Interdisciplinarity with the Solar-Powered Data Conversion Unit: advancing the state of (the) art

1. Introduction
Though much has been made of interdisciplinarity in academia since the mid 20th century, most ‘interdiscipline’ works are relatively narrow in scope. In journals and galleries alike, few interdisciplinary works cross the art/science divide. Drawing on the author’s background in atmospheric science, this project aims to propose a instrument capable of such an interdisciplinary approach. Here, one example of the many creative possibilities afforded by the Solar-Powered Data Conversion Unit (SPDCU) is presented.

2. Materials and Methods
The laser-cut aluminum chassis of the SPDCU provides support for the unit’s power generation and data collection equipment. Here, the SPDCU is configured to take concentration readings from six air pollution sensors: carbon monoxide, hydrocarbon gases, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), gaseous alcohol, methane, and liquefied petroleum gas. These sensors are fed into an Arduino Uno microprocessor board, which also converts the sensors’ analog voltage output to a digital reading. These digital readings are then sent to a laptop running a Max/MSP patch which unpacks the stream of data every 500 milliseconds. In addition to serving as the computer/microprocessor interface, Max/MSP is the interpretive core of the project. In the current configuration, the patch converts changes in concentration to a series of notes. Here, note pitch is determined by absolute concentration of the measured gaseous species. A sample of the audio generated by the SPDCU can be heard here.

3. Results and Conclusions
An installation of the first iteration of the SPDCU at Eastern Bloc’s Winter 2016 Data: Salon series was successful. All components of the project were functional and audio renderings of the concentration data in real time were performed.

The scientific merit of the project, however, is questionable. Though not computed directly, concentration readings from the sensors used are most certainly unreliable The sensors are not calibrated and no effort has been made to validate the readings against published literature. The sensors themselves are not laboratory-grade and likely not to be trusted under any circumstance, calibrated or not, as most measure concentration of gaseous species rather than specific molecules Moreover, there is some concern that some of the sensors may not be sensitive enough to measure extremely dilute gaseous concentrations, particularly those of the VOCs.

The gallery space is designed to be one in which subjective, rather than objective experiences take place, as made evident by how the piece is installed within the gallery. Location and lighting, are both the result of subjective and arbitrary aesthetic decisions made by the author.

The arbitrary nature of the project is reinforced through the use of a musical output – music obviously conveys mood and in this case seeks to overlay emotion onto data. This desire too is suspect as the author has no musical training whatsoever.

Above all, this project presents opportunities for further research. As noted in Figure 1, with the addition of more time and money, the methodology laid out here has the potential to serve as the basis for new exploration into interdisciplinary work.

Figure 1: Realized (in bold) and potential data collection, processing, and outcomes with the SPDCU. View fullsize image here.

Figure 2: Poolside with the SPDCU

Figure 3: The SPDCU installed at Eastern Bloc