News From The Grid

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News From The Grid

Sam Hill

14th July 2014

Playing with the Game Mechanic

Recently we’ve been deploying a series of experiments to trial elements of the game mechanic. One thing in particular that we’ve been bearing down on is a detail in the way territory is captured.

Though it is easy enough to log player GPS locations, a more difficult task is to make this data applicable to the game.

For example, if you imagine two players run​ ​along the same route, their paths will look similar, but they won’t actually be identical. If we intersect the shapes they create​,​ then lots of unwanted tiny gaps and spaces will be created as their routes criss-cross over each other. These little unreconciled shards of territory would soon make the game confusing to play as well as slow it down.

Before starting the Kickstarter campaign we had planned to ‘sanitise’ this GPS information by snapping to third-party road data. However there were a couple of technical and gameplay compromises with this approach – not least the fact that players would be tied to only running on documented roads and paths.


We’ve since decided to go for a new tack – breaking the world down into small units of space (we’ve shown hexagons here but they could end up square or triangle, depending on other factors which we’re currently testing).

Now players will be able to run around – or through – tiles to capture them. This should make the game more fun to play for several reasons:

  • Players will be able to go *off-road* when out capturing territory – adding parks, forests, mountains and fields to their empire.
  • Players won’t need to run in a loop any more. It’ll still be the most efficient way to grab a lot of territory at once, but if they prefer to run from A-to-B (e.g. on their way to work) then that’s a way of playing too.
  • (This one ties into a couple of suggestions people have sent us) It’s not something we’re planning to build in immediately, but further down the line we could start giving some tiles properties. E.g. a “fort” tile that’s more difficult to take over, or a “mill” tile, which is more valuable to own. This could open up new variations in the way the game is played.

So this is the basic idea:


Anything Else?

  • We’re working on the new Run An Empire website, which should be live in the coming weeks.
  • We have a dedicated systems for responding to queries specifically about Run An Empire. If you have any questions or feedback about the game then you can now send them to for the quickest possible reply.

Finally… here’s our screen print for the shirts:


…And here’s a test print on a tee:


Here are some pics of Luma Studio printing out our posters:





… And here’s the finished result:


Why we’re making Run An Empire

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Why we’re making Run An Empire

Sam Hill

7th April 2014


Now we’re in the final week of Kickstarter fundraising for Run An Empire, I thought it might be good to explain why we wanted to make the game in the first place.

(You can back it here by the way)

A bunch of ideas and observations sort of fell together into a basic “Run An Empire” shape over a year ago. Probably the closest analogy I can conjure is from an episode of nineties muppet sitcom Dinosaurs. In episode 215 (Power Erupts) pubescent Hypsilophodon Robbie “Bart Simpson” Sinclair comes up with an idea for sustainable geothermal energy by combining different objects and systems around him – a jelly strainer(?), a volcano and a foot pump.


I don’t know if there’s an actual lateral thought methodology that exists to this effect, but it’s kind of what happened with us too. I’ll attempt to describe what elements were present in the genesis of Run An Empire, and what spurred us on to make it.

The Nub

The nub of the idea came about in late 2012, whilst developing initial ideas for the first Playable City Award. In the end we went on to develop Hello Lamp Post, but the theme of localised “ownership”, combined with play, came up several times. We were interested in Risk, Strava, Go, “The Dots Game”, Advance Wars, the gang-warfare tagging mini-game from GTA: San Andreas,  and a bunch of other stuff.


As our ideas progressed, smartphones and Apps didn’t feel like the best application for the brief, so we ended up going in a different direction. However, the spark of an idea was there, and the more we looked around at what already existed, the more we saw an opportunity to get people playing something unlike anything else out there.

Ignoring momentarily all board games, console games, wearable technologies and smart devices, and focusing only within the smartphone apps ecosystem, there are three well defined and heavily subscribed categories of application salient with respect to Run An Empire:

  • Health and fitness apps
  • Location and quantified-self tools
  • Mobile games

Each category contains a huge number of apps, of varying degrees of quality. Then there are some well-executed crossover products that benefit from the fusion of two or more categories, and these have often been well received.

What was beginning to form for us was the idea of something that worked across all three categories:


Not Exactly Gamification

As we mentioned on the Kickstarter page, we intend to make a full-blown game, not a “gamified health app”. This is because we’re most interested in making something fun, but paradoxically a schism between points and energy exerted could (we believe) be a progressive device in future digital-physical activity games. It could liberate games-with-benefits from the “gamification” dogma, and allow for more creative and more entertaining play mechanics.

Take football. Football is a game, played for fun. The objective is to score goals – not to “be healthy”. If someone were to take the components of football and “gamify” them to improve health then the end product would likely more closely resemble football training than the game itself, with slaloms and bleep tests and little plastic markers. Football doesn’t fundamentally demand constant activity, or a granularity of quantification beyond the main points system – a player might, through skill or luck, find themselves on a winning team, even if they haven’t run the furthest, had possession of the ball for the longest amount of time or burned the most calories.

As another example (and at the risk of including the franchise in two sequential blog posts) I remember how Sid Meier’s Civilization series taught me a tonne amount about world history, science, politics and philosophy. Alpha Centauri taught me a lot about nascent and theoretical fields of science. In each case, though I’m sure the developers of the games knew there was an educational fringe element to their work, they didn’t develop the games with the primary intention of teaching players and they knew better than to market the games on these grounds too. Knowledge became a fantastic byproduct.

Compare this with the contrivance of typing tutorial games, which are led by the desire to increase typing skill (though Notch’s Drop is kind of fun), or the early corporate console games like McDonaldland or Cool Spot (or even the Chupa Chups-laden Zool) where the paper-thin façade completely undermined any gameplay value that might have existed.



New Sport

What do we have on our hands then, if it isn’t a gamefied health app? Is it, perhaps, a sport? Sport is kind of a funny term to define, but we could say it’s a subcategory of gaming, itself a sub-category of play. Sports are generally considered to be competitive, multi-player, and involving entertainment and skill. Depending on who you ask, sports can include car and horse racing, darts and billiards, poker, chess and even Starcraft – but generally speaking we consider then to involve physical action.

Sports can be somewhat divisive too. Though the global market is worth a buhzillion pounds, in the US something like 60% of adults simply ‘don’t like sports’ at all (SIFA and ACTIVE Network, 2012). Though I can’t really speak for Ben – who likes his football and cricket – I would probably count myself as one of these folk. Like a lot of people, I suspect, I grew up enjoying the puzzles and immersion of tabletop and computer games, but couldn’t really get into competitive sports, which required a level of co-ordination and physical skill that I felt I lacked. It can be difficult to find social sports compelling when one finds themselves consistently in the lower 50% of ability and I imagine experiences from PE at school are what put many people off returning to these kinds of games later in life.

Which is a shame, I would concede. Many sports possess an incredible culture, and playing them can tap a deep well of sensations and emotions – it’s a shame not to feel more involved with them. As an experience designer I’ve had a removed admiration – jealousy, even – for the ability of spectator games like Football and Rugby to draw such intense emotional responses from their spectators – an energy you couldn’t ever hope to replicate in a cinema, theatre or installation space (though Alex Fleetwood told me they got a certain amount of frenzy out of people at the Hide & Seek Sandpits).

Run An Empire feels to me like an attempt to reconcile myself with the intentions behind “sport” (application of skill, social mediation, play) – and make them applicable again on my own terms. I’m hoping it can have a similar effect for others.

The proliferation of smartphones and the cultural groundwork laid by alternative-reality gaming has given us the opportunity to seriously pursue this. There’s an under-exploited potential, technologically, for us to take part in entirely new forms of localised, physical, asynchronous, competitive play. Games like Ingress and Zombies, Run!, and applications like Foursquare and Runkeeper have definitely exposed some innate appeal here. Maybe the next step is an entirely new typology of physical play – a kind of augmented “Frankensport” (or New Sport) – something with a unique applicability and purpose.

Perhaps we could even see a return to mass-subscribed community sports – like the epic mob football games of medieval Britain, which would have neighbouring towns competing in a single game.

Our aspiration, ultimately, is to see Run An Empire create benefits in several ways. We want to see it entertain, change the way we think about the environment around them, encourage a new typology of play and, yes, improve people’s health. Though not designed with healthy living in mind, we know that Run An Empire has the potential to encourage regular exercise and we’re excited by the idea that the game can also be used this way.

We want to see a never-ending game, played simultaneously by many people of varying levels of fitness, on a playing field that encompasses the whole world.

Run An Empire: Kickstarter

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Run An Empire: Kickstarter

Sam Hill

11th March 2014

RaE - MedQual JPG

Today we’re super excited to announce the launch of our Kickstarter campaign for Run An Empire – a game we’ve been working on, where players compete against each other to capture territory in their local environment by running (or walking) around it.

