By Leander Kahney
Story location: http://www.wired.com/news/culture/0,1284,64419,00.html
New Yorker Joshua Kinberg is a bike messenger of a different stripe. Instead of ferrying legal papers between lawyers, he uses a homemade, wireless, bicycle-mounted dot-matrix printer to spray protest messages in the street.
Kinberg will be taking his road-spraying bicycle to the Republican National Convention in New York this fall, where he'll ride around spraying slogans submitted over the Web and beamed wirelessly to the bike.
"It's painting on the street, but on the Net, too," said Kinberg, a post-graduate student at Parsons School of Design. "That's where the project's power is: on the Web."
Kinberg made his printer out of five solenoid-triggered spray cans, loaded with washable chalk. The spray cans are housed in a homemade Plexiglas box mounted on a rack at the back of the bike.
Kinberg is working on a Web interface that will allow anyone on the Net to submit a 120-character note -- the maximum length of an SMS message -- that will be sent to his cell phone.
If he decides to print the message ("It's funny to write nasty words, but that's not what I want to spray on the streets of New York," he said), he beams it via Bluetooth to his onboard PowerBook.
A custom-written Perl and AppleScript application then translates the message into letters that use a 5-by-5-dot pattern based on Jason Kottke's Silkscreen font.
The PowerBook sends the firing pattern to the spray-can solenoids. The coordinated firing of the spray cans prints out the message -- ticker tape-style -- as Kinberg cycles along. The system is capable of timing the firing according to the bike's speed, he said.
A webcam mounted on the back takes a picture of the chalked-up road and sends it, along with GPS coordinates, back to Kinberg's website. Whoever wrote the message will then be able to e-mail a picture of his or her protest as an e-card. There will also be an interactive map of all the messages printed, Kinberg said.
"I'd been researching bike culture in New York and noticed a big overlap with activist culture," said Kinberg. "This project blends technology and activism. If Paul Revere were alive today, he wouldn't be on a horse, he'd be on a bike."
Kinberg was inspired by the Institute for Applied Autonomy's GraffitiWriter, a graffiti-writing robot car. (See also the group's StreetWriter.) However, Kinberg felt he wanted a human, as well as a robot, dimension.
"Physical presence is important," he said. "It's really important (that) the person's body be on the line. I didn't want this autonomous, cold, robotic thing. I wanted it to be physical protest, and it helps people participate through the person who is there."
Kinberg has a working bike and a functioning backend system. He just needs to work out the website interface, he said.
He recently tested the bike on the streets of New York, spraying "I Love New York," the most innocuous message he could think of.
"I didn't want to get harassed by people," he said. "I don't want to get my equipment confiscated before I get started.... It's a legal gray area, it's sort of graffiti."
Glenn Reynolds, a conservative commentator at Instapundit.com, gave the project qualified praise.
"I don't guess it counts as vandalism, since it appears to use erasable chalk," he said. "And if it is, at least it's clever vandalism. We certainly have plenty of the non-clever kind already."
Kinberg said he'd considered giving Republican supporters a voice, but discounted it.
"It's not fair and balanced," he said. "It has a clear political slant."
One idea suggested to him was to set up phone lines for taking messages verbally, one for Democrats, the other for Republicans. The Democrat line would be free, but the Republican number would not.
Kinberg has been approached by guerrilla marketers with a view to using the bike for commercial purposes. But Kinberg said no.
"It's not something that interests me," he said. "I'm putting my energies into protesting. Right now, it's a not-for-profit venture."