Stuart Nolan | Hex Induction
Hex Induction works with media specialists, technologists, training and development agencies, events producers, and educational establishments on innovative training and learning activities and workshops.
Stuart is currently a NESTA Fellow working with magicians and technologists on teaching, training, presentation, and concept development. Since the mid 90s Stuart has specialised in troublesome media platforms producing enhanced versions of over 20 commercial TV shows [including the first children’s interactive TV shows in the UK], services for mobile technologies, and museum interactives.
As a consultant for Oyster Partners and as a freelance specialist in training and change management his clients have included Orange, BBC, The V&A Museum, the French National Audiovisual Institute, and the University of Milan. He is a Senior Lecturer in Multimedia Design at the University of Huddersfield and a Visiting Research Fellow at the Research Centre for Future Communications, University of Leeds.
He is a regular jury member for the BAFTA Interactive Awards and a Board member of Media Centre Network. He was formally a Research Fellow in Interactive TV and Learning at Manchester Metropolitan University. A regular international speaker Stuart has written for a number of publications including AI and Society, New TV Strategies, Which Satellite, The Public Service Review, and Wallpaper*. A feature screenplay, Needlework, is due to go into production with Open Road Films early 2005.
Stuart has studied magic at masterclasses with Paul Daniels and with Eugene Burger and Jeff McBride at the Las Vegas Mystery School.
There were a number of starting points for my interest in locative media that are worth considering before looking at the recent research.
The globalization of culture raises issues of lifestyle ubiquity and estrangement in non-places that may be influenced, positively and negatively, by ambient computing. I like the fact that locative technology is being used to mess with virtual and augmented realities in playful ways that may be a means of ‘settling’ in a new location and believe that the new worlds we construct in this way are linked to our search for the magical. The playful and the magical lead me to consider toys as a natural area of development. The Ubiquity of Strange
“You’re everywhere and nowhere baby
That’s where you’re at”;
Hi Ho Silver Lining (English / Weiss)
As I’m writing this I have a Lexus print ad in front of me that gives me a creeping horror. The car is on a remote hilltop but a man is sitting there surrounded by designer items, Philippe Stark lemon squeezers, Alessi angel corkscrews and kettles. He has a sign that says ‘Credit Cards Accepted’. The tagline reads, ‘Leave the road behind, not the luxury’.
Susan Sontag once said that the best reason for travel is fear [i]. The idea of getting to the top of the Alps and finding Hoxton fills me with dread but I don’t think that’s what she meant. She was more probably referring to how the uncertainty and discomfort of travel can be good for shaking us out of our complacency. She was advocating leaving the luxury behind, the exact opposite of the Lexus dream that is in fact a vision of complacence for the complacent.
The power of lifestyle ubiquity as a tool for instilling complacence, in this case a lack of worldly cares, was well understood by the 11th Century Cistercian monks. Under the preceding Benedictine Rules standards of discipline and devotion varied from one monastic house to another. The Cistercian response to what they regarded as disorderly practices was to standardize the architecture, clothing and daily routine of their monasteries.
These monasteries were perhaps the first places that a person could have referred to with the now common traveller’s complaint, ‘I was in the middle of another country but I could just as well have been anywhere.’ They can be regarded as the first heavily branded chain, a McMonastery with recognizable franchises spread across Europe.
Of course the Cistercian idea was that this lifestyle ubiquity would free the monks from worldly concerns in order that they may concentrate their souls on higher matters. The promise of technological ubiquities has been much the same: control, access and choice will lead to freedom.
The difference may appear to be that the Cistercian idea was based on limiting choice while the modern technological ideal is based on expanding choice. But is this really the case? Technology may give me the choice of places to visit that my grandparents didn’t but the attendant ubiquity means that they all look the same when I get there.
Whether we are traveling of staying put we are spending more and more time in what Marc Augre calls “non-places” [ii], supermarkets, airports, on motorways, in front of TV’s, on mobile phones. Real places that are designed to look and feel the same and mediated spaces that are designed for maximum usability. In this respect a phone is experienced more as a place than as an object.