The Kickstarter page is here.

We’ve been a fan of games like Starcraft, Civilization, Risk and Go for most of our lives. Run An Empire for us represents the kind of strategy game we’d love to play ourselves – taking the strategic thinking required for digital and board games and injecting it into the real world, where physical actions can make a difference.


How it Works

The game will use GPS to record the paths players take – local neighbourhoods will become new arenas for strategic play.


To control a territory, a player simply has to sprint, jog or saunter around it. For a competing player to capture it from them they need to do the same – either faster or more often. Territory can be better protected from invasion by encircling it multiple times.

Captured - MedQaul JPG

The key to success is dedication. The game is designed for people like us, not naturally gifted athletes – a slow player can beat a faster opponent if they show more determination.

Rather than a gamified fitness app, we see Run Your Empire as a strategy game with sports-like real world elements. While there’s certainly a potential health benefit (which we’ll enrich as best we can with player analytics) what we’re really excited about seeing are the strategies players enlist to achieve victory.


We have already been awarded some seed funding from Ordnance Survey’s latest Geovation Challenge, where the theme was Active Lifestyles. Now we aim to raise a further £15,000 whilst building a community of beta-testers to help develop the game mechanic.

The first release of the game will be available for iPhone, with an Android version planned as a stretch goal.


Help us Bring Run An Empire to Life


We would hugely appreciate your support through the length of our campaign. Pre-order copies of the game are available from £4, but we also have posters and in game miscellanea up for grabs. Visit the Kickstarter page and see if there’s a reward there that suits you.

Lessons Learned from Digital Cities

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Lessons Learned from Digital Cities

Sam Hill

2nd December 2013

How are cities in computer games different from other fictional cities?

Across film, television and literature, from Minas Tirith via Gotham to Neo Tokyo, we’ve been carefully shepherded – like tourists to North Korea – through a great number of fictional cities. This is even before taking into account the extrapolation, contortion and parody of real locations (Ghostbusters II New York, Lock Stock’s East London, Police Academy 7’s Moscow) and sci-fi future visions of the familiar (Blade Runner‘s Los Angeles, Escape From L.A.’s Los Angeles and Demolition Man’s San Angeles).

As artistic renderings, these fictions tell us something about the cities we do live in. They painstakingly depict moments in time, or guide us between heady vistas whilst showing us something about how we live with ourselves and each other.


But how much further can visual media inspire our future cities? In London at least, there’s no shortage of projects designed to make the city a greater spectacle to behold. One of London’s premiere forms of attraction has become platforms to view the city – not so much as a street-level, person-watching flâneur, but as a helicopter-jockey/shiny glass evangelist. From the Shard, the Millennium Eye, the Emirates ‘Air Line’ cable cars, to Heron Tower, Centre Point, Tate Modern’s Members room and a myriad of other rooftop terraces between Hoxton and Peckham, we’re encouraged to pay exorbitant amounts for the luxury of a high-up window.

Games developers are more obliged than other media creators to take their visions of urban life and render them in greater depth. An immersive world can’t depend too heavily on hyperbole to elicit an emotional response from us. So though the whole must still be compelling to take in, every component nook and cranny must also bleed with the same character and message – there is no space or scale for ambiguity or misdirection. When a writer tells you something is so, and a director shows you something is so, a developer – a simulator – must appear to have made it so.

Cities in games need arguably do two things: first of all they must simulate a functioning society, though granted only so far as the realism of the game demands. Secondly, critically, they must still be fun places to be in and interact with.

It is therefore appropriate when we consider how our living environments can be more experientially enriching, that we should look to simulated spaces to learn how they have done the same. What can the real learn from the simulacrum?


When the City is the Star


In the UK, post-war development and ubiquitous brand enfranchisement have created such homogeneity across urban centres that our high streets have become all but interchangeable. So it can be incredibly refreshing to visit fictional cities with such rich and distinct identities. Some games have created incredible works of art, in the form of habitable cities – atmospheric, detailed, awe-inspiring, textured, multi-faceted, believable, subtle, and vast. Mentioning said cities by name can elicit a stronger emotional response than by mentioning any of their particular denizens.


Bioshock remains a premier example of this – personally, when I hear the mention of “Rapture”, it stirs up a greater sense of wonder, dread and melancholy than any particular antagonist of the series. Similarly, memories of the broken Prague-like City 17, and her painterly Victorian cousin Dunwall, can tug at the heart strings stronger than Alyx, Emily or any other major character from their respective titles.


Grand Theft Auto has delivered a mixed bag of cities over the years (actually other than Vice City they’ve been pretty well realised), but arguably the most recent incarnation of Los Santos has been their richest and most compellingly built environment yet.


These non-places, though unreal, have the integrity to hold together many individual strands of narrative, are open to several perspectives, and can survive the same schisms as our real cities – luxury and squalor; old and new; alien and familiar.


Playground Cities


Dishonored‘s aforementioned island capital Dunwall and GTA’s Los Santos sit alongside Batman’s Arkham City district, I Am Alive‘s Haventon and any one of Assassin Creed’s historic set-pieces – but perhaps most notably 15th century Venice – as cities designed from the rooftops downwards with a single goal: to be playgrounds, specifically climbing frames, equal parts vertical and horizontal. Digital environment design for play is a challenging, experimental process in itself, but these spaces are fantastic for giving the tactile and stealthy movement of their characters the full potential.



On the surface this kind of physical exploration and play seems comparable to parkour, though in reality parkour is about exploiting and negotiating an unyielding environment. These spaces, rather than being re-appropriated by the player as it first seeems, have been painstakingly designed to work harmoniously together with the nuances and limitations of player movement to create a very gratifying play experience.

Sanctuaries in a Harsh World


Though often little more than settlements, the villages, towns and cities that pepper the landscape of many RPG landscapes, from the homely back-water starter town to the mid-game metropolitan base of operations, often serve two roles.

The first is R&R – a safe bastion in an otherwise dangerous and untamed wilderness. A small haven of civilisation (It’s difficult not to feel sorry for the unfortunate folk who have to  endure our adventure worlds permanently). This is somewhere to sleep and (sometimes literally) recharge – probably there will be a tavern in which to rest one’s head, consolidate some XP and save current progress.

It’s common for cities to have tall, impenetrable walls; the only entrance being a single,well-guarded main gate (and possibly a few sewer grates). Though this is mostly done to economise on memory (such as Megaton in Fallout 3, or the compartmentalized Imperial City in Elder Scrolls: Oblivion), the psychology of these safe zones shouldn’t be underestimated. The walls draw a definite boundary between the chaotic danger of ‘the wild’ and the enforced civility of ‘the tame’ and it’s common for city guards to patrol the streets too, should the player wish to upset this balance themselves. These proto-cities re-enact what our earliest settlements were founded for: municipal protection racketeering.


They are such palpably different environments from outside the walls, that for a player that has spent a long time dungeoneering the break in pace can be very cathartic. Completed quests are often rewarded in cities and so these digital spaces can become strongly linked with a sense of gratification and closure.

Whilst refuelling, it’s very likely that there will be a general store to buy essentials, like food and healing materials. RPG settlements are interestingly distinct from their real-world counterpoints for being engineered entirely for the benefit of the player, and this is often thinly veiled. If there are a handful of special interest/niche stores in town, it’s more than likely that they will cater specifically to the needs of the player – a place to trade encumbering loads of loot for shiny new weapons, armour or scrolls. Though economic on reality, these townships are dead on the money for providing for the needs of their market – even if it is, effectively, a market for one.

Fo1_Hub_Downtown (2)

The second role of RPG settlements is to drive the main narrative forward – this is the home of the brief-dispatching wizened sage or beleaguered king. But the taverns will probably have a few troubled souls within them too – cities are great places for lightweight side-quests, testing the player’s otherwise undeveloped genteel skills – silver-tongued charisma, lock-picking or bartering. Any mercenary tasks that do take place within the city walls are distinctly less strenuous then those beyond them – rats in the basement etc – further reinforcing the message of a step down in difficulty.


Simulation Cities


Obviously, city builder and management sims (Sim City, Transport Tycoon, Anno 1701, plus some real-time strategies like Age of Empires) give us the opportunity to understand the city from a different, top-down perspective, and allow us to create or modify these spaces in a manner that we prefer. They are interesting for helping us to see first-hand the reliance we have on infrastructure, and the socio-economic factors that make up (according to somebody’s model) a well-balanced environment for living and working.

They also give us a licence to consider how our cities could be better designed – more efficient, more sustainable, or with improved lifestyle opportunities.

