Playtesting for loneliness

Following on from our first experiments a few weeks ago, on Friday we (Tarim and I) ran a short playtest of the system we’ve been developing to measure what will eventually become the extent to which the critters are connected to the rest of the Colony.

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I built the circuits from before into some tupperware containers in order to make them more suitable for being jollied around the city centre, and we added a feedback system of heartbeats to indicate how panicked (lonely) the critter (tupperware) was feeling. If the critter became so removed from the rest of the group that it was no longer able to receive the radio signals from any of the other critters, then the heartbeat reach a ‘hammering’ state – something it could only sustain for 23 seconds before the critter died. So, if your heartbeat gets that fast, you have to quickly find someone from your Colony. Really quickly.

We repurposed the LEDs from before into ‘lives remaining’ indicators and also built in a mechanism by which dead critters could be reincarnated so they could rejoin the playtest: once dead, if you could surround yourself with enough colony members you would be revived. Only up to 5 times, though.

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Our first group was given the task of making their way to the centre of Millennium Square whilst making sure they had exactly four lives remaining when they finished their journey.

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There was an interesting split in the group nearly immediately, but we did manage to reconvene in the square and reincarnate those who needed it.

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The second playtest involved a slightly longer walk over to Castle Park. In order to seed a few conflicting dynamics within the group, we gave different people different target numbers of lives to end up with.

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I think I had only one spare life for the whole journey, so at one point I ended up diving into a lift with one of the other playtesters in order not to get stranded alone upstairs in Watershed.

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This longer challenge had a coulple of distinct phases to it: initially our tendency was to walk together in clusters, chatting, however as we drew closer to the park and people realised they still hade lives to lose, things got a bit more interesting, with people dashing down side streets, crossing over to the other side of the road or making a quick dash for the church.

Some of us even finished up with the right number of lives!

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The next variant was to allow people to choose the number of remaining lives they were going to aim for. This resulted in some extremes of behaviour as some frantically tried to first die off and then re-join with enough other colony members to reanimate.

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I’d donated my tupperware critter to a fresh playtester who had tracked us down at Castle Park, so I was in a purely observational role for the return journey. I really enjoyed a little exchange where someone hid behind a tree, then crept up on someone she knew was trying to lose a lot of lives, preventing them from doing so. Apparently this dastardly life-preserving tactic didn’t go down so well as shortly afterwards both players were spotted sprinting down the road – I assume one trying to get away from the other!

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We tried a few experiments in Queen’s Park to see how big the colony could get and then we headed back to the Pervasive Media Studio for a chat and a debrief.

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It seems the technology mostly worked as expected, so we were able to mostly focus in on the psychology of the experience: at what points did it feel like a game; did the critter’s perception of separation from the group match with your own; how did the task of losing/preserving lives affect your awareness of the location of the rest of the group?

It was a very interesting chat with lots to think about now as we start to move the mechanics closer to what will eventually be integrated with the GPS-based movement behaviour. All looking very promising for a first playtest though, and it was great to see an actual colony moving around the city for the first time!

Prototyping for loneliness

After a few days a while ago finding my feet, I’ve been back at the Pervasive Media Studio in Bristol getting started on the next wave of development of Colony – the walking experience I’m developing that involves a group of landscape-reactive animatronic ‘critters’ being carried through the city.

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I was here in the summer of 2014 for a previous residency working on the project, and it was so productive that I’m back again as part of another batch of R&D activities – thanks to Arts Council for funding both of these residencies.

Last time around I arrived at an interesting design for the physical form of the critters and we did some playtesting to get a feel for how people responded both to this and the behaviour we (Tarim and I) had programmed in response to the interaction of GPS radio waves interacting with the built environment.

Last time the question was “can you see the sky?”; this time it’s “can you see your friends?”

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Again working with Tarim, we’ve been working on the second strand of critter behaviour to do with how connected they are to the rest of the colony. We’re using XBee radio modules to set up a communication network amongst the colony so each critter can monitor how long it’s been since it last heard each of the other critters announce their presence. If it goes quiet for too long, loneliness sets in and the person carrying the critter will have to hurry to rejoin the rest of the group.

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That’s the plan, anyway. For the last couple of days we’ve been using breadboarded prototypes to get a feel for how this might play out in practice.

First tests involved a couple of LEDs and me wandering up and down the PM Studio corridor in a slightly shifty manner looking for when the connection between two radios was lost.

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Yesterday we scaled things up to five prototype boards and many LEDs!

After more odd behaviour in the corridor (the sacrifices I make for my art!) and a quick venture outside, we gathered a team of volunteers to get a feel for how things might be with a group of people.

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We gave ourselves a basic rule-set: scatter until you have only one LED lit (but try try not to lose all of them and become totally disconnected from the group) and then try and link up with everyone again. We were curious about how attenuated the group might get in the urban environment and what sort of shape it might take at that point. We were also wondering about what might happen at that inflection where some of the colony were still trying to get down to one light whilst others had already started to seek out more companions again.

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Our first test was in amongst the Watershed buildings along the harbourside, so quite linear (although I did see Tarim heading down a jetty at one point!), so then we went around the corner to Millennium Square and a big open space. We all radiated out to get away from each other, but even at the edge of the open space we were still within range and had most LEDs lit. Then it got interesting with people ducking behind vans and nipping into buildings to try and block the signal radio waves. We liked that!

All in all the first experiments have been very positive. We’re discovering some quirks of the XBee system – of course – but there’s a definite sense that we can translate the behaviour of the radio modules into something that can be read as loneliness. Mostly I’m super happy to have caught a glimpse of an actual colony moving through the streets.

I’m going to build up a few more prototypes, we’re going to tweak the code and the feedback system and then, next time I’m in Bristol, I think we’re going to run another playtest where we observe how people move between two pre-determined points. Stay tuned…



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