Increasingly the places we inhabit are simulations both of the real and of the imaginary. Shopping centres are modelled after the interiors of cruise liners (The Trafford Centre, Manchester), cafés after idealized rainforests (The Rain Forest Café of course), cities after films (New York), towns after brand ideals (Disney’s Celebration ).
This simulation introduces another level of ubiquity. Not only do places begin to feel the same but they also feel more and more unreal. This is the ubiquity of the strange.
Ubiquitous computing which attempts, in an almost animistic way, to breathe artificial life into as many everyday objects as possible is another step in this estrangement. Many things will be more than what they seem but these things will be the same in one respect. They will be an interface to other objects and other places. As the network becomes the application these objects will not, in their fullest sense, exist in a single place.
When it was invented its advocates considered TV a “window onto the world.” It turned out to be window that could powerfully affect both what was being viewed and how we viewed it. So without denying the practical benefits of ubiquitous computing how can we gauge its potential to effect how we experience the world? Will everything become both content in itself and medium for something else?
As the Situationists used to say, ‘life is elsewhere’. The danger of the Martini culture of anytime, anyplace, anywhere may be that we make everywhere like here and end up with nowhere left that is elsewhere.
When thinking about locative media my focus is on playfulness and I am most interested in those situations where people find ways of using locative technologies to play. Playing with a space is the first step to understanding it, making it recognisable, living within it, and finally owning it. My belief is that these playful uses of virtual places and augmented realities are attempts to build a feeling of home in the increasingly ubiquitous strangeness. This building of a home may not necessarily mean that we build virtual/augmented realities that are copies of the quotidian. Themes from long-imagined worlds are familiar to us and can feel as comfortable as a desktop metaphor. Magical Realms
The Arthur C Clarke quote that ‘Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic’ is most often interpreted as a description of our general ignorance in the face of technology. I’d like to suggest a more positive interpretation, that one of the deep motivations for creating advanced technology is the urge to create magic.
Science, for good reason, distinguishes itself from superstition and irrationality by presenting itself as the sceptic at the party. Always questioning, never taking anything on blind faith, driven by the quest for the truth. While the strength of the scientific method lies in exactly these traits it makes it hard sometimes for a sceptic to remember and recognise the wondrous nature of science. This wonder is often linked to the playful nature of imaginative exploration experienced as a child. As the Nobel Prize winning physicist Richard Feynman observed,
‘I’ve been caught, so to speak - like someone who was given something wonderful as a child, and he’s always looking for it again. I’m always looking, like a child, for the wonders I know I’m going to find maybe not every time, but every once in a while.’ [iii]
Although the magical is intimately connected with the mysterious one must be careful not to conflate the two. Things that we understand can also be magical. In addition to this the element of control of unseen forces is strong in magical tradition. The movement to develop ubiquitous, invisible, ambient intelligence, can be seen as a wish to create magical realms where previously inanimate objects have lives of their own but one in which we, as scientific sorcerers, ultimately have control. Doors that open with a magical word or gesture have given way to doors that know who we are and open in our presence.
So it is with an interest in playfulness and the search for the comfort of a magical that I approach locative media, virtual worlds, and augmented reality. The GPS
The GPS (Global Positioning System) is a ‘constellation’ of 24 well-spaced satellites that orbit the Earth and make it possible for people with ground receivers to pinpoint their geographic location. The location accuracy is anywhere from 100 to 10 meters for most equipment. Accuracy can be pinpointed to within one (1) meter with special military-approved equipment. GPS equipment is widely used in science and has now become sufficiently low-cost so that almost anyone can own a GPS receiver.
The GPS is owned and operated by the U.S. Department of Defence but is available for general use around the world. Briefly, here’s how it works:
- 21 GPS satellites and three spare satellites are in orbit at 10,600 miles above the Earth. The satellites are spaced so that from any point on Earth, four satellites will be above the horizon.
- Each satellite contains a computer, an atomic clock, and a radio. With an understanding of its own orbit and the clock, it continually broadcasts its changing position and time. (Once a day, each satellite checks its own sense of time and position with a ground station and makes any minor correction.)
- On the ground, any GPS receiver contains a computer that “triangulates” its own position by getting bearings from three of the four satellites. The result is provided in the form of a geographic position - longitude and latitude - to, for most receivers, within 100 meters.
