Pandemic and Materiality

Another new paper, Galani, A. & Kidd, J.. 2020. Hybrid Material Encounters – Expanding the Continuum of Museum Materialities in the Wake of a Pandemic. Museum & Society 18: 298 – 301, comments on the “pivot to digital” that cultural heritage has been forced to make, with varying degrees of success, by the current pandemic. We know that the initial rush to apps that heritage made in the decade after the introduction the iPhone ran out of steam as use of devices on site, and downloads were low, and the projects were often made with capital investment with no understanding of how maintenance and updates would be financed or managed.

But museums have turn to the web, if only to retain mindshare during the pandemic, despite “Luís Raposo, president of ICOM Europe, passionately declar[ing] that ‘Humans are analog [sic] creatures, not digital’,
[and] urging museums to continue to be ‘spaces where each one [of us] can be confronted with real original materialities’ post-pandemic. (Luís Raposo, ‘Museums in Face of the “Perfect Storm”’, ICOM Europe Facebook, 15 June, accessed 29 June 2020.)

The authors of this paper suggest that “As museums and their audiences turned to digital forms of engagement in the absence of physical encounters, […] new hybrid materialities were made possible within and through digital spaces.” We saw a number of fun attempts to connect locked out humans with digital representations of cultural heritage, including the J. Paul Getty museum capturing the moment with a challenge yo recreate your favourite artwork with household objects. Galani and Kidd point to this and to Robot Tours provided by the Hastings Contemporary, “developed as partof a pre-existing research initiative to allow individuals at risk of isolation, including due to disability, to experience the gallery through a remotely controlled robot’s camera.” The popularity of these during lockdown threw the limitations of physical museum visits for a significant part of the population into sharp contrast.

They argue that Hastings Robot Tour “bridges physical encounters with art and remote visiting, animating the materialities of the respective experiences. The tours urge us to challenge the proliferating use of digital as a mere tool for capturing and representing literal forms of materiality and to revisit the ways we design for, value and make sense of material sensory encounters more broadly.” However they use the pandemic and digital responses to it to argue a point that seems well rehearsed, “As people assemble the materiality of their heritage encounters through a range of digital, analogue, tangible and intangible resources, their visiting experiences transcend traditional articulations of the physical-digital divide and operate on a continuum of materialities.” Which may be true but I would offer the counterpoint that most visitors don’t come seeking to transcend traditional articulations and operate on a continuum of materialities, but rather simply to be in a place, and/or surrounded by things.

Thats said, their call for hybridity is a strong one. I will not argue with their assertion that cultural heritage should “not only […] initiate but also to nurture relationships with content creators and to accommodate resulting outputs, such as the Getty re-creations.” Neither will I deny that it is an opportunity to unpick the “perceived neutrality of digital infrastructures, such as content management systems and metadata, which shape inclusionary/exclusionary practices and interpretations of original artefacts.” The argue that Covid has given museums the confidence to use the power of hybrid (digital/material) spaces to explore on-line engagement and, importantly, to make “online audiences […] key agents in the production of digitally-mediated material encounters.”

Their last paragraph is the best bit though as it support one of the final paragraphs in my own thesis,

In museums in the wake of the pandemic – together with the sweeping call for change of the Black Lives Matter protests and debates about the decolonization of our physical surroundings – materiality is likely to remain in predicament. Understanding material encounters as part of a continuum inherently embraces reflexivity, ‘flux’, ‘in-betweenness’ and ‘liminality’ and is, therefore, fitting for these times.

Back, for a while at least

Woah! It’s been over a year since I last post anything on here. I return because later today is my viva voce, wherein I “defend my thesis.” Yes, that’s why I have been silent on here, I have been hammering my thesis into a shape that I am not ashamed of, reading it, proofing it, getting others to read it and proof it (and yet, yes, there are still typos) and submitting.

For the last couple of weeks, in preparation for tomorrow, I have been re-reading the thesis, meeting (virtually) with my supervisor and recruiting an old friend and academic Jane Malcolm-Davies to read it and to give me a practice viva, last week. Reading it is hard though – after a year of writing and re-writing, the words flow through me like a purge barely touching the sides. And all I take note of are the things I might have done better. The practice viva was a very useful experience though, and so I thought I might give myself another “practice” by writing this post.

