Sunday, August 03, 2008

Gameplan: strategies for survival in a digital future

Game playing has never been much my thing. I never really enjoyed playing board games and I detest cards - it's the Devil's game, don't you know!? I've never really liked team sports either. Apart from being an ex-Tetris addict, I have never played computer games either. Despite all this I was quite excited about participating in an interesting games lab (iglab).

What, you ask, is an interesting games lab? In their own words:
The Interesting Games Lab offers the opportunity to play some interesting games, meet some interesting people and look at some interesting ideas.

But that doesn't really explain what goes on at their events, especially to someone like me who only had a flyer saying we would be playing the following games: The Comfort of Strangers, Lost Sport of Olimpia, hypSync and OMMRPG (Korean laser-mirror game).

Don't you just love the way they decided to include a short explanation of OMMRPG (which actually stands for Offline Multi-Mirror Reflector Positioning Game) and that the this only made everything sound even more cryptic? I was certainly intrigued and as I began to find out more on these games online I became more so.

I want to get straight into explaining about the games, but I also want to briefly draw attention to the fact this was a collaboration with the good folks of Dorkbot, the Pervasive Media Studios, ished, Watershed and many more...

I will explain more about that later, first things first!

Let the games begin
Arriving at 7pm at the luscious quarters of the Pervasive Media Studios, I was greeted by a free bar (this should not be the reason why you should want to go to their events!) and quickly started mingling with people, which led to being roped in to a wii [sic] game of virtual bowling. This was fun and waaaay to easy, you probably need to drink a lot more wine in order for it to become challenging. After a few strikes it was announced that we would be going outside for the first game: the Lost Sport of Olimpia. Now, there's quite a bit of lore on this game and it has a huge following worldwide. The name refers to the fact that, for some unknown reason, the ancient Greeks banned this game from being played. It is only recently that the rules have been rediscovered.

This is how we played it:

Our group of 30 or so people was split into two and with a chalk two simple 3-circuit labyrinths were created on the pavement.

Standing on the lines we created a human labyrinth from which a blindfolded 'runner' had to escape from using only sense of hearing - no touching allowed. The human wall provided the directional que by humming so the runner would know which direction to move towards.

It sounds easy, but believe me when I say it is extremely disorientating! Although, having only tried it the once, I'm sure you can quickly get the hang of it. It took a few seconds to re-adjust my senses, there was also an odd claustrophobic feeling and a strange intimacy coming from the trust you were putting into these strangers. I thought it was a really good game for developing team work and trust. There is also lots of potential for increasing the difficulty and improving wall tactics. I am still wondering why it was banned from the Greek Olympics 2000 years ago...

The comforts of self-organisation
The second game was completely different. It was probably my favourite one that we played that evening. Mainly because it uses a technology that I'm a great fan of and get very excited about - Mscapes (I also gave it a mention in a New Scientist blog). It is still in its early days, but boy oh boy has Mscape or similar innovation just waiting to be taken advantage of.

So you can imagine my excitement when I found out that the game we were about to play - The Comfort of Strangers - makes use of this interesting mobile gaming platform. In danger of being accused of laziness, I am going to let the inventors of the game describe the gaming experience simply because I think they've done a fantastic job and I would only end up plagiarising it!

In this game there are two teams: Dancers and Lovers. Before the game started we were split into two groups, a mixture of Dancers and Lovers, then we were told to run off and turn on our PDA after 10 minutes - after that, the game was on!

You walk through the busy square, headphones hidden beneath your hood. A voice whispers in your ear, "there's another Lover nearby...;" you steal a look around trying not to be too obvious and you hear the voice again: "...your life is now at level 6..." You must be a lover and you need find that other person in the crowd, team up. You set off, weaving through the crowd, trying to blend in.

"There's a Dancer nearby..." you stop to read a sign and look around "...your life is now at 5..." Damn! Gotta stay away from the Dancers; If they find you before you find another Lover you could be in trouble; if your life drops to zero you are out of the game. But how do you discover the other players hidden in the crowd and, when you do, how to you know who they are? You could ask them "are you a Lover or a Dancer?..."

