A digital twist to survival

Surviving the wild with just bare necessities, a quick mind, laptop circuitry and basic tech gizmo. This quixotic match-up is the premise of a new Discovery Channel television show in the US called “Hacking the Wild”, which stars the latest faculty addition to NUS Communications and New Media — Assistant Professor Andrew Quitmeyer.

Prior to moving to Singapore last December, Asst Prof Quitmeyer was tapped by the television network to put his research in Digital Naturalism and his improvisation and hacking skills to use in the show, which sees him exploring and navigating a range of biomes in the US, from swamps and deserts to glaciers, and creating makeshift devices for survival. The show premiered in the US on 15 Feburary.

In a screening and sharing session held on 16 February at NUS, Asst Prof Quitmeyer gave curious audience members a preview of his adventures on the show and what his research in Digital Naturalism entails. A focal point of his PhD research at Georgia Tech, Digital Naturalism investigates the role that digital media can play in biological field work.

Asst Prof Quitmeyer explained, “It’s all about joining scientists, field biologists in particular, as well as interactive media artists and engineers, to see how we can work together to build tools that are valuable to scientists and that can be built from the ground up, that will unlock new ways for us to understand and empathise with the natural environment.”

A man of many interests and skills, Asst Prof Quitmeyer’s foray into Digital Naturalism was an unexpected one. A nature lover who was originally trained as a media artist and an engineer, Asst Prof Quitmeyer was working in a robotics lab in the US when he met ant researchers who invited him on a field trip. He recounted, “We were in the desert running around collecting ants, when I suddenly had a sort of ‘crisis’ moment. I was like, ‘I’ve screwed up, this is what I want to do instead of just being trained to do engineering technology and art!’” He later found a way to meld his two interests in building technology and interacting with nature, in Digital Naturalism.

One quirky project was a system he set up to track jungle traffic, specifically for ants. His colleagues wanted to find out how many ants went by a specific area, and where they were going. So he had set up some sensors using fibre optics, which could deliver a signal whenever an ant passed over it. Instead of conventional translations of the signals as light or sound, Asst Prof Quitmeyer decided to have it manifest as pulses in a little device he dubbed the “tongue-zapper”, so one could literally “taste” ant traffic.

Asst Prof Quitmeyer currently teaches two modules at NUS: NM4225 Design Fiction; and GET1033 Exploring Computational Media. In Design Fiction, students will have opportunities to experience Digital Naturalism first-hand. Aside from exhibitions where they can share and critique their ideas, his students will also get to do some field work and connect with communities around Singapore.

Being relatively new to Singapore, Asst Prof Quitmeyer is also eager to connect with other like-minded people. “Eventually, my goal is to lead more ‘hiking hack’ expeditions around Singapore and Southeast Asia with interested field biologists and artists and engineers! I’m looking forward to connect with anyone who’s interested in collaborating in field work, or are into setting up maker spaces on campus,” enthused Asst Prof Quitmeyer.