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Recently the blueSense team took a trip to London’s Barbican Centre to check out Edgelands, a new audio installation that uses beacons to communicate with visitors and allow them to understand the building’s unique architecture and history in a new and innovative fashion.
It’s one of the more unique and interesting uses for beacons we’ve come across, with a real focus on the user experience. We spoke to creator Hannah Bruce about the technical and creative challenges involved, and why beacons were the technology of choice for this installation.
Can you tell us a little about the ideas behind Edgelands?
There’s a hopefulness about the architecture of the Barbican, set in concrete, a strange relic of radical urban planning. As artists, we were interested in about what this Utopian vision might mean today. We talked about traditional notions of Utopia, the concept of an ideal state that comes from Greek words literally meaning ‘no place’, but also an alternative conception that evokes Utopia as a temporary moment in the here and now (an intensification of everyday life).
I was particularly interested in challenging these concepts of Utopia to resonate on a personal, human scale. Is Utopia just a wish, constantly deferred, or might we discover fleeting glimpses of it embedded within our everyday lives? How can we acknowledge individual difference within those glimpses?
Artistically, it was a huge challenge to find ways to generate these temporary moments of intense experience, when we know that every visitor is going to be different. You might find a historical fact fascinating, whilst someone else might find a sound evocative, or a particular architectural decision revelatory.
So we tried to leave space for difference. Are you a history person? A senses person? A number person? Or a physical person? How does that affect the way you experience this Utopian space?
What made you think about using beacons for Edgelands?
The beacons came into the picture as a practical solution to an artistic problem. My number one essential rule, is never start with the technology! Always start with the artistic concept, identify the challenges, and work out whether technology can be one of the many tools that solves those challenges.
In terms of our artistic concept, Utopia is often imagined as an island state. We wove this imagery into Edgelands by producing different ‘islands’ of sound that visitors can discover as they explore the foyer spaces. It’s as if you are at sea, floating on a raft, and every now and again you ‘hear’ a glimpse of land and pull yourself onto the beach to rest and listen…
Practically, we wanted the soundtrack to relate directly to specific places in the building, but because of the disorientating, complex nature of the space, we didn’t want to force people to navigate a particular route.
So that’s how we arrived at the idea of using Bluetooth low energy beacons. We wanted localised ‘islands’ of sound, triggered by a visitor’s proximity to a specific place or view in the building. People could wander freely, and when they got close to a beacon that particular “island” audio would play.
Thanks to a University of York R&D research grant, we already had experience of working with Bluetooth beacon technology. We first used the Bluesense beacons at Hoxton Hall, an amazing Victorian music hall hidden in the heart of East London. The Hoxton team commissioned us to create a pioneering visitor experience, responding to the hall’s historic 150 year old archives.
Rather than creating a dry museum display, we wanted to be true to the building’s performative music hall history. We were determined that the experience should be artistic, emotional and atmospheric (rather than just an opportunity to look at objects and read facts). We wanted visitors to have the sense that the building was almost a character itself, responding to their presence (and that as a visitor you also play a role in the building and become part of its story).
The beacons were an ideal way to give visitors the impression that the building was animate – for example, as someone enters a room the lights come on, and a voice speaks very naturally as if chatting to them in the same room (but the voice is based on a character from 100 years ago). Eerie, but magical.
The combination of Bluetooth beacons, and sound recording techniques such as binaural sound, allowed us to achieve this. Using headphones, binaural sound imitates the way our ears naturally hear the world, and can have a dramatic immersive effect. For example, many visitors are amazed when the person they hear descending the stairs behind them turns out to be fictional!
How did you get on with setting up the beacons themselves? Did you have any technical challenges to overcome?
The technical challenges kept us on our toes. Thanks to a University of York R&D research grant, we already had experience of working with Bluetooth beacon technology. However, every new project comes with unknown factors.
At the Barbican, the foyers are huge open spaces with different intersecting levels, full of concrete surfaces. We already know we can use architectural features and building materials to our advantage to deliberately obscure signals and manipulate the trigger point (alongside adjusting beacon strength, advertising frequency etc). Of course, in a place like the Barbican this gave us a lot to experiment with – it’s a concrete jungle! But we had no idea how the beacons would behave in such large, cavernous areas.
