Austerlitz, a 2001 novel by the German writer W.G. Sebald in which a man relives moments from his past as he walks through a city, and an initiative to promote Bristol’s strength in creative technologies have provided inspiration for Hello Lamp Post—a project that will allow residents and visitors to the U.K. city "talk" to thousands of urban objects when it goes live in July.
The concept sounds simple enough.
Anyone in Bristol between July 15 and September 8 will be able to communicate with urban objects like lampposts, mailboxes, and bus stops via text message by using the repair numbers found on these objects as SMS codes.
Text a relevant number to the central server as you walk by, and the object will "wake up" and respond in kind with a series of messages, again by text, sharing interesting content about that specific location left by others who’ve come before.
However, implementation was anything but simple, explains cocreator Ben Barker.
A cofounder of "experience production" specialist and design agency PAN Studio, Barker has long been interested in how people experience physical products and less tangible interactions, events, and activities and how to enhance that experience—in particular, by better understanding and capitalizing on the role of memory.
"It is an area we’d been exploring for a while," he explains. "Then last year it provided inspiration for a submission we made to Playable City."
The Playable City Award, cofunded by organizations involved in Bristol’s creative technologies sector, offers artists and creatives an opportunity to "make something wonderful using creative technologies." The theme for 2013 was to create something to challenge and engage people to explore and interact with the city through play.
Smart cities, where technologies play an important role, tend to be perceived as high on efficiency yet low on warmer, human elements, Barker explains.
"Our starting point was a desire to use the city’s existing infrastructure to encourage human interaction through storytelling and story sharing.
"We saw an opportunity to piggyback the existing infrastructure by using the unique reference codes carried by every piece of street furniture to enable those responsible for them to monitor them and repair them, when necessary," he says.
"The opportunity was to use these codes a bit like Twitter hashtags—identifiers of different conversations created around different objects."
An important question was: which platform?
Though Hello Street Lamp could have been a smartphone app, the PAN team opted for SMS because it is more widely available, more intimate and, ultimately, more conversational.
"The buzz from your pocket when you get a text feels different than in-app interactions or other exchanges using a smartphone," he claims.
A system was then put in place that would channel all in-coming SMS messages to a cloud communications platform and, in turn, forward these to a dedicated Hello Lamp Post server. The system also turns text into SMS for sending out to players in response.
The end result has been described as a cross between a chat forum and an Artificial Intelligence conversation system with objects addressing individuals with questions that are location-specific with precise content, presentation, and tone crafted to stimulate conversation.
"Getting people to interact and share their thoughts and experiences is all about asking them the right questions," Barker adds, revealing the team wrote and discarded numerous questions before settling on those that were most relevant, provocative, and fun, with each object designed to have an average of three interactions.
Some types of objects interact with certain types of question—for example, a bus stop’s questions might have more of a travel theme than a lamppost’s, which might be more height-related.
Others, however, share no common theme. And users can even add into the mix additional objects of their own choosing—boats in the harbor, for example, or even graffiti—as long as that object has its own code number or some other kind of readily identifiable handle.
"Explaining to players how to interact with objects was another challenge," Barker continues.
So the PAN team has identified around 15 well-known, code-numbered "gateway" landmarks—including central city billboards, bridges, and dockyard cranes—which will feature in a promotional campaign to explain to people how it will work and encourage them to play.
As well as SMS exchanges, interactions between people and objects will also be featured on a dedicated website where emerging themes will be highlighted and conversations can be searched by object or topic.
Though he describes Hello Lamp Post as a game, Barker believes what PAN Studios has actually created is an urban interaction platform that could be used for a variety of other reasons including information, education, and community-building through curated storytelling.
"At its broadest, what this is is a potential way for citizens to interact with the city in which they live or visit in whatever what they want to," he claims.
Hello Lamp Post will run in Bristol from July 15 to September 8, after which results will be collated ahead of a planned rollout in other cities both in the U.K. and overseas.
"Arguably, what’s most interesting about this is that it will be very much an organic, living, evolving thing shaped and re-shaped according to how the people use it," Barker adds. "What will be interesting to see is if and how it alters people’s perspective of the city. So in this sense the launch date is the first step, not the last."
[Images courtesy of Pan Studios]