Cities, systems, literacy, games

If you were asked to improve your own neighbourhood, what would you change? And how would you go about communicating those changes?

Cities are systems, or rather, many systems that interconnect. Like buildings, they can be thought of as having layers, each changing at its own pace. If those layers are loosely coupled, the city — like the building — can adapt.

Recently, new urban layers/systems have started to emerge. They are made up of rapidly proliferating computing power, carried by people and embedded in the environment, used to access vast amounts of data.

At the same time, games have given rise to a new form of literacysystemic literacy. However, to date, players have mostly inhabited the systems that make up games. They can read them. Writing, on the other hand, is another matter. True systemic literacy means being able to change the systems you inhabit.

True read/write systemic literacy can be used to craft games, yes. But it can also be used to see that many other problems and challenges in daily life are systemic ones.

To be sure, the real-time city will confront its inhabitants with many new problems. It is of the essence that the people shaping these new systems have a deep concern for their fellow humans. But it is also at least as important that people are taught the knowledge and skills — and given the tools — to change stuff about their surroundings as they see fit.

The wonderful thing is, we can shape systems, using the ‘new’ streets as a platform that transfer this knowledge and these skills to people. We can create ‘seriousurban games that facilitate speculative modelling, so that people can improve their living environment, or at least express what they would change about it, in a playful way.

Urban procedural rhetorics — transcript of my TWAB 2008 talk

This is a transcript of my presentation at The Web and Beyond 2008: Mobility in Amsterdam on 22 May. Since the majority of paying attendees were local I presented in Dutch. However, English appears to be the lingua franca of the internet, so here I offer a translation. I have uploaded the slides to SlideShare and hope to be able to share a video recording of the whole thing soon.

Update: I have uploaded a video of the presentation to Vimeo. Many thanks to Almar van der Krogt for recording this.

In 1966 a number of members of Provo took to the streets of Amsterdam carrying blank banners. Provo was a nonviolent anarchist movement. They primarily occupied themselves with provoking the authorities in a “ludic” manner. Nothing was written on their banners because the mayor of Amsterdam had banned the slogans “freedom of speech”, “democracy” and “right to demonstrate”. Regardless, the members were arrested by police, showing that the authorities did not respect their right to demonstrate.1

Good afternoon everyone, my name is Kars Alfrink, I’m a freelance interaction designer. Today I’d like to talk about play in public space. I believe that with the arrival of ubiquitous computing in the city new forms of play will be made possible. The technologies we shape will be used for play wether we want to or not. As William Gibson writes in Burning Chrome:

“…the street finds its own uses for things”

For example: Skateboarding as we now know it — with its emphasis on aerial acrobatics — started in empty pools like this one. That was done without permission, of course…

Only later half-pipes, ramps, verts (which by the way is derived from ‘vertical’) and skateparks arrived — areas where skateboarding is tolerated. Skateboarding would not be what it is today without those first few empty pools.2

Continue reading Urban procedural rhetorics — transcript of my TWAB 2008 talk

  1. The website of Gramschap contains a chronology of the Provo movement in Dutch. []
  2. For a vivid account of the emergence of the vertical style of skateboarding see the documentary film Dogtown and Z-Boys. []

Zona Incerta and using ARGs for activism

(Following some recent overly long posts, here’s an attempt to stay under 500 words.)

For a while now, I have been lurking on the mailing list of the Alternate Reality Games IGDA SIG. ARGs are games that use the real world as their platform. They usually revolve around a mystery to be unraveled. I find ARGs interesting for the way they clash with the game design notion of the magic circle. The magic circle can be defined as the time and space within which a game is played. With traditional games, players are aware of the magic circle and enter it willingly. Not so with ARGs, as the following example I found on the list shows:1

The producers of Zona Incerta, a Brazilian ARG, published a video on YouTube. In it the ‘senior marketing director’ of Arkhos Biotechnology asks viewers to help them buy the Amazon rainforest and reminds them “the Amazon belongs to no country, it belongs to the world”:

The video was mistaken by many as real–including two senators and one governor. On the list, André Sirangelo, the game’s writer, says:

“It wasn’t long until some journalists connected the dots and found out the company didn’t exist. That’s when it really exploded – after all, there are lots of companies that actually do want to buy the rainforest, but it’s not every day a powerful senator makes a speech about one that doesn’t really exist.”