Minecraft deserves a mention in this camp because even though, as a sandbox game, its grit is finer than most, the vast majority of building blocks are still implicitly designed for habitation. Below is an example of perhaps the twentieth sincere attempt I’ve made at starting a township – this time a Mediterranean-style fishing village.



Cities as Part of a Larger System


Finally there are the cities that are part of a bigger scheme – such as in Risk-like military conquest games. In particular there is the Civilization series where we see a city as a desirable, possessable machine, able to convert inputs – food, raw materials, energy, luxury, trade networks, healthcare and security – into outputs: revenue, scientific advancement, industry and culture.


Who’s calling the shots

Our living cities can be more like the ones we experience in computer games – aware of their own rich identity, affording more opportunities for narrative, interaction and play – if the architecture and infrastructure were designed with these affordances in mind.

This isn’t necessarily about vertigo-inducing stunts or god-like power play, but there is still the potential for contextual, located fun and intervention points to be soft- and hard-built into the city systems. The challenge is partially about trust – a trust between denizens and governing bodies. Play is inhibited when permissions are removed and activity is restricted, for the sake of our safety and protection.

However the larger issue is lack of motivation from decision making parties. Companies and organisations are the main powers that change the form of our modern cities. There isn’t a lot of impetus between the vanity of the prestigious client and the vanity of their equally prestigious architectural firm to create any emotional engagement with their spaces, other than a reserved and passive sense of awe – which locks us back in to the look-don’t-touch world of cinematic cities. Even shopping centres and high street stores prescribe a very limited form of engagement, wrapped up in a particular model of consumption. This is a shame because with a more playful attitude, spatial designers could tap in to a much deeper vein of emotional engagement through their work, and their clients would benefit from having a more integral and meaningful link with the community around them.

Hello Lamp Post – What are people saying?

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Hello Lamp Post – What are people saying?

Sam Hill

2nd August 2013



We’ve now had around 12,000 player messages come through on Hello Lamp Post. The website randomly cycles approved questions and answers, but we thought it might be interesting for you to see what our favourite responses are – the ones that have made us smile the most while moderating content.

The three main themes behind our enquiry are around shared observations, memories and opinions – we’re trying to give people a context and platform to be more mindful of the environment around them, to trigger their most salient memories of the places they live in, and to communicate these things, along with their perspective and learnings, to each other.

With that in mind, have a look at these…



If you listen carefully, what’s the quietest thing you can hear?

Via parking meter #2995: “Fingers clenched to moving parasols”

Via lamp post #21: “The wine sloshing in my back pack”

Via lamp post #3: “I’m blasting drum and bass through my headphones, nothing is quiet…”


Can you smell something?

Via lamp post #103: “Fresh broad beans – I’m podding some now and can’t resist popping one or two from each pod in my mouth raw. Yum.”

Via bench #6bs: “Ice cream and dry kebab fat”

Via lamp post #1: “The fresh scent of the rain and the earth – the scent of the outdoors!”


I can’t turn. Can you tell me what’s behind me?

Via parking meter #2717: “Bristol Library. A most beautiful library and one of my favourites.”

Via station #bri1: “A man in a yellow Jamaican shirt with a pot plant in a plastic bag. But he’s more ‘in you’ than ‘behind you’.”

Via green box #6: “You are in front of Colston Hall, you must enjoy listening in on the concerts”



Tell me a childhood memory you remember well?

Via post box #bs4127: “I remember a very snowy day when we made a sledge to go and get some milk from the shops.”

Via bus stop #11020515: “Walking through Broadmead after watching a Doctor Who story about showroom dummies that come alive. Very scary.”

Via bridge #per1: “I remember when Peros bridge was built, people said the horns were ugly but they just fit in now.”


What’s your favourite memory of Bristol

Via Harbourside #hrb5: “Taking my son to see the Balloons take off at Ashton Court Balloon Fiesta for the first time. He was 4 years old ‘Come back balloons! I love you!’ ”

Via station #bri1: “My favourite memory of Bristol is celebrating St Pauls carnival 2010, it was my first after moving from London and I loved the energy and the jerk chicken!”

Via Harbourside #hrb5: “Surviving 2.8 hours later!”


How has Bristol changed, in the time that you’ve known it?

Via City Hall #ch1: “I’ve lived here for 25 years, and one really noticeable thing is the increase in COLOUR! I love how street art is flourishing here…”

Via City Hall #ch1: “Park St has less shops of interest but Stokes Croft on the other hand is now brim full of boutiques so maybe it’s a location thing?!”

Via City Hall #ch1: “Stokes Croft has gone from uninhabitable to somewhere I never want to leave.”



Are there any rules that you live by?

Via lamp post #hrb3: “The rules of the game. I just lost the game.”

Via bridge #per1: “Always hold hand when we cross the road.”

Via lamp post #350: “No I’m limitless”


If I was yours for the day, what would you write on me? (Asked by a billboard)

Via billboard #cabt: “Everything will be ok”

Via billboard #cabt: ” “I love you!” so that everyone who went past would think it was for them XD. ”

Via billboard #cabt: “I think I’d write ‘be excellent to each other’.”


What would be your super power? (And why?)

Via parking meter #2721: “To be able to grow money out of my belly button”

Via crane #29: “The ability to float above water – because we could make some side cash”

Via Biggles #2688: “Super beak that can tap tap tap on the top of peoples heads… Why: pick peoples brains”

Hello Lamp Post: Week #1 Stats

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Hello Lamp Post: Week #1 Stats

Sam Hill

24th July 2013

The first week of Hello Lamp Post (15-21st July) is complete and we thought it might be interesting to summarise how it went. In the coming weeks we can tunnel a little bit deeper into specific parts of the data (responses to particular objects and questions etc), but seeing as it’s early days right now we’re just going to give a glancing overview of activity.


Unique Players

We had just under 1000 new players take part…




Players initiated just shy of 2300 conversations with their objects. This amounted to 5221 player SMS messages sent (with a similar amount sent from the system in return). The modal length of a conversation is actually four messages each way, but in this case a “conversation” is really any discrete exchange between a player and an object and sometimes this can be over in one or two texts.




445 unique items of street furniture across Bristol were woken up by players, meaning that, on average, each object had about two players converse with it (though this will be skewed somewhat by some more popular/ promoted objects having a larger engagement than their suburban siblings).

In the first week the eponymous lamp posts were the most commonly addressed item of street furniture, followed respectively by post boxes, telegraph poles and parking meters.



…so it’s been quite an active week and we’ve been really happy with the spirit in which everyone has entered into the conversations. We’ve seen a steady (bizarrely linear, actually) increase in play, and look forward to seeing how players’ behaviour changes over the coming weeks. We’re hoping to make tweaks and changes based on the way people are choosing to play – whether that means adding new object category types, or ensuring there’s enough depth of questioning for people returning to particular favourite objects. This approach to flexibility is made immeasurably easier by the very fact we’ve got a powerful system in place for providing us with necessary contextual data – for diagnostics, effective analysis and review.


Experiencing Cities: TEDxHamburg

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Experiencing Cities: TEDxHamburg

Sam Hill


Transformations for Experience

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Transformations for Experience

Sam Hill

10th January 2013

A while back I mentioned our theory-in-progress: that there are two kinds of design intervention that can improve the human experience. The first are designed ‘events’: finite moments in time, with their own contexts, during which things happen. Lots of people work in producing consumable experiential events, even if they don’t necessarily view them this way – certainly performers, game makers and interaction designers do; but also musicians, film-makers, artists, restaurateurs, etc. etc.

The other intervention type, however, is a little bit trickier and much less common. These are transformations, or augmentations – finding constant, passive, sustainable ways of being. How do you squeeze more life out of everyday living? We’ve identified three broad categories of transformation that would allow the collection of more experience value: sensory augmentation, memory augmentation and attitudinal re-evaluation.


