Living in a digital world

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Google Buzz – enabler of location-based flame-wars

Google Buzz example - Leicester Square 2010 Feb 21st

Now that the dust has settled and the initial spike of test activity has dropped off, we’re starting to see what the fascinating combination of having both a wide pre-installed base and some very interesting functionality is achieving for Google Buzz.

It turns out that Buzz has all the key ingredients (functionality, convenience, and users) to kick off public location-based discussion, which is a pretty big deal.

Recognising that first impressions count, Google haven’t yet allowed visibility into this brave new world from the browser, although it is possible to use a workaround and get a taste of what this means – see the example screenshot above.

Here’s a bit of theory. There’s only two dimensions that really matter – time and space. And the most relevant ends of those spectra are right now and right here. Part of the appeal of Twitter was that you could find out about things happening right now. Google Buzz now takes us the final step of the way.

Just consider what this could look like a few years from now.

The world of evening venues suddenly becomes an efficient market. Buzz will tell you which venues are empty, which are too crowded and where the really interesting people are.

Imagine shoppers operating with a hive mind, honing in collectively on the most compelling local special offers, guided by the invisible hand of Google’s algorithms that highlights only the most relevant buzz – and imagine shops monitoring and reacting to that buzz.

Finally, imagine decades of quiet resentment between neighbours too polite for direct confrontation suddenly exploding into all-out Buzz-enabled flame wars over late night music, post stealing, and territorial hedge issues.

Saying that this is one to watch is an understatement.

February 22, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Location Based Services part 2 – HP’s Mscape

In my last post I mentioned that I had recently been playing with Mscape, the geolocation platform developed by HP Labs in Bristol.

In the video “Roku’s Reward” (above), we are shown HP’s vision of what Mscape might be able to do in the future. Apart from a crushingly unimaginative take on the target audience (after the Wii has already established that innovation in games can engage more than just teenage boys), it suggests a few interesting ideas.

Unfortunately the most noticeable one – viewing ‘through’ a device to see a virtual world replace the real one in real-time – is the furthest from fruition, and also arguably the least practical. It certainly seems highly unlikely that their prediction in April 2007 – that such technology was just two years away -will come to pass.

Right now, the Mscape platform allows anyone to program ‘mediascapes’, which are flash- or html-based applications that can take advantage of the GPS data provided by a mobile device. Despite being a fairly hefty compromise on the vision set out in Roku’s Reward, this is still enough to create some very interesting new experiences.

User-created mediascapes can be uploaded to the Mscape site for anyone to download, try, or edit for their own purposes. The site has been running since April 2007, but hasn’t reached a huge audience (the most popular mediascape clocking just 672 downloads at the time of writing), partly because of the relatively narrow hardware requirements.

Another factor that constrains growth is the fact that geolocation applications are, by definition, based on a specific real-world location, or ‘anchored’ in Mscape’s terminology. It is still possible to write ‘portable’ mediascapes, which can be played anywhere, but these can never fully exploit the power of the platform – the ability to lay a virtual world over the real one, and leverage the interactions that emerge.

Playing with mediascapes

Consequently, I began my Mscape experience by travelling to Bristol, where there are many anchored mediascapes that have been written for locations around the city. As can be expected with user generated content in a new medium, the quality and usability of the mediascapes varied widely, but I quickly gained a feel for what was possible, and to my mind it seemed mediascapes tended to do one of two things.

Some mediascapes take an existing idea and play it out in a new way. The introductory game you are recommended to try first is just ‘whack a mole’ – you set up three locations in an open area, and then whack moles you are told are coming up in these zones simply by running over to them. Another example is a treasure hunt, in which clues direct you to certain places in the centre of Bristol, your GPS location confirms that you have found the place and solved the puzzle, and this triggers the mediascape to give you the next clue. In this particular case, the treasure hunt ended at a crepe van and even suggested you treat yourself to a crepe as your reward, immediately demonstrating some of the potential this field has for marketing.

