For the week of November 9th, I joined Paula Te and Michael Nagle, fellow researchers at CDG, as teaching staff at Parts and Crafts in Somerville, Massachusetts to try out a hybrid reality idea.
We came with a simple plan: build a physical model of a city with the kids, a special city in which anything could be linked to any other component or anything online. The links were inspected with iPads running an iOS app Paula wrote. The app allowed us to pre-generate all of the codes with numbers associated to rows in a spreadsheet instead of having to print a code every time a kid wanted to link something. It was originally designed to circumvent that hurdle because we figured it would be slow enough to break engagement, however building the system this way also gave us the freedom to manipulate the links as a storytelling device later on. The project was divided into two general phases: the building phase on the first two days and the story phase on the last two.
For me this project grew directly out of the Play/Room project: the linking, the spatial organization of virtual media, the hybrid physical digital thing. Here’s my recent Play/Room post if you want more context.
Ometropolis was set 100 years in the future and had a population of 100 people. We used a scale of 2 feet to 1 inch and it was built on two 6 foot tables side by side. It was loosely based on Doreen Nelson’s original city building curriculum, now called design-based learning methods. We started the city off with a seed object, a city park covered in fall leaves built inside a small wooden box linked to a spherical video of Paula and I having a leaf fight at MIT. It was our way to show the kids what we meant by a hybrid city without too much explanation.
The first two days were focused exclusively on building and linking. The kids built homes, restaurants, a beach, a power plant connected to the city by a grid of power lines, a hospital, a school and many other things. I helped by building some of the city’s basic infrastructure: a multi story apartment building, roads, public transportation (the city’s only bus), and the central park.
Because we didn’t strictly regulate what kinds of things that were allowed to be linked, the linking started off very casually. Kids made objects they liked and linked them to favorite digital media without considering seriously considering relevance to a bigger picture: a burger linked to a gif of a Krabby Patty, a tv to the opening of the TV show Community, a person to the Kim possible theme song. This haphazard linking quickly evolved into more complicated and meaningful additions to the city with clearly related linked media. The aquarium connected to a video of a tide pool, a shark was associated with a gif of a great white eating a seal, and a yarn sun linked to a digital sun.
Paula helped kids make their own linked media by acting as information collector. One example was the diagram of kinds of cats as dictated by one kid that was associated with their model of lion.
On the first day an older girl, 13, built a detailed house with furniture for each room. As she built the model she explained that she wanted to be an interior decorator. She linked the coffee table to a picture of a living room design she found online. The dresser was linked to the inside of a beautiful and perfectly organized closet. The television to the opening theme of her favorite show. The little chair to one from a designer she liked. The floor plan acted as both a mockup and mood board.
On the morning of day 3 we added a twist. In order make the city feel more cohesive and alive we decided there would be a disaster. Instead of introducing a cookie cutter natural disaster, we built on the story the kids had already been telling about the city. Ometropolis was a coastal city with a thriving population of vampire squids living just off shore. The squids were so plentiful in fact they were a both a common food source and popular research subject. So before the kids arrived for another day of building and linking we usurped all the links the kids had already made, replacing their gifs and pictures and personal media with gifs and videos of vampire squids. When the kids discovered this, we told them the city’s network had been hacked by the squids. This idea took hold very strongly. Their suspension of disbelief was awesome. They never questioned how it worked or thought we were messing with them, just that their city had been attacked and they had to do something right now.
Once the kids realized the city was being threatened we had them take a vote. Should we stay, putting all our resources into defending the city and defeating the squids, or should we run, pouring our energy into building a fleet of spaceships to wing our tiny population to safety? They decided to stay, unanimously.
One of my favorite details from the vote was one girl, about 8, who publicly agreed during the vote that we should stay and protect the city. She was adamant the city needed saving, but when the other kids were off building laser fences and commanding police raids on the squids, she built a tiny, one-woman, two-cat spaceship to get her character Violet off-planet just in case. It even had two-pass authentication, a keypad and a laser fence tuned to only allow Violet’s DNA.
This is story of the invasion:
Ometropolitans were used to vampire squids. Their coastal waters were brimming with the cephalopods. Any common visitor to the science center could see one up close in the research tanks. Any common hunger could be sated with squid pizza over at Joe’s.
