The Bees and the Brontosauruses

Or is it Brontosauri? Let’s start with the Bees…

Manchester is a hive of activity at the moment with ‘Bee in the City’ in full flight (I could work for a tabloid). Families, couples and curious parties trek from one side of the city to the other looking for the next winged work of art and all important number to register on the associated app. The app map becomes very handy when in pursuit of the 105 bees, although you have to zoom in super close to actually make out the streets and street names amongst the bee symbols.

Bee in the city

The app isn’t without its issues, which shouldn’t take the shine off the overall experience. I used a Samsung S8, which proved useless when I attempting to access the solitary AR component, a hovering bee at one of the bee sculptures outside the central library. Another bystander squealed with glee as the bee successfully bumbled around on their iphone. I watched with subdued interest, hoping to see something a bit more engaging, a simple game perhaps. The thing is, Bee in the City is a missed opportunity when it comes to interactive content. I didn’t consider the treasure hunt aspect to be especially engaging – it took me to parts of the city I had never been and I enjoyed seeing the new sights. The app would crash with great regularity and when in close proximity to the new bees I would find the associated code had already been entered. On these occasions there was little else to do in the app, apart from see where the next bee was. Cunningly the app integrates a number of deals associated with the local business or sponsor of each sculpture. This is a commendable aspect of the app as an economic driver for the charitable project and highlights the extensive coordination the project will have required.

City Verve backed a more engaging app recently called City of Firsts, run via the Buzzin’ app (reminded me a bit of Foursquare) and created by Sparta Digital. Buzzin’ also featured map system with destinations clearly marked throughout Manchester. I opted to approach the University district and found destinations were also marked by sculptures – nicely designed, with subtle 3D ‘M’ plinths, presumably standing for Manchester. Convenient height for a coffee. These sculptures featured interactive content, accessed through AR and audio.

Buzzin

QR codes across the top of the plinths accessed augmented objects to explore, associated with short historic narratives, which were also delivered via recordings of people in AR. These speakers highlighted characters of local and global historic significance. I was genuinely surprised and engaged by the pivotal role many of these people played. I had no idea for example that the first stored computer program was created locally, by Sir Frederic Williams and Tom Kilburn. I came across parts of the campus of MMU and University of Manchester that I had never seen before. The landscape architecture around the Bright Building was a pleasant surprise.

Manchester sites

The Buzzin’ City of Firsts experience would have benefited from a series of connected stories, opening opportunities for mystery of puzzle solving. I understand the benefit of having sculptures as way finders linking to the apps, Buzzin’ or Bee in the City included, but there is opportunity to capitalise on existing infrastructure as part of this experience. It would be great to see a bit more creative licence taken too. It’s safe to stick to the solid historic facts and figures but if these apps are to sustain interest and offer replay value there needs to be more engaging content.

Take Jurassic World Alive for example. I understand this is more of a game but bear with me. I have been playing for a few months now and it has kept me coming back for a few reasons. It leverages off the Jurassic World licence, providing broad appeal through dinosaurs – I’m as interested as my 7-year-old nephew. The challenges within the game revolve around the discovery, capture and collection of dinosaurs, which requires an increasing level of skill to achieve. This gives the experience a difficulty curve. It has recently been updated to include battle modes to pitch dinosaurs against one another, providing a competitive element.

JWAlive

Yes, the game can be played anywhere and doesn’t tell you anything about the locations you are in. Yes, it is less serious in nature, whereas the other two apps mentioned are more serious in their intent for local benefit. What I’m alluding to is that there could be more playable aspects to location exclusive apps like Buzzin’ and Bee in the City. How long will it be before we start to see locations more heavily backed and marketed for engaging, playable digital content?

Don’t stress on the Poké-mess: Where next for location based game developers

Now that Pokémon Go has had its moment in the sun, developers and some other unexpected parties speculate as to where the next location-based hit will come from. It is a game worth reflecting on because on many fronts, it seemed to miss the point.

pokemon-go-chester-620x349

The creation of game environments is informed by a similar range of psychological principles to their physical counterparts. Our interpretation of physical environments has a direct influence on our expectations of a digital environment as a player.

The similarities in physical and virtual experiences of the landscape are closer associated than ever before with photo realistic interpretations of the environment and highly immersive hardware to support that experience. A developer can capitalize on this deeply embedded relationship between humans and the environment, whilst emphasising the achievement of goals to progress a players’ experience conducive to the game. Critically, the developer’s perception of an environment can differ from that of a player’s and so a clear understanding of the context is key if it is to be a believable, engaging and meaningful experience.

