Walter & the Cucumber

After spending a day filming with Russian NTV presenter Evgeny Ksenzenko on 4th September 2008 we took a quick roll call of the snails before heading home. Counting only seven of the eight agents we checked them off by their ID number. Agent 011 aka Walter was nowhere to be found. Recently the snails had started burying themselves in a spell of feverish egg laying. A more exhaustive search of the substrate reveal two more pockets of eggs (bringing the total egg count to approximately 360) but no Walter. Both Vicky and our four year old son Lorne joined me crawling around the office looking for any sign of snail or slime.

Earlier, during the interview, the cameraman, Boris Khalfin, had been standing with his back leaning against the open tank; could Walter have slithered from tank to shoulder. Was he defecting? Had the interview been a cover for a snail jacking? Was Walter’s mangled body pressed between the treads of a Russian boot? Should we phone them? What would we say? We drove home inventing more improbable scenarios and coming to terms with the loss of one of our agents. Walter had been carrying an email when he disappeared and we had not planned for this eventuality. Should we reassign the email to the next available snail or should we also allow it to mysteriously disappear.

Later that evening a routine check of the snail stats online revealed that Walter was now available. He had posted his message. How could this be? we have yet to discover but over the weekend his performance has rocketed. Evgeny Ksenzenko brought a cucumber for the snails; a rare treat. Is Walter in orbit, rippling around the outside of the tank, desperately trying to get back in for his share of the cucumber. This would allow him to pass by the readers, possibly getting a small electrical buzz as he slithers over the exposed circuitry. When we return to our office this week will we find him frizzled onto the back of one of the readers or peering wistfully through the glass at what remains of the cucumber?


It’s hot in our office on the fourth floor at Bournemouth University. Concerned with the wellbeing of the snails we decided to relocate them to our home in the forest. Since the move we have noticed a clear increase in performance. The change also triggered new and fascinating behaviour. One day three snails vanished. A multiple breakout was our first thought and we examined the walls for traces of slime. With no evidence to support an escape we searched the enclosure leaving no bowl unturned. We were amazed. Our snails had started tunnelling. With no arms and only one foot they had built three independent escape tunnels, being defeated only on reaching the 10mm thick toughened glass bottom of the tank.

Were we doing something wrong? Were things really so bad in there that our inmates had hatched a coordinated escape plan? As it turns out the recent boost in performance has been short lived as the conditions are ripe for egg laying. They can bury themselves for up to 48hrs. Not only is this extending their average transfer time but, when Beatrice (pictured left) decided to deposit her eggs by the pick up reader, she prevented the others from collecting new messages, until she was finished.

We have relocated the eggs to a hatchery where we look forward to the slither of approximately 280 tiny feet, (one each) hopefully in four weeks time. We hope to bring them up to a serviceable size so they can follow in the foot-slime of their ancestors. The surplus may like to offer themselves to the restaurant trade to fund the good work of their siblings!

RealSnailMail was premiered at SIGGRAPH2008 in the Slow Art Exhibition, Hybrid Section at the Los Angeles Conventions Center (11th-15th August 2008). Alongside artworks by Dennis de Bel (Willem de Kooning Academy Rotterdam), JooYoun Paek (Eyebeam Resident NY), Jason Freeman (Georgia Institute of Technology), Armella Leung (Art and Technology of Images-Université de Paris), Anab Jain & Alex S. Taylor (Microsoft Research).

We exhibited the webmail service on a terminal in the exhibition and visitors could view the live SnailCam and prerecorded footage of the enclosure at Bournemouth University UK. It was a good opportunity to showcase RSM alongside other research projects and contextualise the work in our artist talk and we had great feedback from participants, visitors and staff during the week.

Leonardo contacted us during the conference in reference to submitting a paper to their journal documenting our RSM research and development. This is an ideal opportunity to publish a paper which presents our findings over the last six months and we are keen to discuss our struggles in avoiding the temptation to make the system more efficient. We will be collating all our project research over the next couple of weeks and aim to submit the paper to the publication before the end of 2008.