- If the receiver is also equipped with a display screen that shows a map, the position can be shown on the map.
- If a fourth satellite can be received, the receiver/computer can figure out the altitude as well as the geographic position.
- If you are moving, your receiver may also be able to calculate your speed and direction of travel and give you estimated times of arrival to specified destinations.
The GPS is being used in science to provide data that has never been available before in the quantity and degree of accuracy that the GPS makes possible. Scientists are using the GPS to measure the movement of the arctic ice sheets, the Earth’s tectonic plates, and volcanic activity.
GPS receivers are becoming consumer products. In addition to their outdoor use (hiking, cross-country skiing, ballooning, flying, and sailing), receivers can be used in cars to relate the driver’s location with traffic and weather information.
The GPS provides a ubiquitous system for playing games and a number of groups have begun to use the data it provides in a playful way.
The most popular game being played with the GPS is Geocaching. The basic idea is to have individuals and organizations set up caches all over the world and share the locations of these caches on the Internet. GPS users can then use the location coordinates to find the caches. Once found, a cache may provide the visitor with a wide variety of rewards. All the visitor is asked to do is if they get something they should try to leave something in the cache for others.
Geocache GPS receiver
Although this appears to be a kind of geeky treasure hunt (and it is) it is also something more than that. The idea of passing gifts between people through the caches is fundamentally different from a treasure hunt and is in fact more akin to the ‘secret Santa’ games played in workplaces at Christmas where one must buy a secret gift for someone and receive a gift from a secret Santa in return. It is the symbolic (the gifts are seldom worth anything) act of friendship between people who have never met that gives Geocaching its camaraderie as much as the setting and completing of challenges.
In this sense Geocaching has much in common with Bookcrossing where books are labelled with unique numbers and then ‘released into the wild’ for others to find. The label directs you to a website where you can find where the book has been, read comments people have made on the book, and leave comments of your own. Bookcrossing enthusiasts will often meet up ‘in real life’. This link shows members of the Leeds group that now has 97 members having fun .
While it is true that participants share a love of books and will often organise local meetings to discuss books (and no doubt get drunk, have sex, fall in love, and marry) it is the sharing of this passion in a semi-anonymous way with strangers that is past of the attraction.
Over the summer of 2004 I have used geocaching treasure hunts with a number of teenagers as a tool for teaching technology, group working, and just having fun. These have sometimes been with young people with special needs such as Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (AD-HD) and severe sight problems and also wit h those who have been selected because they have demonstrated distinct creativity. The aspect of finding and giving gifts is one that often attracts and inspires them.
An alternative game is to buy a Travelbug (above) from geochching.com. This is a metal tag with a unique identity number similar to that given to book by bookcrossing.com. The travelbug is places in a geocache and generally has a purpose e.g. to get to New Zealand and visitors to the geocaches try to help it on its way by moving it to other geocaches.
Similarly, but without the element of using the GPS, sites such as www.doshtracker.co.uk, www.wheresgeorge.com, and www.whereswilly.com allow you to track the movements of British, American and Canadian money respectively by using the unique identifiers on the notes. While to simple tracking of a note has a playfulness to it that is fun in itself the sharing of the game with others is important. The notes link people together and the feeling of connectedness is part of what we are seeking in a strange environment.
The Degree Confluence Project describes its like so: ‘The goal of the project is to visit each of the latitude and longitude integer degree intersections in the world, and to take pictures at each location. The pictures and stories will then be posted here.’
The nearest confluence to Huddersfield is in Skipton, North Yorkshire .
Although the stated aim is to have pictures taken at every possible confluence the project is really an excuse to tell stories and is the better for this. This is a site that consists of tourist snaps from places that are at once real (we can’t deny they are really going there) and virtual (the confluence of latitude and longitude is a product of the human imagination).
More conventionally, organizations like Utah Cache Games run games, such as bingo, 3 card poker, and hermit coins, using geocaches.