Where game developers have much to offer is in the programing of space. They understand what will compel a player to explore an environment. They understand the mechanics that will engage players to create that sense of fun. In the context of the physical environment, that sense of fun is often lost amongst the prerogatives of the established disciplines who shape and govern our built environment, amidst the litigious society that we live in.

Games and apps present an opportunity to enhance the way we experience locations. The dynamic of programmed spaces, however, changes with the advent of location-based games and their content. Players may already have preconceptions of the physical locations that they play in. Others such as tourists will have none. It creates an opportunity to make locations more relevant as part of games where locals create the content and visitors consume it.

The explosion in use of Pokémon Go and volumes of people flooding into public open to play the game space demonstrated the raw potential of the tool. This was, however, perceived by many city officials as both an unmanaged mess and missed opportunity, taking them by surprise (and a few unsuspecting locals). A golden opportunity to make the game and future games an integrated part of the fabric of cities was not capitalized on. Not by the game developer nor by the city officials.

During this period prominent public locations became ‘pokéstops’ (a location to train Pokémon), but the game itself said nothing of the inherent significance of these locations – nothing of the history, the narratives, the events, the cultural values, or the people. The focus was purely on capturing Pokémon. Imagine if there was a greater integration of local knowledge as part of the game and what that could help achieve? Giving games exclusivity to space and integrating that locality as part of the city’s brand is an industry in waiting.

‘​It was a fantastically ambitious game where the city was coherent and filled with autonomous inhabitants. Traffic obeyed laws and drove with purpose, queuing at red lights and pulling out of the way as an ambulance drove by blaring its siren. Pedestrians wandered the pavements, jumping from the path of oncoming vehicles and fleeing scenes of violence. It felt like a real environment – the city had a soul’. Grand Thieves and Tomb Raiders: How British Videogames Conquered the World

Beyond Reality

UniSA’s Prof. Mark Billinghurst and Prof. Bruce Thomas provided an insight into the future of VR and AR at their lecture ‘Beyond Reality 2027’.

The landscape of the subject is undergoing rapid change, supplemented by a market flooded with first generation VR devices. Whilst these show a huge measure of progression from early non-commercial devices, the diversity of sensory VR & AR applications in future devices is already becoming apparent, no longer only driven by sight and sound, but also smell, touch and taste.

The advent of ‘empathic’ computing will allow a deeper understanding of the experience of individuals, observing how they engage with space and tailoring it to suit their specific needs. It could be effective as a means of engagement and as an evaluative design tool.

The core message was that VR is less driven by achieving a ‘score’ and more about creating experiences, which is perhaps why the games industry hasn’t come to terms with it yet. Games need to become more intelligent in how they respond to individual users using this empathic approach to design. It becomes less about creating a generic experience, ‘one size fits all’, ‘games for the masses’ approach.

Landscape Architecture has much to offer designers of digital spaces. The design of most landscapes will include a brief on who the users are and this creates parameters. In an aged care facility for dementia patients for example, the design of the landscape requires understanding of the disease. The sensory experience of the residents is impaired and details of the design sometimes have to be made more obvious. There is also a need for a range of spaces demonstrating sensory stimulation and sensory calm.

Reminiscent design also plays a role. For example if an individual has had a passion for cars in the past or was a mechanic, the presence of a car and a tool bench will create the opportunity to gain a meaningful sense of reminiscence and fulfilment as they tinker away.

A range of new experiences also helps create the new neurological connections that can improve cognitive function, making up for the existing connections that have been irreparably damaged. This is where games can be tailored for a generation who may have had little or no exposure to games.

Checklist: factors impacting games in the public realm

Consideration by designers and notification to players should be given regarding the following:

Safety

  • Notification to gamers that ultimately they are responsible for their own safety and should remain vigilant during games
  • Vehicle movement. Games better suited to non-vehicular or pedestrian-orientated environments. Also be wary of cycle lanes, bus stops and car parks. Consider warnings or geo-fences when in close proximity roads, rails lines. Minimise crossings where possible.
  • Proximity to water bodies, including the sea, lakes, rivers. Consider warnings or geo-fences
  • Surfaces. Be wary of uneven, loose surfaces and steep gradients.
  • Impact of the weather. Extreme climates may be less appropriate.
  • Daylight and artificial light.
  • Accessibility. Is the area well serviced with access points? Is there clear visibility for passive surveillance? Does the game also operate at night? Refer to CPTED principles (Crime Prevention through Environmental Design)
  • All-inclusive access provision e.g. ramps, lifts, gentle gradients
  • Land ownership. Be respectful of private, semi-private locations
  • Cultural sensitivity. Is the location highlighted as being of cultural significance and could the game be deemed inappropriate or offensive?
  • Emergency and maintenance access