But one morning as the Ometropolitans woke to go about their business of running hospitals and making pizza and doing science and driving busses and building space boats, they discovered the city’s entire network had been hacked. The entire Internet, pages of cute gifs and scientific research alike, had been replaced with vampire squids. Gifs of them swooping about menacingly in the dark water, snagging fish and generally taunting the citizens of Ometropolis with their various arms and tentacles.
Shocking as this cyber invasion was, soon the Ometropolitans discovered that they had much more to worry about. The hackers had wormed their way through the science center’s firewall and released the Kraken! *Cough* Sorry I mean: released the squid they had been studying. There was a video of the break-out and at least one scientist was killed during the incident. Local news was soon on the scene and once the Ometropolitans had been informed of the developing crisis a vote was taken. Stay and defend the city or flee, putting all resources into space-based escape pods. The citizens chose to defend their home despite their terror.
Three methods were hatched to retake the city and its network:
The cyber security group, led by Violet, a researcher from the science center, developed the CPT (cute and pretty things) anti-virus. Due to her previous work on the now escaped squid she knew that vampire squids hated both cute and pretty things and theorized that together they would be an effective ward against further cyber attacks.
The developers retooled the city’s factory to produce DNA-reading laser fences which would zap any squid-based lifeforms from entering along the coast while leaving humans and other non-cephalopods untouched. The factory managed to erect laser fences along the city’s entire coast line as well as back up systems to protect the hospital and space port. It was an ingenious and Herculean effort but, little did they know, the vampire squids had a trick up their 8 sleeves.
The Ometropolis police force engaged in both active hacking and ground operations. The city was in near chaos when the vampire squids broke over the fences, and many people, both soldiers and civilians, were lost in devastating numbers in the attack including the leader of the police force, but in the end the Ometropolitans managed to defeat the invaders. This attack changed the city forever, inspiring the planning and building of Omicrom Prime, a space station which would act as a lifeboat in case of subsequent attacks.
All of the videos and drawings and stories the kids made as part of the battle for Ometropolis refilled the network and drove away the virus. And though many were killed, in the end the city prevailed. Those lost were honored with a new graveyard erected in central park.
Much of this story was created as a collaborative improvisation for camera. We used a pair of Ricoh Theta M15’s which proved very hard for the kids to get in video mode but once the cameras worked the kids were hooked. It went like this. The kids would take one of the two cameras to shoot some new idea they had for a video. Meanwhile I would pull all the footage off the other camera, stitch it, edit it if needed, and get it ready for the kids to see when they came back. Then we would switch cameras and repeat. They kids took to calling this process “Taking it to the shop,” which I suppose made me the video mechanic. They made 24 videos in 2 days.
But while they made a ton of videos and were super engaged, the concept of spherical video was a harder concept for them to grasp than I was initially expecting. After we were done shooting and were looking back through the videos several kids reprimanded each other saying “Don’t look there you can see the person carrying the camera.” Or in a few cases in which a video was staged within the model city itself some kids were upset to find when you turned the viewpoint they were in the video too.
When we try this again I would change how I teach the idea from the start. Spherical video is closer to having an active audience member watching a play than controlled cinematography, so I would have the kids pretend to be the watcher. Before they shoot a video have someone play the camera as the others rehearse a scene. Where will the camera be? Put yourself there. Look all around you. What do you see? What do you miss from here? Do you want to see this scene from under the table, from the ceiling, from the hallway outside? How do you feel watching the scene from those places?
Another really helpful activity would have been watching each video all together with people taking turns controlling the POV. Ideally one person would be watching on a hand screen looking around with swipe and rotation, while their screen is mirrored, projected big on the wall. In theory this kind of communal watching would help kids get a more concrete understanding of spherical video. They could see how others look around the video differently, missing or catching different things, letting them design their next scene with those things in mind.
Here is a layout of the city from above at the end of the week:
At the end of the 4 days the kids gave guided tours of the city to their teachers and parents. Using the iPads they went around scanning links and showing off the spherical videos they’d made and retelling the story of the great battle. It was a fantastic way of closing out the project with a moment of cohesion and reflection. Kelly Taylor, one of the full time teachers at Parts and Crafts, said the project “engaged kids across age groups, social groups, academic & intellectual interests… [and] allowed groups to intersect that often never do (despite being in the same building at the same time).”
We plan to build on this hybrid reality teaching tool/activity and will bring you more insights as they come!