Augmented Realities: Pressure and Personalization
In 2001 I wrote a paper for the Museum Directors Association Annual Conference entitled ‘Pressure and Personalization: Issues in Augmented Reality’. This paper began by discussing work that I had been involved with, while working for Oyster Partners, on the V&A Museum New British Galleries. The paper is included with this document but I will summarize the salient points.
The main complaint people have of museums is that that they feel they don’t have enough time to see the collections. A current response to this that of the German President Horst Kohler who has proposed that Berlin creates a “Best of Berlin” exhibition. Kohler’s project foresees a special exhibition that showcases highlights from Berlin’s leading museums and galleries, including painting, architecture, design, photography and technology.
A broader approach to relieving this feeling of pressure to complete is to find ways to personalise the museum experience. The paper discusses some of the problems inherent in this approach but the issue that I focus on here is the technical problem of recognising individuals that is a requirement for any personalization system. Tagging individuals in some way is one approach to distinguishing them and one that has advantages of cost and reliability over methods such as video-based face-recognition systems.
The concept developed by Oyster Partners and The V&A involved using the ticket system to issue unique identifiers to visitors that would allow them to access a database driven website that would generate a page unique to them and populated with content relevant to their experience in the museum. As they move around the museum they can log in to interactive displays to register their interest in specific objects and then rather then read information/interpretation during their visit to the museum they can read it at home. This replaces the leaflets that can often be picked up at museums but which are seldom read.
Further versions of the system would allow notification of future events both at the V&A and other museums, marketing offers such as valued-customer discounts, and community systems based on collaborative filtering (i.e. you are put in touch with others who are fond of Flemish furniture).
At present such systems are very expensive but the real barrier to their development is the business deals that would have to be brokered between museums. There are, however, some systems being implemented that share characteristics.
RFID: Smart Ticketing
RFID (radio frequency identification) is a technology that incorporates the use of electromagnetic or electrostatic coupling in the radio frequency (RF) portion of the electromagnetic spectrum to uniquely identify an object, animal, or person. RFID is coming into increasing use in supply-chain management and retail as an alternative to the bar code. The advantage of RFID is that it does not require direct contact or line-of-sight scanning.
An RFID system consists of three components: an antenna and transceiver (often combined into one reader) and a transponder (the tag). The antenna uses radio frequency waves to transmit a signal that activates the transponder. When activated, the tag transmits data back to the antenna. The data is used to notify a programmable logic controller that an action should occur. The action could be as simple as raising an access gate or as complicated as interfacing with a database to carry out a monetary transaction. Low-frequency RFID systems (30 KHz to 500 KHz) have short transmission ranges (generally less than six feet). High-frequency RFID systems (850 MHz to 950 MHz and 2.4 GHz to 2.5 GHz) offer longer transmission ranges (more than 90 feet). In general, the higher the frequency, the more expensive the system.
Innovision R&T are a technology company working with theme parks on RFID based tickets. These are worn on the wrist by visitors and have the advantage of being cheap,
robust, and waterproof. They can allow virtual queuing, proximity marketing, simple virtual purse systems, and the local tracking of both staff and visitors.
Baja Beach Club
‘Baja Beach Club owner Conrad Chase wanted something unique to identify his VIP patrons. Other clubs had special jewelry (sic) or key chains, but he was looking for something special. After brainstorming, he came up with the idea to implant his VIP members with VeriChip’s implantable microchip.’
Versions of this story appeared in the world press after the Baja Beach Club began chipping its VIPS who can then enter VIP areas and buy drinks and other items on credit without having to carry money around. This is seen as a move to make the chip as fashionable as a tattoo or a piercing in some circles. In the image above you can see the chip being used and (presumably) some of the VIPs with whom you can mingle.
RFID and Security/Privacy
The ability to track RFID chips that remain in goods after they have been purchased has worried some campaigners and pressure is on the developers to install a ‘kill’ function that will render the chip inactive when it leaves the shop.
Intentional tracking for security purposes is also being trialled and in some areas this may infringe on civil liberties. An controversial example is the primary school in Tabe, Wakayama Prefecture, Japan where children’s school bags will be RFID tagged. The scheme which will log when kids pass through the gates and warn the school when they stray too close to locations deemed dangerous by staff and parents. This involves RFID readers both at the school gates but also at “undesirable” locations.
