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 (open.info.nl)

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 open.info.nl »