1. Sensory Augmentation

Sensory Augmentation is ‘improving’ the way we interpret the world, which could be done in many ways:

Augmenting our existing senses

We could, theoretically, take our existing senses and improve them with the following abilities:

  • Perceiving beyond our current range, e.g. our vision does not include infra-red or ultra-violet light; our hearing capacity is restricted to a narrow band of frequencies)
  • Detecting things from greater distances (e.g. sharpness of vision, smelling blood in the water that originates from far away)
  • Distinguishing subtle differences between similar sensory inputs (e.g. tasting different varieties of grape in wines, or being able to sing pitch-perfectly)
  • Isolating a particular element amongst broad and varied sources (e.g. picking out a particular voice in a bar)
  • Processing input more quickly (e.g. seeing movement at a faster “frame-rate”, as many birds can)
  • Discerning subtle rates of change (in temperature, light, speed)
  • Observing in a broader directional field (e.g. having greater peripheral vision)

Here’s part of a larger Mezzmer info-graphic doing the rounds. It illustrates how awesomely badass the mantis shrimp’s vision is, relative to ours:


Senses seen in other Animals, not analogous to human senses

With the aid of developing tech, we might be able to equip ourselves with entirely new senses, inspired by other organisms in nature, such as:

  • echo-location, such as that used by bats, or dolphins (granted, some people have mastered echo-location too)
  • chemical detection via a vomeronasal organ, like in snakes
  • electroreception, as seen in sharks
  • magnetoception, as seen in birds

Data-centric Augmentation:

Contextual data could aid our perception and navigation of the social, human-constructed world:

  • universal translators and other aids for communication
  • diagrammatic vision – abstract visualisation of intangible things e.g. showing the electric field around an object, or the presence of radiation
  • annotated vision – providing ancillary data about things seen

Non-naturally occuring senses – including the fantastical

  • “x-ray” vision – seeing ‘through’ solid things
  • thermography – perceiving temperature (edit: some snakes have a crude form of this)
  • tele-sensation – tactile sensation from a distance, perhaps through an avatar/ slave-sensor
  • telepathy – non-verbal/ non-physical communication

Gregory McRoberts used an Arduino Lilypad, ultrasonic and infrared sensors to augment his partially-sighted eye to provide distance and temperature data


But… Would Sense Augmentation Really Increase Experience Value?

We’re postulating on the fly, to be honest. It makes sense that if sensory capacity was enhanced, one would get more from life, but we don’t really have any evidence to back this up. So perhaps we should consider it an opportunity for discourse. There are after all couple of considerations…

The first consideration is feasibility. Can we improve our capacity for greater sensation? Perhaps, even with the greatest bionic and genetic development we couldn’t enhance our senses beyond a certain limiting factor. Even if we could, it seems our minds can only process a finite amount of sensory stimulation at once.

The second consideration is: should we seek to augment our senses? They are, after all, a product of our evolution and should (you’d think) be somewhat attuned to our needs – we’ve actually lost some superfluous ancestral sensory abilities, such as a stronger olfactory ability, as recently as the last couple of hundred-thousand years. It may be that not only does further sensory development fail to provide an evolutionary edge, but possessing it could even reduce quality of life.

For example, Gregory McRoberts says that anyone trying to use his eye-patch on a fully-functioning eye suffers from a form of ‘Helmet fire’ – a term coined in aviation, where stress-induced task saturation, exacerbated by helmet HUDs, impedes pilots abilities to function and make decisions.

See also the clip below of ‘binocular soccer’ – even though binoculars are an accepted form of visual augmentation, if they can’t integrate passively and sympathetically with the other demands of our vision (depth perception and peripheral awareness) they also have an impeding effect:


2. Memory Augmentation

Specifically, enhancing experience would require augmenting Autobiographical memory; episodic memory in particular – recollecting times, places, associated emotions, and other contextual knowledge.

Augmenting Human memory would involve affecting our ability to:

  • record memories – encoding experiences exhaustively, with depth and detail
  • retain memories – remembering experiences for longer/ indefinitely
  • recall memories – have access to memories easily, quickly, entirely, accurately

Pragmatically this can be done in part through existing stuff – tools (such as cameras), systems (such as diaries) or techniques (such as mnemonics), but conceivably, it could perhaps be achievable in the future through genetics or neural-interfacing bionics.

Of course, the experiences themselves aren’t enhanced, but the memories of them are more exactly and comprehensively stored – so all memories would retain more experiential value.

Some people already have superior autobiographical memory – the condition is known as Hyperthymesia and is incredibly rare. People possessing the condition can recall every detail of their lives with as much accuracy as if it’d happened moments ago. Once again, however, we need to question if this capability really improves the human experience. The condition isn’t always regarded as a ‘blessing’; some affected experience it as a burden, and many spend a great deal of time dwelling on the past. The condition challenges the traditional notion of what healthy memory is, prompting the attitude “it isn’t just about retaining the significant stuff. Far more important is being able to forget the rest.” [(via Wikipedia) Rubin, D. C., Schrauf, R. W., & Greenberg, D. L. (2003). Belief and recollection of autobiographical memories. Memory and Cognition, 31, 887–901.]


3. Attitudinal Change/ Value Re-assessment

Finally, sense- and memory-augmentation won’t reap much benefit for any individual unless they have a sincere interest in exploiting such capacity to gain more experience value.

Attitudinal change, based on a reassessment of values, is a much less technology-orientated intervention. Instead it is a cognitive shift; a willingness to perceive ones environment more actively, and with a greater attention to detail.

On the one hand, this can be thought of as a learned skill. Sherlock Holmes, for example, is the archetypal ‘observer’ – someone who is ceaselessly, lucidly, taking in the details around him, analysing them and extracting wisdom. On the other hand, there is also a broader philosophical element, or at the very least a set of arguments – statements for why seeking out and making the most of life’s variety is of benefit to us.

To cause a change in attitude and behaviour would require:

  • Learning how to stand back during autobiographical events and and have an absolute, lucid, sensory attentiveness to what’s happening.
  • Being able to objectively reflect on one’s own motivations, decisions, actions and emotional state.
  • Training emotional and intellectual post-analysis (reflection, critiquing)
  • understanding why it is desirable to maximise one’s experiences

People talk about an ability to “live in the now”. Often it is seen as a good thing, though sometimes the phrase is used pejoratively to imply an inability to see the consequences of actions. It is contrasted with both those obsessed with and living inside of their memories, and those who cannot appreciate the here and now because they are constantly looking for the next thing.


Mindfulness‘ is an essential tenet of Buddhism. Considered to be one of the seven factors for achieving spiritual enlightenment, it is a ready-made, tried-and-tested tool kit for gaining a greater appreciation of one’s environment. Mindfulness teaches both the importance of being aware, as well as providing instructions into how to achieve such a state. Unavoidably, it’s is a very trendy concept in the west at the moment, mainly because it’s lessons can also be applied as a form of cognitive therapy, to help temper conditions such as anxiety, depression and stress.

From our perspective, the applicable teachings of Mindfulness are very interesting, and as we continue to investigate them we’re keen to see what can be learned. However, without wanting to diminish it’s spiritual salience, nor the significance of being able to help therapeutically, as experience designers we need to be sure we can (if possible) isolate the processes from the spiritual.


Experiential Research?

‘Medicine’ is an enormous branch of applied science; a collection of inter-related but distinct areas of study, implicitly dedicated (arguments for quality of life to one side) to the goal of prolonging human life, through countering disease, environmental harm or genetic conditions.

Imagine if there was another contrasting branch of science, called Experiential Research. Experiential research might be considered to have the same ultimate purpose as medicine, but with an approach pivoted at 90 degrees. That ultimate goal being to fit more living into a life, but the change in tact being to get more intensity of living into each minute, rather than increasing the number of minutes.

Obviously, the underlying sciences already exist – biochemistry, bionics, cybernetics, genetics, psychology, neurology, human-system interfaces and data visualisation. The concepts of “body-hacking”, or “super-senses” are not new either. But if there was more collaboration across these disciplines, with the aim of creating new transformative interventions, then perhaps we could all reap the benefits of new capabilities and new perspectives.


Proustian Camera – Prototyping

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Proustian Camera – Prototyping

Sam Hill

8th January 2013

We’ve been looking at memory – specifically episodic memory – and it’s relationship with experience for a few months now. We’ve spoken with neuroscientists on the science of memory, and Ben has been working on several interventions around the subject. Earlier in the year I first proposed our so-called “Anti-Camera”, or “Scent-camera”. More recently we have come to call it The Proustian Camera (which seems to summarise our intentions most neatly). Ultimately, we hope to develop a device that provides an alternative to conventional cameras, by letting people ‘tag’ events and occasions with a scent, which they can later recreate to aid memory.


The Prototype

We’re pleased to announce that this week we’ve assembled our first working prototype – a rudimentary, bare-bones version of what we’d like to finally end up building.

The prototype has 6 scent chambers (the final version will likely have between 18 and 30), and uses piezo-atomisers paired with felt wicks to make the compound scents airborne. Ben gutted the components and electronics from a bunch of Glade “Wisps” (there’s a Make: tutorial on how these can be hacked.) and got a couple of Arduinos inside setup to sync the atomising with the push a of a trigger. The left-most button is a “submit” button, and the rest toggle respective piezos (‘up’ is on, though you can see at the time of the photo they weren’t aligned).


Getting to a Prototype stage

To briefly summarise how we got to where we are now – firstly, we’re very grateful to Odette Toilette, who has valuable experience having worked on some interesting fragrance-based products before, and knows all about the alchemical world of olfaction. She pointed us in the right direction for sourcing the scents we needed, and helped us get our heads around the mechanics of how to make smell-objects work.