The Comfort of Strangers is a street game that uses ipaq PDAs, mscape software and adhoc wifi networks to create a series of social encounters driven by risk and common interest. Players use anonymity and group formation to live and survive urban experience. They find comfort in strangers.

The Comfort of Strangers from Simon Evans on Vimeo

I think this is a brilliant idea. But I did feel the game was lacking a focus, some kind of aim. A 'Capture the flag' goal seems a bit tame, but it would certainly be a start... I can imagine this game being played on a massive scale, I'm thinking worldwide. Most devices nowadays have GPS, you could always be playing it and run into all sorts of Dancers and Lovers on your journey back home from work. Imagine if there were different tasks you had to accomplish, something fun like (from the top of my head): Find 3 other Lovers and release a 100 McDonalds balloons. Anything really.

What is even cooler is that the whole game is a research project in how swarms work! This is another favourite research area of mine. My dissertation was in this field and focused on an aspect of self-organisation called stigmergy.

I am definitely planning to get in touch with these people and see if I can get involved.

Next up was the OMMRPG (the Korean laser - mirror game). Now this was probably the, in my opinion, least successful game.
Two teams, with six players: one is the 'shooter', two/three 'blockers' and two/three 'reflectors'. The shooter uses a laser to score points in the other team's goal, but only through reflecting the beam using the mirrors... Now bear in mind that this is one of those laser pen pointers, so you haven't got a very wide beam or anything. The goal is about the size of a 14" pizza sitting high up on the opposite wall some 8 meters away, the mirrors fit neatly into your palm and people are jumping up and down in front of you - some of them much, much taller than you. How the hell is that ever going to work? Well apparently it does and I am just no good at Korean laser games... So this one was definitely not a winner for me. Plus you had to wear stupid gold head bands. I have since then found out that we did not actually play the real thing. You actually wear the mirrors... Although perhaps rules aren't that rigid because this video is a fine example of how it went down at the Pervasive Media Studios (this video is from PICNIC '07):

Take a chance, have a dance
The final game was a dancing game (hypSync)! It was a bit like silent disco, in that we were all given mp3 players with four different songs on them and headphones (I am sorry to say I have forgotten what the songs were). We had 20 seconds to guess which of the four songs other people were listening to by checking out their grooves and form a group. If you were in the wrong group you were out of the game. The second round was only 10 seconds long, the next 5 seconds and the winner was the last person standing. It was a pretty enjoyable way to end a wholly fun, interesting, wine-fuelled and thought-provoking evening.

Dancing away at the Pervasive Media Studios - we could have done with a bit more atmosphere...

Making the connections
As promised at the start of this article, I also wanted to point out the extent of collaboration that goes on between the various organisations.

Originally I came across the event through Dorkbot. I have yet to attend any of their events, however, in the future I most certainly shall. Dorkbot is an international organisation for all kinds of people who like to play with electronics and go somewhere to show, tell, share and learn from and with fellow 'dorks'. So on the first level this is a collaboration with Dorkbot Bristol. Iglab, and The Comfort of Strangers in particular, is funded by the Pervasive Media Studio as part of Media Sandbox, which has partnership with HP Labs. Pervasive Media Studio is an aspect of dshed - a sub-section of Bristol's cultural hub the Watershed. Also, iglab was inspired by something called Hide and Seek Fest, But hang on, we're not done yet! There are more connections to be made, because the games themselves, especially The Lost Sport of Olimpia, has a huge following and all kinds of spin-offs. One of the most interesting, to me, is Find the Lost Ring. I am not even going to try to explain it here, the post is long enough as it is, but I would also much rather actually have a go at playing it and then write about it. My only concern is that it might be a bit too 'Dungeon and Dragons' like, which really isn't my cup of tea.