Because the game was sponsored, they had to come out and offer a public apology. Some people took it in a good way, others were less amused:

“They wanted to sue and maybe even arrest us for making a video that was against the nation’s sovereignty and all that. It was all BS though, because there wasn’t really a crime. We never published fake news, we just put the video on YouTube and some people tought it was real. Not our fault! :)”

Clearly, the ambiguous nature of ARGs is key to what makes them fun. Knowing that people might mistake things for real is thrilling to ARG developers. Players are challenged to recognize the content that is part of an ARG—rewarding them with the feeling that they are part of a secret society.

So far, the genre remains a niche.2 But what if ARGs take off in a big way? What if the mediascape is flooded by ARG content?

Will we, similar to what is now being proposed for ubicomp, need recognizable iconography that tells people: “warning, alternate reality content”?

Proposed icon for objects that have invisible qualities by the Touch research project

I wonder what would make a good image. Perhaps the March Hare?

Illustration of the March Hare by John Tenniel

Zona Incerta‘s aim was to entertain. Despite this, they raised awareness for the Amazon’s plight. Would the format of ARGs be useful to people with another agenda? What if activists start using them to make the future they want to avert—or desire to bring about—tangible to the public?

Image credits: Icon by Touch research project, March Hare by John Tenniel taken from WikiFur.

Updated with a YouTube embed that validates.

  1. For more about ARGs and the magic circle also see my Reboot 9.0 presentation Mobile Social Play. []
  2. Here are statistics of some prominent past ARGs. []

UX designers should get into everyware

I’ve been reading Adam Greenfield’s Everyware on and off and one of the things that it has me wondering the most lately is: are UX professionals making the move to design for ubiquitous computing?

There’re several places in the book where he explicitly mentions UX in relation to everyware. Let’s have a look at the ones I managed to retrieve using the book’s trusty index…

On page 14 Greenfield writes that with the emergence of ubicomp at the dawn of the new millennium, the user experience community took up the challenge with “varying degrees of enthusiasm, scepticism and critical distance”, trying to find a “language of interaction suited to a world where information processing would be everywhere in the human environment.”

So of course the UX community has already started considering what it means to design for ubicomp. This stuff is quite different to internet appliances and web sites though, as Greenfield points out in thesis 09 (pp.37-39):

“Consistently eliciting good user experiences means accounting for the physical design of the human interface, the flow of interaction between user and device, and the larger context in which that interaction is embedded. In not a single one of these dimensions is the experience of everyware anything like that of personal computing.” (p.37)

That’s a clear statement, on which he elaborates further on, mentioning that traditional interactions are usually of a “call-and-response rhythm: user actions followed by system events.” Whereas everyware interactions “can’t meaningfully be constructed as ‘task-driven.’ Nor does anything in the interplay between user and system […] correspond with […] information seeking.” (p.38)

So, UX designers moving into everyware have their work cut out for them. This is virgin territory:

“[…] it is […] a radically new situation that will require the development over time of a doctrine and a body of standards and conventions […]” (p.39)

Now, UX in traditional projects has been prone to what Greenfield calls ‘value engineering’. Commercial projects can only be two of these three things: fast, good and cheap. UX would support the second, but sadly it is often sacrificed for the sake of the other two. Not always though, but this is usually dependent on who is involved with the project:

“[…] it often takes an unusually dedicated, persistent, and powerful advocate […] to see a high-quality design project through to completion with everything that makes it excellent intact. […] the painstakingly detailed work of ensuring a good user experience is frequently hard to justify on a short-term ROI basis, and this is why it is often one of the first things to get value-engineered out of an extended development process. […] we’ve seen that getting everyware right will be orders of magnitude more complicated than achieving acceptable quality in a Web site, […] This is not the place for value engineers,” (p.166)

So if traditional projects need UX advocates on board with considerable influence, comparable to Steve Jobs’s role at Apple, to ensure a descent user experience will it even be possible to create ubiquitous experiences that are enjoyable to use? If these projects are so complex, can they be even gotten ‘right’ in a commercial context? I’m sorry to say I think not…

Designers (used broadly) will be at the forefront of deciding what everyware looks like. If you don’t think they will, at least I’m sure they should. They’re not the only ones to determine its shape though, Greenfield points out that both regulators and markets have important parts to play too (pp.172-173):

“[…] the interlocking influences of designer, regulator, and market will be most likely to result in beneficial outcomes if these parties all treat everyware as a present reality, and if the decision makers concerned act accordingly.” (p.173)

