Hit me up with your Disneyworld recs! I’m going there – and Kennedy Space Center – in two days time…

I’m playing a whole bunch of story games for a Thing, and one is making me intensely motion-sick – even more so than the previous nausea-inducing champ, The Witness. I may have to resort to a YouTube walkthrough to make it to the end. Do devs just not test for these problems?

Is it expecting too much of the BBC to want a comprehensive, fully searchable, and indexed list of Winter Olympic sports, with video clips plus chapter markers, preferably on the web and iPlayer? It’s surprisingly difficult to find my ol’ favourite Snow Cross wacky races.

The New VR Arms Race: Kids vs Parents

Kids are gonna have cybersex, and parents won’t like that

General-purpose VR headsets like the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive are so expensive and fragile that we haven’t yet had to worry about how it’ll affect kids. VR is still like the PalmPilot PDA in 1997, an expensive curiosity for just a million enthusiasts. It has plenty of promise, but it’s not something that decent people have a productive use for.

But just as the PalmPilot evolved into the iPhone and Android and inhabited billions of pockets around the world, so will bulky, pricy VR headsets inevitably evolve into lightweight and cheap glasses or goggles owned by more or less everyone — including kids.

I had a Handspring Visor at school. Contrary to my expectations, it did not make me cool.

I’ve been thinking a lot about how parents will supervise their children and teenagers in VR. Much depends on how the VR ecosystem pans out: will it become a walled garden like the iTunes App Store, with porn and hate apps completely banned, or will most headsets run a more open operating system where you can install any app you like?

Either way, we’re likely to see new kinds of surveillance tools that allow parents to monitor and manage the VR apps their children use. These tools may also be able to see which kinds of environments they traverse and even identify the types of behaviour they engage in. After all, you don’t need to use a porn app to have cybersex, you can do it pretty much anywhere you like. I expect kids will have AI chaperones to make sure they don’t get up to any funny business in supposedly safe areas.

This will be predictably infuriating for kids, who will easily discover all sorts of workarounds given their unlimited time and infinite desires. They’ll probably set up multiple VR accounts, or use their own AIs to pretend to be them, or jailbreak their VR hardware so they can run ‘unapproved’ software.

I find all of this fascinating. It’s hard enough for parents to know what their kids are doing on their smartphones and tablets as it is, and while many parents claim to look at their kids text messages and apps, and know their email and social media passwords, I wonder quite how well that works when it’s easy for kids to multiple phones and email accounts. Even Disney’s Circle monitor is powerless in the face of cellular data access [Update: apparently they can control cellular data, see comments]

But with VR, you can’t just peer over your kids’ shoulder; it’s completely closed off. Yes, there will be easy ways to view your kid’s point of view in VR (which is disturbing in itself), but you can’t do that all the time; and believe me, your kid will be in VR all the time. So I really do think that parents will be relying on AI agents to monitor their children and notify them when something unusual is happening.

Thankfully for parents, we have a few years until VR gets cheap and good enough to become truly widespread. Maybe even five years. And then all bets are off.

Through an iPhone, Squinting

If you want a vision of the future, imagine your arm holding up your iPhone — forever

It has been truly delightful to see all the imaginative augmented reality prototypes made by developers playing around with Apple’s new ARKit framework. It’s only been available for a couple of months, but developers have already gone to town with all sorts of fun ideas:

Amid the excitement, it’s easy to forget that we’ve been here before, many, many times. Back in 2015, Apple acquired Metaio, a German company that provided an SDK (software development kit) that allowed other developers to easily make augmented reality experiences. Two years on, ARKit is no doubt far more powerful and far easier to use than Metaio’s SDK, but the principle is the same.

And so are many of the applications. We’ve seen 3D objects superimposed on the real world on iOS device before, powered by Metaio:

And we’ve seen people plopping down inexpensive furniture into their homes before:

I don’t mean to rain on ARKit’s parade. The ease of use, lack of licensing fees, and sheer power means that we’ll be seeing a greater variety of ideas than we ever did in Metaio’s time, and so it’s entirely possible that someone will figure out an idea that makes phone-based augmented reality really take off. This ARKit-powered measuring tape prototype is actually very neat and useful:

But I don’t think this time is different.

