurious, or necessary to prevent crime. During our research into Nesties and Ring TV, it perplexed me to see the door cam aesthetic used as social media content. I felt influenced by this and attempted to make these camera shots more whimsical, cinematic or dreamy as an affront to the cold, security element that is often illustrated by the limitations of these cameras. My tactic for this included placing a lens in front of these cameras, time lapsing still shots, and even creating a kaleidoscope out of a toy camera and Christmas lights. — Nathaniel Gray

Inward Reflections (3:21 – 4:15)

To a lesser degree, I would leave the cameras on, and would have them pointed out towards my backyard. This often resulted in reflections. These reflections often showed the cameras, or more sinisterly, would capture motion or movement from within the house. This would often record unintended subjects, namely, myself. This ties into some of the ideas around leakage, non-primary individuals, and privacy concerns. It was interesting to do this probe and see how quickly the view of the cameras could be inverted to view the unintentional. — Jason Valdez


Using Night Mode During the Day (4:19 – 4:41)

Using night mode during the day is one technique for obfuscation as it desaturates the environment, records in greyscale, and blurs out fine detail in objects. — Jason Valdez

Powerlessness to always-on computing (4:43 – 5:39)

Without destroying the devices, I attempt to use the cameras against themselves. I used a black wireframe basket to confuse the cameras to trigger the infrared light to obstruct the image. –Nathaniel Gray

Always-On Computing

Always-On (5:46 – 6:31)

One of the tactics I used in my self-probes included always-on computing. I would often leave the cameras on, whether or not I was home or within observable range. This allowed for a lot of mundane observation. Among the mundane, there was a lot of footage of inanimate objects, conversations that triggered the sound sensor, as well as just regular ongoing events within my kitchen or home. –Jason Valdez

Powerlessness to Always-On Computing (6:34 – 7:00)

Without destroying the devices, I attempt to use the cameras against themselves. By using the camera’s built-in infrared lights to confuse itself, I was able to obfuscate the imagery it is recording, cause endless notifications, and make two cameras communicate with each other throughout the night. I pointed cameras at each to see them set each other off during the night. — Nathaniel Gray

You can also download a more detailed guide to the video and the project, including a discussion of the project’s methods and reflections.

Published: 01/29/2023