Monthly Archives: November 2016

Make & Take – Create your own Audio Tour Experiences

I’m a big fan of predominantly audio experiences in real spaces.  Staying connected with the real environment while augmenting it with audio can be powerful.  Definitely preferable to being distracted by a mobile screen!

You can see this in some of my recent projects:

 

Take & Make is a current project (on behalf of West Midland Museum Development) and running until December 2016 working with 4 museums across the West Midlands.  The museums are involved are Hereford, Leamington Spa, Nuneaton and Whitchurch.  Fortunately for me these museums are at the far flung reaches of the West Midlands so I’m getting to explore our beautiful county some more 🙂

Make & Take Workshop at Birmingham Open Media

‘Make & Take’ Workshop at Birmingham Open Media

Each museum involved receives some equipment and training to get them started:

  • a small cuddly toy
  • a collection of NFC tags
  • NFC capable phones

 

This combination of hardware allows a museum to build their own magical audio tour guide.  If you’d like to try this on your own there are some materials here that help you to build your own:

Tutorial – Cuddly Audio Tour Guide

The project began with a workshop hosted at Birmingham Open Media where we talked about a variety of audio experiences.  I presented for discussion some of my favourite existing audio experiences and some innovative work from BBC Radio:

(I’ll spare you my analysis & deconstruction of these!)

During the day we also covered the technology in more detail – building a simple prototype and discussing ways in which it could be extended (e.g. using Bluetooth to share the audio, or ‘flipping’ the hardware – so having the audience carry the NFC tags instead).  In addition – each museum gets two half-day visits from me (those lucky people!) where we deal with issues specific to their individual project.  In between the mentoring visits the project teams continues their work by developing scripts, creating voice recordings, editing the audio and making simple graphical displays.

 

The projects are incredibly varied with some developed for adults, others for families while some are more linear and some more game-like.

Progress has been excellent so far and am really pleased with how confident the museums are with the technology.  I’m just about to begin my 2nd round of mentoring visits and then we’ll be having a wrap-up event in December where we share our results.  The experiences should go live for public visitors in the New Year.

Category: My Projects

Farmer George’s Flock Game at The Great Pagoda

[While I’m on a blog posting roll – here’s some details of another project that I’ve been collaborating on – again with interactive theatre makers ‘The Other Way Works’]

The idea: Cuddly Sheep as the Game Controller

We were fortunate to win a competition earlier in the year to develop a ‘playful experience’ to bring ‘The Great Pagoda’ to life.  The competition website is still up if you want to take a look at what we had to work with.

Our idea was an advanced audio tour guide in the shape of a cuddly sheep.  It would be more playful and interactive than the usual audio tour guides as it would be the sheep telling the story.  As a family you collect a sheep from the ground floor and it tells you to climb the Pagoda while it talks about educational & entertaining stories.  There are fun activities to do on the way – such as making sure the sheep is well fed and taking them to particular windows so that it can talk about the view.

sheephampton

One of our favourite features was that sheep would know the whereabouts of other sheep – so when you went close to another group the sheep would start talking to each other.

I should add that we hadn’t come up with the sheep idea just because of our natural love of sheep – there is a great history of sheep connected with both King George III & the pagoda.

“George III earned the nickname ‘Farmer George’ through his keen interest in farming and its improvement. One of his agricultural experiments was centred on improving the quality of his sheep’s wool by cross-breeding them with Spanish Merino sheep. Export of these animals was, at the time, banned by the Spanish authorities. However, Kew’s botanist, Joseph Banks, managed to acquire several Merinos for the King that were duly integrated into His Majesty’s flock. Subsequently sheep from the King’s flock were sold at public auctions that were held annually at the base of the Pagoda every August between 1804 and 1810 before the royal flock was dispersed in 1813.”

office

Katie Day, Artistic Director of The Other Way Works and me (in the background) playing with sheep & scales

Extending the location to outside The Pagoda

After a number of discussions with Historic Royal Palaces the project changed slightly to instead focus on the area immediately surrounding the Pagoda.  This was a positive decision that very much helped our experience.  It makes more sense for the sheep to be spending their time on the grassy area outside instead of climbing the stairs of the Pagoda.  This enabled us to include many more fun sheep activities and extend the experience to be much more game like.

Technology Tour

When building these types of experiences I often use the word magical –as while they are very high tech, that is all kept behind the scenes.  Players shouldn’t even notice the technology and instead just focus on the fact you are helping a talking sheep on their adventures.  This ‘smart-sheep’ essentially becomes our game controller and all interaction with the game is through it.

working

The exciting shot of ‘me working’

For those that are interested – the intelligent technology is contained within the sheep – so an Android phone (with Bluetooth 4.0 & Near Field Communication capabilities).  The dumb technology is hidden in the environment (Beacons & NFC tags).  This allows the sheep to know when it is within a certain area or sitting on a certain location.  The players make game decisions purely by positioning the sheep in the world.

gamecontroller

Our ‘game controller’ sitting on our prototype marker (secretly covered in NFC tags)

The game system is the clever part and is a custom software application.  It is written in C# using the Xamarin cross-platform development tools and runs on the Android phone – so a mobile app on a phone.  By using Xamarin it means that we’re not limited by hardware – it would be possible to have this running on iOS or Windows if required (although currently Apple don’t allow developer access to the NFC hardware!)

First ever Artists in Residence @ HRPStudio 🙂

As part of this commission we were invited to be the first ever Artists in Residence at the Historical Royal Palaces Studio.  The main goal of this residency is to work on the project with HRP input, engage with the public and test with internal groups.

sign

We built a prototype before we arrived in residence and then with access to the vast knowledge of HRP staff were able to customise aspects of it to ensure we were historically accurate (so it would educational as well as fun – although mainly fun!).

