Category Archives: Interaction

I’d like to thank…

I was at the Museums + Heritage Awards show in swanky Northumberland Avenue in London last night as the Goes to Town project I worked on at the Museum of Natural History was shortlisted for an award in the marketing campaign category.

Happily, we won, and against tough competition – places with more people and bigger budgets (at least, I think they have bigger budgets and more people).

So as well as everyone at the Museum, I’d particularly like to thank Simon Meek at Okayso and Charlie Piggins at Mode of Thought, who worked on the branding and designs for the displays, mobile website and also on the promotional videos. Here’s one:

I also got to wear a Goes to Town labcoat on stage and  make a silly speech about a rabbit, hedgehog and flamingo. And look beardy and bespectacled with Marcus Brigstocke.

Ahead of the game

If the internet age has taught us one lesson, it is that when people are connected to each other, they spawn new behaviours. Sharing and collaboration underpin many aspects of the information era – from open source, open innovation and crowdsourcing to social networking, flashmobs and online gaming, they all have their own organic dynamics.

Video games, in particular, have the power to connect large numbers of players in one virtual space. And it is often the creativity of the players, as much as of the original designers, that leads to the most interesting developments in emergent game play and games design.

By linking together, gamers have dreamt up new rules and behaviours that flex a game’s original design and turn it into something else – something co-designed by the players.

Halo 3, a first-person shooter developed by Bungie for the Xbox 360 console, is home to a good example of collaborative play. Texas-based digital consultancy Rooster Teeth Productions customised the rules from one of Halo 3’s existing game modes to create Grifball, agame-within-a-game that has all the elements of a full-blooded, 16-person sport. Grifball has been so successful that leagues are springing up all over the world, Grifball character action toys have been manufactured and Bungie has now included the game in its official community playlist as a permanently available game.

’People like making up rules – it’s our natural game-playing mode,’ says Holly Gramazio, lead games designer at gaming consultancy Hide & Seek and curator of Sandpit, the group’s experimental gaming nights.

’When you’re young you make up rules and decide how to play something. But as people get older, they tend to feel less comfortable doing this. Nobody stops in the middle of a game of five-a-side and says, “Hey, let’s see what happens if we draw three circles on the pitch and if you step into one you have to run backwards for the next 30 seconds.”’

Little Big Planet 2, created by Media Molecule for the Sony Playstation, promises players ’a powerful new set of tools that vastly widen the scope of possibility, [handing] you the power to create whole games’. These tools let players create characters, compose music and direct cinematic sequences, as well as design whole playable environments.

This reluctance to change the structure of play is being broken down by video-game titles that actively encourage people to design their own gaming environments.

Not surprisingly, Lego has also unveiled its ’kit of parts’ video-game offer, Lego Universe, which takes the enduring appeal of block-by-block construction and throws it into a virtual world populated by other players and their Lego contraptions.

Although player design is a key selling point of both Lego Universe and Little Big Planet 2, they still provide plenty of pre-designed game narrative for players to follow.

The real runaway success in design-it-yourself gaming is the ultra lo-fi Minecraft, a title created by Swedish developer Markus Persson in which players ’mine’ polygon blocks from the earth and use them to build whatever structures they can dream up. Aside from a few monsters roaming the territory at night, that’s pretty much all there is to it – you create your own gaming world and share it with the other players and their constructions.

’I realised that a game that is simple, yet dynamic, has the potential to be turned into a really great game,’ writes Persson.

’I believe that I can combine enough fun, accessibility and building blocks for this game to be a huge melting pot of emergent game play.’

This simplicity has netted Minecraft more than five million registered users, 1.5 millionof whom have bought the paid version of the game. In 24 hours alone, on 1 March, more than 40 000 new people registered and more than 11 000 paid for the title.

’Minecraft is fascinating,’ says Max Reyner, insight editor of The Future Laboratory’s trend network LSN Global. ’It’s very lo-fi and you don’t really do anything with the designs afterwards. It reminds me of people who build model architecture in their attics. The difference, though, is the audience that can see the design when it’s completed. Minecraft users can place videos of their designs, complete with audio commentary, on sites such as You Tube, and suddenly there is an audience of several million people.’

