Building an Internet of Playthings
This post was written by Jasmine Cox. Jasmine is an intern with the BBC/ FIRM partnership working on developing and exploring the Internet of Things with Vicky Spengler. In early November BBC R&D hosted an unconference in Bridge House centred on the theme of Playful IoT Futures.
Alongside the engaging conference activities we also trialled a primary stage prototype for tagging media at live events, principally as initial research into attendee behaviour, but also to get everyone's imaginative juices flowing and promote playful discussion.
It was my task to develop and make a set of actuating devices which, when connected into the RFID logging system: Waypoint, written by Michael Sparks, would provide instant feedback to event guests. For this I built a series of RFID reader housings, complete with mechanical actuators, they fall into the category of human friendly and network aware technology, with a measured blend of the functional and the magical. Inspiration for these devices came from a desire to create enchanted objects as a base for storytelling.
At the event we gave each guest a unique token bearing an RFID tag, and instructions to swipe them when they wished to register their presence in a session zone. Actuators were deployed in session zones accompanied by note-taking scribes, the scribes were present to capture the discussion at every 25 minute session. After the event the notes were collated and are available on the wiki for those who want to delve into sessions they couldn’t attend.
The concept of the trial was to evaluate how peoples experience of live events could be improved by using RFID tags. It was intended that guests would in essence ‘collect’ sessions they had attended, and the unique tag data trail would be correlated with session notes to enable a customised transcript of their experience at the event.
Similar tagging technology in use at live events over the summer include: access control, audience profiling and social media connection from Intellitix at Bonnaroo Festival, and engaging audiences with Xylobands at Coldplay gigs. Also tracking social interaction and introducing gaming elements from Imagination during Social Media Week.
Each actuator is driven by an Arduino Mega, with an Adafruit motor shield, and a selection of servo and micro servo modules. The Arduinos use serial communication with a PC, once the Waypoint system has registered and processed a ‘tag event’ locally, it will issue a simple ‘GO’ command and the arduino will initiate an actuating sequence.
To allow for a quick set-up on the day, and as a marker for further development, we ensured the actuators and tagging system enabled simple ‘plug & play’ functionality, meaning that any actuator could be placed in any session zone and be addressable and identifiable over the wireless network. Although not implemented at the event, the actuators can also be activated remotely over this network.
The actuators were developed to resemble simple automaton toys, each one demonstrating a suggestion of what the future of the Internet of Things could be, for example if they were objects or services connected to BBC outputs. They were deliberately constructed from paper and card with a sketchy/ ‘prototyped’ feel to complement their role as open-ended questions. This aesthetic in combination with the whimsical transformation of non-digital objects contributed to the playful feeling of the event, the actuators enchanted guests with surprise and delight.
The four actuators were designed with these questions in mind:
What if you could print out and assemble a toy which could be activated by specific broadcast media? Maybe these are giveaways in magazines and newspapers. What if you could be an extra in TV or Radio programme from your armchair? Perhaps you are able to see yourself in the background of the The Queen Vic, or sets could be populated with your own ornaments.
What if your experience of reading a book or printed media could be enhanced with conductive inks and paper electronics? You might be able to copy and bookmark sections in a digital format to save for later, or increase the vividness of a story by using atmospheric audio or illuminated text/ images.
What if your own toys and objects could come to life? They might enact scenes from Merlin/ navigate a map of Ambridge, or unlock a playful narrative all of their own.
Feedback directly from guests following the event was very positive, and as session spaces became more occupied (and consequently the actuators became harder to spot!) it was observed that attendees were actively seeking out the actuator boxes to swipe.