What brought me back to the blog was recognising a sentence that had survived from one of my earliest posts, though eight years of other work and re-writes and edits. This blog was a useful way of processing my reading and other research as I was going it. It wasn’t what I needed though when I was rewriting the words that might have started on this site. And as this is the last chance to read my own thesis for the viva, I thought I might process it with a blog post in a similar way, hopefully anticipating some of the questions

Who is my audience?

One question Jane asked me about the thesis was “who are you writing this for?” And it’s a good question. It gave me pause to think. But I think the answer is I writ it for myself, and for people like me, heritage professionals who want to explore what digital interventions might be like, and who don’t want to be reliant on digital suppliers to tell heritage organisations what they need.

When I started this, eight years ago, I came into it with a truly open mind. My question really was “what can I and my fellow heritage professionals learn from games about storytelling in space?” I had no agenda, no thesis I wanted to test and, importantly no real experience in computer games. I guess I saw computer games as competition for my sector. Not financially speaking really (we are no completion for that global behemoth of games production); but for share of mind or… actually share of mind. I often tell the anecdote of a colleague who came to me saying that a game had made him cry the night before. At the time our organisation were trying to improve “emotional impact”, and as someone who had spurned computer games in my teens because they didn’t engage my emotions. I was intrigued, at the time my organisation was very interested it what we called emotional impact. If computer games could make my friend and colleague cry, perhaps we could learn something from them about storytelling.

So I didn’t apply for the PhD with any sort of hypothesis in mind. This was possibly a mistake, but I genuinely wanted to work out how games (and I should say “open world games”) that let the player wonder around an environment, manipulated emotion.

How did my research change?

When I started out, if I had any defined ambition at all, it might have been to create an application that tuned a heritage visit into some sort of investigative game. And I think I was definitely imagining the mobile device as the conduit of communication between place and person. Two bits of my research changed that ambition, neither of which fit into the main narrative of the thesis but were I feel worthy of including in an appendix, if only to explain why that wasn’t a route I was following.

What was a surprise to me, was during the “reading” of the three games I played, the realisation of just how poor heritage storytelling is. Note I say storytelling here specifically. It can be argued that “heritage interpretation” isn’t “storytelling,” but such an argument is broadly incompatible with a desire to engage visitors emotionally. This became research in practice with two aims: the first to see if heritage interpretation narratives could be broken down into natoms (narrative atoms), stored and reassembled to satisfy visitor’s needs; and secondly to explore how they might be put together in an emotionally engaging way.

What would I have done differently?

With the benefit of hindsight, of course I would have concentrated on this narrative conundrum from the beginning, but even arriving at the conundrum was, for me, a damascene revelation. As a professional interpreter who has been confidently telling stories in the sector for decades, realising that I might have been telling the “wrong” stories.

But practical things I would have done differently – it was only in the latter stages that I realised what useful tool Robin Laws’s story beats and transition analysis was. I wish I had found it earlier and used it to analyse at least parts of the three computer games I read.

Speaking of things I wish I had found earlier. When I was scouting around in the early stages for a “narrative database” I could easily use, the meSch project, which is written specifically for curators and heritage professionals, was only just starting. In the end I used Scalar which is written for academics, but not for the heritage environment. But had meSch been around it would have been a perfect platform to experiment with

One other thing that might fit as an answer to this question is, had I switched to my current supervision team earlier in my research I could easily have been persuaded to drop the narrative track entirely and focus instead on music and sound – where there is simply not enough research on its use in the heritage environment.


Focussing on the academic challenges, the subject of cultural heritage interpretation overlaps so many academic disciplines that even producing a literature review was really hard. And then, pushing the work forward, I felt all the time I was falling between two stools – science and humanities. For example, exploring affect outside of the psychology, and databases outside of computing, but at the same time wanting to write something that could be understood, and taken forward, by both museum professionals and data engineers.

Where do I take this?

In the conclusion I detail a number of potential paths for further research. The one that I am most interested in professionally if further understanding, and potentially measuring, numen. I think this concept is closer to what museums and heritage sites really mean, when they talk about emotional engagement. But defining in properly and working out ways to measure it, will take a lot of work.

