Posts Tagged ‘ Theory

Pokémon Go Home – Why Pokémon is not what the heritage sector really needs

Gently I edged toward the beast. It had 4 long semi-transparent wings, the same length as its tube-like body. The body was iridescent in the light, changing colour through blue to green.  Its face was incredibly ugly… a mixture of large bug-like eyes on the side of its head and a gaping mouth filled with prehistoric fangs. It fluttered its wings gently in the breeze, as it cleaned itself by rubbing its long spindly white legs all over its body. I reached down quietly in readiness to capture it, brought my phone up to look through the camera feed. Just as I was about to swipe the screen it got alarmed, its wings became a blur of movement and it took off – flitting away out of sight. I attempted to chase it – but it was gone in a blink of an eye. Another two years would pass before my friend and I got another tip-off about the location of the quasi-mythical beast.

I could be talking about my hunt for the Yanma, the large dragonfly, famous for being able to see in all directions at once and having such extreme wing-speed that it can shatter glass. Except of course I am not talking about my hunt for a Pokémon – I am talking about the day I went out with a very good friend of mine hunting in the Fens for the white-legged damselfly. We didn’t manage to capture a picture of it that day, but we did briefly see it alight on a leaf, which was more than good enough.

White-legged Damselfly by Philipp Weigell

White-legged Damselfly by Philipp Weigell (picture taken by Philipp Weigell) [CC BY 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Pokémon Go fever has been sweeping seemingly everyone in the last couple of weeks. It has been hailed as a saviour to stop idle kids sitting in front of their computer screens, the herald of mass-adoption of mainstream Augmented Reality, and the re-invigorator of an interest in heritage and museum sites.

As someone who has done quite a bit of research on AR and heritage, I would like to wade into the discussion here and question a few things. To go someway toward mitigating the risk of sounding like a grumpy old man who doesn’t understand ‘kids today’ (too late!) –  I would like to point out that I have 3 boys of my own, play all sorts of different games on both smartphone and computer and I once even bought a girlfriend a pair of Pikachu pyjamas. I understand the nostalgic call of Pokémon, the excitement of the treasure hunt and the lure of the screen over the real world.

Pokémon Go as an AR revolution

First I would like to tackle the pedantic bit. Pokémon Go is not really an AR game. The AR element of it (overlaying the Pokémon onto your video feed) is (as someone else has already said) the most basic of AR possible. So much so that it can’t really be called AR at all. There is no interaction with or reading of the real surroundings, the Pokémon don’t hide behind the cooker or pop out from behind the Museum gates. You could be standing in your toilet or at the edge of the Grand Canyon and the Pokémon would still be badly superimposed, via a simple geo-location, onto the video feed. Even the Snapchat AR which superimposes silly things on people’s faces is more AR – as at least it is doing some kind of recognition of the real world (in that case facial recognition).

Calling Pokémon Go an AR revolution is doing a disservice to the potential and power of AR for integrating with the real world. AR has so much more potential than this. Pokémon Go is a locative game, not true AR.

Pokémon Go gets kids outdoors

What’s not to like about this? Even a cynical old git like me surely can’t complain about kids (and adults) getting away from their screens and going outside. Except, of course, they are not getting away from their screens. In fact it is probably worse – by taking the screen outside and searching for Pokémon through it they are not even really taking part in the outside world. The outside world is being entirely mediated through the screen – a small rectangular box guides your every movement. The alternate reality provided by the smartphone is so beguiling that there are people falling in canals, crashing into police cars and even plummeting off the edge of cliffs whilst playing the game. Clearly even though they are outside, they are oblivious to the world around them.

Do we really live in a world where kids can’t be bothered to get off the sofa and go outside without taking a screen or a game with them? What kind of world is this? What is it going to become if the next generation take this as normal? Why is it that hunting for a Squirtle is seen as the utmost of cool – but following a tip-off about the location of a Spoonbill or standing on the end of train platform hunting trains is seen as the ultimate in nerdiness?