All of these videos you see are incredibly misleading — not because they’re faked (they aren’t), but because they make it seem as if your field of view will be filled with the digital reality.

We usually don’t have to worry about this for videos taken by smartphones because in those cases, it’s actually true: when you watch a video on Snapchat or Instagram, you’re seeing what you’d really see if you were there. But when you watch an augmented reality video, you’re definitely not: instead, you have to imagine you’re holding up a phone at arm’s length, and seeing the video on that phone.

Looking at the world through a 5″ window is never going to be comfortable for longer than a minute. I’m sure there will be specific, short experiences like the measuring tape app that do well, along with some tourism and instructional apps, but I very much doubt we’ll see experiences even as long as 5 minutes, let alone 15 minutes.

As for games, so many of the prototypes are basically placing 3D objects on top of real world 2D planes, like your coffee table:

Forget about accessibility or comfort. I fail to see how this is more fun than a non-AR game that isn’t tied to a flat plane. It would be more innovative for AR games to involve manipulating of objects in the real world to influence the digital world, but that’s decidedly tricky when you’re holding up a phone or tablet.

Before you say “Pokémon Go”, let’s be clear — literally the first thing any decent player does in that game is turn off the augmented reality layer (where the monsters are superimposed on top of the real world camera view) because it eats up your battery and makes the game harder to play.

I don’t buy it. And I don’t think Apple does, either. Unlike Google’s shameful boosting of the dreadful Google Glass, Apple has thus far been comparatively quiet about ARKit. I’m sure they realise that most people don’t want to develop their shoulder muscles by using AR all the time.

No, this is all preparation for their future heads-up display — one that really will fill up your field of vision, be perfectly comfortable to use, utterly desirable, and only barely affordable.

Disney’s Giant Leap Forward

When Disney surveyed the public about a hypothetical immersive Star Wars hotel early this year, it felt like an idea from the future, not an actual commitment. Surely they’d wait until after the opening of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge — already a highly ambitious and risky new park area — before starting work on a whole new hotel?

But at this year’s D23 convention in July, Disney confirmed not only that the hotel was real; not only that it’d be fully immersive; but that it’s a pilot for an entire ‘Disney 360 vacation concept’:

According to Bob [Chapek, Chairman of Walt Disney Parks & Resorts], this revolutionary new vacation experience will be a living adventure that allows guests [i.e. paying visitors] to immerse themselves in an entirely new form of Disney storytelling.

“It’s unlike anything that exists today.” Bob said. “From the second you arrive, you will become a part of a Star Wars story! You’ll immediately become a citizen of the galaxy and experience all that entails, including dressing up in the proper attire. Once you leave Earth, you will discover a starship alive with characters, stories, and adventures that unfold all around you. It is 100% immersive, and the story will touch every single minute of your day, and it will culminate in a unique journey for every person who visits.”

…which is about when every Star Wars fan on the planet posted shut_up_and_take_my_money.gif

There are two extraordinary things about this announcement.

One: Disney has chosen one of its most valuable crown jewel IPs for what anyone should realise is a highly risky venture. Star Wars may be the best possible fit for an immersive hotel (more on that later) but that only raises the stakes if the tech doesn’t work or the story or acting is bad.

Two: The immersive storytelling experience at the hotel is what guests will be paying for. It’s not an alternate reality game promoting a TV show. It’s not a free smartphone-powered Phineas and Ferb adventure at Epcot, or a $50 interactive Harry Potter magic wand at Universal Studios, both of which you might only expect to deliver a couple of hours of fun and would forgive for having a few technical hiccups, because you’re really at the theme park for the rides, not the games.

No: Disney’s Star Wars hotel may well cost thousands of dollars for a family, and the entire point of going is the immersive storytelling experience. It’s what they’re paying for, so it has to be sensational.

I’ve spent the past 13 years designing alternate reality games with emails and websites and actors and black helicopters, and smartphone games that make exercising more fun in the real world. I can guarantee that the Star Wars hotel team will be rightly terrified at the scope of what they’re building, and thrilled that they get to be the first people in the world to do it.

But what’s driving Disney to build this ‘360 vacation experience’? Why was it so hard in the past, and (just about) feasible now? What kind of technology might it employ? And most importantly, what will the experience be like?