This ‘vertical slice’ (note there is some ambiguity & debate over this term) – so a complete playable experience from beginning to end with work from graphic artists and real voice actors.  This allowed a version of the game to be played as well as testing some of the game mechanics e.g. cheekily eating forbidden vegetables from the palace gardens before being caught, or figuring out a password to get into another area.  This prototype game takes a small group just under 30 minutes to play through in its current form.   It contains over 80 individual audio segments spoken by 5 different game characters.

playtest2

Play-testing in the ‘Clock Court’

One of the main benefits was to run two afternoon play-test sessions:  the first with staff and then the second with their families.  We were delighted with the feedback from both sessions.  The most useful was seeing families engage with it.  No matter how many times you’ve done this before there is always something you can learn by standing back and watching your target audience playing with the game.  The weather wasn’t idea for the second test as it was absolutely pouring down – but it was heartening to see smiling families enjoying themselves and playing it through it to the end.

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Feedback from the youngest play-testers!

hamptoncourt

New rule – all my games to be made with such stunning backdrops!

The feedback from the staff was also very positive and they were impressed at just how far we had got with this prototype at this stage.  The fact that it was a complete experience was clearly above their expectations at this point 😉

What happens next?

It has been a fantastic opportunity and surely one the most beautiful and historically important places that I have made games!  It was hugely exciting to walk into ‘work’ each day when work is the magnificent Hampton Court Palace.  We made sure that on our lunch breaks to take in different parts of the palace so got to see the fabulous location and amazing interpretation (both static & live!).

The technology and game mechanics proved so successful that I’m sure we’ll be using a variation of this game for another location in the near future.  Watch this space!

Our beautiful cardboard prototype destroyed by the great British weather

Our beautiful cardboard prototype destroyed by the great British weather

Category: My Projects

A Moment of Madness (real-world game)

Agent in a Box – spy thriller game / theatre experience

Some time ago I was collaborating on an exciting real-world game ‘Agent in a Box’ with interactive theatre company ‘The Other Way Works’.  The observant among you may have already found (one of the very few) blog posts I wrote about this very project.  Back then we made a simple 10 minute prototype that illustrated the core concepts and allowed us to test this original idea with players.

It started out as a single-player experience set in a hotel room where the player provided back room support to a spy having dinner with the ‘mark’.  The player has a collection of spy materials and a ‘burner’ mobile phone in order to text / call other game characters. All the characters you connect with are Non-Player-Characters (NPCs) so fictional characters portrayed by the game system.  We’ve recorded voice actors to make the interactions with these characters feel realistic.  The theme and story of this prototype was very much entwined with the site-specific work ‘Black Tonic’ by The Other Way Works.

Early version of 'Agent in a Box' set in a hotel room

Early version of ‘Agent in a Box’ set in a hotel room

One of the original goals of the prototype was to take story from ‘Black Tonic’ to a wider audience – so we were considering the final ‘thing’ to be a boxed-product that you played in a hotel room.  So perhaps if you were away at a conference.

Even back then – I often thought of it as a locked-room puzzle that you could take-away with you.  The mixture of puzzles and physical objects (feelies) against a time limit shares many similarities although we were at the very theatrical end (thanks to collaborating with a theatre company!)

Due to distractions of other projects it’s taken a while to get back to this.  It was an idea that we always really liked and received great feedback on – but we needed to find a way to take the next step.  That next step came in the funding support from Arts Council England! Our goal for this phase was to take what we had learnt and build a more advanced prototype with a running time of 30-45 mins.

The reboot

The funding allowed us to step back away from the project a bit and consider it afresh.  What were the aspects that we loved and were core to the experience and what could we change?

  • We loved making the player feel like a spy and being in unusual surroundings
  • The connection with the game-world via the burner phone (our game controller) was core
  • The player simultaneously focusing on understanding the story by juggling the real objects and information that comes via phone.
  • It should be a real-time, fixed length experience
  • Our early tests showed that the game was much more fun when we made it a pair experience rather than the scary solo one.

 

What areas could we improve on?

  • Could we have multiple pairs playing simultaneously (and if so how would they be connected)
  • Are there other stories that might be more appropriate to the spy theme?
  • Could we combine this with live actors?
  • Would this be better suited to a festival environment or installation
  • Is there an alternative location to the hotel room that would work better?

 

I don’t want to give away too much at this time – but the answer is yes to all those questions!

Where are we up to?

We used these guidelines to collaborate with writer Tim Wright (who specialises in interactive storytelling) and were able to develop a completely new story and story world – hence the name change to ‘A Moment of Madness’

We’ve spent the summer months building iterative versions of this experience (and hanging out in public car parks – slight spoiler-alert!).  We’ve been able to run a number of test days in Birmingham – thanks to the fantastic support of Birmingham Open Media and are ready to show the prototype to a wider public at the Waterman’s Digital Weekender on Nov 12 / 13 – if they are still available you can get tickets here.  Running time is approx. 1 hour.

moment-landscape

“On the eve of the vote on radical new legislation to combat climate change, the revelation of a politician’s clandestine rendezvous threatens to destroy the coalition and scupper the bill. Your job is to make sure this doesn’t happen. Stay in your vehicle. Report everything.”

Probably by the time you read this we’ll have already finished those shows – so stay in contact if you’re interested in what happens next.  We’re hoping to find further funding to continue the development, with the premiere happening in Birmingham in Autumn 2017.

Category: My Projects