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It's Email . . . but at a Snail's Pace

Researchers at Bournemouth University have devised a project that will challenge our obsession with the speed of sending and receiving emails.

BU Research Fellows Vicky Isley and Paul Smith are using live snails as a means of sending emails as part of the ‘RealSnailMail’ (RSM) project. Over the coming months, visitors to the RSM website – – can send an electronic message to a friend, relative or work colleague.

The twist comes as the snails play their part. Each snail is fitted with a tiny capsule. Each capsule holds a radio-frequency identification (RFID) chip. As the snails pass within range of an electronic ‘reader’ positioned within their campus-based tank, the emails will attach themselves to the chips. The emails will then be carried by the snails but only forwarded when the gastropods pass close to a second reader.

Under ‘normal’ circumstances, emails travel at the speed of light – some 700 million miles per hour and arrive within seconds of being sent. Via RSM, the emails will travel at .03 miles per hour and could take days, weeks or even months to arrive, if at all.

Visitors to the RSM website will be able to send and then monitor the progress of their emails as snails Muriel, Austin, Cecil and their companions go to work.

“One thing technology promises us is speed, acceleration, more of everything in less time,” says Paul Smith. “Culturally we seem obsessed with immediacy. Time is not to be taken but crammed to bursting point. For this reason, most corporations use RFID.”

“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 recipient’s screen,” he continues. “All we are doing here is creating a physical and biological interruption to this flow, but we 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.”

Vicky and Paul are based within the National Centre for Computer Animation at BU. Together they collaborate as ‘boredomresearch’ ( and have earned an international reputation for interrogating the creative role of computing. This year boredomresearch has teamed up with Tim Orman & Andrew Watson from the School of Design, Engineering and Computing at BU to develop the hardware and network components for RSM.

Later this summer, RSM will feature at the world’s leading new media event – SIGGRAPH 2008 - as part of a ‘Slow Art’ category.

SIGGRAPH, short for Special Interest Group for Computer Graphics, will be held in Los Angeles from 11-15 August. The event is expected to attract some 30,000 computer graphics and interactive technology professionals from six continents.

“We hope that by the time we get to SIGGRAPH, a large number of emails will have already been sent for our snails to collect and forward,” says Vicky. “And who knows, maybe quite a few will have actually been received.”

This year marks a welcome return to SIGGRAPH for Vicky and Paul whose work previously featured at the event in 2005 (Los Angeles) and 2006 (Boston).

Charles Elder | alfa
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