San Francisco / Los Angeles

yoda(To answer the question from the Helsinki blog, no-one talked about it, at all, like the whole of California has just decided to mentally block what comes next…)

A really stimulating visit to San Francisco (including VRX 2016) and then down to Los Angeles. Over the course of the week there were a clear series of messages which emerged as a kind of “state of the nation” thinking on VR:

Weak prospects short term
A universal mantra was that the VR market was some way off any real scale or viability – somewhere between 3 to 5 years. This was due to a series of overlapping issues:

  • adoption data underwhelming – hardware is on the market but adoption has not accelerated (Cost / Content / User experience)
  • no prior use case – building an entirely new market and ecosystem with associated issues from physical equipment to ethical framework
  • lack of compelling content – no content has driven everyday use or consistently overcome the barrier to use (kit / isolation / sickness), partially due to the fact that limited market = limited investment in content

The strategy for market entrants should be one of “survival” until…

Belief in the long term opportunity
Despite short term anxiety there was a consistent belief that the longer term would be exponential growth of a transformative technology – whether AR or VR, entertainment or industrial use.

All of the major technology players are already in the market and invested in future prospects for growth. Interestingly the same enormous DigiCapital market estimate is quoted often, plus the contention that AR will be bigger than VR, and that enterprise use will outstrip entertainment.

Time to experiment
Given no prior use case there is a gap in understanding the visual language of VR, the ethical implications, what is different about content in this form and what makes it compelling, e.g. are cinematic rules redundant but immersive theatre practice helpful?

There was consistent agreement on “if it’s not 10x better in VR then don’t use VR”, and also that a sense of presence was important, rather than just viewing (“who am I in this scene?”). On narrative there was less agreement from it’s “like jazz” – e.g. there is an underlying form but room to experiment – to fixed linear as your point of control of the story.

Whilst very few games or content pieces have made any money there was a consistent belief that small scale funded experimentation right now was vital to the growth of the industry in the future – and a willingness of some key players to put resource into seeding new ideas.

One of my highlights was at Oculus, using the Touch to “pick up” and manipulate objects whilst talking to someone I could see in the same virtual “room”. That connection and dialogue was interesting in immediately immersing you in the experience in a way that I haven’t found with other content.

And “time to 50 tattoos” is my favourite new measure of audience engagement…

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helsinkiA different (significantly colder) city and a very different show – even though ostensibly the area of focus was identical.

Slush in Helsinki still manages to protect its founding student cooperative ethos, even as it reaches 17,000 people; it’s quite a feat to retain a very distinctive culture within a large show – and Slush succeeds, feeling open, inclusive, stimulating.

At a networking event someone put their finger on the difference between Web Summit and Slush – in Lisbon it felt too much like the start ups were collateral and not central, in Helsinki it is the reverse.

I noted last year that Slush also manages to retain a clear longer term view on societal impacts with some very stimulating discussion on the possibilities, opportunities and impacts of design and technology within a context of governance and global development.

I wrote my Lisbon blog in the wake of Trump (and continuing shadow of Brexit) and it’s interesting how those themes of the responsibilities of digital platforms have turned into a healthy public conversation. Albert Wenger, early Twitter investor, VC and author of World After Capital was particularly good on this as part of a more fundamental economic transition, an article by Om Malik in the New Yorker on Silicon Valley’s “empathy vacuum” also touched a very similar nerve.

And so now to America, interesting to see what this discussion feels like from Silicon Valley…

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lisbonTo Lisbon for the first iteration of Web Summit in the city. The event is now gigantic, c.50,000 attendees, but what was happening beyond the Summit was of most interest last week.

As noted elsewhere I’ve become increasingly cynical about the tone of start-up events, often representing the triumph of hope over experience; where value is measured by VC investment rather than output, and the vision is delivering marginal lifestyle efficiencies as opposed to real world impact (it was described as “dystopian” by another contact). There were some honourable exceptions but this all appeared a bit of a digital bubble when related to the political and societal fractures being played out in the EU and US.

The inside / outside fracture was visible in the response to the election of Trump in the US. Apart from howls of disbelief there was very little acknowledgment that digital may have a role, and responsibility, in these seismic shifts. However, as the days have passed since it is interesting how this conversation has rapidly developed:

  • That the tech giants will struggle to hold their position of “platform not publisher”, and are feeling pressure regarding the veracity (facebook) or tone (twitter) of content (also c.f. Uber or Deliveroo on workers rights)
  • That the echo chamber of social media is self-reinforcing, algorithms delivering only content which matches to your world view thus exacerbating polarising forces.
  • That the demise of quality journalism and trusted news sources impacts on reasoned argument in favour of headline clickbait – factual, exaggerated or otherwise.
  • That normalising abuse gives rise to a tolerance of racism, misogyny and outright lies from public platforms

2016 will be a year studied by future children in history lessons, and part of that shift feels like a pivotal point in the maturing of the digital world from outsiderdom to social dominance – with the responsibility that entails, wanted or otherwise.

