Finding the sense of a place

[Caveat: this is a bit of a rambling brain dump to get it out of my head and start looking at it from another angle]

I’ve spent part of this summer hanging around on street corners, experimenting with location-specific content using Digital Flapjack’s PlaceWhisper service. It’s an app that anyone with an iPhone can use to set up location-specific text, images and audio for anyone else to pick up using the app.

Which led to me framing the simplest possible question for myself “what’s interesting about only being able to access a piece of data in a specific place?”

I’m know I’m not the only person who feels augmented reality isn’t answering the right questions yet. I have drunk the Hide&Seek kool aid, and have taken to designing to stop people being mesmerised by the magic phone screen instead of their surroundings. I’ve found the conversation around designing for two screens really useful here – the phone is definitely the secondary screen because the real world, with its high res, real time 3dness and added smell-o-vision, is the thing I want you to engage with. Otherwise there’s no point forcing you to be in a particular place, it’s just a barrier to entry. I’m making things that add to the enjoyment in small and subtle ways, not try and hog your whole attention.

It seems like there’s two things this virtual annotation is great for:

making invisible things visible

seeing things which are visible already more fully. I’m not making street corners into spimes exactly, but they are in the back of my mind.

So, if you can annotate any physical place with a static piece of data, where’s the fun? What data is actually interesting to find?

There’s an interesting divide between treating places as generic types or specific entities.  Adrian Hon’s Wanderlust with 4square was a great response to that fascinating database of types of place. It delineates that this is a [bar], this is a [restaurant], this is a [museum], and Wanderlust uses those places as free amplification of atmosphere. It tries to get at the core of what unites jazz bars in New Orleans, and basement pubs in Edinburgh, and grand hotel bars in St Petersburg.

However, I’m getting more and more drawn to the things that make them different. I trained as a designer originally, and teasing out the decisions and conditions that caused something to end up with the physical form it did is second nature, and adding some of the research that teases that out is one interesting way of using this for people like me. There’s a basic fascination in finding out what previous iterations of a place were like and why.

So it’s very easy to use location specific data to make a travel guide to a place. What I’ve also been attempting to explore is how to use the platform to do more than that, to change how you feel about what you’re seeing.

I got a lot out of watching In Bruges and Don’t Look Now – both films that take pretty, tourist-infested cities and make them sinister characters in a narrative. What’s already in your brain affects how you see things so much. It’s an effect I saw so clearly the day after last week’s riots, where because I’m a ridiculous optimist I spent time on Bethnal Green Road buying food and thinking how quickly everything had got back to normal. But #bethnalgreen on twitter showed me that other people taking exactly the same walk at the same time were commenting how scary the street was. We were interpreting the same cues and physical space completely differently. None of us were wrong. Just different.

So with those principles in mind, a couple of experimental projects are going live soon. Watch the Water is an ambient audio piece made with Coney and Trigger for the Edinburgh Art Festival, which attempts to give voice to hidden parts of Edinburgh and really make you look at the mental way the city has accreted over the years.

The newest iteration of Time Trails on London’s South Bank will go live in a couple of weeks. It locates the positions of pavillions at the Festival of Britain in 1951, and attempts to put them in the context of what came before. The frantic gaiety of the Festival makes so much more sense when you see it through the lens of the Blitz and the desperate greyness of the Austerity years that came after – when the war had been won but rationing became more and more severe.

I’m going to be investigating where we can push this idea more in the autumn, but in the mean time if you’re going to be in London or Edinburgh, feel free to download them from the app store (they’re both free, just search for the project names) and let me know your thoughts.

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