This is the big change. Historically, some games shipped with a built-in level editor – a piece of bespoke 3D design software that allowed people to design their own gaming environments. Similarly, games like The Sims and Civilization are built on the appeal of player-as-God, fashioning and controlling their own dominion.

But at the time these were largely solitary pursuits; without other players there was no scope for the emergent game play that is particularly exciting about today’s gaming.

Massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPG) such as Eve Online are almost entirely constructed from organic emergent game play. Eve’s design, by Icelandic company CCP Games, is rich but also very open: it says, here’s space, some planets and some spaceships – off you go. The sandpit is yours – make your own rules’.

This article was written for Design Week, 24 March 2011.

Augmented reality in the museum

In October last year, a pair of somewhat mischievous new media artists staged a wholly 21st century intervention at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. It involved placing numerous extra artworks in the galleries and introducing a whole new floor – the seventh – at the top of the MoMA building. And all this without the institution’s permission or knowledge (at least at first).

If you haven’t guessed already, this seemingly impossible ruse was achieved using augmented reality (AR), the overlay of digital elements on a live view of a real space, as seen through a smartphone or similar device. The two artists were Sander Veenhof and Mark Skwarek and the We AR in MoMA guerrilla show was conceived as part of the wider Conflux festival of participatory art and technology that was taking place in New York at the time.

Using the special Layar augmented reality browser installed on a smartphone, visitors were able to look at the galleries through their phone’s built in camera, while the GPS location system and internet connection allowed the virtual art to be projected over the top of the camera’s image of the museum space.

Veenhof and Skwarek used the event to raise questions about the impact of AR on public and private spaces, while simultaneously demonstrating some of the frontiers of new media art. According to Veenhof, MoMA has not made any response to the event, despite having large numbers of visitors conspicuously viewing the galleries through their phones.

Although We AR in MoMA was foisted upon a museum institution, augmented reality is something that museums and galleries are starting to experiment with themselves. Whether MoMA’s curators rate Veenhof and Skwarek’s work as a valid artistic intervention or not, it does offer some glimpses of how a gallery might use AR in order to give visitors additional interpretive content. AR guides bring a new dimension over traditional audio guides, whilst remaining personal to each visitor. They might include an artist standing ‘next’ to their work describing their working processes, for example. In fact, artist Jan Rothuizen has already collaborated with the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam’s ARtours programme on an AR exhibition of his work.

Other cultural institutions are also starting to use AR to mesh digital content with the real world. A number of early experiments in this area have concentrated on city spaces, overlaying historical or proposed architectural imagery on a live city view. The Museum of London’s iPhone app, Streetmuseum, is an example of this, where the museum’s collection of archive photography of London is delivered to users’ phones according to their current location and orientation.

The Powerhouse Museum in Sydney, Australia offers a similar AR mobile app, drawing images from the museum’s Flickr collection and presenting them via the Layar platform. Virtual buildings also feature in the Netherlands Architecture Institute’s UAR (urban augmented reality) mobile app, designed by Dutch interaction consultancy IN10. This overlays pictures of what used to present, as well as images of what’s to come, in the cities of Amsterdam and Rotterdam. There’s even a Layar ‘layer’ of the Berlin Wall and its imposing sentry towers, reinstating the barrier that once divided the now reunited halves of the city.

AR is clearly fun, sci-fi type stuff. Like many new technologies, it is alluring and captivating. But is it of real value to the museum sector or is it a mobile-based gimmick? Tristan Gooley, author of Natural Navigator, told a BBC Radio 4 programme that despite our best intentions technology too often ‘gets between us and the experience’. His comments came in a discussion about the forthcoming mobile app from the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, so in this case Gooley was referring to the experience of viewing the natural world unmediated by a screen. However, similar objections could be raised in relation to objects in a museum exhibition.

Does AR add something to a museum experience or does it becomes the experience itself? What do we gain from looking at a composite digital/real world through a mobile phone and what do we lose? In the case of archive photography there is a thrill to be had by looking down the barrel of history whilst standing in very same spot from which the original image was captured.

And perhaps AR can liberate objects too. The Stedelijk Museum’s head of collections Margriet Schavemaker noted at the 2010 Tate Handheld Conference that objects in a museum collection are permanently removed from their original contexts and placed instead inside a ‘white cube’. But AR has the power to return them. In theory, the collection of the ‘augmented museum’ could be geographically and spatially boundless, with objects appearing at relevant locations in the real-world by using an AR overlay.

