HALIFAX, NOVA SCOTIA — Science fiction makes heavy use of the concept of 'alternate universes' - realities that are all around us, but which we never see. Well, as it turns out, you don't need spaceships or tears in the space/time continuum to experience other realities, all you need to do is pick a familiar spot and stay there for 24 hours. Their Circular Life does just that, and reminds us that there is much more to our little corners of the world than we realize.
Online for about two years, Their Circular Life is one of those projects that could only exist on the Internet - as it gives surfers a chance to experience a day in the life of a public urban location (as well as the human activities that take place there). Considering the elegance of the main feature, the site's home page is deceptively simplistic, boasting nothing more than a collection of visitor comments, links to the exhibit, and details about the "Open Source" version of the project (more later).
Entering the exhibition, visitors are taken through an introductory animation and on to the Circle application, where questions about the unique interface are answered through a collection of floating boxes.
Despite the site's age, there are only two files available to date - documenting events outside the Modena Railway Station, and canal-side in Venice. (The latter locale also served as a backdrop at the beginning of "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.") choose one of the two locations, and the Flash file (about 900k) loads to reveal a still image above an interactive circle which loosely corresponds to a 24-hour clock face. Drag a triangle around the clock face, and images dissolve from one to another - to make time move forward or backward, or if you so desire, stand still.
And that's all there is to the user input, but the effect can be impressive. While most of us have seen at least one time-lapse film of human traffic around some urban landmark, Circular Life's approach makes the experience much more immersive - by allowing the visitor to control the passage of time, and by accompanying images with the ambient sounds typically present for that location and time of day. From pigeons in early morning Venice, to busses pulling up outside Modena's railway station, to cell phones and car alarms, the soundtrack helps the interactives to feel more like a visit to an actual place than to a gallery. (The effect is partially compromised, however, by the need to keep file sizes - and download times - under control. As a result, sound files are short, and in some cases the loops are painfully obvious - but overall, the 24-hour 'narratives' definitely benefit from their inclusion.)
As for the exploration of unseen worlds, the presentation also makes one acutely aware that the people passing by the camera in the midday scenes probably have no idea of what happens at that very spot during the late night or small hours of the morning. That, in turn, reminds us that we're just as ignorant about the places we walk through every day.
For those interested in similar explorations of a particular place in their own daily travels, Circular Life's Open Source component has made Mac and Windows versions of the site's source files available for download.
Judging by the webmasters' invitation, pretty much anyone who can scan a photograph and record sound can use the sourcefiles to create and contribute their own narratives to the site, and with luck, the original two locations will eventually be joined by files from around the world. There are, however, a few necessary restrictions for contributors. Image files must fit the dimensions of the existing interface, scenes should be photographed at roughly 60-minute intervals (to make the image transitions as sooth as possible), and if it is impossible to record sound files during shooting, 'canned' sound effects must match the scene. (So no Kookaburra calls in Central Park or whale song on the Las Vegas Strip.)
A global assortment of such experiments would make for a fascinating collection. From famous locations (Are Times Square or the Ginza district ever quiet? What happens in Trafalgar Square at midnight?) to more pedestrian subject matter (What are the rhythms of a daily newspaper?), the number of potential 'Circular Lives' is almost limitless. And until new narratives find their way to the mother site, you can always whet your appetite with the original two.
Their Circular Life can be found at http://www.theircircularlife.it/.