Having run a couple of treasure hunts in the past myself, I was familiar with some fundamental gameplay problems that Mscape was able to easily fix. One problem is that if several teams are playing, everyone can follow whichever team solves a clue first. In Mscape, one can simply set up a number of different clues which each team visits in a different order, a final clue only being unlocked once all the others have been completed. A more significant problem is that a treasure hunt is no fun at all if a team gets stuck on one particular clue, as there is absolutely nothing more they can do. With Mscape, you can time how long a team has been stuck on a clue, and have hints automatically revealed at appropriate intervals.

With the help of my friend Richard Loxley‘s consummate programming skills, I designed a mediascape treasure hunt set in Regents Park, and ran it for 36 people. It was notably more successful than my previous treasure hunts, particularly in that all the participants had a lot of fun – not just those that found the treasure!

Of course, the other class of things you can do with geolocation technology is things that were never possible before. Among these is my personal favourite of the mediascapes I tested in Bristol, “In 10 seconds“.

“In 10 seconds” is not just a mediascape. It has an introductory short film and a website to be explored first, which is a smart way of building up associations with the location while also establishing back-story. It centres around a ghost story, which requires a particular kind of atmosphere that one does not tend to find in the public park in which the mediascape is located. However, there is another dimension to be considered in the creation of such an experience – time. The mediascape recommends that you play at dusk, and as this is also the time at which the short film was shot this will reinforce the associations. (I myself ended up playing it at midnight, which was also extremely effective!)

One of the things a mediascape creator has a lot of control over is audio, which as Mark Kermode has noted is a key part of creating a chilling experience. “In 10 seconds” uses location-triggered sound to great effect – ghostly voices rush past you, you hear a gate slam shut just after you pass through it, the creak of a playground swing grows louder as you approach even though you can see it is quite still. The sound design of “In 10 seconds” was the finishing touch to a really fascinating experience that could not have been created in any other medium.

Working again with Richard, I produced something similarly new, although not as profound as In 10 Seconds. A full write-up will shortly appear on the Mscape blog, but it essentially involved using the mobile device as a virtual Geiger counter, with the familiar clicking sound of radiation being triggered by location in order to allow teams to track down virtual radiation hotspots – much to the confusion of members of the public! For the finalé, we shot video in the same location as the players found themselves in, which could then be displayed on the devices themselves to give the impression of having a window on a parallel world – a simple way of approaching the kind of experience shown in Roku’s Reward. The illusion was heightened by arranging for teams in different locations to see footage from appropriately different angles.

Given all the above, it should hopefully be clear that the possibilities offered by this technology are huge – too huge, in fact, to easily comprehend. I will go in to the framework I use to try to grasp how this could be used in marketing in the third and final of these posts.

For more information on Mscape, visit the website,, or watch this 7-minute video from HP.

October 28, 2008 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , | Leave a comment

Location Based Services part 1 – Gaming as a Technological Bellwether

I’ve spent the last few months getting involved with some location-based gaming, and I’ll be reporting on my findings and thoughts in three parts. In this first part, I (post-)rationalise my personal interest in location-based gaming.

Nokia’s “Welcome to the 4th screen” video (above) takes an interesting angle on the technological developments of the past century and the way they have come to affect our lives. Taking a dramatic stand against fears that technology is destroying the natural order of things, it optimistically describes how the (implicitly Nokia) mobile brings all that is good about the digital world together with all that is good about the real world, and hints at some kind of transcendental state of being that can be attained at that sublime intersection of realities.

Personally, I think the most interesting and important developments in linking those worlds have to do with geolocation data and location based services (LBS), something hinted at in the video with the line “We discovered new people and places and experiences.” But is the general public really going to embrace this vision of the future?

Jan Chipchase forecasts a difficult transition period into a world of shared location information, and makes an informed prediction that “we are all only one or two compelling, highly social applications away from shared location information being indispensable.” Anyone skeptical about what promises to be another digital revolution should bear in mind that the technology required to track the location of your mobile phone has been in place for years, so there’s no need to wait for GPS to become standard in handsets.

