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Pan Studio's Focus On Playful, Civic-Minded Design

Meet Ben Barker & Sam Hill, The Team Behind The Playful Hello Lamp Post Project
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Vivek Vadoliya

Designing ‘playful’ systems doesn’t sound like terribly hard work; in fact designing systems for enjoyment and recreation rather than for a serious or practical purpose seems like a good way to stay young.

PAN Studio is a multi-disciplinary experiential design studio whose work characteristically features playful, game-like aspects. The studio has seen a gradual transition from designing installations, museum pieces and immersive theatre to connected objects and computer games. They’ve found a space where technology crosses over with play and theatre, where they can create something experientially enriching.

The studio’s leaning towards playful civic engagement came with the success of its collaborative Hello Lamp Post project, the winner of the inaugural Playable City Award, an initiative that aims to reward creative ideas for public space.

During the summer of 2013, Hello Lamp Post invited the people of Bristol to try a whole new way of communicating, through lamp posts, post boxes and other familiar street furniture, by texting the unique codes found on each object. These codes became secret passwords that allowed you to 'wake up' a sleeping object and discover what it had to say.

Each exchange lasted for a few messages before you were asked to come back and talk some more another day. The more you played, the more the hidden life of the city was revealed.

"Play is a really compelling route into doing interesting, enriching things," says Ben Barker, co-founder of PAN Studio. "It’s something that’s very easy to sell to someone, because you can very quickly get an emotional response and get people on their feet - it’s a really good route into creating experiences."

Both Barker and fellow co-founder Sam Hill grew up avid video game players, with Barker's mother a master in the art of planning treasure hunts, so seeing such developments in mobile gaming and geocaching has helped form their understanding of how technology can enable play in a real world environment.

The fantastic response to Hello Lamp Post, (especially from the design community whose attentions are quickly turning to how we interact with objects) led to the idea for their latest project. The plan is to use the new Microsoft Surface Pro 3 to turn objects into musical instruments.

The pair are creating a Windows app using the Surface Pro 3 that controls 8 painted, wooden, percussive hammers via Bluetooth. Those hammers would be coupled with various objects around the home. The hammers would then be triggered remotely, either to run loops or be played like an instrument.

In the same way Hello Lamp Post used objects around the city as focal points for conversation, observation and mindfulness, PAN now want to create something that challenges people to re-evaluate their domestic environment, whether that’s a pile of saucepans, wine glasses or household furniture.

"There's definitely a common thread between how Hello Lamp Post was designed for the city space and how we're now trying to recontextualise elements of the domestic environment," says Hill. "The Surface Pro 3 is neat package for us because of its flexibility - we can use it to write the software for the micro-controller and then seconds later be using it to run the touch-screen user-interface too."


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