A big thank you to Daniel Cox, Sofronis Efstathiou, Steve Harper, Susan Sloan & Adam Vanner from the Visual Research Group, Bournemouth University who spent quality time nurturing the snails and looking after the equipment whilst we were in Los Angeles. We had great fun watching the snails relish their gastronomic delights on the SnailCam during the Slow Art exhibition.

Agent005 in TIME

Today we caught an article on RealSnailMail in the TIME magazine Europe issue (11th August). It was also featured in the USA issue last week – article is online at: http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1826298,00.html

New recruits

As Agents 001-003 (aka Cecil, Austin & Muriel) have been in our RealSnailMail enclosure at Bournemouth University since February 2008 they have now retired to greener pastures. Eight new snails from our garden now inhabit the tank equipped with 20mm clear disk tags. These new tags enable the Snail Agents (aka Fred, Agatha, Sean, Penelope, Francis, Beatrice, Walter, Reginald) to pick up and send messages up to 5cm away from the RFID readers. To check out their profiles please visit: http://realsnailmail.cfdeveloper.co.uk/profiles.cfm


These eight snails will be our delivery agents during SIGGRAPH Los Angeles (11th-15th August 2008). They’ll be keeping busy as we currently have over 6,000 emails patiently waiting delivery.

Snail Stardom

Our snails gave a great performance on today’s BBC Newsround program. You can watch the program and check out the snapshots the Newsround team took of our enclosure at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/cbbcnews

We will be premiering the RealSnailMail webmail service at SIGGRAPH2008 The 35th International Conference and Exhibition on Computer Graphics and Interactive Techniques at Los Angeles Convention Centre, California USA from 11th August 2008.

Visitors to the SIGGRAPH2008 ‘Slow Art’ exhibition will be able to access the realsnailmail.net website on a terminal and email a message via the RSM website. Their email will travels at the speed of light to the realsnailmail.net server where it is entered into a queue. Here it waits until a real snail within the tank at Bournemouth University UK wonders in range of a hot spot. The hot spot is the dispatch centre in the form of a RFID reader. This reader identifies the snail from the RFID chip attached to its shell and checks to see it has not already been assigned a message to carry. If the snail is available it is assigned the message at the top of the list. It then slips away into the technological wasteland. Located at the other end of the tank is the drop off point. When, or if, the snail ever makes it here, it is identified by another reader, which then forwards the relevant message to the recipients email address; once again travelling at the speed of light.

At each stage of the emails transit the sender will be updated with the messages progress and when the email finally arrives at its destination it is appended with details of its carrier and a log of its journey. The realsnailmail.net website, encourages users to consider the efforts of a diminutive mollusk lugging their message across a tank and for this reason urges them to send a message of value.

For the duration of the conference there will be a SnailCam accessible on the RSM website where visitors can see live footage of the snail tank in action.

Normally when we communicate by email the physical endeavours of our fingertips are followed by an uninterrupted digital transportation until our thoughts are emitted through the pixels of the recipients screen. What boredomresearch is doing here is creating a physical and biological interruption to this flow, but they hope by doing this it may also interrupt, for one small moment, our understanding of communication, allowing us to explore notions of time. It may even enable us to take time rather than lose it.

During the SIGGRAPH2008 conference we will be talking about the development of the RSM research project in an informal 20 minute talk in the art gallery (date & time to be confirmed) there will be an opportunity to ask questions to both myself and Paul Smith.

RFID reader, chipped snail & prototype tank at bournemouth university

On Tuesday 17th June we will be presenting RealSnailMail at Bournemouth University in the Coyne Lecture Theatre at 2.00pm. We will be discussing the development of the project over the last couple of months in which we have teamed up with Tim Orman & Andrew Watson from The School of Design, Engineering and Computing http://dec.bournemouth.ac.uk/ at Bournemouth University to develop a prototype tank. This tank contains a small community of land snails Helix Aspersa. Each snail is equipped with a small glass capsule attached to its shell. The capsule contains a tiny chip and coil antenna that can be activated by a reader at a range of 3 cm. Andrew Watson is currently developing two purpose built readers that provide a link between the snails and the server allowing the snail to collect and deposit packets of information.