Our worst fear was that the Bluetooth signals might replicate small children running around a hall of mirrors at a funfair – getting reflected and distorted, bouncing off balconies, scrambling through pipes. Potentially the signals could have appeared in all shapes and sizes in entirely unexpected places. Luckily our alpha-testing went much more smoothly than we’d anticipated. Maybe that’s what happens when you make a piece about Utopia…
We also knew from previous work that the hardware of Android devices differs dramatically when it comes to Bluetooth capability. In August 2015 OpenSignal reported that there were just over 24,000 distinct Android devices, with a beautiful image to represent the fragmentation:
Due to the significant bluetooth variation in the android devices, we realised that a calibration system would be essential if we wanted to trigger sound at roughly the same proximity across a range of devices (and artistically, because of the site specific nature of the narrative content, a universal trigger point was very important to us). Even though Apple devices vary less, a calibration system was still useful across different models, devices, operating systems etc.
How is the project being received by visitors?
Edgelands launched fairly recently, so we don’t yet have a body of feedback for this piece. We encourage people to leave feedback – we have a traditional written option, and there are also feedback buttons you can click in-app which allow you to email us thoughts.
Interestingly, at Hoxton Hall we have received an unexpected amount of feedback from visitors, mainly about the artistic impact of the experience. I don’t have any hard science about this, but I suspect its because visitors have a very personal, atmospheric experience which fires their imagination, and they are in a reflective state. When they finish the experience, they are invited to complete a feedback form, and I suspect we catch them at a point when they are fully engaged and immersed.
How did you go about getting past any initial self-consciousness so that visitors can immerse themselves in the experience?
Our audiences tend to dash to the venues we work in, straight from their busy lives. They have often travelled on public transport, fought their way through crowds, had busy days at work or with kids, and arrive frazzled with their head in survival mode. Life can be very overwhelming at times, visually, aurally.
We all have techniques to screen things out. Its almost as if we have our own mental algorithms that unconsciously help us filter things we don’t want to see or hear. As artists, we’re interested in creating an environment where, rather than screening things off, people open themselves up to their surroundings. This doesn’t happen easily – it’s a two way process of trust. Our audience have to trust that we’re going to look after them, and we have to trust that they are going to engage with complex concepts and be generous with their time.
We have found its very important to help people enter a different kind of head state, and this can’t be rushed – there’s a kind of liminal threshold that we have to invite people to cross. For this reason, we always think very carefully about the first few scenes. These opening minutes are critical for imparting practical info, but they also need to be immersive, set the right tone, open people’s hearts, make them intrigued, notice their surroundings, and a multitude of other difficult things. As one audience member said about a previous piece we made: “I’m normally really cynical and critical but I just really enjoyed this experience… it was like slowly lowering into a warm bath.”
How are you measuring usage and effectiveness?
We use Developer analytics to monitor App units. We also have ipods available for people to borrow at the Barbican if they don’t own a smartphone or tablet, so we have to keep a more old fashioned tally of these loaned devices!
Many of our customers have a commercial imperative driving their use of technology. It seems that by avoiding that, you have been able to concentrate wholly on the context of the experience.
Do you think this would be affected by a more commercial approach?
I think on one level you are right in saying that we take a more contextual approach to what we are doing. We use a whole battery of techniques to support our concept, and the technology is just one aspect. The complicated, and magnificent (!) thing about our approach, is that we draw on a combination of strategies to ensure every “experience” we make for audiences is holistic.
In any single commission we consider site, content, technology, audience behavior, audience emotion, atmosphere, light, architecture (and the list goes on) as integral elements of our toolkit. So we think much more broadly and artistically, about live holistic experiences, rather than just using location based push notifications to sell ‘stuff’.
Of course, there are many things that make this easier for us than in the commercial world. Our product is an experience, not a material product. We can give assurances that we aren’t capturing anyone’s device data, which removes that potential barrier to participation. Edgelands is an experience that audiences have sought out, and chosen to participate in – we start with an already interested party (although I suppose that many consumers are already interested).
Of course, there is an element of commercial imperative for us. We have to pay our artists and technologists. Commissioners like the Barbican and Hoxton Hall spend money on this work because it adds value to their assets.