To end on a more positive view, the statement of intent by Lisbon in enticing Web Summit from Dublin is emblematic of sustained support for the growth of a new digital economy in the city. With other highly effective players, such as Beta-I, supporting development, the Lisbon scene has moved a long way forward over a series of visits since 2013.

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Playable City Award 2016 – winning commission

stop-smileA belated note on the 2016 Playable City commission.

With a working title of Stop Smile Stroll, the project will focus on pedestrian crossings – co-creating playful interventions with local residents (e.g. it might be a disco one minute, something more reflective the next) and then building in a reactive element to city data (e.g. pedestrian flow, traffic flow, weather) to create an interestingly responsive city system.

The winning team is Hirsch & Mann  based in London and increasingly recognised for their interactive work, for example they have just installed pieces within the Google Pop Up Store in Spring Street NYC.

With the Playable City team, Hirsch & Mann will iterate the idea from here and build a prototype for installation in Bristol first at the beginning of 2017, then touring to other Playable Cities worldwide.

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Copenhagen / Malmo / Lund / Gothenburg

the-bridgeAn accelerated round trip through Denmark / Southern Sweden punctuated throughout by examples of long term, design thinking: from the explicit future city focus of initiatives in Copenhagen like Design To Improve Life or Copenhagen Solutions Lab; to the more subtle realisation that every company I met in Gothenburg seemed to have a post grad working as a fully integrated part time employee, as a function of their University course; or the communal culture of the MECK building (an ex-submarine factory) in Malmo centred around the canteen and shared spaces, and part of the industrial reinvention of the docks.

Whilst seen as typically Scandinavian these qualities of form and function as applied to societal change, and imbued with a sense of communality and fairness, were refreshing when viewed from a year in the UK which has seemed to be characterized by a narrative of short term impact and no substance.

I was excited to be taking a train over The Bridge bridge between Copenhagen and Malmo, but unfortunately the flat Scandinavian light gave the view a rather grayscale feel (above)….

[An addendum – in Lisbon I saw John Maeda give a talk. He defined “design thinking “as “inclusive thinking” – which resonate with the above]

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Technology & Playable City

robotWe define Playable City as re-using the fabric of the city to create unexpected interactions, which surprise and inspire new thinking. We also aspire to create work which is as open and democratic as possible. There is nothing in that which demands a use of technology, but in practice a look at the impacts we are expecting makes it inevitable – and is the clue to the resonance of the Playable City idea.

By definition an interaction, especially an unexpected interaction, requires an understanding of position, location or movement – whether wittingly or unwittingly our Playable City “participant” must trigger the response. This conscious and unconscious input and output requires a sophisticated communications network, and the combination of technologies and simple systems to achieve our desired effect.

And in combining this network demand with projects which are integrated into the city, and targeting the widest possible audience, we frame our activities within a “smart city” landscape – the city as sensor network, the flow and interactions of citizens creating data impacts and active responses.

Within these terms we deliver work which is both there to be enjoyed, but which also inspires a new way of thinking about the future of the city – and by being rooted in place that framework is adaptable to the technology ”landscape” of any city, from Lagos to Recife to Tokyo.

It is this resonance which allows a project like Hello Lamp Post to be both an interesting diversion and a cipher for a world of connected objects, the internet of things; it allows Shadowing to be a fracture in the everyday, and also emblematic of smart city infrastructure, and of surveillance; it allows our conversations in cities around the world to both be about playful cultural interventions and also about city issues from mobility to transport to city discovery.

Playable City has evolved to become an interesting hybrid. We are concerned with the environment of the future city, and with technology as an enabler of purposeful citizen engagement. But we are also as focused on the person-to-person connection as the person-to-city, and thus any technology employed must not create barriers or exclusions.

Our model generates a productive collaboration between city, citizens, creatives and technology and it is that “people-centred”, service design ethos which underpins our thinking on technology. It is an important tool, a fundamental enabler, but it is always appropriate and invisible – the mechanism to achieve a desired impact, not the driving motivation.

[And with the 2016 Playable City Award call now closed and 80+ entries received from 34 countries we start the exciting process of shortlisting…]

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Playable City Award 2016/17

tokyo metroThe 2016/17 Playable City Award is now open for applications, an international call for ideas with a specific focus on journeys. As cities grow and populations increase, how we get from A to B affects a city’s liveability, well-being, and economic development. Transport and mobility is a key concern of cities across the world:

  • The average commute time in Lagos is four hours
  • The Tokyo railway system carries 40 million people a day
  • Bristol residents spend an average 127 hours each year stuck in traffic
  • More than 600 cities worldwide have a bike-sharing program.