Disclaimer: My company, Six to Start, has consulted for Disney Imagineering on theme park stuff in the past. It had nothing to do with Star Wars and I have no inside knowledge on what they’re up to.

Why ‘Living Adventures’? And why now?

Disney has a poor track record with immersive storytelling experiences, providing that you look only at its most popular incarnation: videogames.

Over the decades, they’ve tried again and again to develop videogames in-house, with little lasting success. With the shuttering of Lucasarts, Disney Interactive, and the $100 million ‘toys-to-life’ Disney Infinity in recent years, and Star Wars games now farmed out to Electronic Arts (who promptly delivered a game with precisely zero story), it certainly seems as if Disney’s thrown in the towel.

Not quite

Their heart was never really in it. Disney had to pursue videogames because too much money was at stake, but their most talented storytellers and artists and designers never truly wanted to work on games; movies were where true artistic glory lay. Along with the theme parks, they were the font of all new and refreshed IP, from Toy Story to Frozen to Moana.

More prosaically, I think Disney see themselves as narrative storytellers, and they’ve never figured out how to tell the stories they want to tell in a wholly digital and interactive format while still making bucketloads of money.

It’s tempting to draw comparisons between the Star Wars hotel and videogames. They both involve people interacting with computer systems with the aim of progressing in an immersive, digitally-mediated environment where multiple outcomes are possible, some of which are more desirable than others. You might then conclude that the Star Wars hotel will fail in just the same way as before, with Disney not quite making their stories mesh with a deeply interactive experience. Continue reading “Disney’s Giant Leap Forward”

A Mild Extravagance

I’ve swum in lakes shorter than the Parliament Hill Lido, which measures 61 metres long and 27 metres wide. The lakes are also warmer. Because the lido is unheated, and because it doesn’t contain as much thermal mass, its temperature changes more rapidly with the weather.

23C is where it tops out, which is also when the water just starts feeling warm. It can get very cold; 18C is the coldest I can stand. It‘s late September or October before it gets that low, and by then, the few swimmers remainining are all wearing wetsuits.

Today, the pool temperature is 20C. It’s also sunny with no wind, which isn’t helpful; if the water is going to be cold, I prefer the weather to be cold as well, so my body gets used to it. I pre-emptively squeeze on my goggles and drop into the water.

If you can stand the shock, it’s best to get the beginning over with quickly. I only spend a few seconds dallying before I half-launch, half-lurch into the pool, simultaneously fighting off cardiac arrest while also starting what’s typically my fastest lap by a long distance.

At 23C, I stop feeling cold after 20 metres. At 20C, it can take 250 metres. That’s just four lengths.

The pool is lined with stainless steel, the first of its kind in Britain. It’s pixellated with braille-like dots, so the ribbons of light refracted through the water seem like they’re being played out on a massive low-resolution, high contrast display.

Today, there are fewer than a dozen swimmers. The women wear low polygon swimsuits and gourard-shaded swimcaps; the men all wear the same black Speedo trunks with white piping, the ones we buy when we discover that baggy shorts look silly and cause exceptional drag.

I generate too much friction as I swim. I’ve never watched a video of myself but I know there’s too much splashing. I favour my left side too much, a product of the knotted muscles in my left shoulder, itself a legacy of leaning to my left in front of the computer for the past 14 years.

Over the years, various medical checkups have confirmed that I have unusually good lung capacity and an enlarged left ventricle, which means I can keep running and swimming for longer, even with my poor form. So today, when there are only serious swimmers in the pool, gradually overtaking me on the inside, I chop my way through the water without pause.

Too much sun, and the pool gets crowded. Too cloudy, and the sky becomes boring. The best days have a mix of wind and clouds and sun, so you can see the steel floor ripple with light and then grow dull, over and over again.

It costs £7 for a ‘day swim’ ticket. In the summer, I go several times a month — a mild extravagance since ‘evening swim’ tickets, beginning at 6:45pm, are £3 cheaper.

But the lido is just three minutes walk from the front door of our office. If I walk out at 5:40pm, I can be in the water at 5:50pm, swim 1464 metres by 6:30pm, and be home by 7:10pm.