I’m not sure I can really see the logic. I guess that Pokémon Go is the epitome of easy and quick satisfaction. Sure you may have to travel a little, to get to a place to capture the computer-generated critter – but when you arrive you don’t have to wait and watch and hope that you glimpse a sight of it. You don’t have to be silent and scan the sky with your binoculars and be PATIENT. If someone has said that the Charmander is there, it is pretty much guaranteed that if you go to those Lat Long coordinates you will find it. Bird-watching is not the same. You can go back to the same hide for days and days and perhaps not spot what you are looking for. It may even be there, but you might not have done quite enough research to differentiate the colour of the wing flash. It is not quick or easy, and because of that it is surely more ultimately satisfying.

Pokémon Go brings all the kids to the (Archaeological) Yard

This then brings me to the final point – Pokémon Go as a way to get people more engaged with heritage sites. We have seen this before, museums and heritage sites jumping on trendy locative game bandwagons to get more people to come to their sites (Andy Dufton and I wrote about this with Foursquare a few years ago). I think it may be a little early to say whether or not this is really going to be a big thing. We will need to see stats on the increases in ticket sales to show that the Pokéhunters are not just going to the museum car park. And if they are paying the ticket price and entering the site, how much are they actually engaging with the archaeology?

Charmanders in the BM

Terry Brock is also hopeful about this:

Terry Brock

As Andrew Reinhard’s archaeogaming foray shows, there is the potential for providing extra contextual information at the ‘cultural’ Pokéstops. However a quick look at his example of the Pokéstop at his local Washington memorial shows only the information that is on the plaque of the monument itself – but then you would have to look away from your screen to read that.

Route of Washington’s March monument (taken from the Archaeogaming blog by Andrew Reinhard) –

So let us stand back a little and think about what all this means. I’ve concentrated recently on creating ways for people to use Augmented Reality to engage with, explore and understand heritage sites (take a browse around my website to see some examples). The key for me is that by someone visiting the site physically they can engage both their body AND their mind simultaneously. The AR I use is exclusively made to facilitate this, to show hidden elements of the site, to waft unexpected smells to make you THINK about the space in different ways, to play sounds that have some kind of relevance to what happened in that location in the past.

A visit to an archaeological site by a Pokéhunter is the antithesis of this. When a Pokéhunter arrives at a site (drawn by the lure of a rich Pokéstop) they are in the classic state of Cartesian disconnect. Their body may be there, but their mind is far away, thinking of the next Pokéstop or the phone notification that just came through from their mate about a rare [insert rare Pokémon name here] up the road.

You only have to look at this tweet to see the effects of this:

This girl is at STONEHENGE, for crying out loud. Instead of taking an interest in how the stones were put up, how they fit into the surrounding landscape, what actually happened in and around them, and, crucially, how the experience of actually being there makes her feel – she is chasing an Eevee. She herself admits her attention is “so divided right now”. If this is happening at one of Britain’s most iconic and engaging monuments – what does it mean for other heritage sites? This girl’s mind is clearly not in the same place as her body. She is engaged in two separate realities, linked only by coordinates on a Google Map. Using Pokémon Go to get bums on seats and through the ticket barriers might be good for sales, but at what cost? If it really takes a Squirtle to get our youth (and adults) to go to a heritage site, then we are doing something very wrong.

What about the Real World?

I’m sorry this post has been rather despairing. I am getting increasingly sad for the state of the world, where people go head over heels hunting virtual creatures, while the real incredible biodiversity is ignored, built over and marginalised. Instead of re-wilding the world with animals, insects, plants and birds we are enchanted by the opposite: introducing the computer and virtual creatures into our diminishing natural and cultural spaces. How can it be that I am in the minority for being bewitched by the hunt for the white-legged damselfly, a beautiful, crazy, prehistoric looking creature – while the vast majority of people are instead happy to jump in their cars, park in the car park of the local baptist church and stare into their phones flicking imaginary red balls at imaginary creatures?

