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April 2004

Wifi voyage

HP Labs turns Bristol (UK) history into a virtual "experience"


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The Bristol ferry Matilda glides into the city centre after a voyage around the harbor. Matilda has been used in trials of the location-based tourist information system.

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At the heart of the experience is technology that associates sounds and information with a particular place.

Visitors to the historic Bristol Harbour can now do more than cruise the docks where explorer John Cabot launched his famous journey to the New World: They can experience life in what was once one of Britain's busiest trading seaports, seeing and hearing the past through immersive soundscapes, visual pointers and historic footage.

Armed with HP iPAQs with touch screens and a pair of headphones, passengers aboard Bristol Ferry Boats can virtually navigate the harbor's history delivered over a broadband wireless network. At the heart of the experience is a system developed in HP Labs to associate sounds and information with a particular place.

Visitors can hear a cacophonous 13th-century St. Augustine marketplace, for instance, and then imagine themselves on a the dockside during World War II as wailing sirens announce the Luftwaffe raid that could destroy them.

All this comes as a result of an alliance involving HP Labs, interactive multimedia firm Node and the Bristol Ferry Boat Company under the umbrella of a unique partnership called Mobile Bristol.

Historical events reexperienced

Mobile Bristol is a test bed for technology and user research in mobility and future mobile services created by HP Labs, Bristol University and the Appliance Studio, with support funding from the British government.

The ferry boat project is just one of the Mobile Bristol team's projects. HP Labs and Mobile Bristol are now launching a research trial that recreates the Queen's Square Riot in the city in 1831, a bloody protest which erupted after a political reform bill was defeated in Parliament.

As part of the experience, writer/poet Ralph Hoyte and writer/filmmaker Liz Crow collaborated on a play based on the event. Participants in their "interactive theater" will be connected to an HP wireless network and their movements across the square where the riot took place will trigger a virtual re-enactment of the dramatic events. As they walk from one part of the square to another, they will hear the calls and cries of the rioters, the charge of the cavalry and the warnings of the soldiers.

Experience is the product

So far, the experiments -- others include a game where mIddle school students learn what it is like to be a lion by walking around in a virtual Savannah -- have shown that "experience" is the crucial factor underpinning research into mobile applications.

In fact, experience is increasingly the product, says HP Labs' Jo Reid.

"By understanding the kinds of 'experience' that are compelling, we hope to develop new tools, services and devices that consumers and creatives will desire and that enable them to share and create their own new situated digital experiences," she explains.

Children as design partners

Reid and Richard Hull, also a Labs researcher, have worked extensively with artists and children to craft digital experiences for mobile devices.

In addition to the virtual Savannah project, they ran a workshop called "A new sense of place" that let six-to-ten-year olds create their own soundscapes.

The workshops confirmed that children are capable of adapting quickly to new technologies and creating novel and engaging applications. They responded to the design challenges with creativity and enthusiasm.

Schminky and Jukola

HP Labs researchers are particularly interested in the social potential of new technologies in public spaces. So they are experimenting with café-based digital experiences.

Working with its Mobile Bristol partners and sound artist Duncan Speakman, HP Labs created a wireless game called Schminky for the techno-artsy clientele of Bristol's Watershed's Cafe-Bar. The wireless network processes game invitations and sends out iPAQ vibrations to alert users that someone wants to play.

Jukola, an interactive Jukebox, also had its world premier at the Watershed. Votes for a favourite track were tallied across a host of iPAQs to determine which tune the Jukola would play. Before deciding, players could view information on the tracks already nominated.

Other people in the bar voted for their favorites by punching a public touch screen. The web-enabled Jukebox also accepted MP3s uploaded remotely from unsigned bands and independent artists and posted the Watershed's play list for each particular day.

New medium

All Mobile Bristol projects have a common theme -- how wireless technology will affect the way we live and interact within our environment.

As mobile technology becomes ever more pervasive over the next decade, users will find themselves virtually plugged-in to an always-on network of contextual data, with all the services, information and experiences they need with them at all times.

HP Labs scientists think of ubiquitous computing as a new medium -- a digital overlay of the physical world, says Phil Stenton, director the Mobile Bristol program at HP Labs. This new dimension will be mediated in part by a user's personal devices and in part by the intelligent signposts, bus stops, shop fronts and other items now populating the urban landscape.

"The purpose of Mobile Bristol is to provide an experimental test bed for this vision," Stenton says. "We've created a live laboratory to explore the new medium."


Related links

» Mobile Bristol
» Technology and lifestyle integration research
» Designing engaging experiences with children and artists (technical report)
» Experience design in ubiquitous computing (technical report)
» HP Labs Bristol

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One of Matilda's passengers experiences the history of the city's harbor using the Mobile Bristol information system.














Phil Stenton

Phil Stenton

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