Category Archives: 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

Broadening Digital Horizons – Overview & Workshops

I was very fortunate to be selected by West Midlands Museum Development to work with and mentor museums across the West Midlands.  This began by museums attending one of three different workshops and then applying to be one of the 10 museums to get further mentoring from me.

The introductory workshops were broadly defined by 3 topics:

  • Maximising use of free online tools, virtual reality and touchscreens
  • Hardware e.g. ibeacons, NFC, Raspberry PI, audio tours
  • Digital & Analogue Games

touchscreen

Generally I build more high-end playful experiences for museums (sometimes leading and other times as the technical partner) so it was a great experience to work with a wider range of places – a bit closer to home.  I say closer but even living in the centre of Birmingham – some of the West Midland museums are still 2 hours away!

We wanted museums to feel more engaged with digital technology, to feel less fearful of it, to understand what can be achieved with smaller budgets, to feel empowered to create their own solutions and to feel motivated by the possibilities.

For the workshops – the basic premise was that I would take some of the more advanced experiences I had created and develop materials to allow museums with more limited technical abilities and budgets to create them on their own.  Many of the museums were very small and had little technical skills in-house and their only digital interactives had been purchased from one-off grants.  This meant that in the event that the interactive stopped working it would be carted off into a cupboard never to be seen again.

hardware-pi-android

I was very much inspired but the rise of the DIY ‘Maker Movement’, low-cost hardware such as Raspberry PI / Android platform and the fantastic tutorials available on websites such as youtube and instructables.  If you are a larger museum with bigger budgets and resources you would still work with digital agencies to produce your unique digital ‘thing’.  The advantage of these lower cost methods mean the smaller museums can now have access to similar experiences.

During the workshops we:

  • Built our own touch tables
  • Created VR photosphere experiences that the player could navigate
  • Developed Cuddly Audio Tour Guides using NFC
  • Wrote our own interactive fiction and played on screens

 

vr-experience

Some of the tutorials that I created for the workshops are available here on the website.  Please feel free to use them for your own museums or re-purpose the material for your own workshops.

cuddly-audio-tour

Category: My Projects

Collaboratively exploring Birmingham’s Stratford Road

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As with much of Birmingham, it’s famous Stratford Road has seen radical change over the past 80 years. Sampad’s Heritage Lottery Funded MyRoute Project remit was to investigate and archive this heritage. Using interviews with residents and examining the changing use of buildings it is hoped that these histories can be captured for others to learn from and enjoy.

Groups gather around the touch table - sharing their own history of the Stratford Road.

Groups gather around the touch table – sharing their own history of the Stratford Road.

The MyRoute project included a smorgasbord of activities – from Taxi Tours to Restaurant experiences, and from Augmented Reality to the publishing of a book. I played a small contribution to the project by building the large interactive touch-table that allowed locals and visitors to explore the history of the area in a shared, fun way. I collaborated on the development with Caroline Beavon and the team from SubstraktCaroline took care of the beautiful visuals (and had a big hand in the historical data) and Substrakt developed the corresponding MyRoute website.

Multi-Touch Table

The touch-table application was tightly correlated with the website. The website holds all the data relating to the history of Stratford road, however not all of this is ideal for viewing on a touchtable. So a curated subset has been selected and is presented on the table easily viewable by a small group.

Probably the most difficult decision during the design process was how best to represent a 4 mile long straight road on a 16 by 9 ‘Full HD’ screen. Most solutions involve allowing users to zoom into some portion of the map. However, this can prevent users simultaneously exploring different areas of the map and causes people to have to ‘wait their turn’ before they can view their area of interest. Ultimately, this gives a single user too much power – so rather than a collaborative experience it becomes a competitive one. The simple solution (simple ideas are often the best) was to coil the road around to fit on the table all at once. We experimented with a number of variations before deciding on the version we see below. The proof is definitely in the final results – users immediately took to the unique layout and had no problem finding locations they were after.

The lenses allow you to look back to different decades - pop-ups of video, audio, images or text.

The lenses allow you to look back to different decades – pop-ups of video, audio, images or text.

Launch Event

The launch event was very well attended and it was incredible to see the touch table get a full workout from the crowds gathering around it. Users easily got to grips with it, often taking the classic first step is to ‘put themselves in the data’ – by looking for the when they live and work. It was delightful to see how the experience encouraged inter-generational discussion between children, parents and grand-parents as well as between different groups within the community. It really highlights one of the main benefits of large touch-tables: encouraging strangers to engage with each other.

Speeches before people headed off in taxi-tours along Stratford Rd

Speeches before people headed off in taxi-tours along Stratford Rd

Here comes the science bit!

The table can be remotely administered thanks to a combination of VNC and dropbox – allowing new versions of the application to be rolled out without physically travelling to the table. The table emails on a daily basis to let us know of usage patterns and any other problems it encounters. Unfortunately, the WiFi performance at the installation locations was quite poor – however this was easily rectified by installing our own MiFi running on EE’s 4G network.

The touch table was originally installed in The Muath Centre, has moved on to Hall Green library and is expected to be included in the Library of Birmingham’s collection of applications in the coming months.

If you can’t get to experience the touch-table in person – the MyRoute website contains to be available after the project and can be explored here:

http://myroute.org.uk/map/

If you knew where to look - you could find hidden 'Easter Eggs' like King Kong!

If you knew where to look – you could find hidden ‘Easter Eggs’ like King Kong!

Category: My Projects