It is very exciting for me to find this whole world where sociology, technology and art intersect.

The good people at iglab are putting on their own street games and pervasive games festival: the igfest on 19-21 September Harbourside Bristol, UK. I'm certainly getting involved - are you?

One more final note - I promise! This is just something I came across while finding out about all of the above and I think it would be great to get involved in PICNIC - a conference in Amsterdam in September that "...spotlights cutting-edge products and services at the intersection of media, technology, arts and entertainment, and brings together entrepreneurs, investors, creators as well as scientists, and other industry leaders..." Sounds like I would fit right in! Unfortunately it does have a hefty price-tag. But I will try to see if I can volunteer in some way.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Have you ever heard anything more ridiculous than this? (I'm sure you have, but this got to be up there with the best of them...)


A British gym has become the first to introduce a high impact calorie busting fitness craze which has swept through parts of America - sneezing classes. And the 30 minute workouts have already proved a huge hit with gym members keen to improve their fitness by simply sneezing.

Instructors from Fitness First have been flown to America to learn the finer points of the technique known as "Sneezetics." Each of them spent a week working with Dr April Jones the woman behind the fitness programme.

The self-styled fitness guru runs her "Institute of Sneezetics" from her home in Tofool, Arizona. During their week long stay the three instructors learned the finer points of making people sneeze and the benefits it can bring.

Fitness First personal trainer Darren Taylor, who is based at the Fitness First gym in Southampton, Hants, said: "Making someone sneeze was difficult at first.

"But Dr Jones was brilliant at making people sneeze and my colleagues and I soon got the hang of it.

"The best thing to use is a feather duster and if you flick it under a member’s nose in a certain way they are almost guaranteed to sneeze.

"I've also pioneered my own pepper sprinkling technique. With a flick of my wrist I can now send enough powder into the air to make almost anyone sneeze."

Darren added that the classes have been a huge hit at his gym where "Sneezetics" classes are being piloted by Fitness First, especially when a member has a slightly larger nasal passage.

He said: "They have been very popular. People who are looking for a quick workout love it. Following a warm up we are making them sneeze around six times over a 30 minute period and there is no doubt they are feeling better for it."

Dr Jones said: "You would have to be a fool not to see how this is a beneficial thing. Sneezing is a convulsive expulsion of air from the lungs and because of that the benefits are huge.

"Sneezing over a 30 minute period can help weight loss, muscle toning and increase of lung function.

"The art of sneezing is as old as time itself and there is clear evidence that cavemen used it as a way of keeping fit and healthy.

"It really works core strength and most people will lose around 50 calories per sneeze, depending on enthusiasm.

"I have seen Americans who have developed a six-pack and lost pounds simply through energetic sneezing workouts."

Wonder where I found this? On the Fitness First website – I might have to investigate this further, because it's just ludicrous. I wonder what that 'doctor' would have to say if I asked a few questions about these sneezing six-pack people. Crazy stuff eh?

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Got some more stories for you to have a look at. First up is my write-up of research on swarming owls for New Scientist's Technology section blog.

Next up is a piece I did for Null Hypothesis on circuit bending.

I have also started a new job with Zenith Publishing, a publisher for the food and beverage industry. I'm a sub-editor for several B2B magazines, including Journey, cooler innovation, beverage innovation, water innovation, dairy innovation and their affiliated web sites.

My partner of seven years and I have decided to go separate ways, which means I'm now for the look out for a new home. This will preferably be a studio or one-bedroom flat for max. £450 in Bath (yeah, I know - good luck finding that...). So if anyone has any tips do get in touch. Don't use the email on my profile as that's a fake one to avoid spam. Just send me a comment...

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

I would like to bring to your attention some news stories that I wrote whilst at BBC Focus magazine. Check 'em out:
Also, I've completed the Science, Culture and Communication course at Bath University. I'm now embarking on a transitory period. It shan't be easy, but a new anchor will be found!