I haven’t even touched on the inevitable monetisation of all this, how long will it be until the big museums have to pay Niantic loads of money to host an incredibly rare Pokéstop and the smaller sites (that are actually crying out for visitors) will be priced out of the Pokémarket?

If you really can’t get your kids (or yourself) out to a heritage site without gamifying it by chasing animals, why not go and find that pair of peregrine falcons roosting in the local church steeple? Or go newt-hunting in your local historic ponds? Perhaps try to spot a red kite above the prehistoric landscape of Dartmoor? You could even use this map of rare bird sightings around the country to plan a day out birding and visiting nearby heritage sites.

But please please please – leave your smartphone behind.

Future of Conference Posters?

Last month I entered a poster into the UCL Graduate School Poster Competition and was lucky enough to win first prize. I find conference posters a bit of a strange animal. The poster session always seems to take place over lunchtime or the coffee break and more often than not the person who made the poster isn’t around to talk you through it. You are then usually left with a poster that has masses of text, that either has too much detail or not enough, and the whole thing can get quickly boring.

I wanted to challenge this a little bit, and as my poster subject was my work with AR, I was provided with the perfect opportunity. The poster was a pretty simple (but hopefully striking) design, a pair of old school binoculars looking at some rocks on Leskernick Hill, Bodmin Moor. The area within the binoculars shows some roundhouses  – giving the impression that looking through the bins reveals the ancient landscape.

Graduate School Poster

My winning poster

I tried to keep the text to a bare minimum so that the poster was dominated by the binoculars. However, this being an AR project, there was a bit of a twist. Using the Junaio API I augmented the poster with a video that overlaid the whole thing when viewed through a smartphone or tablet. The video showed the binoculars moving around the poster, revealing more of the roundhouses.

I am increasingly finding that the best way to explain AR is to give someone an example of it. It was a bit of a gamble, as in order to see the AR content the viewer needed to have a smartphone, have an app to scan the QR code on the poster and have good enough internet access to install and run the Junaio app. The main judge of the competition wasn’t at the prize-giving, so I didn’t get any feedback or a chance to ask if they had seen the AR content, but they awarded it first prize so I hope they did!

I am of course not the first person to use AR in a poster, but I am sure that it will become a lot more popular as it really is an excellent way of adding content to a poster, without being too intrusive. I guess at the moment it could be seen as being a little gimmicky, however this isn’t all that bad when trying to attract people to your poster and your research. One of the important things to remember though is that the poster needs to be able to stand on it’s own without the AR content, as it is quite an ask at the moment to get people to download an app on their phone just to learn more about your research.

The process of adding the content via the Junaio app also wasn’t quite as easy as I had hoped, mainly because the video itself had to be made into a 3D object and be of a very low quality and in a special .3g2 format to enable it to be delivered fast to a mobile device. You immediately lose your audience if they have to wait 2 minutes for your content to download and the .3g2 format was specifically designed to look ok on a smartphone screen and be small enough to download quickly. However, as you can see from the video above, the quality is pretty poor. I created the animation using 3D Studio Max, and then rendered it out to a number of tiffs. I then used ffmpeg to render the tiffs to a video and encoded it into the .3g2 format. The Junaio developer website has instructions for how to do all of this, but it is not really for the faint of heart.  Junaio provides a number of sample PHP scripts that can be run on your own server to deliver the content, and their trouble-shooting process is really excellent. So if you have your own webserver and are happy with tweaking some scripts then you can do some really quite nice stuff. I should note that they also have a simple upload interface for creating simple AR ‘channels’ which is a great way of quickly getting things up there – but doesn’t allow you to have total control or upload videos. But, if you want to pop a simple 3D model on your conference poster, then the Junaio Channel Creator is the app for you! The other thing to remember if you want to augment your own conference poster, is that the channels can take up to a week to be approved by Junaio, so you can’t leave it all to the last minute!