It feels fresh and secret and serious and luxurious, all at once. I will never live so close to such a beautiful lido ever again in my life.

If the lido is quiet enough, I swim back and forth in the centre of the pool. The water is dark enough that I can barely see the edges to my left and right. Below, there’s steel. Above, the sky.

It’s like swimming in a spaceship. A simulation of swimming generated for homesick travellers.

And then the whistle blows at 6:30pm and I climb out and hop, skip, and jump until I can hear through my left ear again.

The regulars in the changing room started recognising me this month. “It’s nice when it’s quiet,” one said to me. The changing rooms are reality.

The Problem with Podcast Dramas

TV drama has entered its platinum age. Novels are being written by more diverse and talented authors than ever before. Even games are getting decent stories. But in the world of podcasts, dramas are being outearned and outlistened by their nonfiction counterparts. Why?

Here’s the easy answer: just as television killed the radio (drama) star in the 1960s and 1970s — with families turning their sofas and their attention to the captivating screens in their living rooms, and radio networks focusing on news, talk shows, and music — television is drawing attention away from podcast dramas.

True, podcasts are different from radio: they’re easier to distribute, cheaper to produce, more convenient to consume, and more diverse in form. But as freely-accessible audio content, they’re more similar than not. And while a few radio dramas remain on the loose, with BBC Radio 4’s The Archers attracting over four million listeners every episode and the Afternoon Play with one million, the field has never recovered.

And yet in the past year, we’ve heard predictions of an ‘audio storytelling renaissance’ emerging from studios like Gimlet, Panoply, Earwolf, Two Up Productions, and Night Vale Presents in the form of dramas like Homecoming, Fruit, Limetown, and Within the Wires.

So could it be true? Could we be witnessing the rebirth of audio dramas as mass entertainment? Or is this just wishful thinking from a genre riding on the coattails of true crime podcasts and talk shows? Continue reading “The Problem with Podcast Dramas”

What They Want, the Government Can’t Give

It wasn’t a surprise to me, or to anyone else in the UK, that residents of Grenfell Tower heckled their councillors and Tory politicians. And I wasn’t surprised when Prime Minister Theresa May cravenly refused to meet with anyone from the tower.

But what is surprising to me is that even the Queen received criticism:

There were emotionally charged scenes as the Queen and the Duke of Cambridge visited the Westway sports centre earlier in the day. Standing beneath the rumbling Westway flyover, the royals had finished meeting firefighters and police officers who responded to the inferno, when they were met with a spontaneous round of applause from onlookers.

But when the clapping died down, a distraught man beckoned them to come over. “Please come here,” he said. Clutching a missing appeal poster for the siblings Firdaws and Yahya, Rami Mohamed said he was a friend of the missing children’s family.

The Queen climbed into her car as the prince apologised and pledged to return to the Westway centre, which is operating as a relief centre for displaced evacuees and relatives of the missing.

When the royals departed, Mohamed said he was frustrated that so many people arrived for the monarch but it felt like his friends were being left behind. The Queen and the prince spent about 30 minutes in the centre visiting those affected, the day after May declined to visit the area over the security concerns.

Theresa May promised a £5 million cash fund for residents, but that didn’t stop the protests. The truth is, there’s literally nothing that the current government could promise that could. Not £50 million, not £500 million, not even the resignation of the Prime Minister herself.

Even a full-throated apology, for years of austerity, decades of neglect, and unremitting abuse from certain sectors of the press, wouldn’t do — because no-one would believe it. What use are words when there’s nothing stopping the Tories, or indeed the entire ‘neoliberal project’, from continuing to dismantle safety regulations and value money above all else? The right wing, led by the Vicar’s Daughter, would crucify the poor and the struggling on a cross of gold.

But the residents’ moral authority is unimpeachable — they weren’t even kettled on Oxford Circus:

What they want, the government can’t give. And so this will only end with the collapse of the government.

When Surveillance Goes Private: A 2027 Retrospective

I’d like to begin with a story.

I was born in the UK — in Birmingham — although obviously I don’t have the accent! My parents came from Hong Kong, but we didn’t visit it until I was a few years old, since it’s quite the trip for any family.

The approach to the old Hong Kong airport in Kowloon Bay is hair-raising. You descend between skyscrapers, so close that you can practically see inside their windows. We were staying with relatives near the airport, which was fun, if noisy.