In this sense, maybe AR is the museum’s best technology tool yet. Objects came from the world and only subsequently were they indexed, filed, curated and exhibited by museums. Perhaps AR allows collected objects to be returned to the wild, but this time with a valuable augmentation of their own – the attachment of expert knowledge and interpretation by the museum professionals who study them and care for them.

In the meantime, keep your eye on new media artists for suggestions of what’s to come. At the 2011 Venice Biennial International Art Exhibition there are plans for a whole uninvited pavilion, thanks to Veenhof and Skwarek…

This article was written for MuseumNext, January 2011.

Glitch & Drone Associates

Although this site is a collection of published articles on design and communications subjects, I have also just co-founded a new venture which I think is worth a mention here. It’s called Glitch & Drone Associates and is a bespoke sound and music composition service aiming to support other communications media – such as graphics, objects, spaces and words – with things sonic.

My partner at G&D is digital designer Simon Meek. We are both very much part of the design industry, but we bring a lifelong interest in music, sound and recording to the design and branding process.

There’s more about our thoughts on the value for this kind of service on the site itself, along with a few audio goodies to wrap your ears around. Email us at hello@glitchanddrone.com if you’d like to know more.

An appy world

Predictions become more perilous the more precise they are. So when forecasting the fortunes of an industry like the digital design sector, generalisations are usually safer and more accurate. Bearing this in mind, in 2011 we can expect branding and marketing consultancies to continue to acquire digital specialists – especially those with technical skills, such as code developers. We can also expect to see successful digital groups keep moving up the client food chain, acting as boardlevel consultants on brand development, marketing and wide-ranging campaigns.

And yet these generalisations are rather tepid, as it’s what we are doing with the design work that’s really interesting. In the field of screen-based digital design, there’s really only one game in town, and that’s mobile. More specifically, the work of digital designers will be influenced by – as well as influence – how we use mobile devices.

One of the biggest trends in this area over the past few years has been the rise of the app. At the risk of propagating a certain well-known advertising slogan, there really is an app for everything. And although we have the release of the iPhone, iPod Touch and App Store to thank for this explosion, the world of apps has already become much more than just an Apple platform: it is a shift in the way that we now interact through the Internet, perhaps with implications for the nature of digital design and development in the future.

Chris Anderson, editor in chief at Wired US magazine, has proclaimed that ‘the Web is dead’, by which he means that our use of Web browsers to find and view traditional sites in an open and boundless World Wide Web is diminishing. Instead, we are using proprietary, closed applications to send and receive the information we need, albeit still via the Internet.

This appears to be a pedantic distinction between the ‘Web’ and the ‘Internet’. But if Anderson is right, the design and coding skills needed to build websites using standard languages such as HTML will be gradually overtaken by the programming skills needed to write bespoke apps for particular mobile operating systems, such as iPhone OS, Android or Windows Phone. And the major digital design work will come from businesses developing and refining their app software rather than their websites.

Or maybe not. Perhaps it is the very proliferation of different smartphone and tablet devices that will check the dedicated app’s dominance, helping to spread the range of digital design work that is commissioned. This is because an app built to run on the iPhone will not run on an Android phone and vice versa. As Android’s market share grows, and as Windows Phone enters the fray, clients may well see more sense in a single Web-based application – a Web app – that can be accessed on as many devices as possible.

A Web app is a Web page that is designed to look and operate like a dedicated app. They’re not new, but the latest versions are optimised for mobile screens, are task-oriented and usually feature simple, functional and intuitive interaction design, just like dedicated apps. And because a number of mobile-device Web browsers run on the same engine, including those on the iPhone and Android phones, investment in a single Web app design and development project can reach multiple platforms simultaneously.

A great example of a Web app is the mobile version of the BBC’s iPlayer, which delivers an app-like user experience (on supported devices) even though it is just a Web page. With the next generation of Web design tools such as CSS3 and HTML5 incoming, Web apps should become even more slick, streamlined and powerful. For digital designers, this Webbased approach is also less reliant on the code developers usually needed to programme the more complex languages used in native mobile apps.