Friday, July 27, 2007

I have written another interesting (obviously!) blog entry for New Scientist. It's all about robots (again...), but this time they're emotional.

Have a read about Feline feelings.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Robot ethics

Cronos - the anthropomimetic robot created by Rob Knight at the robot studio

Robots, power drills, ethics and phantom limbs - these are a few of my favourite things.
This odd amalgamation of seemingly disparate concepts and objects are held together by something even more peculiar: Consciousness - machine consciousness to be specific.
Machine consciousness is a relatively new field in robotics which is dedicated to the construction of machines that are conscious like us.

Even though most of us are self-proclaimed experts on our selves, consciousness is still one of those big unanswered questions that we know very little about. So it might seem a bit strange to try and build something when we do not even know how it works. However, this is exactly what Professor Owen Holland from the University of Essex has been working on for the past 3 years. Having been called 'gung-ho' for his approach to understanding consciousness, Holland's research consists of building a real-life robot that uses power drill motors and bungee cords to drive the 'muscles' and plastic for the bone structure.

Other attempts at understanding consciousness have involved designing software models based on popular theories of consciousness or by copying what we know about the various neuron connections in the brain. But so far no-one has tried to build an embodied system quite like Holland's.
The majority of current research in neuroscience, philosophy and now robotics emphasize the importance of embodiment. Experiments in neurology suggest that the brain uses an internal model of the body in order to simulate various scenarios before we actually encounter them. Major books on the topic of consciousness, like Ramachandran and Blakeslee's 'Phantoms in the Brain: Probing the Mysteries of the Human Mind', or Metzinger's 'Being No-one' are convinced that "the phenomenal self is a virtual agent". This implies something slightly unnerving and quite mind boggling, that what we experience as reality is actually a mere simulation.
Evidence of this theory can be found in neurological curiosities like phantom limbs where people who have had an arm or leg amputated are still experiencing sensations in the missing limb. It is as if the body's model has not been updated. Other examples include the fact that schizophrenics are able to tickle themselves, the hypothesis is that this is due to their inability to predict, or simulate.

The problem with machine consciousness is that in Holland's own words, “We are ignorant about what we are doing, we wouldn't even know if it was suffering terribly.” But he also says, “I'm not worried yet, in 15-20 years time, maybe.” Murray Shanahan, Professor of Cognitive Robotics Imperial College in London, does not believe that “a scientific understanding of consciousness will ever be achieved without such [computational] models” but finds himself confronted with the future prospect of creating an artificial entity that is capable of suffering. The concept of a robot suffering might seem alien, and not something that most people would concern themselves with considering the amount of human suffering that goes unnoticed in the world today. Nevertheless, governments worldwide have initiated robot ethics programmes, such as 'The Roboethics Roadmap' funded by the EU and the UK's ESPRC funded 'Walking With Robots' initiative that tries to encourage debate about the ethics of the future. To some, this might seem like a waste of time and money, but this could possibly be one of the few times when the ethics are ahead of the science. Other recent technological advances like GM, stem cell research and nanotechnology have had difficulties becoming publicly accepted exactly because the ethics had not been properly considered.

Asia has long been at the forefront of robotics research. Governments in Japan and South Korea have suggested elaborate guidelines to ensure the safety of both humans and robots. These guidelines indicate a need to have accepted standards before letting robots loose in our homes. Dr. Blay Whitby, whose research include the social and ethical implications of artificial intelligence at the University of Sussex, is cautious. “I'm not against the technology - it could make people's lives a lot better - I just want some ethical input .“

The military has also shown interest in the possibilities of conscious machines. It is therefore even more pressing that the ethical debate involves not only researchers in the field but the broader public as well. We must ask what the implications of machine consciousness are for humanity, as well as machinery, as we continue exploring the perplexing universe of the mind.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Got some more great news. I managed to bag a placement with BBC Focus. I've tried for months but they were all booked up, but persistence pays off, because they ended up giving me a slot in September. Look forward to some fantastic writing...