Me and my brother did the rounds of our aunts and uncles and grandparents, but eventually it was time for my parents to see their own friends. We were left with our cousins and the world’s greatest collection of pirated Famicom and Sega Megadrive videogames.

Now, these cousins. Their great aunt Agatha lived with them. As I was told it, she’d travelled the world, sailed the seas, fallen in love with all sorts of people, and made her fortune. Now in her eighties, she was still as sharp as a tack, with photographic memory and a wickedly funny tongue.

Agatha couldn’t easily walk any more, so more often than not, she’d sit in her armchair in the corner, situated just so she could see the whole living room and kitchen and hallway, and watch everyone coming and going. She wanted to know what was going on in the home, but more importantly, she wanted to be useful — and she was.

If you were on your way out but you’d forgotten to get pick up your keys, auntie Agatha would remind you (very loudly). If you were looking around for a letter or book you’d misplaced, she’d know precisely where you’d left it. She’d even watch you while you were doing your chores and tell you just which spots you’d forgotten to dust. Her job, as she saw it, was to help the household flourish, and keep them safe.

I’m sure some of you have figured out where I’m going with this. Almost forty years later, we all have auntie Agathas, watching over us in every room of our homes.

Today, in 2027

8 out of 10 households in the UK and US now have multiple home cameras. It’s one of the most astonishing success stories in the history of technology, with an adoption curve almost as impressive as smartphones in the previous decade. But unlike smartphones, we’ve bought many more than one per person.

Worldwide figures

What fuelled the rise of home cameras? Let’s start with the devices themselves.


Why did the home camera revolution only begin in 2018 and not earlier? Fast and cheap internet was an essential condition, allowing owners to monitor their homes on the move and abroad. Another boost came from the ‘smartphone dividend’, which reduced the price of camera components.

But beyond 2018, two technological revolutions fuelled the rise of home cameras: charging and sensors.

Early Home Cameras

Nowadays, it’s hard to believe that almost all home cameras in the mid-teens were wired. These cameras had no batteries and had to be tethered to a power outlet at all times, constraining their placement within homes and generally causing an unsightly mess.

From 2018 to 2023, home cameras adopted batteries lasting one week to one month — a massive improvement over tethering, as they could be mounted anywhere, including outdoors and in bathrooms — but arguably more irritating than wires, as their “low-power” chirping became a frequent sound in many homes.

It wasn’t until the full rollout of resonance charging, or more broadly speaking, ‘charging at a distance’, that cameras truly permeated every room and corner of our homes. Freed from the need to be wired or retrieved every month, and completely weatherproofed, they were stuck in the corners of ceilings, thrown onto roofs, hung on walls, mounted on gates, and balanced precariously on shelves. Providing they remained within range of a resonance station, they could be placed and forgotten for years.

The improvement in the sensor capabilities of home cameras has been even more extraordinary. In 2018, most cameras had a laughably-named ‘high-definition’ resolution of 1920 x 1080 — barely enough to distinguish small objects across a room. Matters were soon improved with the introduction of ‘High Speed 4K’ sensors that could examine minute changes in skin bloodflow to monitor people’s heartrate and emotional state. Soon after, cameras reached beyond the visible spectrum to infrared and ultraviolet, essential for home security and health applications.

It wasn’t until the introduction of multipath LIDAR in 2024 that the supremacy of cameras in our hearts and homes was assured. Various primitive forms of LIDAR had been present in earlier cameras, as an aid to home VR and augmented reality through precision depth mapping and 3D positioning. Multipath LIDAR, however, multiplied the reach of our cameras by using reflections to see around corners into other rooms; to interpolate new camera angles; and to even see inside objects. It finally provided total awareness of all objects within a home, without the need for excessive numbers of cameras.

In fact, the most advanced multipath systems now pose a threat to the business model of the camera manufacturers who’ve emphasised quantity over quality. Now that a single camera can take the place of many, it’s likely that overall camera shipments could begin falling.

Enough about technology — why did people invite cameras into their homes, and what did they use them for? I’ve identified five broad applications, in rough chronological order: Continue reading “When Surveillance Goes Private: A 2027 Retrospective”