So here is a prediction: over the coming year or so we’ll see more clever websites that look more and more like dedicated apps when viewed on mobile devices. In fact, The Guardian already moved in this direction last month with the redesign of its mobile site. For a company that has already invested in a successful iPhone app, this is an acknowledgement that the future may not belong solely to apps, or to the iPhone.

Our use of mobile devices will underpin pretty much all ‘traditional’ digital design next year and beyond. For digital designers this means catering for multiple mobile devices simultaneously – smartphones, ‘dumb’ phones, PDAs and now the larger tablets, such as the iPad and Samsung Galaxy. The more effortlessly a Web-based design works across these platforms the more successful it is likely to be for clients.

The Guardian’s blog rather sets the scene, saying: ‘The new M.guardian site is available on any handset. Our aim is to improve the service for those of you with smartphones, who make up the majority of our growing mobile audience.’ Notably, the image used to illustrate The Guardian mobile site redesign features two HTC handsets and a Blackberry, with neither an iPhone nor an app in sight.

This article was written for Design Week’s Vision 2011 supplement, December 2010.

Review: Ask A Curator

On the same day that Tony Blair’s memoir, A Journey, was published to considerable media reaction and controversy, discussion of another topic entirely was topping the trend charts on Twitter. Remarkably, it was an initiative to stimulate dialogue between the public and museum curators that had become the hottest Twitter subject in the world by mid morning on 1 September.

The one-day event, called Ask a Curator, was the brainchild of Jim Richardson, managing director of Sumo, a branding and design group which regularly works with museum and gallery clients. Frustrated that social media are usually used by such organisations to push out ‘bland marketing messages’, if they use them at all, Richardson wanted to harness Twitter’s networking power to drum up some direct engagement with curators across the globe. The idea was that a curious public would be able to question the keepers of cultural heritage about the objects in their care and what it is they do with them.

 

‘With Ask a Curator I wanted to do something which asked more of both the public and museums, something that could create dialogue and real engagement. I hoped the project could give the public unprecedented access to the passionate and enthusiastic individuals who work in museums and galleries and also break down barriers within these institutions, where all too often social media is still the remit of the marketing department,’ says Richardson.

 

The initiative comes at a time when many museums are just beginning to consider how online platforms and social media might dovetail with their on-site activities. Some institutions, such as the Brooklyn Museum in New York and the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney, have blazed a trail with their online services and an open attitude to dialogue with the public. But for some organisations, taking part in Ask a Curator was a foray into largely uncharted territory.

 

According to Conxa Rodà, project coordinator at the Museu Picasso in Barcelona, the event was the first time curators there had used Twitter. ‘[The event gave] museum professionals a real proof of the reach and influence of social media and it can awake an interest in what Twitter is all about,’ she says.

 

So was Ask a Curator a success? In many ways, yes. Despite being promoted solely through Twitter, the idea eventually garnered participation from over 340 institutions, each offering a curator to take part in a question and answer session at some point during the day. What’s more, together these museums and galleries span the globe and cover a huge breadth of subject matter and collection material – from the Museum of East Anglian Life in the UK to the Museum of History of Medicine in Brasil.

 

Questions ranged from the general – ‘Have you ever had a piece that you wanted to exhibit but was too large to get into the museum?’ – to the specific – ‘What is your vision for creating a participatory interactive experience with visitors using mobile guide technology? – to the analytical and academic – ‘Is a visual art exhibition a collaborative project between artist and curator? Is there a dominant player?’

 

‘For us, Ask a Curator was the start of an ongoing conversation,’ says Wenke Mast, events and website assistant at the Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp. ‘Our communications department will now screen Twitter every day and pass relevant questions to our curators. We will keep on answering questions.’ Perhaps this is a first step towards breaking down the ‘barriers’ between curators and marketing departments that Richardson observes.

 

And if volume of traffic is a measure of success, the event was barnstorming. The rapid rise of #askacurator – the ‘hashtag’ linking Twitter messages to the subject – led a range of media, including the BBC, to report on the activity. Although these reports largely focused on the social media phenomenon of a trending hashtag, they also discussed the event’s principal idea of connecting museum curators and the public all over the world.

 

The day’s activities also increased Twitter followers for the organisations which took part. ‘We received 403 extra followers from Tuesday 30 August,’ says Maryam Asghari, online and digital marketing manager at the Barbican. ‘The average is 443 extra followers per week, so to get this number in three days is good.’

