This summer, Bristol residents and visitors were able to spark up conversations with the city, using nothing else but the text function on their mobile phone. As the winner of Watershed's first Playable City Award, Hello Lamp Post asked Bristolians to look at their city anew by communicating with lamp posts, post boxes and other familiar street furniture. By texting hello and the unique code found on each object to a special telephone number they shared a conversation with an objects and with others (a full description of how to play can be found here).
Over the past eight weeks, the project has received wide recognition in national and international press and led to 25,674 texts messages being sent by participants to everyday street furniture. 3,956 individual players have taken part, with 70 new people joining the conversation every day on average.
At the Pervasive Media Studio, we often get pitched ideas for apps, experience and installations that are designed to 'appeal to everyone'. A statement which elicits an internal groan as more often that not, anything designed without a specific audience in mind ends up appealing to no one at all. However, as Hello Lamp Post comes to an end, I find that is indeed what we have done. And somehow, it is all the better for it. So what made the difference this time?
Our first conversations with Hello Lamppost creators PAN, Tom Armitage and Gyorgyi Galik, centred around a shared vision of making a satisfying and convincing experience that would have appeal to people across the city. As I have written before here, the award was launched because we wanted people to feel differently about how they interacted with urban environments, and we therefore wanted to avoid making a city-centre game for hipsters.
So instead of asking audiences to download an app, link their Facebook, scan an object and send a message (losing a chunk of people at every stage), PAN's response was to create the simplest interaction possible. Hello Lamp Post was based on the humble text message, it enabled the people of Bristol to converse with bridges, cranes and post boxes, quickly and intuitively.
Of course the simplicity of the system belies the complex design (described here in an interview with the creators) and the thinking that sits behind the project. Tom Armitage, lead creative technologist on the project, talks about 'designing this project defensively' - every piece of conversation was designed to fit with every other bit and one person looked over every bit of content to ensure an editorial voice and consistency.
This summer Bristol was packed with brilliant things to do, so the team had to also ask themselves what are they competing with? Ice cream? Gromit trails? Ping pong? If Hello Lamp Post didn't work first time, people would just get to the other things quicker. So the project was 'designed aggressively' to be brilliant for a single playing experience: if 95% of people only play once, it would not be good enough to argue that it would have been great on the third go. (Although as it turns out, our raw data suggests most people played repeatedly).
Even within the high-tech world of 'smart-city' projects, no one minded that the interaction was pretty simple, because it was convincing - when something works, nobody minds how stupid it is. Multiple play tests taught us lots about the things that can stop it being convincing - like not being listened to, or if you say something sensible it ignores you or when the system says something random, feels too robotic or tries too hard to be human.
We also learnt about what made it a great player experience: the Hello Lamp Post objects gently chided you when you quizzed them ("I ask the questions round here"), they referenced context (weather/time of day), and knew if they had seen you before. By making the player feel paid attention to, the system felt respectful and built trust.
We also learnt to our surprise, that people were not as cynical as we thought. Permission to be playful in the city attracted cheekiness, jocularity and sometimes unbridled honesty. We didn't need the take-down systems that had been designed to deal with profanity, abuse or attack. This might run counter to our stereotypical views of jaded urbanites, but again, it had a lot to do with Hello Lamppost's subtle cueing, gentle tone and engaging writing that allowed people to quickly buy into the narrative.
Over the past 8 weeks, 1161 objects have been woken up by a text around the city, including over 200 lamp posts and 32 of the 80 Gromit Unleashed dogs (also introduced to Bristol this summer). People of all ages have taken part, from children to the elderly, in groups and on their own. Curated selections are available to view on the Hello Lamp Post website, but here are a few that characterise the joy and playfulness the project inspired:
Parking meter #2712: I think something suspicious is going on here. Can you see any clues?
Player: There are two ice cream vans and no customers. They're probably secret agents.
Lamppost #421: Be honest - do you even get afraid of the dark?
Player: Sometimes. That's why I really appreciate lamp posts. Thanks for the great work you do.
Crane #30: If you were as tall as me, what would you do?
Player: Eat cranes the same size as me - says my 4 year old son!
Bridge #per1: How many strides does it take for you to walk across me?
Player: 60 giant daughter embarrassing steps over the bridge.
So as Hello Lamp Post closes, we are beginning to look forward to launching the second Playable City Award and will announce a call for entries in the next couple of months. How will the next winners use the learning from Hello Lamp Post? What will the Playable City cannon look like in five years time? I hope our next commissions are as surprising and as engaging as Hello Lamp Post and that they truly continue to appeal to all.