I am also excited by meSch – a tool written for professionals just like me. And I would love to take it for a spin on a future project, creating adaptive, personalised stories for visitors. But not just “visitors.”

I say that because my research was based very much around making the experience of people in places better, talking about responsive environments better meeting visitors’ needs. I deliberately eschewed virtual experiences, except when I first prototyped an adaptive story for the then closed Clandon Park. But in the last few months visiting places physically has been restricted. And its made me realise that the paradigm shift in story telling that I have advised for responsive environments might just as easily be applied to virtual visits. Despite being only a prototype, the Clandon experience was more satisfying for me as a creator, for reasons I explain in chapter 4. Perhaps there is be a chance, a need even, to create new personalised adaptive event numerous stories on-line.

Well that’s all the time I have. My via starts in 30 seconds

wish me luck

Mobile devices in heritage, why not?

Ages ago I surveyed people about mobile gaming and heritage. The results were not encouraging for my thesis, because interest in mobile gaming seemed low. Just under 200 people completed the survey, and most of them had at least heard of Minecraft (just 5% had not). But when asked about the most popular location-based game at the time, Ingress, the vast majority, 178 people (81.3%) hadn’t even heard of it.

Since then of course Pokemon Go happened. It’s by the same company as Ingress, and build on their limited success with that game by adding a globally recognised brand. So I wanted to see how much it had increased awareness of location based mobile gaming. I opened a second, shorter internet survey. Initially the results looked good. Awareness of Pokemon Go pretty much matched Minecraft. Just 2.5% of respondents were unaware of it. compared with 2.4% who were unaware of Minecraft.

There is some evidence that people are more aware of location based games in general. Only 64.6% of respondents were unaware of Ingress. In the both surveys I also asked about Zombies Run!, a mobile game which while not strictly location based, does involve taking your mobile device outside to track you as you move. In the earlier survey, 63.6% were unaware of it. By the second survey that proportion had reduced to 45.1%. So, though I had discounted further developing a location based game for cultural interpretation after the first survey, growing interest in location based games may make it a more fruitful avenue to explore in the future.

There is a another barrier to consider however. I have mentioned a perceived reluctance to use apps and the internet on mobile devices in previous posts. But I haven’t found much research on why people don’t seem to like using their phones. This second survey offered an ideal opportunity to actually ask that question.

Well, not just that question. I asked a few more. I started off asking which ways of learning about the site they used. I offered a list:

  • Just looking at stuff
  • Reading labels panels or gallery fact-sheets
  • Reading a guidebook
  • Talking to a guide, docent or interpreter
  • Talking with the people who came with you
  • Joining a tour (led by a guide)
  • Using an audio-guide or multimedia guide
  • Using an app on a mobile device
  • Using the internet on a mobile device

People could choose as many as they wanted. What I particularly wanted to know was which ones they did not pick. So in order of preference, it turns out that the most popular interpretive media are

  1. Reading labels, panels or gallery fact-sheets (16% did NOT tick this)
  2. Just looking at stuff (28%)
  3. Talking with the people who came with you (47%)
  4. Joining a tour (led by a guide) (61%)
  5. Using an audio-guide or multimedia guide (62%) and Reading a guidebook (62%)
  6. Talking to a guide, docent or interpreter (64%)
  7. Using the internet on a mobile device (74%)
  8. Using an app on a mobile device (78%)

It’s worth pointing out that some people use mobile devices for apps but not the internet, and vice versa, but still, only 11% use mobile devices for either one or both. That said, 11% is about twice as many as as we have observed in the National Trust, and about twice as many as has been identified in other data. This might be a systemic bias of collecting data in an online survey. I would like to try and ask a similar question on site. Partly because it’s thrown up some interesting results – I imagined that talking to guides, docent or interpreters might be more popular than taking a guided tour, but actually it turns out that taking a tour it more popular than conversation.