I suspect we will be seeing many more AR-enabled conference posters, particularly as AR booklets, magazines and museum guides are becoming more popular. One can envisage holographic type projections of people standing beside their posters talking the viewers through it, or interactive posters where the content changes depending on what and where you touch it. As I keep coming back to on this blog, it is the melding of the paper with the digital that I find so fascinating about AR, the ability to re-purpose old ideas (such as the conference poster) and breathe new life into the concept – but without losing the original purpose and feel of the thing itself. The design of the paper poster stands on its own (for better or worse!) and the AR content just gives the creator the chance to provide further information and give the viewer that extra dimension into their research.

Dead Men’s Eyes

‘And here,’ he said, stopping on a more or less level plot with a ring of large trees, ‘is Baxter’s Roman villa.’
‘Baxter?’ said Mr Fanshawe.
‘I forgot; you don’t know about him. He was the old chap I got those glasses from. I believe he made them. He was an old watchmaker down in the village, a great antiquary.’

In his short story, ‘Dead Men’s Eyes or A View from a Hill’, Montague Rhodes James tells us a story of a Mr. Fanshawe who discovers a pair of field glasses [bins] made by an eccentric antiquarian. When he looks through them, he is shown a world that no longer exists:

‘A good deal more to the left -it oughtn’t to be  difficult to find. Do you see a rather sudden knob of a  hill with a thick wood on top of it? It’s in a dead line with that single tree on the top of the big ridge.’
‘I do,’ said Fanshawe, ‘and I believe I could tell you without much difficulty what it’s called.’
‘Could you now?’ said the squire. ‘Say on.’
‘Why, Gallows Hill,’ was the answer.
‘How did you guess that?’
‘Well, if you don’t want it guessed, you shouldn’t  put up a dummy gibbet and a man hanging on it.’
‘What’s that?’ said the squire abruptly. ‘There’s nothing on that hill but wood.’

“There’s nothing on that hill but wood”. That is the trouble with being an archaeologist, most of the really interesting things that we want to see are either buried, covered with trees/buildings or have fallen down never to be seen again. This is especially apparent when dealing with sites in the landscape. When I am walking around a ‘historic landscape’, how do I see Fanshawe’s gory gibbet? I can read a book, look on a map or find an old photo or engraving of the area. But what if I wanted the medieval gibbet to seamlessly be part of the landscape as I walk around? I don’t want to make a special feature of it, I just want it to be there almost unnoticeable, so that it becomes part of my normal everyday world. Perhaps then it is possible to realise what it would have been like living with a gibbet in my backyard, sitting on top of the hill and being an integral part of the landscape in which I live.

This, then, is what this blog is about, bringing elements of the past into the present. Not by forcing them down your throat, but simply by bringing them back into existence, and letting them just be. We can then examine our experiences of them and maybe gain some insight into what the world may have been like for past peoples.

In order to experiment with this I am going to be using Augmented Reality (AR) – a way of blending the virtual world with the real world. If you don;t know what it is – take a look at this video. It uses a bunch of computer-trickery to create and display the virtual objects, but the main idea is that you are able to live in your normal world, but have virtual elements augmented into it. This might be arrows floating around pointing out the nearest StarBucks or it might be a full 3D reconstruction of a Roman villa. AR is mostly being used at the moment for advertising and smartphone games that involve shooting aliens invading your front room. However, the technology is advancing at a blistering rate and amazing things are on the horizon.

AR is a bit of a mind-bending concept, so over the next few weeks and months I will be posting thoughts, progress, videos and ideas – which should hopefully make it clearer to both you and me!

Witch Trial Gallows

The Witch-Trial Gallows on the Hill of Salem (Past)

The Witch-Trial Gallows on the Hill of Salem (Present)