 

In short, Ask a Curator generated lots of activity around a worthwhile objective, namely giving the global public ‘one-to-one’ access to curators of cultural heritage collections, many of which are publicly held. This huge response reveals genuine interest in the sector’s work, says Museums Sheffield marketing officer for campaigns and digital Dominic Russell-Price. ‘When the calls for scrapping arts funding get ever louder it was heartening to know that the public want to engage and know more about how we work, particularly with questions being about collections, not just exhibitions.’

 

But there are also limitations to the Twitter platform and in many ways Ask a Curator was beset by problems of its own success. The popularity of the event and the fast trending of #askacurator swiftly led the hashtag to be hijacked by spam messages, polluting the stream of genuine messages with rubbish. Because #askacurator is the only identifier of relevant messages it becomes difficult to track associated questions and answers as they stream in from multiple sources. Additionally, many responses were made directly to questioners rather than ‘tweeted’ publicly, further obscuring the exchange.

 

Another inherent limitation is Twitter’s short-form message format of no more than 140 characters. Does this preclude the meaningful and detailed conversation needed to discuss complex curatorial work? Is Twitter actually better suited to providing basic visitor information?

 

‘I think it all lies in the expectations of the Twitter audience,’ says Richardson. ‘Everyone enters Twitter knowing that the messages are short and I think people expect short answers and a certain amount of chaos. Personally, I don’t equate depth of engagement with the length of the answer; the tone and speed of response are for me just as important as they can show that an institution is open and keen to engage with the public.’

 

Certainly, whichever online platform is used for engagement, it is not so much the mechanics that are important, but the content and intention. In this regard, Ask a Curator raised its own valid question: Is there an appetite for this kind of dialogue, from both sides of the exchange, and how can it can enrich the work, understanding and enjoyment of museums and galleries everywhere?

This article was written for Sumo and featured in Museum-ID magazine, October 2010.

Profile: Dunne & Raby

There is a tacit language held within every designed object we encounter. And as consumers of physical products we understand, perhaps subconsciously, that objects embody all sorts of references and qualities, such as safe, clean, reliable, futuristic, fashionable, hi-tech, manufactured, bespoke, corporate, ethnic, male or female. These references are delivered through design and really it’s the language of design that we understand.

It is this literacy that self-described ‘technology idealists’ Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby are seeking to harness in order to pose questions about how our use of technology may affect our lives in the future.

Design is seldom used in this way, to ask hypothetical questions about wider social issues or the moral conundrums arising from changes in science and technology. But since forming Dunne & Raby in the mid 1990s, the pair have used their grounding in design to create physical objects that propose often quite difficult questions about the impact, use, control and distribution of new technologies.

‘We’re pursuing the idea that design can be a vehicle to pose questions,’ says Dunne. ‘For us, product design is a medium to explore ideas. We use the language of popular design and industrial processes, which people can relate to, to reflect back the types of questions they might normally expect to find in art.’

Both Dunne and Raby lecture at the Royal College of Art and since 2005 Dunne has led the Design Interactions course there. Many of the same lines of investigation are to be found on this course, where there is a blurring of the boundaries between design, art, science and academic investigation.

As a studio, Dunne & Raby also works with industry, usually with companies that see value in a freer, more questioning look at the future use of technology in society. But it is clear the pair feel most engaged when dealing with thoughtful, discursive ideas, free from commercial objectives. As well as this, Raby notes that much of their work undertaken for industry is restricted by non-disclosure agreements and so cannot be openly discussed, rather undermining its strength.

But in an exhibition of new work, created for the 2010 Saint Etienne International Design Biennial, Dunne & Raby will present a series of ‘possible futures’ built around subjects as broad as synthetic biology, ethics and multiculturalism, neurotechnology and euthanasia. Four scenarios portray fictional futures where certain technological applications, all feasible, have caused society to change in some way. The exhibits ask: Is this good or bad? Do we want this? How and why might we end up here?

Writer Alex Burrett and photographer Jason Evans collaborated with Dunne & Raby to visualise these futures, introducing outline characters and mildly unsettling narratives. The scenarios are clearly fictional and not intended as predictions of, or designs for, the future. So in what way is the work a design project, as opposed to a science fiction vignette?