The sample for these questions is only 85, so its not particularly robust. But actually this question was a preamble to supplementary questions asking for qualitative rather that quantitative data. Respondents who said they did not use mobile devices were asked simply “What are the reasons why you prefer not to use an app on your mobile device?” and/or “What are the reasons why you prefer not to use the internet on your mobile device when visiting heritage sites?” each with a free text field. Some replies were just one simple short statement. Others gave multiple reasons. Analyzing all the responses, I first defined twelve categories of statement. Each reply scored one in each category to which it referred. In order the twelve categories are:

  1. Presence – for example “Want to be present in the place.” or “Detracts from looking at the exhibits and the moment” (33)
  2. Data/signal/battery limits – for example “Not always got data/coverage.” (32)
  3. One-use apps – for example “I have limited memory on my phone, and don’t want to install apps that I’ll only use temporarily” (10)
  4. Pre/post-reading – for example “I do normally read and research about the subject beforehand at home (computer, books…), so I don´t need to use such apps.” (6)
  5. Tech lack – for example “I don’t have that sort of phone” (6)
  6. Tech break – for example “I regard tech’ as a work tool so don’t engage with it for fun.” (5)
  7. Analogue experience preference – for example “I prefer my interaction with heritage to be unmediated by tech!” (5)
  8. Competence – for example “Do not know how to” (4)
  9. Social preference – for example “I generally visit with my family so want to explore with them and feel that using an app could be an experience that potentially minimises our interaction.” (4)
  10. Conversation preference – for example “I like to talk to real people and enjoy their enthusiasm” (4)
  11. Focus – for example “Too many other distractions with an open internet.” (1)
  12. Hassle – the simple statement “Too much hassle” (1)

So, regular readers will guess I might be expecting the presence category to be the overwhelming reason why people didn’t use mobile on site. As so it proves to be, but only just. I wasn’t expecting data/signal/battery limits to be an almost as big (and given the limited sample size – possibly bigger) objection to using mobile devices. The reluctance to download apps with limited or one-time use has been documented elsewhere, but given that 74% of my sample said they didn’t use the internet on their mobile devices when on site, a web-based on-site solution still doesn’t look like an attractive investment proposition. Web-based pre- and post- reading however seems like a reasonably strong impulse among an minority of visitors. As long as web content is made responsive, and easy to look at on small screen, it may help migrate users to on-site use as data/signal/battery issues are resolved (though I note that the latest generation of phones at the end of 2018 seem to have short battery life than their predecessors).

Music and sound on (and off) screen

It seems a long time since I visited the books on screen sound, but my exciting new second supervisor Beth said I should check out one of the foundation texts. This is Michel Chion’s Audio-vision: Sound on Screen. The first thing that grabs my attention is his pointing out that while “the image” in cinema is framed by the edges of the screen. “What is specific to film is that it has just one place for images – as opposed to video installations, slide shows, and other multimedia  genres, which can have several.” (He talks about how little, since the very earliest days of cinema, directors have attempted to change the edges of that frame, and “the rare experiment” of changing the aspect ratio within a film. There’s a lot more on that “rare experiment” in this blog. The one I’ll always remember fondly is in fact the two aspect ratio changes in Galaxy Quest.)

But this is to preface a point that sound in cinema has no frame.

Luckily for the makers of films with sound in the first four decades, our human need to mentally connect sounds with what we’re looking at tricked audiences into believing that sound came from (for example) the feet of our protagonist walking across the screen, when in fact there was just one speaker behind the screen. With the arrival of Dolby, Chion says, directors and their audio designers are able to create soundspaces that exist beyond the borders of the screen. Gorbman (who by the way also translated this book) introduced me to diegetic and non-diegetic sounds – those that happen in the world of the film (dialogue, music that seems to come from a radio on screen), and those that happen outside that world for the audience’s perception only (the rousing orchestral piece as the cowboys gallop across the plain). Chion splits diegetic music into two: visualised sound that happens on screen, and off-screen or acousmatic sound, which happens offscreen but is still part of the story world.

However he admits that this split has been criticised for being oversimplistic. Where does the adult voiceover representing the internal voice of the baby in Look Who’s Talking go in this model? And is that radio on-screen? Or, given that its transmitting sound from some distant studio in the movie world does that count as offscreen? So he ends up with a model that includes: onscreen; offscreen; on-the-air; internal; ambient and nondiegetic.