We bought thirty of so ingredient scents from Perfumer’s Apprentice, who were very helpful when we explained what we were trying to do. They sent us a bunch of tiny jars with a broad spectrum of concentrated scents in them, ranging from musky base tones to fruity high notes. Stuff like Ethyl Methyl 2-Butyrate (which sort of smells like a banana-flavoured epoxy), Bergamot (citric) and Civetone. Civetone is one of the oldest known ingredients in perfume, and is still present in contemporary fragrances like Chanel No. 5. However in isolation it smells like a prison gymnasium crossed with a festival toilet.



We used these scents for a couple of research projects, to see if memory scent tagging would work as neatly as we hoped.

First a “sample group” of colleagues visited two locations: one as a control, and one whilst using a composite scent. Several days later we re-combined the composite scent and tested to see if they could recall the latter location with more clarity than the control.

In the second experiment we took a larger group (some 50 or so Goldsmiths design volunteers) and showed them five youtube music videos, in each case giving them a different composite scent. We wanted to see if they could later recall which scent was linked to which video.

Disappointingly, in both cases we learned that episodic memory is not as discreet as we first hoped. Declaring one “episode” of memory over, and another to have begun is not as straight-forward as we had expected – similar activities, especially if minutes apart, will ultimately “bleed” into one another from the perspective of a participant.

It seems the time frame of a Proustian mark will be associated with a period longer than several minutes. Though both experiments showed a slight trend towards there being a positive correlation between olfactory stimulation and memory, we’ll need to repeat them, spaced over a longer period of time, to glean any usable data. Now at least we can use the prototype in these experiments.


Refining the model

With a working prototype out in the field, we’ve set our sights on designs for a fully-featured iteration. Specifically, we’re working out a form and use-cases to get the right scents in the right place, and with a solid and intuitive user-interface.

Justas has been rapidly sketching forms to interrogate the object’s potential use. We’re conscious that as a conversation piece, our object may benefit from referencing consumer technology products. We’ve set about exploring forms that both indicate it’s situations of use and it’s scent based nature. We want people to be able to imagine it in their hands and functioning in their lives. Drawing and re-drawing the object, we’re learning about what the object needed to function and how to read as a camera-like object.

Justas has also explored the form as 3-D render-sketches, again to see it as a finished object and have conversations about how it works and where it sits. We’re now starting to produce physical sketches, which we’ll upload pics of soon.


Next Steps

We still need solid data, demonstrating whether or not our object can do what the scientific theory implies. We’ll use our prototype to explore this. Our use-case explorations have helped us identify three routes, which we’ll be weighing up over the following weeks.

The outcome of this exploration could be:

  1. A conceptually ‘purist’ approach – a ‘blind’ object with minimal functionality, capable of only two functions: a) emitting a scent for the first time,  b) emitting a previous scent-encoding at random
  2. An assisting device for cameras – something that works in tandem with convention cameras to provide a more holistic memory encoding experience
  3. A compromise between the two – a legitimate ‘competitor’ to a recollection-through-sight object, but a tool that is sympathetic to the user and provides meta-data (location, time, possibly the ability to tag scents textually) to help them select previous scents.

Once we’ve settled on the use conditions, we’ll get 3D prints made up and install component PCB’s more specifically adapted to our final needs (as opposed to the proto-electronics we’ve been using so far).

(Finally, here’s is a close up of a scent getting atomised, click for more detail:)

The Playable City

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The Playable City

Sam Hill

14th December 2012


We’re very excited to announce we’ve been shortlisted for the Playable City Award 2013.

The Playable City Award offers artists and creatives from across the world a unique opportunity to make something wonderful using creative technologies. The 2013 award will produce a work which surprises, challenges and engages people in exploring the playable city.

Pushing the boundaries and encouraging experimentation, this international award sits at the intersections of technology and culture and will champion Bristol as an international hub for cutting-edge creativity.

The commissioned work will cross cultural contexts and will be toured. It will use technology in an integrated and interesting way. It will inject a sense of wonder and meaning into public space.

The shortlist gives the public the chance to comment on the finalists ideas, critique them, and ask probing questions. Our entry is OPEN NOW for review, so have a look and share your thoughts with us.

We developed Hello Lamp Post! in collaboration with designer/ technologist Tom Armitage and media artist Gyorgyi Galik.


Our Proposition [Abridged]

To provide a clear idea of what we’re proposing, we decided to make a condensed version of our pitch document available online for public perusal. Here it is:

Downloadable version:


Individual slides:

Taxonomy of Interaction

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Taxonomy of Interaction

Sam Hill

4th October 2012

The version shown here focuses almost entirely on human-to-object input. The first public beta version published was v.0.13. (This is the current version.)


Conceived in a Pub

We had an idea a couple of months ago (one of those “made-sense-in-the-pub, does-it-still-makes-sense-in-the-morning?” type of ideas) that it’d be incredibly useful to have some kind of universal classification of interaction. Nothing fancy, just a straight-up, catch-all taxonomy of human-systems inter-relationships.

The idea was a hierarchial table; a neat, organised and absolutely correct information tree, sprouting in two directions from the middle, i.e. the computer, system, or thing. At one end would be “every” (see below) conceivable form of input, any kind of real-world data that a computer could make sense of (actually, or theoretically). These roots would converge into their parent ideas and link up to the centre. Then, in the other direction would shoot every conceivable output, any kind of effective change that could be made upon another thing, person or environment.

If suitably broad enough, any known or future ‘interaction’ object or installation would, in theory, be mappable through this process, whether it was a door handle, wind-chime, musical pressure-pad staircase or Google’s Project Glass.

We couldn’t find any existing tables of such breadth in the public domain (though correct me if I’m wrong). It was in fact hard enough to find even parts of such a table. So we decided, tentatively, to see how far we could get making our own. Some of the issues that cropped up were surprising, whilst others which loomed ahead in the distance remained obstinately present until we were forced to address them.


Complications and Definitions

There are a couple of important things to be clear on, it seems, when putting together any kind of taxonomy. One of them is choosing an appropriate ordering of common properties. For example, should “physical communication” come under physical activity (alongside walking, eating and other non-communicative movement) or under communication (alongside verbal and haptic communication)? Conventionally, the three elements of an interaction are assumed to be: A person, an object, and an environment. Any fundamental interaction typically occurs between any two, e.g. person-person, person-object, object-environment, etc. These elements seemed like an appropriate fundamental trinity, from which everything else could stem from.

The difference between an object and environment, however, seems mostly (though not unilaterally) to be a matter of scale. Especially when it comes to methods of analysis (temperature, colour, density etc.). We also thought it best to include “abstract data” as a source, essentially to represent any data that might have been created randomly, or where the original relevance had been lost through abstraction.

It can often be desirable to describe something in two different ways. For example, a camera might help recognise which facial muscles are in use (to achieve nostril flair or raise an eyebrow), but it might also be desirable for an object to recognise these signifiers contextually, as a likely indicators of mood (e.g. anger, happiness, fear).

Another issue is granularity. How fine (how deep) should an inspection go? Tunnelling deeper into each vein of enquiry it becomes difficult to know when to stop, and challenging to maintain consistency.

When we talk about covering “every” kind of input, we mean that it should be possible for an organisation system like this to be all-encompassing without necessarily being exhaustive. A system that broadly refers to “audio input” can encompass the notions of “speech” and “musical instruments”, or incorporate properties like “volume” and “timbre”, without necessarily making distinctions between any of them.


Sarcasm and Toasters

One decision we made early on was to categorise human inputs by their common characteristics, not by the input mechanism that would record them. This was because there might be more than one way of recording the same thing (e.g. movement could be recorded by systems as diverse as cameras, sonar and accelerometers). This created an interesting side-effect, as the taxonomy shifted into a far more complex study of human behaviour and bio-mechanics; “what can people do”. Whilst studying areas of audio, visual and haptic communication, we were especially struck by the sense we were writing the broad specifications for a savvy, sympathetic AI – a successful android/ cylon/ replicant; i.e. something capable of reading the full range of human action.

Imagine, for example, what it would require for an object to appreciate sarcasm – a toaster, let’s say, that can gauge volume, intonation, emphasis, facial expression, choice of language, timing, socio-cultural circumstances… –  estimate a probability of irony and then respond accordingly.

Such capacity would avoid situations like this:

Does it have a Future?

To develop this project is going to require some input from a few experts-in-their-fields; learned specialists (rather than generalists like myself with wiki-link tunnel vision). The taxonomy needs expanding upon (‘outputs’ at the moment are entirely non-existent), re-organising and probably some correcting. If you would like to contribute and you’re a linguist, anthropologist, roboticist, physiologist, psychologist, or see some territory or area you could assist with, your insight would be appreciated.