‘The objects we create are a fiction, and often we’re sliding towards science fiction, but they are designed to look realistic and mundane. If we move too far away from that it becomes more like sculpture or art,’ says Dunne. Raby elaborates: ‘Design can show the ordinariness and banality of objects, so the scenes are plausible enough to contain their own questions and contradictions.’

For Dunne, this work uses design to access our ‘consumer side’ – our understanding of the language of designed products – to engage our ‘citizen side’ to think about their impact. ‘In society, it’s not until we buy things that they become real. And in terms of changing and questioning things I think we may be more powerful as consumers than as citizens, so we are using design to bring these two together.’

It may not be design as we know it, but Dunne & Raby’s ‘critical design’ could offer a philosophy to a new generation of multidisciplinary designers wishing to work within a wider social dimension. Or perhaps it is an approach for the growing number of designers already jaded by the unfettered market forces that regularly drive their work.

The 2010 Saint Etienne International Design Biennial runs from 20 November – 5 December – www.biennale2010.citedudesign.com

This article was written for Design Week, 28 October 2010.

Profile: The Council

Jeff Conrad, former head of design at Red Bee Media – and before that, head of design at BBC Broadcast – says he always expected to be self-employed. But after joining the BBC in the early 1990s, one year turned into two years, then BBC Broadcast turned into Red Bee Media and eventually Conrad had turned out a string of major broadcast rebrands, including channel portfolios for ITV and UKTV. A couple of decades later, the question emerged: where next?

’Things kept changing at the BBC and Red Bee, but I came to a crossroads really,’ he says. ’Early on I was effectively running an in-house creative department focused on title sequences at the BBC, but then it commercialised that department and we were allowed to go for commercial work. This included doing things like designing the first red button interactive banking system for HSBC. Then BBC Broadcast was sold and became Red Bee Media [in 2005] and by 2009 we had peaked with about £12.5m of business from global television and corporate brand clients. So I started to ask where you can go from there.’

The answer, of course, is into self-employment. But Conrad’s new vehicle, The Council, is in no way a solo show. He has teamed up with two Red Bee colleagues, creative director Kevin Hill and director of production Sophia Pendar-Hughes, all three taking equal ownership of the new business. In all, the consultancy is currently ten-strong – big enough, says Conrad, to handle most jobs, although key consultants and freelances will become occasional ’councillors’ where needed.

The pedigree at The Council is apparent from the trio’s shared back catalogue. Hill was the driving force behind the creation of UKTV lads’ channel Dave, a project that has won a string of awards and plaudits. More than that, its huge success with viewers and advertisers led to a mammoth 18-month project to rebrand all of the channels in the UKTV portfolio, a process for which Hill was creative director. Conrad and Hill also oversaw design for the global rebrand of the Discovery Channel network in 2005, the major identity overhaul of the ITV network in 2006 and a multi-platform relaunch of BBC Three in 2008. Pendar-Hughes was the senior producer on most of these large branding schemes, which Conrad describes as ’some of the biggest portfolio rebrands in TV history’.

Clearly, their background is firmly planted in the world of broadcasting. Current clients include Shine Group, the Home Shopping Service in France, Digital Plus and Canal Plus in Spain and MDR Fernsehen in Germany. But the world has changed rapidly over the past few years and The Council is not intended to be a purely broadcast consultancy, says Conrad. ’I think it’s very hard to define what a broadcast brand is now,’ he says. ’We are really about working with brands that use media to engage with their customers or audience, and that covers a very wide range indeed. It is multi-platform and integrated and all that jargon, but I don’t really care about those terms, because I think what’s important is originality and ideas and working hand-in-hand with the client and not just for them.’

One of the biggest changes in the five years since BBC Broadcast became Red Bee Media is the way technology has forced brands to embrace two-way communication with their audiences. In this sense, the days of ’broadcasting’ are all but over.

’Technology has had a huge impact and even five years ago the communication was one way, from a brand to an audience. Now it involves interaction. This creates huge opportunities for brands to talk to people in different ways and at different times. All brands have to be mindful of that now,’ explains Conrad.

And that’s the space into which The Council launches its offer. The landscape is different from the world of BBC Resources, BBC Broadcast and even the initial days of Red Bee Media. Communications channels are multiple, TV schedules are shot, but strong brands are imperative. As Conrad says, ’A good idea can be applied to any channel.’

