By Jamie Beckett, May 2007
Imagine turning your neighborhood park into a stormy sea where pirates threaten you at every turn. Or visiting a historic castle where ghosts from the past tell their stories. Or taking a nature hike where the flowers introduce themselves as you walk by.
A whole new medium is emerging -- and you're the creator.
You're also part of an experiment. HP has launched a prototype web site, www.mscapers.com, where you create and share games, tours, stories, art and other location-based experiences called mediascapes.
What's a mediascape? It's a bit hard to imagine until you experience one. (To get a taste, watch this.)
"It's like unrolling a digital carpet onto the landscape," explains Phil Stenton, who manages the team in HP Labs Bristol (UK) that developed the technology. "It's gaming beyond the desktop. It's a film you create, and then consume on the streets of San Francisco, or London, or anywhere. There's a whole range of media-driven experiences people can create."
The technology, code-named mscape, grew out of more than five years of HP Labs work exploring context-based services and experiences. Researchers have collaborated with artists, teachers, storytellers, historians and others to create several such experiences, including a recent adventure game at the Tower of London and an interactive nature tour at Yosemite National Park.
Now, the mscape tool is available -- for free -- for anyone who wants to give it a try.
To create a mediascape, simply visit the beta site, http://www.mscapers.com, where you can download the authoring toolkit, get training and pick up tips for getting started. The site contains a few ready-made mediascapes for download (the pirate game, Doubloons, is there). For the non-designers among us, the site offers wizards for on-line authoring that make mscaping a snap.
Once you've created your mediascape, you can publish it on the web site so others can try it for themselves.
To experience a mediscape, you need a GPS-enabled HP iPAQ or other handheld device running the Windows® Mobile operating system. With the device and the mscape player (also free for download on the site), you can trigger digital media -- including images, text, sounds, audio and video -- in response to physical events such as location, proximity, time and movement.
In the Tower of London game, players encountered virtual prisoners pleading for help escaping the historic fortress. To do so, players had to use historically accurate methods: unreeling ropes, bribing guards, smuggling letters and sneaking past the Yeoman Warders (the ceremonial guardians of the Tower, also known as Beefeaters).
If they failed, they risked being locked up in the Tower -- virtually, of course. The Tower of London experience is what's known as an anchored mediascape, meaning it is tied a specific location.
In another game, Hidden Danger UXB (available for download on the site) brave players must rid a field of unexploded mines or UXBs. This game and Doubloons are portable, and can be played anywhere there is an outside space.
So what's in this for HP?
At this point, says Stenton, the idea is to simply get the technology out there, build a community around it and learn from what people do.
"We're at the stage the Lumière brothers were at when they introduced the cinematograph," he says. Auguste and Louis Lumiere, who are credited with the world's first public film viewing, produced a series of short films – the best-known is "Arrival of a Train at a Station" -- that inspired others and helped launch the art of filmmaking.
"We have just set the stage," says Stenton.
What's next? Support for additional platforms and devices, says Stenton. Researchers also plan to customize a mediascape-creation tool for game developers.
Mediascapes: A brief history
The new mscapers portal had its origins about five years ago as Mobile Bristol, a project that explored how mobile devices and pervasive information technology could enhance people's interactions with their physical environments and with each other.
With funding from the British government, researchers in HP Labs Bristol, the University of Bristol and Appliance Studio collaborated on several trials, working with artists, writers, educators and others to create a series of interactive, context-aware mobile experiences.
In one trial, visitors to Bristol's harbor could virtually navigate the history of what was once one of Britain's busiest ports. In another, middle school students could experience life as a lion by by walking around in a virtual savannah.
The prototype toolkit used to create those experiences was made available on the Web. More than 1,000 downloads later, and mediascape design community was born.
In the meantime, researchers at HP Labs built a redesigned toolkit from the ground up, and used it to develop more mediascape pilots, including an experience on the streets of San Francisco. They also worked with a nonprofit learning company to offer a limited version of the toolkit for schools.