Amenities

  • Wi-Fi and mains connectivity preferable. Strength of signal e.g. multi-stories, underground locations may impact game flow
  • Access to toilets, baby change facilities
  • Shelter from extreme weather, including buildings, structures and trees
  • Access to food and water
  • Parking, including disability
  • Access and frequency of public transport

Character. Opportunity to leverage off/integrate the following in the games:

  • Commendable public locations such as streets, squares, parks and water bodies
  • Prominent landmarks including architecture, public art, monuments
  • Integration of local knowledge for cultural relevance
  • Connectivity of prominent public spaces with walkable distances between (around 400m) and overall potential distance traversed (provide estimate)

Other considerations

  • Permanency of referenced physical features. The planned removal of features may be detrimental if integral with the game
  • Coordination with other programmed outdoor activities and events, including place making initiatives
  • Land use & user conflict
  • Suitability of game actions in public locations
  • Commercial endorsements
  • Public notification of games in progress

Open State: Future Cities

In October the Open State: Future Cities presentation ‘Play and Landscape in the Age of the Artificial’ sought to challenge our conventional understanding of the terms ‘play’ and ‘landscape’, as interpreted through trends in videogames and emerging technology.

(Click the names to view the presentation)

David Homburg, Hassel, introduced the overarching Open State: Future Cities event with an analogy of city anatomy. Our understanding of cities is limited and diagnostic tools can help lead to an evidence base that supports conversation over how cities should develop and be reflected through the revised 30-year Plan for Adelaide.

Stephen Yarwood, City 2050, revelled at the prospect of being a ’City Hacker’, using his experience of ‘Pokémon Go’ to develop a greater understanding of place and assign more value to the physical world around us. ‘You know you’re onto something when your 7-year-old son walks up to you on a Saturday morning and says I need to go for a 5 kilometre walk today!’, referencing the achievement-reward mechanism in the game. Stephen recognised Augmented Reality (AR) as one of the key drivers behind spatial change in cities, that games such as Pokémon Go are offering placemaking opportunities.

Mark Jackson AILA, Public Realm Gaming, took a philosophical approach with his knowledge of videogames, placemaking and playspace design. ‘Should people be playing videogames less or does outdoor play need to be as engaging as digital play? I would argue they can coexist’ Mark noted that the demographics of videogames casts a wider net than playspaces and could have significant health benefits. There is greater flexibility to implement videogames compared to the expense of physical changes to the landscape, and they can be driven by compelling narratives, as with apps such as Story City – benefiting from a local knowledge of place. Mark added that whilst there is a common design language between landscape architecture and videogame design in a virtual sense, it needs to be developed further to help bridge the professions when it crosses into the public realm as geo-spatial programming.

Derek Munneke and Dan Cormick, Nextfaze, provided an overview of how location based (LB) games have come to be, their journey through the technology and where it is heading.

Referencing Minecraft, Derek noted that we seek to reconstruct the real world in virtual spaces because of our connection with place. Knowing precisely where people are located is a double-edged sword. LB technology has been leapt on by advertising. Dan added that the increase in fidelity of technology has created more opportunities for games. Festivals such as Fringe have helped exhibit the potential of LB games on a temporary basis. The core of Derek’s message was that outdoor games are most successful when a community of users who can interact with one another, as with the game Ingress, and that this helps to sustain a sense of place.

One of the challenges is what is the likelihood of uptake of new hardware beyond the mobile phone. There was a lot of stigma attached to the Google Glass, people didn’t like being watched or photographed. There is new hardware arriving with the HoloLens and Magic Leap, which delve into mixed reality. Again, it is a double-edged sword. To be discreet or indiscreet with new technology – remember what happened when people complained the electric car was too quiet.

Mark Jackson provided some questions relating to how games can be integrated to the public realm, which other members of the games industry answered (refer to the end of the Nextfaze prezi). The reoccurring message during Q&A was a lack of a platform to have these sorts of conversations between disciplines. Landscape Architects can not only help guide this but take active involvement with the design and integration of new videogame technology, aided by a vision of what to do with it, where it should be utilised, and how it can diversify and enhance our experience of the public realm.