augmented reality

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.

Making Games an Integral Part of ‘Place’

Curators of the public realm and game designers need to explore opportunities to collaborate to make games an integral part of place.

It will be a challenge to bridge these professions, but it is a nexus that must occur for common goals to be established.

Gaming can enhance human interaction with the landscape, inviting and engaging with a broad spectrum of society. There are, however, some key differences between designing physical and virtual environments.

The physical landscape is bound by the conventions of society, layered with a history, a suite of infrastructure and landmarks, which help to define the setting, purpose and cultural significance.

Virtual environments are at origin created from scratch on a blank canvas, within a game engine and adaptable physics – an abstraction of the actual environment. This is accompanied by an inventory of items to populate the space, often featuring their own traits, again, an abstraction of the physical equivalent.

We frequently see real world locations referenced in virtual game environments, often in the form of famous landmarks, architecture, landscape, historic periods and events. This helps people to make associations and to create the desired ‘atmosphere’ within a game. In one sense, landmarks may be considered the anchors of place as they are often the first image people associate with.

‘To the tourist, a city is a collection of landmarks, their surroundings irrelevant on a whistle-stop tour of the most famous sights. In games, geography is matter not of accuracy, but of atmosphere’ 1

Be it virtual or physical, assets and locality are not the only thing that define a place.

It is only when we consider the potential of tapping into local settings and experiences that the local economy for gaming becomes apparent. Gaming could be informed by locals and created for a broader audience, allowing market for local knowledge to develop.

‘A game is always going to feel more true to its real-world setting if it’s made by people who actually live and work there’ 2

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When we think about ‘Place’ there are other qualities that contribute to our cultural map of the world. An ongoing social narrative. Human interaction. A history. A future. Events. Appeal. Last but not least, and most applicable in a gaming sense – fun.

In one sense Augmented Reality (AR) is competing with the world of domesticated gaming, however, there are other audiences that may find the outdoor setting appealing – tourists. When combined with the local gaming population, AR draws people outdoors to be active, without preaching the benefits or making the physical achievement the central focus of the game.

Whilst the game designer has a lead role in creation and execution of games, the desired experience of cities continues to be shaped through public realm curation and stimulated through place making. Outdoor gaming  can provide an adaptable tool to help to inform both.

Landscape Architects and Place Makers understand the need for engaging activities within the public realm. There is, however, a flexibility that the overlaid, augmented digital environment presents, which transcends both the permanency of physical boundaries and features, and expense of infrastructure.

One of the other tangible opportunities AR that sets it apart from Virtual Reality (VR) for example, is the ability to leverage off the existing tactile experience as part of the game. This adds something new to location based mobile gaming (LBMG). Whilst this is not unique experience when considering existing experiences such as geocaching, the hybrid of traditional screen based game experiences with AR, in conjunction with specific geographic locations is new territory and practically unheard of amongst curators of the public realm.

References 1 & 2 – Edge Magazine, ‘Cabbies hate this weird trick’, Dec 2015