Where’s Adrian? (The Return)

Over the next three months, I’m going to be travelling to six different countries.

Amsterdam (Sept 25th-29th): I’m speaking at the PICNIC Academy about ARGs on either Tuesday or Wednesday (pay no attention to their schedule, they’re moving things around). I’ll also be around for the rest of the conference, including Come Out and Play.

Brussels (Oct 16th-17th): Going to speak about ARGs at Fo.am. Should be fun to see what those guys are up to.

Zurich (Oct 19th-20th): Speaking about ARGs and marketing at GameHotel. Haven’t been to a games conference for a few months so I’m looking forward to having a go on all the new games.

New York (Oct 30th-Nov 4th): Speaking about ARGs at Embrace the Chaos, an ARG/marketing conference.

Vienna (Nov 16th-19th): Talking to the guys at Subotron about ARGs. Will I ever be able to talk about another subject? Time will tell.

Toronto (Dec 11th-21st): A holiday! No talking about ARGs, except to all those people who ask me what I do.

If you’re going to be at any of those places at the same time as me and want to meet up, just drop me an email. And if you’re wondering if I have anything new to say about ARGs, the answer is surprisingly ‘yes’. More on that in a week or two.

Bits and Pieces: The Future

This is almost exactly a year late, but Vernor Vinge, one of my favourite SF authors and perhaps the most insightful prognosticator I know of, gave the keynote lecture at the Austin Games Conference in 2006. He covers so much ground in the lecture that I suspect he lost a few people not familiar with his ideas, but the two main themes he focuses on are localizers – dust-sized devices that can exchange information that includes their location – and display technologies that would allow for augmented realities.

In its simplest conceptual form, [localizers] are simply a feature that is on networked embedded processors, whereby the processor knows where it is in 3D space.

In principle, that actually is very easy. You don’t even need GPS, simply if you have lots of them, thousands in this room scattered around as an ad hoc network, they can figure out their relative position to the other nodes. And in fact they can know where things are outside of this room if the world as a whole is hooked up this way.

Think about what that would mean. It actually eliminates whole industries. It eliminates hundreds of different locational technologies. Almost all the moving parts machinery we have and coordination of moving parts machinery involves either having humans know how to position the parts or a wide variety of technologies working together…

I am convinced that the day we really get high resolution heads up displays, most people who nowadays are carrying a bluetooth earphone and microphone would have no problem with wearing eyeglasses that gave them a heads up display of something like 4,000 by 4,000 if the infrastructure had moved along in concert. Then high resolution HUDs could be exploited. That’s an example of a highly disruptive technology. It essentially destroys all other display technology except as emergency backups.

If you were able to get localization that was really good, you could imagine setting this up so that if your wearable knew where you were looking, what the orientation of your head was and where your eyeballs were tracking, then in addition to being able to produce the world’s best display, as good as the worlds’ best desktop display, you could actually overlay things in the environment.

The term for that in academic circles is augmented reality. In that situation, having the processing power that’s involved with the network infrastructure I just described becomes very very useful, because you could in an ad hoc way overlay those portions of reality that you wanted to.

In an auditorium like this you could make the walls look like whatever you wanted, you could make the speaker look like a clown, and since everything was networked, you and your friends could get together and agree on what things looked like. The notion of consensual imaging becomes very very important, and again this is actually a very disruptive technology, if it were finally to happen. It blows away all discussion of large three-dimensional display technologies.

And so on. I suggest you read the whole lecture, or better yet, read his latest Hugo award-winning novel, Rainbows End, which he has very kindly put online for free.

The West Wing

Never mind one year late, this is about ten years late: I began watching The West Wing a couple of months ago after enjoying Studio 60, and I must say that it’s one of the best TV shows I’ve ever seen. Its wiki page says that one of its most significant effects was to challenge the overwhelming view of politics being totally cynical, and I would agree with that wholeheartedly.

I am also overjoyed by the fact that it sees intelligence as a virtue. This may seem like a strange thing to say, but I don’t feel that intelligence or thoughtfulness is particular valued these days, at least not in the popular media. There’s a particularly brilliant part in the third season, where the President is worried that he’ll be crucified by the public for appearing to be too smart:

Toby: You’re a good father, you don’t have to act like it. You’re the President, you don’t have to act like it. You’re a good man, you don’t have to act like it. You’re not just folks, you’re not plain-spoken… do not – do not – do not act like it!

President Bartlet: I don’t want to be killed.

Toby: Then make this election about smart, and not… Make it about engaged, and not… Qualified, and not… Make it about a heavyweight. You’re a heavyweight.