RFID and Toys
The main use of RFID and toys is in supply chain management. Innovision R&T designed an RFID system for the Hasbro’s Star War action figures after the release of The Phantom Menace. The toys sold 30 million units, making it the largest application of RFID at the time. Working with Ravensburger - Europe’s largest board game manufacturer - Innovision R&T has developed claims to have developed an RFID based interactive board game but I have not received any detailed description of this from them as yet.
EPICS - LARA is a research group at Purdue University running the Talk-a-toy project. This involves putting RFID into small toys such as plastic fruit so that a computer with an RFID reader attached can recognise what they are. It is designed for testing theories of teaching in an educational environment.
Toy Aware Locations
Building on both the V&A research and the development of RFID ticketing systems the concept of Toy Aware Locations (TALs) has been developed.
TALs involve the use of GPS, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, and RFID technologies to enable locations such as schools, museums, amusement parks, shops, airports, and parks to recognise the presence of a toy that has a unique identifier. The location can then welcome the toy (and by extension its owner) to the environment.
The following are two scenarios that describe how RFID and Bluetooth technologies may be used.
RFID: Sock Monkey
If you compare a Teddy bear with a Furby you find that the Teddy is the more loved of toys and that this is not explained just by its longer history. Soft toys such as Teddy bears allow a child to imagine the bear being whatever character it likes. A Furby is programmed to do specific things and it then teaches the child to do these things with it. It is a closed play system with a limited range of possibilities.
The question I want to answer is this, can soft toys use advanced technology with out falling into this trap of being imaginatively restrictive?
Furby VS Teddy
The TAL concept removes the technology as much as possible from the toy and places it into the environment leaving the toy to be as simple, lovable, and washable as possible.
The example toy is a stuffed sock monkey because they are very simple and easy to construct. The monkey could be a kit that includes an RFID chip that is sown on as a tag or as a button eye.
The RFID enabled sock monkey could be used as:
- A ticket: RFID readers in a theme park know that the monkey is present and is worth a number of rides on an attraction. RFID has been used in theme parks and water slides.
- As a guardian: The sock monkey is tracked while within the Theme Park so lost children can be found more easily.
- A voucher: I buy a sock monkey for my niece and tell her to take it to Nolan’s Toy Shop. When she gets there the TAL knows that the monkey is present and has been charged with £50 worth of toys.
- A marketing tool: While in Nolan’s the sock monkey range of accessories is promoted to my niece when she is near displays.
- A filter: By going to the sock monkey management website my niece’s parents have switched proximity marketing off as a preference as they consider it spam so my niece does not get advertised to when at Nolan’s.
- A friend and guide: When visiting a science museum the interactive displays respond to the fact that the sock monkey is present. They even know its name.
- A playmate: Playing on the interactive displays sends information back to the sock monkey’s database/memory.
- A storyteller: On returning home my niece can access her sock monkey’s website with her mothers help. There is the story of they visit to Nolan’s and the science museum with stories about the toys and displays that my niece interacted with. There are many issues surrounding teaching and learning using the sock monkey as part of learner journeys.
- A diary: In this example data stored could become part of a diary of your childhood visits. When you are old enough you would access your sock monkey’s dedicated website and play with these memories adding new, imagined ones or jumping off to other sites related to the places you’ve been and the things you have seen.
There are many discussion to be had surrounding issues of privacy and security, teaching and learning, and marketing and privacy to give just three examples. As a concept TALs are intended to raise such issues and provide an example for such discussion.
Bluetooth: Sock Elephant
The Sock Elephant is an example of Toy Aware Locations where there is more intelligence/memory built into the actual toy. The elephant would contain a chip running Bluetooth and so could communicate with locations that have embedded Bluetooth services.
All the functionality of the Sock Monkey would be possible but with further possibilities.
The Elephant could gather information from Bluetooth TALs and effectively remember it.
- This could enable the Elephant to do new things such as speak about the location or display information on a small screen.
- The information could be transferred from the Elephant to a computer. This effectively replaces the Web accessed information in the Sock Monkey example.
- Elephants would be able to communicate with each other.