As our research has indicated, there is often more than one way of classifying interactions. But a hierarchy demands we always use the most applicable interpretation. All taxonomies are artificial constructs, of course, but a hierarchy seems to exacerbate rigid pigeon-holing of ideas. Perhaps the solution is to evolve into something less linear and absolute than a hierarchial taxonomy (like the nested folders of an OS), and instead consider something more nebulous and amorphous (for example the photo-sets and tags in Flickr).

It would also be great to have overlays; optional layers of additional information (such as examples of use, methodologies and necessary instruments). Perhaps really the solution needs to be a bit more dynamic. Like an interactive app or site. I wonder if the most effective solution might be an industry-powered interaction-centric wiki. Such a project would be non-trivial, and would require mobilising a fair few effective contributors. The Interaction Design Foundation have a V1.0 Encyclopaedia, and an impressive number of authors. And yet,  their chapter led approach to ownership make this quite different from the more democratic ‘wiki’ approach.



Justas did a great job pulling the early research together. A special thanks is also in order for Gemma Carr and Tom Selwyn-Davis who helped research and compile this chart.

The Song of the Machines

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The Song of the Machines

Sam Hill

20th July 2012


We’ve been working with Animal Systems to find a way of communicating Chirp to the world – a platform they’ve developed for devices to share data with each other via audio. Chirp was demoed recently at Future Everything and Sonar, and the explanatory film below has now been released into the public domain. Which would be you. Hello you!

(credit – audio production: Coda-Cola)


Chirp allows devices to share data wirelessly, through sound. To showcase the potential of the technology Animal Systems are launching their first app, which will allow people to share information – initially short-links to their photos – between iOS devices in a streamlined, intuitive manner. Sharing contacts, notes and locations are soon expected to follow, as well as a version for Android. This is the tip of the iceberg for the platform’s potential, however. Their CEO and co-founder Patrick Bergel (aka @GoodMachine) explained to us how he’s “very interested in opening up the platform as much as we can, and working with other developers”.

Their intentions are many fold. Patrick emphasises that Chirp is not just an application, but a platform – so other applications could be built using it. In providing a piece of middleware, they’re keen to see an eclectic range of software use the technology – for gaming, social media, organisation tools and broadcasting. They’d also like see more hardware devices embrace it’s data-transfer capability; crossing operating systems and serving both so-called ‘smart’ and ‘dumb’ objects.

User Experience and Interaction Potential

An audio protocol of this nature comes with some quite distinct UX properties, the potential of which we’re finding very interesting. There are some inherent traits that make it stand out from other data-sharing systems – it has the bonus of not requiring the fuss of ‘pairing’ devices, and one broadcasting device can share  information to multiple recipients simultaneously.

From an experiential perspective, we specifically like the fact that object-to-object communication becomes far more tangible to organic meatbags like you or I, simply because it permeates the boundaries of our perception. With audible data transfer we can tell if a device has broadcast it’s message, and make a good guess as to whether another nearby device is likely to have received it. There’s no need for symbolic feedback here (cartoon envelopes vaporising into space dust)  – we’re actually hearing the actual data travel, encoded in the airwaves. There’s something appreciably humanistic going on here – a stark contrast to radio EMF technologies like Wi-fi, Bluetooth, or RFID (as BERG highlighted with their Immaterials research).

The idea of a relatively open system like this was exciting news for us.  It can’t be long before the marketplace produces some very novel games and applications that use the tech. In fact, we have a few ideas ourselves we’d like to pursue.

The Future

Significantly this appears to be the first instance of an airborne object-to-object “speech” system. It’s tantalisingly fun therefore, to wonder if we might be hearing the formative stages of a robotic lingua franca; something unlike either the silence of EMF radio, or the explicitly human-centric discourse of Siri. Within the local network of things, a truly physical environment, where smart-objects must interact in-situ with people and other objects amongst people, this could be a real and appropriate voice of the machines – to us inimitable, but appreciable. We might even come to be familiar with a few of their stock phrases, like “excuse me”, “I’m busy/ available” or “acknowledged”.

(Or “KILL KILL KILL” – basically, whatever the situation demands.)

Experience, Identity and Ideology

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Experience, Identity and Ideology

Sam Hill

29th June 2012

There is an integral relationship between personal experience, identity and ideology. This relationship was touched upon briefly by political philosopher Robert Nozick in the “Experience Machine” thought experiment, which he published as part of his seminal work Anarchy, State and Utopia in the mid-seventies. The relationship was also discussed in more detail about ten years ago by Harvard business academics James Gilmore and Joseph Pine in The Experience Economy.

What makes these two points of view particularly interesting is that they both attempt to place the value of experience within a greater context – spiritually, economically and philosophically. Nozick treats personal experiences, personal identity and the application of personal belief as parallel value sets (intrinsic multism), but does not necessarily assign them relative worth (only stating that experience is not the be-all and end-all). Gilmore and Pine however describe experience and transformation as progressive stepping stones towards the pursuit of something altogether more spiritual – a monistic eternality, religious imperative or transcendent value (did I mention theirs was a business book?).

Both of these arguments go some way to marginalising the value of experience. Nozick is more directly attacking hedonic utilitarianism than what might be called ‘experientialism’, but his arguments still appear (certainly at face value) to be valid by proxy. Gilmore and Pine believe experiences to be important (that is the main purpose of the book) but ultimately only as a means to an end. They don’t consider experiences to be intrinsically valuable.

Nozick’s Experience Machine

Here’s a heavily abridged version of Nozick’s Experience Machine thought experiment. I would highly recommend reading the whole chapter (… and the whole book) but this is all that is immediately relevant – Nozick is discussing the implications of a more-or-less permanent existence within a simulated reality:

“Suppose there were an experience machine [1]  that would give you any experience you desired… Would you plug in? What else can matter to us, other than how our lives feel from the inside?… First, we want to do certain things, and not just have the experience of doing them. In the case of certain experiences, it is only because first we want to do the actions that we want the experiences of doing them or thinking we’ve done them. (But why do we want to do the activities rather than merely to experience them?) A second reason for not plugging in is that we want to be a certain way, to be a certain sort of person. Someone floating in a tank is an indeterminate blob. There is no answer to the question of what a person is like who has long been in the tank. Is he courageous, kind, intelligent, witty, loving? It’s not merely that it’s difficult to tell; there’s no way he is. Plugging into the machine is a kind of suicide… But should it be surprising that what we are is important to us? Why should we be concerned only with how our time is filled, but not with what we are?

…We learn that something matters to us in addition to experience by imagining an experience machine and then realizing that we would not use it. We can continue to imagine a sequence of machines each designed to fill lacks suggested for the earlier machines. For example, since the experience machine doesn’t meet our desire to be a certain way, imagine a transformation machine [2] which transforms us into whatever sort of person we’d like to be (compatible with our staying us). Surely one would not use the transformation machine to become as one would wish, and there-upon plug into the experience machine! So something matters in addition to one’s experiences and what one is like… Is it that we want to make a difference in the world? Consider then the result machine [3], which produces in the world any result you would produce and injects your vector input into any joint activity… What is most disturbing about [these machines] is their living of our lives for us… Perhaps what we desire is to live (an active verb) ourselves, in contact with reality. (And this, machines cannot do for us.)”

From his exploration we can summarise the values that Nozick’s thought-experiment reveals to be apparently important to us:

To live, he infers, is the combined product of many things – reducible to a number of core values. Nozick hints there may be more then he has mentioned here.

Gilmore and Pine’s Transcendence of Experiences to Transformations

Gilmore and Pine write:

“… Remember, in the nascent Transformation Economy, the customer is the product and the transformation is an aid in changing the traits of the individual who buys it… Certainly, competitors can duplicate specific diagnoses, experiences, and follow-through devices, but no one can commoditize the most important aspect of a transformation: the unique relationship formed between the guided and the guide. It is the tie that binds.

An offering of a higher order can supersede lower-echelon relationships. But the only offering that can displace a transformation is yet another transformation – one aimed at another dimension of self, or at the same dimension but from a different world-view. By world-view, we mean a particular way – often religious or philosophical – of interpreting one’s own existence. In the years ahead, we think that companies and their customers will increasingly acknowledge rival world-views – ideologies, if you will – as the legitimate domain of business and as differentiators of competing offerings… Consider the fundamental nature of each offering:

  • Commodities are only raw materials for the goods they make
  • Goods are only physical embodiments of the services they deliver
  • Services are only intangible operations for the experiences they stage
  • Experiences are only memorable events for the transformations they guide

Then reflect on our personal belief that:

  • Transformations are only temporal states for the eternalities they glorify.