This is a very deliberate allusion to Bush versus, well, anybody else, but it still had me cheering.

They should show the West Wing in civics classes. Two episodes a week, plus discussion, and you could get through the whole series in a few years. It’d be perfect for home-schooled kids as well.

The BBC Civil War

It’s a shame to see what’s happening at the BBC now. With the TV license fee not increasing anywhere near as much as the BBC had hoped, something’s got to give, and people are all trying to point the finger at anyone but themselves. Jon Humphrys from the Radio 4 Today Programme suggested killing off BBC3 and BBC4 lest any further budget cuts affect his own work, which has sparked off a furious debate about the worth of the channels. I can’t imagine what it must be like to be at BBC3 while this is on – a media frenzy is probably the worst way of figuring out a sensible solution.

Yesterday, Jeremy Paxman, whose own Newsnight is facing the same 20% budget cuts as the Today Programme, responded in Ariel:

Well, hold the front page! John Humphrys thinks his programme shouldn’thave its budget cut. That’s not even up there with Dog Bites Man.

Perhaps the Greatest Living Welshman would like to consider how clever it is for us all to start fighting like rats in a sack because this organisation apparently finds it impossible to live on an assured income of £3.5 billion a year.

Might it be wiser to ask that senior management make some strategic judgements about what we’re FOR?

In his Edinburgh Festival lecture, Paxman said:

I guess there’ll certainly be one more licence fee settlement. But can we really be certain there’ll be a fourth? Or a fifth?

In other words, how long will the BBC be funded by the universal TV licence fee? It made some sense in the past, when production and broadcasting costs were high, but nowadays, costs are lower and competition is higher. The BBC is too expensive at the low end and it can’t compete with the US at the high end – nothing they produce comes close to Lost, 24, Heroes, Deadwood, South Park or The Sopranos. Thanks to the internet, young people have both the desire and the ability to watch those programmes.

A couple of weeks ago, I logged on to BBC iPlayer to check out what was on. Only a fraction of the BBC’s broadcast output was available for download. Bafflingly, there were a couple of Doctor Who episodes from the second season. The only reason they were there was beacuse they’d been repeated in the past week.

This is absurd. Why carry over a practice that’s used to fill in the scarce gaps in BBC3’s live schedule to the internet, which has no scarcity whatsoever? The BBC has all the Doctor Who episodes digitised. It could put them all online, not just the paltry one or two that happened to be repeated.

The BBC fundamentally does not understand content. A TV is nothing more than a really big computer monitor that has in-built streaming of live, high quality video. The notion that we should be slaves to TV schedules and arbitrary channels is insane, when there are so many other ways of getting content now. Who cares whether something is on BBC2 or BBC3 when we’re all going to have Freeview and Tivo and the iPlayer in a few years?

All of this running around, trying to hoard as much money for as long as possible, completely misses the point: the BBC is quickly becoming irrelevant. That’s why the budget is decreasing.

This is the BBC’s future: they’ll keep radio. They’ll keep the news. They’ll keep the very best and most popular dramas and documentaries (e.g. Planet Earth, Top Gear, Doctor Who, Who do you think you are?, Eastenders). They’ll probably still fund some experimental programming. They may or may not decide to enter gaming, but they’ll meet some stiff opposition for anything but ‘serious games’. And that’s about it.

The Next Sony Reader

The first image of the new Sony Reader PRS-505 leaked out today on an electronics store website, no doubt ready for sales in the next month or two:

At 128MB, the PRS-505 has double the memory of the previous model, meaning that it’ll be able to store about 160 books quite easily – enough to negate the need for most people to buy an additional memory card, which is handy. It may have an updated Vizplex display, which would be really nice – almost double the page-turning speed, 20% higher contrast and more greyscale levels.

There are also obvious design improvements: the page turning buttons have been moved to the right (perhaps in recognition that most people are indeed right-handed), as have the menu buttons. The function of the navigation bottoms at the bottom right is also more obvious. Finally, the price is remaining the same, at $300.

From this early image, the PRS-505 doesn’t look quite as cool as the previous model, but I’m withholding judgement for now. It’s not a revolutionary improvement that will sell millions (certainly not at that price), but it looks like it’ll be a welcome update, especially if the display is improved and they fix some of the software issues.

Emergency Management

There are some skills that ARG designers should quite obviously have: an understanding of stories, a good grasp of how online communities work and a very creative mind. One often gets overlooked – emergency management. No matter how well you plan your game, if any part of it is live, if any part of it can be influenced by the players, something will go wrong. It’s just going to happen, and you’d better be prepared for it.