It might not be measurable in terms of direct sales but it means that people are attracted to the Barbican, spend time in the building, might buy a coffee, see their ads for other shows, buy a ticket for something else, or, like traditional advertising, see the Barbican as a leader in technological and artistic work. One of the key elements of the brief from the Barbican was that they wanted to transform the foyers into a new creative platform spanning the length and breadth of the Centre. Our role was to find ways to make these spaces central to visitor experience.
I think there’s probably a lack of imagination with many commercial approaches to BLE beacons. There are experiential, atmospheric, environmental elements which can turn consumption into a more contextual ‘experience’ for a consumer. I suspect that the importance of these nuanced elements will increase, as the novelty of receiving a push notification wears off.
In the same way that we learn from and use technologies from the commercial sector, there are definitely lessons that the commercial sector could take from our ‘artistic research’. We invest significant time (and money) into thinking about how to direct people in an interesting way via narrative, how sound design and music composed for a specific place can affect the ‘user’, how to subtly influence or encourage people.
We might not use these tools in order to make direct sales, but I think many of the influencing factors could span both worlds. What I think is unique and essential to our approach is the craft, the subtlety, and the quality of the whole. It’s not the same as piped music or library music or someone telling you ‘now go to the next exhibit’.
There are always cultural overlaps between theatre, and the society in which it is watched. So, although I think there’s a tendency in the arts to see the commercial world as a Big Bad Wolf, there are definitely significant influences from one to the other. In Exeunt, an online theatre magazine, I was fascinated to read various theatre critics recently drawing parallels between the culture of consumption, and the experience of seeing an immersive theatre show. Alice Saville suggests that “immersive theatre feels like a capitalist playground”.
I certainly think that the increase in scale, grandeur and sumptuousness of work by companies such as PunchDrunk or DreamThinkSpeak reflect their audiences’ interplay with other experiences – shopping, festival going, even watching TV. And how about glamping? It is not just luxury camping, its about imagining yourself into another lifestyle, an “immersive experience” of glamour which means your short break takes on an escapism combining material consumption with imaginative action. You practically star in your own “immersive theatrical experience”. In a commercial context, Cornetto has aped the zeitgeist of “immersive theatre” and binaural sound with its “Cupidity” events at Westfield in 2015 and 2016.
I think that on the whole, artists are very good observers of society, and I think the skill of bringing consumption and experience together is one that is proven in work like Punchdrunk.
I suppose I am intrigued about what might happen if a company with a commercial drive was courageous enough to risk committing to a more contextual, holistic approach to using beacon technology. I suspect that focusing on the whole experience rather than the immediate sale, might have interesting results.
Do you have any future plans for more beacon projects?
I have a bad habit of dreaming up a new piece every time I discover a new building or take a walk, so its really just a question of finding the support to match the ideas.
Currently, we’re in the early stages of a some exciting discussions about a number of beacon projects (if I told you I’d have to kill you, of course), and we are continuing our R&D into Bluetooth technology and the internet of things, supported again by the University of York. I think one of the refreshing things about both the artistic and creative technology worlds is that people are generous with ideas, collaborations and time. So it’s a question of opening up conversations.
Its been very exciting working with the Barbican team, because as producers they work with a highly collaborative commissioning approach. As artists, we had a role in supporting the vision for a ‘smarter’ Barbican building in the long run. It’s incredibly exciting to be on the cusp of a wave, working in a building with staff willing to be daring and innovative, supporting artistic risk.
I think many arts centres and spaces have managers who are slightly intimidated by technology – digital natives are in a minority at managerial/executive level – and so the shift is slow at the moment, but I think it will explode in the near future. Recently I went to an exciting symposium at Warwick Arts Centre, run by Ludic Rooms, which brought together arts professionals to look at interactive and networked technologies and their use in the creative process. There were some really exciting people and projects there, such as Melissa Mean at the Knowle West Media Centre, Nikki Pugh who is an associate artist at Fermynwoods Contemporary Art, and Sam Howey Nunn who runs Artful Spark
Its fantastic to be supported by organisations such as the Barbican and the University of York, so we’re excited about what the future holds.