exp_01

The internet restroom is an interactive online space accessible through the IP address 188.166.163.33.

Users can communicate with each other by switching on and off lights or by using water basins, doors and dryers. If they need a private space to rest, they can enter a toilet cabin and close its door, hence blocking the specific cabin for other users and making their cabin a truly private space in the no longer privacy-friendly World Wide Web.

A landing page including manifesto, trailers, images and access to the internet restroom can be found on internet-restroom.net.

research questions

  1. By whom and for what purpose are spaces made public on the internet?

  2. Can we implement a public, yet private, space on our own terms?

  3. What happens if humans communicate albeit the absence of their bodily features and voices?

development

  1. When beginning this experiment we were simply fascinated by imagining how useless a restroom on the internet would be, and what irritation walking and using it would cause.
Being users, but not architects, of public restrooms, we had to research how they are generally laid out, what facilities they provide, how light and water are directed. We put together a stack of pictures showing public restrooms from different countries, communities and times. Early toilet rooms rarely contained more than a row of holes positioned side by side, and so multiple people could use it concurrently. Today’s public restrooms mostly consist of separated cabins with doors for one person each, making them a lot more discreet. A place for washing, as well as garbage bins, toilet brushes and paper, and smooth surfaces that make it easy to spot dirt contribute to potentially clean spaces. The light colors that dominate the architectures are interrupted by the brushed steel of pipes, handles and hinges.
We asked friends about their experiences with public restrooms. For some, public restrooms are spaces to go to when being in public becomes too exhausting. Others find the idea of visiting a strictly gendered space, like most public restrooms, unbearable and avoid the experience if possible. Some do not give much thought to it and see going there as a normal part of their lives. Most have specific memories connected to restrooms: They talked to someone waiting in line, hid there in school, cried there, read messages on the walls or left some, used a cabin as a meeting place or a place to make out, played tricks on others, peed with others in the same cabin, were ashamed of their bodies, met people using drugs or took drugs themselves.
  1. Sketching out two rooms with the 3D modeling software Blender, one with toilet cabins and one with washing basins and a hand dryer, we started to get a feeling for the scales. After some work was done we duplicated our virtual space, but not our efforts, creating a second set of rooms for a likewise unknown gender, which we finally connected by a small, darkish hallway.
  1. We exported the rooms to the game engine Unity and covered them in materials using Physically Based Rendering (PBR), like plastered walls, scratched floor tiles, chrome tubes and wooden roofs. Some materials such as porcelain and plastic only required a color and a reflectance value.
washing basin (wire-frame) washing basin (PBR)
  1. Using a so called first-person-control input (keyboard and mouse) users can move through the space. One hand operates the bodyless avatar while the other hand turns the attached camera, which simulates a head‘s eyes.
user without an avatar looking into a mirror of the internet restroom
  1. By establishing a client-server-communication using Websockets with the help of Jörn Röder, the user’s actions become synchronized between all running instances. If one user uses an object, all other users can witness that action as well.
In contrast to objects like doors, soap dispensers and light switches that encourage communication between users, the toilet cabins’ purpose is to restrict it. Users that open a toilet lid inside a cabin become the single individual occupying it, excluding all others for the time they remain inside.
player uses toilet lid to close a door
  1. Leonard Bahro created a realistic soundscape by recording toilet flushes, soap dispensers, hand dryers, slamming doors and running water at a public restroom at our university.
  1. Lastly, we experimented with who should be representing the internet restroom in public. We want it to be an open, autonomous, non-hierarchical, ownerless space, so we made the janitor an Artificial Intelligence, or rather just a computer voice, that manages the restroom as well as a website with information and an inviting trailer. The janitor’s contact is janitor@internet-restroom.net.

try or catch

We exhibited the internet restroom at the Xpon Art Gallery in Hamburg and the GameZone at the ITFS animation festival in Stuttgart. The setup consisted of a computer, monitor, keyboard, mouse and an internet connection. In Stuttgart we used the setup twice, with the monitors being turned away from each other.

exhibition visitors in Stuttgart use the internet restroom

Users felt familiar inside the clean aesthetics of the restroom’s architecture. The input controls were found to be easily understandable.

Users that were foreign to 3D internet spaces and games were cautious, analyzing their surroundings and carefully clicking on interactive objects marked red. The ghostly opening and closing of doors, the toggling of light switches and water taps that was caused by another user on the internet, elsewhere, seemed random, artificial or designed to some of them. They did not expect strangers to be involved in the installation.

Users that were accustomed to spaces like the internet restroom were often seen trying to break the boundaries, glitching the doors, excessively interacting and communicating with each other. They enjoyed the absence of objectives, tasks and quests they were used to in virtual spaces.

Sometimes, the interactions became more of a performance or dance, when users reacted to each other without language, inscribed objects with new meaning or just enjoyed themselves making noise together.

conclusion

We claim that the internet restroom does not track its user’s actions and that a sealed toilet cabin provides online privacy. Users in the exhibitions often asked about the scope of that privacy. They were aware that most internet spaces collect data without their consent, so they were reasonably afraid the internet restroom would do the same, especially considering it allows for multi-user communication. We assured them that the internet restroom itself does not remember anything, but stressed that its surrounding environments – the browser, the operating system and the internet provider – probably do.

Being de facto intended for use on the internet, not at an exhibition, we can not know what users generally want, think, experience or feel in the internet restroom, be they human (most likely), machine (less likely) or non-human animal (hardly likely). Since none of their actions are tracked, traced or saved it is not possible to reproduce nor to relive these data events. The only way to experience them is to be present in the space as they happen, by either taking part in the play or being an indiscernible spectator.

The design of public restrooms is usually restrictive: Binary gender norms apply, questions of accessibility arise. However, they have always been places of refuge, such as meeting places. We can imagine them as spaces of exchange, cooperation or affiliation, out of range of security cameras. This makes restrooms radical spaces suitable for artistic experimentation.

We understand the internet restroom as a collaboration between human and machine. All of its parts were designed and assembled using software. At runtime, servers are sending data packages containing 3D models, textures and scripts allowing for inter-entity communication.

Continuing, we want to figure out what inputs a human needs to consider a virtual avatar an extension of their own body, with limbs they can move, movements they can think.