Earlier this year, Perplex City took a brief foray into the world of Radio 1 with the ‘Frozen Indigo Angel’ arc. For this discussion, the specifics of that arc aren’t important; what matters is that in May, we had a rather large live event at Radio 1’s Big Weekend festival in Preston. At live events, you have to make sure that the challenges you pose at the live event are appropriate for the number and skill of players present. Since this festival wasn’t being run by us, this information inevitably wasn’t available to us. As it turned out, there were a few more players than we expected, and they worked an awful lot more quickly than we envisaged. This Telegraph article, written by a reporter who was shadowing us that day, describes the situation:

A team from Mind Candy, the game’s designers … are orchestrating events on a cluster of computers. “They’re solving the puzzles faster than we thought,” says Adrian Hon, head of play. “We’ll have to think up some new twists.” A colleague is swiftly dispatched to B&Q to buy combination padlocks for the transmitters.

(This ‘colleague’ was actually two people, Jey Biddulph and Hannah Boraster)

The players had just solved two days’ worth of puzzles in one day. This was no-one’s fault – making too many challenges or making them too difficult is just as bad as making too few. And while it would’ve been nice to have contingencies for everything, it’s simply impossible when you’re running an extended live game and don’t have unlimited resources.

What did we do? Well, we didn’t want to let the players down, but we were worried about whether we could come up with anything decent in time. Giving up wasn’t a possibility though, so after feeling sorry for ourselves for a few minutes, we argued our way through a plan, took a little time off to think about how it would fit together and got to work. The Mind Candy staff all performed admirably and I’m pretty sure that none of the players noticed anything amiss. In the end, we made an entirely new set of challenges for the next day (e.g. constructing the transmitters and the clues to figure out the combinations) and altered the story to match, in the space of a few hours.

Personally, I think it’s quite easy to come up with an okay ARG design, just as it’s fairly easy to come up with an idea for a movie or TV show or book. And yes, there is the question of execution, but even there, I don’t think that any special skills are required – ‘all’ you need are talented designers, writers and managers. But what a lot of people don’t appreciate is that no matter how well you plan, if you’re running a live game, crises – that’s plural – will emerge, and you’d better be prepared for them. So I think that I wouldn’t mind a stint in the new field of emergency management one of these days.

The Longest Race of my Life

24 hour events have always attracted a certain fascination. By definition, they’re demonstrations of endurance, and when the world is transformed at night, what might be a common activity like walking through London turns into something that is slightly thrilling and illicit – and therefore, very attractive to a particular type of person.

In a couple of weeks, I’m going to be taking part in the Relay For Life event at Battersea Park, to raise money for Cancer Research UK. It’s not quite as exciting as the 197 mile relay race described in the New York Times – for one thing, it’s just around a running track, and for another, it’s not actually a race (more of an excursion) – but it’s still promises to be a lot of fun, and of course, it’s for a very good cause. Cancer is treatable, and it’s curable, but only if the research is funded.

If you can, please sponsor me; you can do it online using a credit card, and the money will go directly to Cancer Research UK. Even just a few pounds will be a real help. For those who are hesitating, I have something that might tip you over the edge (hopefully towards donating)…

£5 Limited Edition Special Offer

If you donate £5 or more, you will receive an exclusive online photo of me holding up a piece of paper with your name on it (or short message of choice) during the race. For sure, it’ll be a memento to show the grandchildren – you’ll be able to say, “Yes, I knew Adrian before he became El Presidente of the Martian Dominions.”

£10 Super-Incredible-Limited Edition Exclusive Offer

If you donate £10 or more, you’ll get something even better. I’m not sure what it is yet, but it’ll be very cool. Really, the suspense is worth it alone.

How It Ends

If you’ve seen Little Miss Sunshine, you’ll may remember the music. It was almost perfect for the movie – a wistful but sometimes happy mix of instrumental mariachi-esque and romantic music. It reminded me of a mix between Sufjan Stevens and Yann Tiersen, but in a good way (actually, Sufjan Stevens did have a couple of tracks in the movie). Alongside personal recommendations, movies and TV shows are where I hear new music from, so I sought out the soundtrack.

It turned out that practically all of the music was made by one band, DeVotchKa, who’ve been around for a few years now. They’ve been under the radar, but the success of Little Miss Sunshine has given them a much larger stage. Even so, when I went to a gig they put on at 93 Feet East in London, while it might have been pretty full, it certainly wasn’t completely full.

Now, I don’t go to a lot of concerts, so perhaps my bar is set a bit low, but then again I’ve seen a few acts who are supposed to be very good live, like Arcade Fire and the Kaiser Chiefs; I’ve been in front of the front row at Scissor Sisters; and I’ve been at smaller gigs with bands like Rilo Kiley. None of them even touched DeVotchKa.