This article was written for Design Week, 7 October 2010.

In the dark

At last year’s Tokyo Game Show the prototype for a rather unusual video game was unveiled by Tokyo Communication Arts school. While most game studios use expos to wow players with the latest in 3D graphics rendering, TCA’s Blind Braver was built almost entirely around sound. Designed for the blind, the Xbox game put players in the shoes of a partially sighted character, forcing them to navigate through an auditory rather than visual world.

Although a more complete version of Blind Braver has yet to materialise, another title currently in development in the UK will bring the basic idea to a new audience. Created for the iPhone by production company Somethin’ Else, Papa Sangre is an adventure game that takes place entirely in darkness – the phone’s screen remains impenetrably blank throughout play. Trapped in an eerie, beast-inhabited underworld, the player must travel through Papa Sangre’s various palaces using only sounds for orientation.

‘It was inspired by a theatre game called Sangre y Patatas, in which players are blindfolded and made to walk on different materials,’ says Ben Cave, Papa Sangre’s producer at Somethin’ Else. In the dark, each person is trying to avoid Sangre, the player who is the killer.

What makes Papa Sangre special is its complex 3D sound design. The game would not work without a delicately balanced sound field in which ’sound objects’ – surface textures, instruments, creatures and the like – are located precisely all around the player using ordinary stereo headphones.

Funded by Channel 4’s Innovation for the Public fund, 4iP, and developed by a multidisciplinary team, including sound designer and composer Nick Ryan, Papa Sangre uses binaural sound placement – special recordings that mimic the way the ears and brain perceive the location of sound in the real world. Binaural recording of 3D sound is not new, but unlike other binaural iPhone games such as Soultrapper by Real Time Audio Adventures, in Papa Sangre the spatialised sound effects are computed and triggered in response to the player’s movement through the environment. In other words, the binaural sound is dynamic, not pre-recorded and fixed.

Computational 3D audio on a phone is the latest breakthrough in a long history of 3D sound research and implementation, demonstrating what can now be achieved with the processor in a tiny handheld device.

‘We have been working with 3D soundscapes for ten years, so it doesn’t surprise me that people are building a binaural game for the iPhone,’ says Martyn Ware, director of Illustrious Company, a venture he co-founded with fellow musician and producer Vince Clarke. But unlike the audio world of Papa Sangre, which is created specifically for headphones, the majority of Illustrious projects have been designed for physical spaces.

‘The implications of 3D sound for exhibition and public spaces is very interesting. It’s about creating a totally immersive experience. The better the technology is at creating a sense of reality, the less apparent it is and the more affecting the experience becomes,’ says Ware.

The Dark, for example, was a touring installation produced in 2004 by Braunarts to tell the story of Britain’s role in the slave trade during the 18th century. Visitors were taken to a pitch black room containing a 3D audio environment designed by Illustrious. Left only with sound and imagination, the audience could explore ’ghost’ voices from, for example, the decks of a slave ship.

The development of a complex, three-dimensional sound world presents particular problems for sound designers and software developers, says Cave. Even with the algorithms and processing power to handle a dynamic binaural environment, some sounds are inherently easier for people to locate spatially than others. And in a system without visuals, some sounds require context, while others don’t.

But when these challenges are overcome, responsive 3D sound environments may provide a new component in interaction design. ’Could you use a 3D sound interface as a menu structure, or to browse collections of data, such as a music catalogue?’ asks Cave.

In fact, Mark Sandler, a Professor at the School of Electronic Engineering & Computer Science at Queen Mary, University of London, is researching this very idea.

As an alternative to graphic user interfaces on portable audio players, Sandler is developing ’a purely audio means of interacting with a playlist’ of songs in a music catalogue. In this system, four songs are played simultaneously through headphones, but they are separated spatially to different points in the 3D sound environment. This allows the user to listen to all four distinctly and simultaneously, navigating to the one they want either through buttons (real or virtual) or by titling the device in the appropriate direction.

The accessibility implications for the blind or partially sighted are obvious. With more powerful processors available each year and with gesture control emerging as a digital interaction technique, the possibilities for exploring three-dimensional sound worlds are tantalising.

 This article was written for Design Week, 2 September 2010.