I am also interested in a earlier chapter which describes three listening modes.

  1. Causal (not casual) listening is where we listen to a sound in order to gather informational about its source. Chion says this is the most common form of listening (but without evidence for that claim).
  2. Semantic listening is where we listen to a “code or language” to interpret a message. Chion points out that Casual and Semantic listening can be employed at the same time.
  3. Reduced Listening  – This is the intriguing concept coined by Pierre Schaeffer, for the listening mode that focuses on the traits of the sound itself, independent of its cause and meaning. It seems hard to do: participants in reduced listening experiments constantly seek cause or meaning. He goes on to say that, though its hard to concentrate on reduced listening, we all do a rudimentary form of it when “we identify a pitch or tone or figure out the interval between two notes.” However, a full description of the sound can not be achieved in a single hearing. So it must be fixed, a recording, not a live performance. Intriguingly, Chion says that such sounds “thereby acquire the status of veritable objects”

Whats interesting about this last form is the relationship between reduced listening and acousmatic sound. Chion says Schaeffer “thought that the acousmatic situation could encourage reduced listening.” But he disagrees. Our first instinct will be causal, he argues, seeking the source of the sound. But a “seasoned auditor” he argues  “can exercise causal listening and reduced listening in tandem.”

I feel there is something in this. Chion isn’t writing about games, but in my reading of Red Dead Redemption especially I realised I was learning to listen to the repeating sound loops in a different way. At first I was reacting in a causal way, swirling my point of view around, seeking the source of every cue. As I grew more “seasoned” I was listening in a different way. I am not sure it it was Reduced or Semantic, but it was more than Causal. Of course, that might have something to do with the other distinction Chion makes, between Active and Passive perception.

There is something here I feel that might help in better evaluating immersive audio experiences in heritage.

Designing another survey

I’ve been mulling it for weeks, but I’ve decided that I need to get some more data. So I’m preparing another survey, to be promulgated via the internet. It’s going to be asking cultural heritage visitors about their use of mobile devices around heritage sites. I got a pretty good sample size last time, so I hope I’ll get a similar response this time.

Though I feel that my social networks might be more likely to fill this one in, I’m curious to see how it compares to the one that was overtly about gaming. I don’t want to wonder whether there are more gamers than museum visitors in the world… 🙂

Actually though, I am going to include a couple of questions about mobile gaming. I want to see if certain attitudes have changed in the three years(!) since that survey. I expect to see more people (even museum visitors) aware of location based gaming after the Pokemon Go phenomenon. So I’ll have two questions based upon (but updated) a couple from that survey.

The main purpose of the survey though is to identify barriers to mobile device use around heritage sites. There’s a lot of conjecture it seems, in the literature but very little data. I think that’s partly because most of the audience research is based on questions asking “what would encourage you to use mobile devices” rather than “why wouldn’t you use them”.

The Lost Palace

One of the installations dotted around Whitehall to enhance the Lost Palace Experience
A couple of days ago, I took some colleagues to Whitehall to try the Lost Palace, a digital experiment that Historic Royal Palaces is trying over three years. This is the second year of operation and this run lasts until only the 5th of September, so if you want to try it, book quickly.

At its heart, the Lost Palace is an audio tour, but uses an number of tricks and effects to enable the visitor to interact with their environment and create a better sense of presence. Starting at the Banqueting House, the last building standing of the old Whitehall Palace the tour take on out into the streets and squares of London to imagine the building that once stood their, and importantly, to eavesdrop on what went on in those buildings.

The first section though takes place around a model of the old palace, upon which is projected an aerial view of London today so that you can see how streets now run through where buildings once stood. As the mechanics of your “device” are explained you also watch the projection transform into contemporary plan of the palace as it once was.

The “device” itself is interesting  – a vaguely horn shaped block of wood, which hides a phone inside, connected to a pair of earphone that give you binaural sound effects and narration. At the wider end a black “charred” block of wood is directional, point it up and the volume of the music being played in the room above increases. we are told we can also touch this charred end to various pieces of similarly “charred” wood we’ll find out and about to trigger bits of narrative. This is obviously actually triggered but some sort of RFID arrangement, which is at the heart of the National Trust’s a Knights Peril tour at Bodiam. We know that the team behind the Lost Palace visited Bodiam to try out that tour while developing theirs.