Now there’s an interesting notion. Having just come back from a premier venue for the UX community to talk about this topic, the IA Summit, I’m afraid to say that I didn’t get the impression IAs are taking everyware seriously (yet.) There were no talks really concerned with tangible, pervasive, ubiquitous or ambient technologies. Some basic fare on mobile web stuff, that’s all. Worrying, because as Greenfield points out:

“[UX designers] will best be able to intervene effectively if they develop appropriate insights, tools, and methodologies ahead of the actual deployment of ubiquitous systems.” (pp.173-174)

This stuff is real, and it is here. Greenfield points to the existence of systems such as Octopus in Hong Kong and E-ZPass in the US. Honestly, if you think beyond the tools and methods we’ve been using to communicate our designs, IxDs and IAs are well-equipped to handle everyware. No, you won’t be required to draw wireframes or sitemaps; but you’ll damn well need to put in a lot of the thinking designers do. And you’ll still need to be able to communicate those designs. It’s time to get our hands dirty:

“What fully operational systems such as Octopus and E-ZPass tell us is that privacy concerns, social implications, ethical questions, and practical details of the user experience are no longer matters for conjecture or supposition. With ubiquitous systems available for empirical enquiry, these things we need to focus on today.” (p.217)

So, to reiterate the question I started with: are there any UX designers out there that have made the switch from web-work to ubicomp? Anyone considering it? I’d love to hear about your experiences.

Albert Heijn RFID epiphany

I was standing in line at the local Albert Heijn1 the other day and had a futurist’s ‘epiphany’. I had three items in my basket. The couple in front of me had a shopping cart full of stuff. I had an empty stomach and was tired from a long day’s work. They were taking their time placing their items on the short conveyor belt. The cashier took her time scanning each individual item. The couple had a lot of stuff and only a few bags to put their stuff in. Did I mention this was taking a looong time?

I wasn’t being impatient though, I used the time to let my thoughts wander. For some reason my associative brain became occupied with RFID. Many of the items in the Albert Heijn shelves have RFID tags in them already. They use those to track inventory. Soon, all of the items will be tagged with these chips. That’ll make it easy to restock stuff. But it occurred to me that it might make the situation I was in at that moment (standing there waiting for a large amount of items to be moved from a cart, scanned and packed in bags to be placed back in the cart again) history.

Imagine driving your overflowing shopping cart through a stall and having all the items read simultaneously. If you’d wanted to get rid of the friendly cashier you could put automatic gates on the cash register and have them open once all items were paid for (by old-fashioned debit or credit card or newfangled RFID enabled payment token). Walk up to the gate, swipe your token past a reader and have the gate open, no matter how many items you have with you.

No more checking the receipt for items that were mistakenly scanned twice (or not scanned at all, if you’re that honest). No more waiting for people with too many stuff in their cart that they don’t really need. And no more underpaid pubescent cashiers to ruin your day with their bad manners!

Actually, would that ever happen? It would take a large amount of trust from everyone involved. There is a lot of trust implicitly involved in the whole exchange. Handing your stuff one after the other to an actual human being and having that person scan them is a very physical, tangible way to get a sense of what you’re paying for, and that you’re getting your money’s worth. With completely automated RFID-enabled shopping, that would be lost.

It’s a banal, pedestrian and simple example of how this stuff could change your everyday life, I know, but something to think about, nonetheless.

1. Albert Heijn is the largest super market chain in the Netherlands.

Een internet der dingen (

“De web 2.0-hype een beetje beu? Moe van het bijhouden van alle start-ups die als paddestoelen uit de grond blijven schieten? Maak je borst maar nat, want er volgt spoedig (weer) iets nieuws. Niet web 3.0 (het web-OS), maar iets écht nieuws: het internet der dingen Parallel aan al het social software-geweld en de semantische web-discussies doen interactieve media al enige tijd moedige pogingen om de sprong van bits naar atomen te maken. Dit veld wordt gedomineerd door een wirwar aan termen, zoals: “tangible computing” (populair gemaakt door Nokia-researcher Chris Heathcote), “ubiquitous computing” (vaak afgekort tot het onooglijke “ubicomp”), “everyware” (een vrij nieuwe term) en lastpakken als “blogjects” en “spimes” (bedankt Bruce Sterling). Mijn voorkeur gaat uit naar “internet of things”, getuige de titel van deze post.”

Lees verder op »