Such a technology can only really take off if all the handset manufacturers get behind the idea, and recent acquisition activity shows that this is already the case (not least Nokia’s $8.1 billion acquisition of Navteq).

The real sticking point was arguably the lack of well supported geolocation platforms that everyone could write applications for, a problem that has now been addressed by Google, Yahoo, and Firefox in the form of support for the W3C draft specification of a geolocation API.

So what can we do with this technology?

One way to get an idea of what a technology offers is to look at the games that are made for it. From a certain point of view, games brought computers into the home, they brought portable technology to the masses, and MMORPGs anticipated social networks. (One could reason that early adopters are mainly geeks, geeks often find socialisation difficult, and since games offer a conveniently codified form of social interaction, geeks tend to play and make them… but that’s another story).

Geocaching is the geolocation equivalent of Pong, in that it is about the simplest idea for a game that exploits this technology that you could come up with. But it seems clear that the possibilities go far beyond this.

A step up from geocaching can be seen in the form of Mscape, a geolocation platform for certain Windows mobile devices developed by HP Labs in Bristol. This is the platform I’ve been experimenting with in the last few months, and I’ll be writing about my findings in the next post in this series.

October 23, 2008 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , | 2 Comments

Mobile Internet

Pretty much everybody in our industry has been saying for years that mobile is going to be huge and the boom is just round the corner. An interesting post and set of slides on o’reilly radar demonstrates exactly why this this – There are 3.3 billion mobile phones in use worldwide:

oreilly slide

What really interested me is the next slide about iPhone usage that can give us an insight into why mobile internet use hasn’t taken off in the west as we expected it to:

oreilly slide

I think a very good argument can be made that the pre-iPhone generation of mobile phones were simply too difficult to use for mobile browsing and the stripped down version of the internet they can browse was simply too limiting.

In my opinion it is the simple and intuitaive user interface that has enabled internet use on the go to be pleasurable and useful rather than a battle that has led to the huge uplift in mobile browsing on the iPhone.

Other mobile manufactuers have learnt from the iPhone, when they have fully incorporated its lessons into their user interface, mobile internet use will explode.

There is also a lesson to be learnt by all agencies and companies that develop applications and sites on the web. Usability matters. An easy to use, simple website often has a competitive advantage over it’s rivals. As an agency and an industry we sometimes fail to recognise this. We’ll return to this point in more detail over the next few weeks.

Here is the full slideshow from the mobile presentation I took the two slides from, it’s well worth a look if you’re interested in the ins and outs of developing for the mobile web:

June 10, 2008 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , | 1 Comment

“keitai shousetsu” – mobile phone novels

Everyone in the digital industry keeps talking about how big mobile is going to be. They’ve been saying it for almost a decade. But we don’t actually always see that much work – at least not in Europe. Well, that is all about to change very very soon. And looking at other territories can show us just how big mobile is going to be. Here’s a great example from Japan:

In the last year or so there has been a boom in Japan for novels written and read on a mobile phone . The latest sales figures are staggering – half of Japans top 10 selling works of fiction were written on a mobile phone…with some selling over 1 million copies.

More at the sydney morning herald and wired

December 7, 2007 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , | 1 Comment

QR codes in The Sun

nicked from the sun

If you’re a regular reader of this blog you’ll know that I am a huge fan of QR codes and their ability to open up the mobile web (see the post big in japan)

I’ve always thought that QR codes will only take off here if the mobile providers kick start it by including the reader software in their handsets by default (as NTT DoCoMo did in Japan). Despite this they are starting to go mainstream with The Sun devoting several pages of yesterdays edition to them and introducing the codes throughout the paper as a way to connect with readers through their phones.

If the initiative takes off it will open up all sorts of opportunities for advertisers to use the codes to link offline and mobile campaigns.

More info at The Sun

December 7, 2007 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , | 1 Comment



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