Notes from Watershed's Playable City conference

Verity's view of me

Verity's view of me

I gave an unusual talk - beamed into Bristol's Watershed - for the Playable City Conference in Sept 2014.  As a guest of their wonderfully enthusiastic and ambitious director Clare Reddington. Here are my notes from the talk (unabridged and unedited). I also made a bit of a video version as well. >>


It is a great pleasure to be speaking to you and to be part of Clare and the Playable City team’s grand adventure. I wish I could be in Bristol with you all, instead of which I am in a hotel in Singapore. I’ve also done both my stints as a juror for Playable City over Hangouts and Skype as well - which is sort of miraculous if you think about it, - free multi-party video-conferencing technology that would 5 or 10 years ago have felt impossibly expensive and lavish, yet now works on the computer in your pocket.   

(you can see the back-up video of this talk, so, nearly the talk here: 

I have, for many years now, written the word ‘designer’ on my little yellow card when I land in Australia. I am always terrified that they will ask “what do you design?’ and expose me as the fraud and a charlatan that I feel. (actually they often do, especially in America, and I always just sort of sigh and say ‘websites’. Then they ask how they can get a job at Google).  But I do have a significant case of imposter syndrome when it comes to the idea of having any expertise in design, or art, or technology. Playing, however, I am much more comfortable with, and so in my work I have been very lucky to find a niche where I get to play with great developers and designers, and great technologies and platforms. Innovation or that other awful word, creativity are, to me simply the outputs of rigorous exploration and experimentation.  

We are entering an extraordinary phase of creativity and innovation. One very much couched in an epochal shift in how we manage information. We are moving from a time of static information, words held in pages, in books in libraries, and bus shelters - a time of knowledge that is retained, sage-like, in physical repositories. To a time where fluidity of information and data is ubiquitous. When you can know anything at any time anywhere. If I want to explore Flemish viticulture, and quantum physics, with a side order of fluid dynamics and sub-saharan witchcraft from the sixteenth century I can do so, like that! I can ‘know’ almost instantaneously. I may not understand, it may not be useful, but these collisions of knowledge and information will return results that we could not possibly have expected twenty years ago, just as two hundred years ago Franklin, Volta, Faraday or Tesla could never have imagined how completely in the 21st century, humans would just lose the plot in a power cut. And we are just at the beggining of that journey - with our screens and gadgets. I think we will look back on this time as a very clumsy phase.  

I feel we are like pre-industrial revolution farmers. They had to physically harness power in whatever form they could find it. It had physicality. We are like farmers with our plough with a horse, or the wind.

Today we think of power as a basic human necessity that is omnipresent and could never be taken away. We have a mindset that thinks information is in books, or websites, spreadsheets or in a gallery. The next generation will think it is just … there. My children will consider information to be equivalent to turning on a light switch. And that changes things.

Think about how you experience the world today, or 10 years ago. Or 10 years from now. Personally I think we are returning back to more human paradigms of interactions, of voice and gesture rather than clicks or swipes.

Into this daunting mass of information comes the designer. Data without design is literally useless. Information without design is dangerous. Utility without design is depressing. We have designed interfaces for reality for centuries and now we are designing interfaces for the next century.

As I haven’t heard anyone speak you will have to forgive me if I am miles off message, or directly contradictory, but to be honest I don’t really know if what I do is design... I guess, being generous, that what I do is a sort of speculative design… we make things, experiences, interfaces, platforms - using emergent technology at the edge of the internet and then we find places for that… (maybe I should have started with this bit). Most of all what we do is play, and it is very difficult for organisations to maintain teams that get to play, mainly because it looks like so much fun. But without engaging the creative potential of play we would never do anything interesting at all. It is very important to channel your inner 3 yr old. They are the most creative people on the planet. All they do is create, and play, tirelessly / exhaustingly as they explore the world around them. It is the only appropriate way in which to make sense of your world.