All economic offerings do more than effect an exchange of value in the present; they also, implicitly or explicitly, promote a certain world-view. In the full-fledged Transformation Economy, we believe buyers will purchase transformations according to the set of eternal principles the seller seeks to embrace – what together they believe will last.”

Now, when we compare Nozick’s derived values with Gilmore and Pine’s Progression of Economic Value we can see (assuming of course that one can agree firstly that ‘transformations’ equate to a matter of identity and secondly that any legacy we set out to achieve aligns with our life stance) the same three values are presented, but this time in a hierarchy based upon the economic principal of mass customisation. This can be shown as such:

Criticism of these approaches

Nozick, Gilmore and Pine are prolific thinkers, and I massively respect their work. For the most part these are both compelling theories (and it’s interesting to observe the parallels) but in each case I feel their ideas should be scrutinized further – mostly Nozick, who’s hypothetical experiment – brilliant as it is – was built seemingly tangentially on the way to another argument.

Nozick states: “We learn that something matters to us in addition to experience by imagining an experience machine and then realizing that we would not use it”. This seems unduly dismissive. To begin with, people already do embrace fore-runners of the experience machine – the ever-growing computer game market already provides us the capacity for continuous, uninterrupted synthetic experience. Condonable or not, people have dedicated years to their MMO accounts, RTS ladders and Xbox Live scores and at the extreme this has had the predicted detrimental effects to their real-world development and activity.

One might argue then that Nozick is really saying “…we should not use it”. Well, in this case, we’d need to rule out the possibility our reservations are irrational, or poorly founded. Perhaps, for example, the association we have with the word “machine” is too strong; we can’t fathom the idea of a truly authentic digital experience – even with all the caveats in the world – if the uncanny valley has left us irreparably prejudiced.

There seems to be a disparity, for example, between what constitutes an ‘authentic’ orchestrated experience, depending on whether it is positive or negative. An individual recounting the value of a positive digital experience might be scoffed at for buying into something synthetic, but would anyone doubt the sincerity of any trauma derived from an artificial nightmare?

An important clarification should be made of how the ‘experience machine’ really functions. Does any free will still exist within the system? Would free will matter if the system still compensated accordingly to produce the same outcome? Is the individual obliged (unknowingly) into an unwavering destiny – as if tied to the front of a train – or can they exercise even a modicum of choice – like an oarsman travelling along a river? The latter still allows an individual to be something other than an “indeterminate blob”. Perhaps identity is found in choice, and the broader the scope for choice, the better one’s identity is defined.

Who we are and what we do are very difficult things to untangle. In the same way that cinema uses frames to create the illusion of a moving image, consecutive experiences might create the illusion that there is a consistency in our identity. We’re so dependent on the contexts we find ourselves in when deciding what choices to make. But does identity exist in a vacuum?  Are we really so immutable, or is this illusion a consequence of story-telling – the ubiquitous myth that we are like the characters we learn from in narratives – predictable, serialised and defined. Are we all that different from how everyone else would be, if obliged to wear our shoes?

The nature of ‘transformation’ – an effort to change one’s identity – further compounds this abstraction. How can someone will themselves to be different? How can they will themselves in the future to make a different decision to one they’d currently make? What voluntary procedure helps an individual do this?  As Nozick says: “imagine a transformation machine which transforms us into whatever sort of person we’d like to be (compatible with our staying us)”. The idea is nonsensical; the caveat is too open-ended. If identity really is a constant, then to be a different person – by definition – would stop one remaining oneself. The best we can hope for is to change our context.

This is what really happens when individuals use the closest equivalents to transformation machines – they visit therapists to re-frame the perceived consequences of their behaviour; they pay plastic surgeons to make cosmetic differences to their appearances; they take drugs to alter their perceptions and they enter lotteries to change their wealth.

Defining Transformations

It’s useful to understand personal transformation by thinking of the industries that deliver changes to ourselves. Many of these industries are more typically associated with bringing traits of inadequacy up to a median standard, but some are concerned with the improvement of oneself above and beyond what is considered ‘normal’.

We have, for example:

  • Medicine, dentistry and healthcare
  • Personal (physical) trainers and gymnasiums
  • Mental health care – psychiatry, therapy
  • Self-help literature, courses and life coaches
  • NLP and hypnotherapy
  • Skills training and further education – tutors, teachers, mentors
  • Dietary specialists
  • Libraries, wikis and learning/ information resources
  • Beauticians – plastic surgeons, cosmetologists and fashionistas
  • Bionics, mobility devices and sensory augmentation (including eye wear and hearing aids)

(it’s important to note that these are self-initiated transformations. Not included here are the coercive transformations applied to individuals by others, groups, states or organisations – such as advertisement and compulsory education)

When compared with what are considered to be established and accepted experiential industries we notice something quite interesting. For example consider:

  • Performing arts – cinema, theatre, dance, music
  • Sport – played and spectated
  • Literature – poetry and prose
  • Fine arts
  • Events and installations
  • The gaming industries
  • Leisure and tourism
  • Cuisine

What is the difference between these two groups of industry? Moreover, what’s the difference between a diet and a feast? What’s the difference between an hour on a treadmill and an hour at a theme park?

The distinction is not that one is emotionally positive whilst the other is negative, because that is not necessarily important for experiential richness. The distinction is instead that one is stimulating and novel, whist the other is more commonly drudgerous and repetitive. The very purpose of the transformative industries is to assist people in making changes about themselves, and the reason people have not already made these changes independently (and thus demand the ‘service’) is commonly a matter of motivation.

There are a couple of points to conclude with here. First of all, how can a transformation be considered a transcendence of an experience, as Gilmore and Pine describe? How can a calorie controlled diet be the transcendence of the food consumption experience? Secondly, what happens when Nozick’s derived values conflict – i.e. between what we want to do and what we want to be? I might want to be as healthy as an athlete, but I still want to experience sedentary pursuits and eat chocolate cake.

Proposition: The Anti-Camera

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Proposition: The Anti-Camera

Sam Hill

7th June 2012

(Photo courtesy of Russell Davies)

Cameras as Diminutive Relays

Whilst we’re waiting for Paul to ready himself for the second round of Paul’s Gamble, we’re kicking off a research project based upon a relatively nascent behaviour, practised by many folk to varying extents. It’s become a bit of a contentious bugbear in the studio, but I find myself doing it all the time. To illustrate, here’s a quote pulled right from the bleeding edge of contemporary culture, The Blair Witch Project (1999):

Doomed Teen #1: “I see why you like this video camera so much.”

Doomed Teen #2: “You do?”

Doomed Teen #1: “It’s not quite reality. It’s like a totally filtered reality. It’s like you can pretend everything’s not quite the way it is… It’s not the same on film is it? I mean, you know it’s real, but it’s like looking through the lens gives you some sort of protection from what’s on the other side.”

I don’t personally take issue with video cameras being used as creative tools, or to document and share events with others. I appreciate (and actively condone) the importance of creating or finding mementos, which cameras do very well. The relationship between value of experience and the fallibility of memory is something we believe is vitally important to explore. The real issue is in the way cameras are used during salient, important events as a diminutive relay for experience. Camera phones being as ubiquitous as they are, it’s common at any public gathering – firework display, festival, parade or sunset in a beer garden – to see a forest of arms raised above heads, awkwardly waving miniature, two-dimensional proxies of the spectacle ahead. Everyone with their arm in the air is not looking at the point of interest, but their own screen, carefully making sure they are ‘capturing’ every detail for some assumed posterity.

The problem is, we become so distracted, busy trying to record these memorable events, that we’re actually missing out. Ironically, whilst making sure an imagined ‘future self’ has access to a tinny, shaky-cam approximation of what once occurred, we’re actually divorcing ourselves (our ‘current self’) from the moment, and any consequential sensory or emotional attachment.

The question for anyone who takes an interest in human experience is this: how might an individual find a way of living in the moment whilst also fulfilling the need a personal recording device appears to answer? We speculate this need goes beyond a social desire to share; it’s also to assuage a fear of forgetting – a concern that without the right prompts one cannot trust oneself to recall having been in such a place, and time, even when it seems so important.

Percolating Ideas

A few interesting things have come up recently – pub discussions, new applications of technology and ideas from literature, which have fuelled our development of what we’re calling the ‘Anti-Camera’.

Proust’s Madelines

In Swann’s Way, the first volume of Proust’s epic novel In Search of Lost Time, the narrator describes the involuntary memory triggered upon tasting a madeline dipped in tea. He recalls having tasted the same thing in his youth, and this recurrence – like a wormhole through space-time – takes him back to that moment and other memories that followed.

The link between memory and smell/ taste is well researched; the olfactory bulb is part of the limbic system – an area of the brain closely associated with memory. We really liked the idea that a time could be ‘stamped’ in some way by a strong taste or olfactory sensation – and then recalled later by re-experiencing the same flavour.

