Checking in from Picnic

I’m at the Picnic conference in Amsterdam, not long enough to see my friends who are speaking here (David Weinberger, danah boyd, Cory Doctorow and others), but I’m enjoying a couple of hours and some excellent talks, before I wander off to the Hague and then to Rome. A series of brief talks on Alternate Reality Games is quite fascinating.

Greg Trefry from Gamelab, a very cool NYC-based designer of lightweight games, talks about his work on Case of the Coveted Bottle“>”The Case of the Coveted Bottle”. The game was a promotion for Sarah Jessica Parker’s new perfume – Greg freely admits that he’s a corporate whore, and expresses his willingness to promote J.Lo’s fragrance if she’ll just call him.

The challenge of a game like this is making it possible for reticent audiences as well as rabid fans to participate. The team set up the project with a puzzle a week, introduced by a new character – these puzzles often appeared on the public web, usually introduced via a character’s MySpace page. Some problems involved finding a series of images on Flickr and making a sentence from the tags on the images; another involved mapping addresses on a Google map and discovering the patern that emerged. The puzzles were designed to be fairly easy to complete, but Greg was surprised that devoted fans solved some problems in less than an hour.

The game needs to be more than a puzzle, he tells us, “or they might as well be doing sudoku.” Instead of writing a narrative thoroughly, Greg found himself writing characters and scenarios and allowing the players to help build out the storyline via the forums and message boards.

Greg is considering future projects that invite people to play with archival content from New York City libraries, looking at old photos and taking photos of the current locations. This is the sort of game that might work well within the context of Come Out and Play, a festival that encourages people to play games using the streets of a city as the gameboard. Amsterdam will host Come Out and Play this weekend.

One of the games that people will be playing at Picnic is called “Can You See Me Now?” It’s the project of Blast Theory, represented here by Dickie Eton, who explains that the game pits players in a virtual one against those in the physical world. Players from around the world can move around in a virtual city. They are chased by “street runners” who are armed with GPS-equipped PDAs. The runners win when they come within five meters of a virtual player – who is visible on the PDA, but not in the real world – and they document their captures with digital photos of the empty space in the real world.

Dickie explains that players quickly figure out strategies that take advantage of the constraints of the other space – virtual players try to force runners to climb steep hills or to pass through heavily trafficked areas, which slow them down in real life, but are just as permeable in virtual space as any other area. Runners, in turn, learn to force the virtual players out of back alleys and into wide-oped spaces, where GPS works better.

Tom Kenyon presents a pilot project he and colleagues have built at the BBC which brings together virtual and real spaces in a fascinating way. Working within the “creative futures” mandate of the BBC – a project to expand the BBC’s reach into web and mobile media, as well as TV and radio – he asked the question, “How do we bring Travel 2.0 to TV?” He wanted to build something radically different from BBC’s “The Holiday Show”, which shows expensive package tours to exotic parts of the world – these shows are a dream job for presenters, but aren’t much fun for the audience, and the show was cancelled. He contrasts this to Trip Advisor, a user-generated website that provides advice for every budget, peer to peer, and has been hugely successful.

Tom offers the questions he and his co-creators asked: “What if the presenters didn’t know where they were going? What if the community controlled their trip? What if we journeyed with the presenters instead of having them lecture to us?”

The result is a show that takes two presenters – Tom Price and Olivia Lee – through the great cities of Europe, guided by advice from a community of viewers, who can view their progress through the cities in realtime through geotracing. The show functions as a competition – each host has to have certain experiences – a fashion experience, a food experience, an experience of being pampered – which are recommended by the viewers. The loser in each round has to play backpacker in the next round, taking recommendations for cheap places to eat and sleep – the winner gets to travel in luxury.

The reason for the format is the dictates of television – a show has to be somewhat predictable, has to follow a model that’s replicable show to show. But the innovative bits of the program have gained the most interest – viewers describe the experience of watching Tom and Olivia move through the map of Amsterdam as like “watching the Marauder’s Map in Harry Potter”. Tom speculates that the most important aspect of the show will be the long tail – the ability for users to follow the travel guide online and replicate the travels of the hosts when they visit the Netherlands. Unfortunately, the show hasn’t made it past pilot yet, and Tom doesn’t seem optimistic that you’ll be able to tune in any time soon. Still, it’s a great idea, and I predict someone will build a travel show in this way soon.


Picnic looks really fantastic. The venue is a remarkable complex of brick industrial buildings – I want to come back at some point when they’re not filled with geeky revelers and photograph them. There’s an amazingly high concentration of smart people at the event – in the three hours I hung out, I saw at least a dozen of my favorite people, including Berkman friends, Global Voices co-conspirators, and half a dozen card-carrying members of the “moving circus”, Yossi Vardi’s term for weird global network of people who spend their lives appearing at these sorts of conferences.

But I’m heading in a different direction today, first to the Hague to talk to one of Global Voices’ key funders, then to Rome to give a talk at the Web 2 for Dev conference at the FAO, where I’mm have fun hanging out with an entirely different crew of friends. (One day, I’ll be able to clone myself and attend both. Or I’ll make a radical change in my lifestyle and attend neither, so I can spend more time at home, growing blueberries.)

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One Response to Checking in from Picnic

  1. oyunlar says:

    I’m raised as a Buddhist since born but then I learnt other religions as I grew up, being them part of my syllabus in school. I think I’m quite an atheist but then there’s one part of me which believes that some supernatural being is out there. I don’t really bother with religion and such to be really honest with you. Friends are trying to pull me into their religion and all like offering to bring me to church, etc. I think religion is only there as a way to unite the people in the same train of thought or a way to divide between different communities

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