Playable City sits in this interesting space, at once welcoming connected cities but then being opposed to the puritan efficiency of the vision. The world that is created for us, like dumb automatons is a sad world. As we move into this increasingly automated universe that we are creating it is important to remember that our great advantage over artificial intelligences is our ability to spot patterns, whether visual or linguistic, that is our true evolutionary strength. And when we begin to play with that skill set, to subvert it, distort, overlay and mess about with patterns we get wit, humour, art, poetry.

My little team aim for failure, or rather, we understand that experiments just don’t deal in that binary of success or failure. In an experiment there are only outputs, and then you can analyse those and make observations, extrapolate maybe.  But basically most of them are complete disasters. So I’d like to sort of finish with a few projects that we have or are working on and what we learned:

Last year we undertook an ambitious performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream with the Royal Shakespeare Company. One of the great challenges of these projects is identifying the magic.

And then not breaking it. The Shakespeare project was a huge success on a number of levels was also a huge learning curve for me. On the train back to London I wrote 5000 words on everything that broke. On everything that failed. For example the importance of physical chemistry and the effect that devices have on that suspension of disbelief. Screens are like wormholes, they suck you back into your mundane reality with all of your real-world needs. If you are taking a photo of a slide, you are not listening to the speaker you are thinking about how you will share that slide, and how people (who will never understand it) will respond.

I learned to listen to myself, and that when it felt wrong it was almost certainly wrong. And to recognise that as early as possible to make it right. That is all I do actually, direction. I am no good at anything that is a recognisable skill, I just have a strong sense of where I want to go and what we need to get there. So this year we started at the very beginning and are tormenting a team of writers back in Sydney

Hiding a phone in a box = magic

This year we started a project about webGL and video, and it ended up being this extraordinary video cube project which took on a remarkable capacity when we made a physical cube with a gyroscope to control the virtual cube on the screen. It’s like when you hide the computers everyone’s head explodes.

So now we try to hide the computer in every possible situation, and I talk a lot about magic wands and enabling screen-less interactions. It’s a fascinating space to play in.

Everyone brings baggage to screens.

My team are doing a lot of experiments about what you can do with Chromecast, and we’re finding that people have all these preconceptions that because it goes into a TV screen it has to be TV type content.

Which is nonsense. It can be a UGC karaoke machine, or a proximity sensor, or a computer game. We have got lost already into thinking that it is something for the big broadcasters to play with.

Simple things seem to delight more.

This is a project, another platform actually, called culturespheres, in which we use 360˚ photosphers and allow people to attach and position audio files as hotspots in the experience. It relies on a number of things, one - people just don’t use this feature, which is very very simple. So it is quite exciting straight off the bat, but mostly it is incredibly simple with a huge number of applications for everything from poetry to documentary to podcasts to murder mystery. I am finding that for me the test of an idea is how enthusiastically creative people play with it, even at a rhetorical level. Simple tools are easier to play with than complicated tools. Which is why we don’t all use sporks. Oh, and stay open to opportunity. We were half way through this project when Google brought out their 20 dollar alternative to the Oculus Rift: Cardboard. Fortunately we were able to quickly adapt to the new opportunity making it look like we always knew what we were going to do with it, right from the start.


Patronage, is not the same as sponsorship is not the same as collaboration. My team and I love working with the cultural sector because they are open-minded, collaborative and a little bit poor. But most importantly (and possibly the reason they are poor) - commercial success is not a success metric, unlike in almost every other aspect of our world, including education and even science. This creeping, insidious suggestion that commercial success is our definition of value. The only thing that more dangerous to the arts than funding cuts, is the stultifying safety of commercial security.

At least,  I think we can all agree that Playable City is in no danger of being commercially successful, but I am convinced of its cultural, creative, social and critical success. It has been a great honour to talk to you all - as I said at the start I wish I could be there - but instead I am going to go and have a swim. Have a wonderful day and best of luck with the opening.