From bus rapid transit systems to driverless cars, city bikes to traffic jams – transport infrastructure and efficiency is a key investment area of the smart city. But, how people feel about their journey, how they use the time and how they connect with others, is often overlooked. A Playable City approach to urban journeying will start new conversations, imagine new futures and make new connections – person to person, person to city.

The theme is broad and open to interpretation: a winning idea might address waiting, navigation, location or transit. It might connect people on public transport, use city bike infrastructure or explore transition situations – from physical crossings to transport interchanges.

From Bristol to Bangalore, Mexico City to Sao Paulo, cities across the world have articulated demand for Playable City projects which explore mobility. We will select a strong and surprising winning idea with the ability to scale, capitalising on global interest in Playable City to build a project with international potential.


The 2016/17 Award will be split into two stages:

  • The successful idea will be awarded a £30,000 Research and Development commission to thoroughly develop and test a prototype.
  • Using the growing international Playable City network of cities, partners and funders we will then take the prototype to final product and create a global roll out plan for the winning idea.

The award will be open to artists, designers, architects, technologists and creative practitioners who can demonstrate a history of delivering high quality, innovative practice.  By definition any application will need to demonstrate a universality to allow it to make sense and deliver impact in a wide range of city environments.

Closing date for applications is 5th September – full details here:

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Japan (Tokyo, Kyoto, Takamatsu, Naoshima, Hiroshima, Hakone)

japanTrains / Food / Art – a fairly accurate summation of an amazing two weeks in a country I find endlessly interesting and stimulating.

Echoed in the surreal discordant karaoke in the mountains: “for a minute there, I lost myself…”

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Sao Paulo

ccspTo Sao Paulo for the first time – and given the timing, an opportunity to compare and contrast self-imposed economic crises. The very strong European heritage in Sao Paulo – e.g. Italian and German migration (plus incidentally a significant Japanese community) – gave rise to series of discussions regarding the wisdom of Brexit from the perspective of a country, Brazil, which regards itself as a product of migration.

We were presenting Playable City at a panel and workshop as part of the Brazilian Independent Games Festival’s social impact strand.

The core concept of the project seems to chime well with a Brazilian interest in architecture and urban space, a more radical collectivist idea of public intervention, and a public policy desire to drive creative economy impacts in the city.

During the (massively oversubscribed) workshop some themes which emerged were familiar from other cities, for example perception of safety or people flows, where others were very much a product of a sprawling mega-city: identity and belonging in a diverse city, scale as a challenge in connecting the citizens.

What was interesting was how the participants – architects, artists, designers, city government, development agencies – immediately understood the concept and generated positive and practical responses.

Partly this is an understanding built on an existing and very active public art scene – from graffiti to LED covered multi-story buildings. A couple of great examples:

Luana Geiger’s Piscina no Minhocao – a temporary swimming pool on a flyover
Guto Requena’s Light Creature – a responsive building which interestingly was hacked to turn it from red to blue via the public app as a political statement during a protest.

A more simple intervention was at the BIG venue, the Centro Cultural Sao Paulo, where the glass was semi-mirrored and groups of kids practiced dance routines day and night throughout the public spaces in a totally unstructured but energising way.

And the final positive thought is a memory of the Santo Forte nightclub, where a DJ in a peacock kaftan played samba throughout the night to a beatifically smiling crowd, swaying rhythmically – one of the happiest rooms I think I’ve ever been in (sounds like this).

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sheffieldA theme across a couple of sessions at DocFest in Sheffield, including the panel on US Trends that I chaired, was the impact of platform on content and how the means of delivery affects length, style, presentation and more.

Part of the festival highlighted new VR content and a couple of examples in that exhibition illuminated the point in a much more fundamental way than just title and immediacy.

We Wait by Aardman Animations & BBC Connected Studio placed the “viewer” in a group of Syrian refugees about to attempt a sea crossing – I put “viewer” in inverted commas as it felt very much like an experience. Whilst a scripted piece it used sound design and direction to exploit the affordances of the VR environment, moving your focus and surprising you.

The person waiting after me asked whether it was necessary to wear the lifejacket provided when you were about to immerse yourself in VR mask & headphones, in my opinion that physical prop did feel important in countering the sometimes slightly uncomfortable isolation of VR. An interestingly subtle effect.

By contrast a film called Home, the story of a migrant in the Calais Jungle shot in 360 gave you great access and a personal view, but the format added little. In fact the often raised POV, disembodied narration and VR headset combined to create a more dislocating experience.

That said, it was still another example of the multitude of films which embody DocFest itself – a gathering of committed and passionate filmmakers seeking to tell both ordinary and extraordinary human stories in engaging and affecting ways.

And another classy hotel window view for my collection.

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