Petworth Park and Pokemon too

Yesterday’s post was timely, it turns out, because today, Pokemon Go was released in the wild. I downloaded it and caught my first two Pokemon in the Great Hall at Chawton, waiting for a meeting that I’ll write more about tomorrow. But after that meeting I was off down to Petworth to have a go with the new(ish) Park Explorer.

The Park Explorer is one of the outputs of a three year long archeology project, exploring what’s under the Capability Brown landscape that survives today. I have some responsibility for the way it works. When my colleague Tom explained his plan to build a mobile application, I dissuaded him. There is little evidence that many people  download apps in advance of their visit to Heritage sites. And even fewer wish to deplete their data allowance on the mobile network to download it on site.

Together, we came up with an alternative – using solar powered Info-points to create wifi hotspots around the park that could deliver media to any phone capable of logging on to wifi, and browsing the web. Though in this case it’s not the World Wide Web, but a series of basic webpages offering maps, AV, etc. We’re running this installation as a bit of an experiment to gauge demand, to see, if it’s offered, how many people actually log on.

Pokemon Go demonstrated why the technology might be useful. With the app newly downloaded on my phone I, of course, wanted to try it out in Petworth’s pleasure grounds. I’d guessed right, the garden’s Ionic Rotunda and Doric Temple are both Pokestops.  But the wireless signal is so weak and patchy (on O2 at least) that the game could hardly log on, let alone do anything when I got within range. After a frustrating few minutes I gave up and returned to the local wifi.

That crummy phone signal is one of the reasons we went to solar powered local wifi. Once I logged on I was soon listening to the voice of my colleague Tom as he explained some of the archeology of the garden, watching an animated film of the development of the park and scrubbing away a photo of the current three person gardening team and their power tools to reveal a black and white photo of the small  army of gardeners that used to work here.

All of this was very good. But there are some issues that I think need to be addressed if the idea is to catch on. First of all, finding the wifi signal and logging on isn’t as intuitive as I’d hoped. Your browser need to be pointed at to find the home page. The home page design leaves something to be desired. The floating button to change text size seems an afterthought that annoyingly obscures the text its trying to clarify. Navigation isn’t intuitive (no obvious way forward from the welcome splash pictured above, for example) or that well organised – I’d hoped that I’d be offered media that was closest to my position (as identified by the hotspot I was logged into), but the browse button just led to a list of things. Switching to the map view was easier, but it showed the design lacked a degree of responsiveness – see below how the word “Map” is partially obscured by the tile with the actual map on. The pins that link to different media suggest that its good to be standing in particular places to view that media, but on the few that I tried around the pleasure grounds, there seemed to be no discernible benefit to being in the right spot. In the end I settled under a spreading Oak to sit and work my way through what was on offer.

One feature that worked well to compare old and new and see change over the centuries was the scrub away photo feature. Even here though there was a fault in the responsiveness of the design. If I turned the phone into landscape mode, the picture became full screen and I lost the ability to reset it.

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I imagined how good it would be, if it looked and felt (and responded) like the National Trust’s current website. Maybe, with a bit of work, it can.

More work would be and investment though, so, first of all though we need to interrogate the system’s solar powered servers, and see how many people are giving it a try.

Sitting in Southampton, imagining Ightham Mote (and Petworth)

I spent an interesting half-hour yesterday, listening to somebody repeatedly telling me that we were in the Great Hall at Ightham Mote. But we were not. I was in a sound engineering lab in Southampton, and “she” was a recording, or rather one of thirty recordings. There was also a slightly more random gentleman, repeatedly excited about how so many words could be made out of such a small alphabet.  I put the headphones on, listened and answered questions. Where was the sound coming from? Was it more or less resonant that the previous one, was the one or timbre different or the same? In which were the words easier to make out? And repeat.

Its all part of an experiment by Catriona Cooper, who has, with university colleagues, spent some time mapping the acoustics of the Great Hall at Igtham Mote. The experiment I was involved in is part of her work to simulate the feeling of being in the all aurally, just as 3d computer graphics might attempt to do it visually.  As I sat there wondering why, when I wear headphones, the sound always seems to be coming from behind me, I could immediately think of an application for such a simultation.

The day before I’d met with NT archaeologist Tom Dommett, who among other things has a three year project on at Petworth. He took me out to where the stables used to be, pointing out the shallow dips in the ground where walls once stood. We talked excitedly about how a mobile device might interpret the story. WE was all for a 3D modelled VR, but I impressed upon him how good it was just to listen to him explain it. And while I sat listening in Catriona’s experiment, I thought “wouldn’t it be great if I was listening to Tom on a mobile device, and as I stepped over the ditch into the the “interior” of the long-gone building, the tone and resonance of his voice changed to help me imagine the space that once would have surrounded us.

Petworth Big Dig

A quick note for my archeaology chums. My work colleagues at Petworth are very excited about the Big Dig, which will run from the 13th to the 21st July. Led by archaeologist Tom Dommett, this is a major volunteer excavation looking for evidence of the lost history of Petworth House and Park.

It’s all part of the national Festival of British Archaeology – Tom will be tweeting, hooting, Facebooking and YouTubing like mad during the week-long project.