Black Mirror: The Entire History Of You

A ‘solution’ of sorts was modelled in the third episode of Black Mirror, written by Jesse Armstrong and directed by Brian Welsh. A theoretical passive recording device would allow us live out salient moments without distraction, but still have them recorded to remember – or more correctly re-experience (The distinction between the two is quite interesting).  The program takes a cynical view of such a technology, and how it might have a degrading effect on our lives, but it prompts an interesting discussion on the role of technology in aiding or subverting memory.

Olly/ Foundry @ Mint Digital

The good guys from last year’s Mint Foundry did some nice prototyping to figure out how to interface smell-delivery systems via Arduino. They demonstrated how it was possible to release smell on demand digitally, and their experiments eventually led to Olly.

Piesse’s “Smell Organ”

Annoyingly, I can’t remember the source (a Bruce Sterling tweet?), but there’s an amazing entry in The Dead Media Project about a pipe organ designed by a French chemist in the 1920’s to “translate music into corresponding odors” – essentially an instrument that would play olfactory translations of classical pieces. The most profound aspect of this idea was the careful selection of which smell would represent each note, and how the treble and bass clef would complement each other. There’s a fantastically literal parallel between music and perfume’s high/ top notes and low/ end notes:

Look Outside, Y’all

So says creator Tom Scott:

@LookOutsideYall is a Twitter bot that checks Instagram once a day, a few minutes before sunset. If it sees that a good proportion of photos around London are tagged or described with sunset, then it’ll tell the internet that it, collectively, should go outside and take a look at it.”

All the news surrounding Instagram’s popularity and assumed value illustrates how preoccupied we are with recording moments in time. Tom’s project further demonstrates how often people are using their camera phones to capture beautiful, fleeting moments. The apex of any crepuscular event is short, but this is when we’re bowing our heads and fiddling with technology – choosing filters, finding signal, signing in, writing hashtags…

The subtle difference in Instagram however is it’s quasi digi-folk artistry – we use it creatively to express a sense of something to others, not as a way to jog our own memories.

The Descriptive Camera

We got quite excited when Matt Richardson’s Descriptive Camera began to hit the feeds. Here was a device that took the photo out of the camera – and it was brilliant. Matt’s description of the purpose for such speculative tech was as follows:

“As we amass an incredible amount of photos, it becomes increasingly difficult to manage our collections. Imagine if descriptive metadata about each photo could be appended to the image on the fly.”

This was a smart idea, and such an application of Amazon’s Mechanical Turk was inspired, but we thought the real beauty here was in providing all the qualities of a camera without the photo.

Make-Your-Own-Perfume services

It turns out there is an enormous mass-customisation market in personalised perfumes, which has made the science of fragrance composition accessible to consumers – and more transparent for us.


The Anti-Camera

The idea is this: the Anti-Camera doesn’t record anything, nor does it output any simulacra. Rather, it coerces our mind into recollecting the essence of a moment – something less tangible than an image can capture. The device is designed to tag a moment in time with a unique olfactory identifier code – a bespoke smell. Then, when wishing to recall the moment at their leisure, the user of such a device could recreate the unique smell.

Olfactory Composition

Initially, we thought it would be satisfactory to use a binary, 8-bit smell generator – i.e. 8 smells, either on or off, allowing 256 combinations from 00000001 to 11111111. However, this method would provide very little distinction between neighbouring, or otherwise similar smells.

Instead, we’ve been looking at creating olfactory identifier codes composed of three parts – a top note, a middle note and an end note. For example, combining three ‘magazines’, each containing eight note ‘cells’, would allow for 512 permutations. Modern perfumers have access to several thousand unique ingredients, so many further magazines could be used in different combinations, allowing practically endless permutations.


At first, we wondered if the anti-camera should still skeuomorphically conform to a camera-esque typology (weight, size, right-of-centre button etc.). There were the usual arguments for and against…

… at this stage we’re leaning towards making something completely different. Here’s an early concept sketch:

Next Steps – Prototyping

It’s early days and we’ve got a lot of theory floating around. Moving forwards we’re planning to get a few proof-of-concept models under way, testing to see if the idea will withstand some critical interrogation.

The Logic in Paul’s Gamble

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The Logic in Paul’s Gamble

Sam Hill

21st March 2012

Yesterday we released the third instalment of Paul’s Gamble. The web series is to be released in 12 weekly parts and explores the contentious nature of gambling.

(warning – spoilers below)

The General Idea

Paul McNicholl is a mate of PAN and our eponymous hero. He recently decided to quit smoking though not for the first time – he’s tried existing products and services to help, but hasn’t had that much success. Before starting this project Paul was typically smoking the equivalent of one pack/ 20 cigarettes a day, which works out as about seven or eight quid every 24 hours/ £250 a month. It’s this cost (being far more tangible than the health issues) that has really started to get to him.

When Paul said he was thinking of gambling his money rather than spending it on cigarettes, we got really excited and suggested the format. Paul liked the idea, probably because our involvement would give him a bit more motivation. Between us we decided to start during the difficult “third week” – when the cravings are supposed to be strongest.

Attitudes to Gambling

‘Gambling’ is a pretty divisive concept – frowned upon about as much as it’s practised. But despite criticisms of the gambling industry, the over-all idea of risk-taking is a critical part of life – both in daily decisions and the greater biological scheme of things.

As a pastime it’s about 40,000 years old and a textbook ‘meme’ in Richard Dawkins’ original sense – a concept that continues to abide even if it doesn’t necessarily benefit those that prescribe to it.

The reasons for cynicism towards gambling or ‘gaming’ can be unwrapped as follows:

  1. If the odds are always stacked against the player (“the house always wins”) then choosing to gamble is illogical. A gambler could easily be accused of poor judgement.
  2. Gambling provides the chance for an individual to profit purely through luck, and requires neither skill nor labour. In doing so it subverts our model of society – where the individual and the whole have a reciprocal relationship. It’s therefore often unpopular with the state, or ruling class and is portrayed (perhaps fairly) as corrupting – encouraging both greed and slothfulness. To be fair, this condemnation seems to go out of the window when it comes to state lotteries.
  3. The psychological (if not financial) rewards of gambling can lead to addictive behaviour. Ludomania (problem gambling) is sometime compared with substance abuse disorders.

The Point of this Experiment

The rewards of taking a risk go beyond the potential prize. Win or lose, there is a guaranteed return on investment in the form of a rich experience. The learning aspect might sometimes be a tad weak-sauce (the roulette wheel finished on red… so therefore we know that sometimes the wheel will finish on red) but the emotional experience can be very strong – thrill, apprehension, shame, glory . The intensity of these feelings is proportional to the stake invested and the potential prize – not as fixed amounts, but as a fraction of the individuals resources (a millionaire and someone living below the poverty line would not feel the same about a £1000 game of Blackjack). The emotional journey is an example of a trajectory we previously described as Intervention Type #1 in a previous post, i.e. something with a beginning, middle and end – the decision, the anticipation and the result.

We believe that it doesn’t particularly matter experientially whether the individual wins or loses, so long as the outcome has an intensity. Paul is gambling instead of smoking – will his life be more enriched as a consequence? I don’t mean because of the health benefits either – but because of the relative intensity of emotion.

This is the moment when Paul realises that 1) His team have won the match, and 2) He has just won £200. Look at his face! That is a face expressing raw, powerful emotion. I envy Paul enormously for that moment in time. He has the fortune now of replaying this second in his mind (and on film) for the rest of his life.

In Summary

We got Paul trying a different activity in each episode because the richness of experience is dependent on novelty; returns diminish over time. If we were to organise ten days of roulette then by the end he would be no better off than he was smoking (again, health effects to one side).

Risk assessment is a naturally evolved process. All living things need to carefully manage their energy resources and so end up developing heuristic or instinctive systems to survive. Yes it’s true that if any creature adopts a behaviour that invests too much into risks with poor odds or low yields then it will perish. However, at the same time a risk-averse creature will fail to flourish – especially in a competitive environment. By stripping the extremes from the gene pool natural selection moderates risk-taking to an apt degree.

Seeing as risks are essentially ‘commitments to actions where the outcomes are uncertain’, and that ‘certainty’ is a fairly abstract idea, we can gather that risk-taking is also practically ubiquitous, even if the risks are marginal (quantum, even).

We’re not going to directly condone gambling – elements of it are cynical and exploitative. But when considered primarily as a form of entertainment, rather than an economic strategy, then it makes a lot more sense. If the stake is always considered to be a ticket – a variable price for an experience that scales to whatever the participant can afford – then there’s no reason why in the long-term any loss should be resented, or regretted.