I knew that it was going to be good from the moment they walked on stage. The reason is because this happened at the exact minute they were supposed to be playing. This might sound completely ridiculous, but I don’t think anyone likes having to wait around half an hour for things to get started. You might say that it’s the music that matters, not whether they turn up on time. I agree, but wouldn’t you like it if you could have both? Their performing on time showed that they were professional, and they had respect for their audience.

Professional doesn’t have to mean overplanned or deliberate. It doesn’t mean you can’t be spontaneous. What it means is that you are very, very good at what you do, and in this case, the band was very, very good at playing music; almost certainly classically trained. Tom Hagerman on the piano, accordion and violin looked nothing else than a city lawyer who’d inadvertently stumbled into Brick Lane, and yet he played with real verve and energy. Jeanie Schroder on the sousaphone and double bass, and Shawn King on the drums and trumpet were a little less visible but no less talented.

Besides being the band’s lead singer, Nick Urata plays the trumpet, piano, bouzouki and (this is the best bit) the theremin. Nick has a strange, haunting, romantic voice that he really belts out – I’m not really sure how he doesn’t lose his voice more often, really. He also has a wonderful stage presence, throwing himself into his singing, swaying around and regularly swigging from a bottle of wine.

The band played with genuine heart, and this led to an audience that frequently broke out into clapping and singing along. Granted, this is easier to do when your audience is only 150 rather than 1500, but it didn’t need any encouragement at all. More surprisingly, apparently this happens at every single concert they do. And in case you think I was simply starstruck, here’s a second opinion from someone who’s been to far more gigs than myself.

What am I trying to say here? It’s not just that I happen to like DeVotchKa a lot, and that they’re great at playing live. It’s that turning up an hour late, or storming off after three songs, or being completely disaffected and distanced – none of these things make you a better band. They don’t make you play better music. You might scoff at this, but it can’t be denied that crazy, self-destructive bands get all the press, and that this behaviour is in part tolerated because ‘it makes better music’.

Why not have both? Why not have great music, and a band that is professional and plays with heart? Or are we more interested in their foolish antics than what they’re supposed to do?

Amazon Kindle: Must Try Harder

The New York Times has an interesting article about the progress that eBooks are making, based largely on two major pieces of news.

Firstly, Amazon will unveil their Kindle eBook reader next month. Kindle has a similar display to the Sony Reader, which I’ve reviewed, but it’ll also be able to connect to mobile phone networks to download books and newspapers away from any computer (but not take phone calls, in case you were wondering). It’ll also have a keyboard for taking notes on and browsing the web.

A unnamed publisher in the article says:

This is not your grandfather’s e-book… If these guys can’t make it work, I see no hope.

Well, perhaps there’s no hope then. I don’t think the Kindle, at $500 or $600, will sell particularly well. Maybe it’s not supposed to, maybe it’s just a test, but people shouldn’t pin their hopes on it. The Kindle’s additional features, rather than helping it, will instead draw unfavourable comparisons with the iPhone ($399) or the iPod Touch ($299). Anyone who’s seriously interested in browsing the web on the move and can afford the Kindle will already have an iPhone or comparable device; besides which, the current generation of eInk displays just can’t hack decent web browsing (remember, they’re black and white, for one thing).

The presence of the keyboard may mean that the Kindle is too big to stick in, say, a handbag, and it doesn’t do much for its looks either, if this prototype is anything to go by:

So that leaves reading books, the experience of which will be largely the same as the $300 Sony Reader. The button layout is better than the Reader, and I expect the software will be more streamlined, but not hugely so. Admittedly, being able to buy books on the move is a valuable feature to have, and in time, all eBook readers will have it. Having the New York Times delivered automatically is definitely an attraction. Still, it’s just not enough to warrant shelling out an extra $200 or $300, especially if the books cost the same as physical books.

Based on the details released so far, my advice is to wait for the second version. I would like to be proved wrong, but the Kindle is just too expensive for what it is.

The other big news is that Google is going to start selling some of its books. It’ll be a disappointingly small number at first, at disappointingly high prices, but it’s a start and Google will be able to scale up very quickly.

Incidentally, Michael Gartenberg, research director at Jupiter Research, repeated this tired old ‘argument’ about eBooks:

We have had dedicated e-book devices on the market for more than a decade, and the payoff always seems to be just a few years away.

Well, that means it’s never going to happen, right? Clearly there’s no difference between bulky, expensive eBook readers with LCD screens and poor battery life, and the Sony Reader – or indeed, eBook readers with full colour flexible paper.