Once we are familiar with how to use the device, we are directed outside to touch the first charred wood planks and get transported back to become part of the crowd at teh Restoration of Charles II. This is quite an effective piece on immersion  – as you find your place to touch wood you hear people behind you wanting to get past. For a split second you think your fellow tourists are being a bit rude, until you realise these are seventeeth century voices jostling behind you, eager to give their child a glimpse of the new King.

From there we are transported to the palace’s theatre where William Shakespeare is casting for Lear. In one of a few misteps in the script, we are encouraged to audition, to emote and declaim in front of not just the general public, but (worse) our fellow tourists, which who we are about to spend 80 minutes. Readers who know me will know that I’m not shy about such things, but this was too early in the tour even for me. I think later, after we had had a go at being being Lord Rochester (my favourite debauchee) vandalising Charles II’s sundial, and I’m sure we would all have been a bit more willing to participate in street theatre.

My the directional capabilities of the device are best used outside the MOD building, where, having rowed into the Thames (which once lapped against the walls of Whitehall where the MOD now stands) you could point your device at different windows and hear different echos of the past, including Charles II’s “pimpmaster general” talking with Nell Gwynn; papist plots and more prosaic (and recent) offer of a cup of tea.

Then around the building to listen in on various scandals, vadalise a sundial and cross the  to road to stand under the entrance of the (now) Scottish Office eavesdrop on Henry VIII secret marriage to Anne Bolyn above the Holbein Gate. After that, we go into horseguards, and are offered a choice – on one side participate in a joust, on the other a visit to a cock-fight (or for children) the royal menagerie. After which, the device starts beating in your hand, like a human heart. Like Charles I’s heart.

And you follow his final steps to the same spot, by the entrance to the Banqueting house, where you witnessed the triumphant restoration of his son. This is where the scaffold stood upon which Charles I was beheaded. As the device beats in your hand, you hear the King’s last words, exhorting the executioner to cut swiftly and cleanly once he has made his peace with god. Then …

..the rhythm stops.

And time shift again as you enter the Banqueting House proper to admire the ceiling and take part in a dance. I would have danced myself, but the bean-bags on the floor looked awfully inviting.

The experience as a whole is a great demonstration of, not so much presence (you have to stay aware of 21st century traffic) but a sort of immersion, a suspension of disbelief that I experience when playing tabletop games rather than computer-based ones. In other regards, especially the piecing together of fragments of story, experienced out of sequence, it felt like a “walking simulator”, like Gone Home or Dear Esther.

I’ve just handed in the latest draft of my first four chapters, but I can see I will have to add something about this experience to that.

Now Play This

Last week, I went to Somerset House for Now Play This, a three day event of experimental games. The Guardian beat me to a write up (curse you, full time journalists!) so read that, and think of this short post as an addendum.

I took my boy (aged 12) with me and our favourite game is also the top of the Guardian’s list. Dead Pixel (above) is a simple, snake-like arcade game with up to nine players, co-operating in teams of three. Its easy to pick up, and you quickly find yourself allying with a rooting for people you  never previously met and will likely not see again. By the late afternoon of the first day though, the joysticks were showing signs of wear, I wondered how many would be working at all by Sunday. Its perfectly playable with just two, unlike the platformer pictured below, the name of which I can’t recall, which relies on loads of players co-operating to get through each level. And each level is an almost entirely different game, so it takes a lot of practice, and didn’t satisfy me in the shared environment, where you want to make sure everyone gets a turn.

In contrast, Telephone, was simple joy that took less than 10 seconds to play, and you could come back to it again and again. You can try the link in the picture, but surprisingly few players actually say anything its seems…

The ten second games room was a lot of fun, especially the Brexit version of Operation

We were disappointed that the “post-apocalyptic crazy golf” outside wasn’t running on the Friday. But apart from these and the other games written about in the Guardian article, there was a whole room dedicated to one big wordsearch, a “third person stroller” wherein you control a naked man walking around on (and in!) the gigantic body of a naked man, and a case full of computer games that didn’t exist.