The Sock Elephant can be imagined as a stuffed toy containing a small computer but there is another possibility. The Virtual Sock Elephant would be an application running on a mobile phone or PDA. It would respond to TALs by giving your phone new functions, downloading software, video, audio etc to do so. An Elephant style phone case would make this example more fun.
RFID is limited by its general lack of memory/intelligence, by the cost of its readers, and by the range of its communication capability, which is essentially one-way and short-range.
Bluetooth is generally short range and is also expensive both in terms of the chipset needed to run it and its use of power.
ZigBee is a proprietary set of high level communication protocols designed to use small, low power digital radios based on the IEEE 802.15.4 standard for wireless personal area networking. The technology is designed to be simpler and cheaper than other Wireless Personal Area Networks ( WPANs) such as Bluetooth. The most capable ZigBee node type is said to require only about 10% of the software of a typical Bluetooth or Wireless Internet node, while the simplest nodes (RFDs) are about 2%. ZigBee operates on the 802.15.4 wireless spec which is mainly designed for command and control, for which a 200-kbit/s data rate is more than adequate. ZigBee doesn’t do video or CD-quality audio.
ZigBee is aimed at applications with low data rates and low power consumption and its current focus is to define a general-purpose, inexpensive self-organizing mesh network that can be shared by industrial controls, medical devices, smoke and intruder alarms, building-automation and home automation. The network is designed to use very small amounts of power, so that individual devices might run for a year or two with a single alkaline battery. The killer app is probably meter-reading.
There has been some mention of advanced Toys by the ZigBee Alliance but the only real project has been by Cambridge Consultants Ltd who have developed two ZigBee enabled monkeys that hold a short conversation. This was done as a proof of technology and, as the head of the project say, for publicity.
Supporters of ZigBee are promoting it as a replacement for Bluetooth in many areas. ‘Until Zigbee, short range, low powered wireless devices were too complex and expensive to gain market traction,’ says Mareca Hatler, ON World’s Director of Research. ‘Zigbee changes all this by providing of ultra low power, low cost and highly reliable devices that are suited for a wide range of applications. Zigbee will replace Bluetooth for a wide range of applications that require very low power consumption, small node sizes and costs as low as under $1 per unit. These features makes Zigbee very attractive for several high volume market segments such as industrial automation and control, energy management, home automation and control and also gaming consoles and wireless remote toys.’
ZigBee enabled might be the ideal technology for enabling Toy Aware Locations
Project proposal: RealQuest/UltimaOffline
In ancient fables a hero must venture into a magical realm in order to bring back a powerful object that can be used in the ‘real’ world to save the land. As the myths developed the object became something that had been stolen from the real world and taken into the magical realm: a ring, a sword, a love.
RealQuest/UltimaOffline turns this mythology on its head by seeking heroes from virtual worlds to travel into the real world in search of objects that they can use in the virtual world.
The projects working title is RealQuest/UltimaOffline. It is a physical game that uses virtual objects from the games Everquest and Ultima Online. These are games where virtual objects such as swords, armour, etc can be rare and highly sought after. These objects are bought and sold in the real world and can go for hundreds of dollars. It has been estimated that the global online sales volume in virtual items is about $75 million annually. (Castronova)
Axe of the Heavens: Ultima Online weapon up for auction on ebay.
RealQuest/UltimaOffline will buy a number of items from the virtual worlds of Everquest and Ultima Online and hide a code representing them in suitable real world locations such as castles and historic monuments around Britain, in Theme Parks, in art galleries, and in private homes. Using various locative technologies they can be hidden as data in RFID chips, Bluetooth devices, or on pieces of paper in Geocaches.
Seekers must find the code in the real world in order to win the virtual object.
This project was proposed to the audience at the Game Developers Conference Europe and was received favourable with many suggesting the addition of physical games in which the seekers must compete in order to win the objects.
[i] Sontag, S & Poague, Leland A. (1995) Conversations with Susan Sontag. University Press of Mississippi
[ii] Marc Auge (1995), John Howe (Translator) Non-Places : Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity Verso Books, London
[iii] Feynman, R. (1988) What Do You Care What Other people Think? New York: Pantheon.