Tom and I also enjoyed a less frenetic room, that included quieter, slower games, simple mazes and one interesting plinth with letters cut into the top, that had mirror writing on one side. That side faced a mirror, but you needed to be lower than I could get to read it, so I send the boy onto his hands and knees. The rules were thus (paraphrased) “stand together looking at and admiring the plinth, talk about it sotto voce, laughing occasionally. Then leave it and see if anyone else in the room comes to see what you were talking about. If they do, you’ve won.”

We won.


Mobile Location Analytics in a Heritage Site

Just a quick post today. Last week some colleagues and I visited Kensington Palace, to see the latest Princess Diana exhibition. We were on the look out for new display and interpretation techniques, and one of my colleagues proved an excellent guide because she had prepared the mounts for many of the dresses, when she had worked at Historic Royal Palaces (HRP).

But the thing that grabbed my attention was this:

I’ve drawn on it so you can see the important bit. They were offering free wifi, but not to add an interpretive layer, or enable children’s trails. I guess the public might be thankful for an opportunity to use social media from the exhibition, and yes, the marketing department of HRP will enjoy creating a social buzz around the the exhibit. But there’s another reason behind make wifi pervasive throughout the palaces, and when you log on, you can see what it is:

Each visitor who signs up for wifi gives their permission to be tracked around the site. And not just when they are using the wifi, but even when the phone is in their pocket. Every now and then the phone, even when not being used, scans for wifi networks, and when it does so, it shares its MAC address. So, during the visitor’s stay, their progress round the palace can be tracked, wherever wifi reaches. Which exhibits did they visit? Where did they linger? How long did it take them to get served in the restaurant?

It could be a powerful set of data.

I am a zombie hunter!


Last weekend, I found myself running up and down stairs in a disused shopping mall in Reading, getting chased by, and shooting zombies. To celebrate a friend’s fiftieth (and mine, as my friends clubbed together to buy ticket as a present for my upcoming big birthday) we were participating in an immersive experience run by Zed Events.

Gathering at the appointed time around the back of the mall by an unassuming door, the ten of us met with fellow players who’d booked in smaller groups, pairs or even on their own. We were briefed by a Zed Events employee, with some very clear out-of-game rules, mostly about health and safety (don’t punch the zombies) but also reminding us that the zombies were actors and that we must not use personally offensive language (though they assured us that screaming “Fucking Die! You Zombie Bastard” is not personally offensive).

But then they opened the door and we were welcomed into the diagesis, the game-world. We were greeted by employees of Centesis, as volunteers for a flu drug trial. We signed disclaimers (real) and the official secrets act (not real), locked our personal possessions (phones, keys, coins) away and were being briefed when the alarm went off and everything went dark.

I don’t want to spoil the story for those that might want to participate, but I can share this video, from Zed Events’ site:

Did you watch it? All that running around in the semi-dark, not quite knowing what was going on? It’s exactly like that. 

I’ve mentioned players, but it’s not actually much of a game. There are always enough of you around to shoot a zombie before they catch you, none of the player characters are in any peril. You don’t even risk the temporary death and re-spawn of a video game. There are a few escape room style puzzles, but nothing as challenging as you might find in a real escape room. 

The emotional engine driving this experience is presence. It is the immersive, dark atmosphere, the limited range of vision, the pathetic torches that some of have, the feel and weight of the guns we carry, that enables our suspension of disbelief. 
The story structure is effective as well. I won’t spoil it for you, but you’ll guess it encompasses a military experiment gone wrong, and a limited time to escape before a special ops team comes to destroy the evidence, including us. But within the confines of zombie-lit, Zed Events know how to raise the tension: the group works together at first, then is split in two, each with a security guard to help us, but in the final act, we are split into even smaller groups, and forced into exploring the darkness on our own. There is a Big Bad too, an unkillable armoured Zombie called … Martin. 

The division of play/fear affect in my own emotional responses were at odds but in an intriguingly constructive way, at the same time I found my self screaming “Run! It’s Martin!” while the other half of my brain was inwardly grinning at the playful absurdity of the situation. I had great fun. 

It’s it worth the money? It’s not cheap, but if you can afford it, it’s worth doing, especially  if you are prepared to get into character.