Siftr is Bettr! Get mapping!

I last wrote about siftr, a collaborative mapping tool from Field Day in Madison, WI, almost two years ago. In case you’re coming to this fresh, siftr is a fantastic and simple tool to quickly build and populate collaborative maps. From citizen science to recording graffiti to documenting one’s backyard, siftr makes it easy to set up totally custom maps of an intended sort of “data” and to painlessly ask others to contribute using pretty much any device. The foundation has been and still is associating an image, GPS coordinates, and a category with a pin on a map.

I’m writing again about it today because there are some significant updates that make the tool even better and easier to use. Briefly,

  • The kinds of data that can be collected are more varied and customizable by the author of the siftr,
  • There are now cross platform apps and still the website, making siftr one of the most flexible tools out there, and
  • There have been a host of UI improvements that should make it easier to create data and see it.

Review: What’s a siftr?

Siftr is a free and open source (MIT license) tool for the creation of collaborative maps and the activity of contributing to those maps. It exists as both a website where you can view and create/edit your siftrs, and as a iOS and Android apps that make it easy for people to contribute to, view, and weigh in on those maps.

You sign up for an account at, or if you already have an ARIS account or have signed in to the Field Day forums, just use those credentials, it’s all the same account.

Once signed in you can see your siftrs, create new ones, etc. I’ll point you back to my original post for a few more details, which are still helpful even though the UI looks a bit different. But the short of it is that siftr is very easy to set up. Just take a minute or two to think of the names you want to use before you and the mappers you hope to enlist are up and running.

Siftr is still very good at putting image and place together, combined with a single unifying categorization scheme that is used to color the resulting map icons and is the primary method of sorting the resulting data. But what’s new is the ability to add many other kinds of data to this.

New Data, very varied

Probably the most important update to siftr is the flexibility it has gained in the kinds of data you can collect. There are still some categories that they haven’t gotten to—still no audio or video elements so you’ll still need ARIS notebook or something similar for those—but this should greatly increase the number of jobs to which siftr can be put, particularly those where multi-dimensional categorization of single data points is important.

You can get a sense of what’s possible in siftr by taking a look at the new form builder in the editor.

Adding new data fields in the updated siftr editor
Adding new data fields in the updated siftr editor

Here are the new fields you can add to the existing set (image, caption, category). Each can be named by the siftr author.

  • Single choice – mapper chooses one among multiple possible choices
  • Multiple choice – mapper can mark “all that apply”
  • Small text field – this can be used for numerical text as well as alphanumeric
  • Large text field – these two just differ in how the UI presents the text
  • Additional photo – Instead of having just one photo associated with the data point, you can have one or more additional photos, each with their own title.

Again, there’s still some stuff missing: audio, video, and data points minus the images. Each siftr starts with and requires those three main data fields (image, caption, category) as of now. If you have ideas for any other additional fields or kinds of data that should be included, please get in touch with me and Field Day via the forums. Siftr is still in active development and the team wants to make the most useful and flexible tool they can.

Export CSV

Finally regarding data, this isn’t a new field but just as important: you can get your data out of siftr. When you log in as the author, there’s an easy to find button that allows you to output your siftr directly to a .csv. The .csv file of course does not contain the jpg image files but it does include url’s for those files.

Partial .csv download from my Siftr UNM - Space as Play
Partial .csv download from my Siftr UNM – Space as Play


Markdown enabled

Many of the text fields in siftr are more than just plain text. The description the author creates for the mappers, the captions, and the additional textfields should all support markdown and will automatically turn urls into links.

This may not seem like a big deal, but there are a lot of possible uses for text that goes beyond the very basics. One of the coolest I know of personally was a poetry in place creation put together by my colleague in the Honors College, Amaris Ketcham. Her first prototypes used siftr to situate poetry in place. Ultimately though she used other tools to publish this work because at the time siftr could not format the text of the posts, a must for poets. With markdown in captions this should no longer be a problem (though in my most recent tests, this is broken, I have been assured by Field Day that this is a bug and will be fixed).

Currently, markdown in captions is not working. I tried in comments too to no avail.
Currently, markdown in captions is not working. I tried in comments too to no avail.

Uploading on the go

Siftr is now about a million times better at preventing your hard work from evaporating due to poor network conditions. It caches your posts locally and uploads them asynchronously as it gets the chance. If siftr crashes (and yes this still happens to me a lot) the posts are still there and still eventually upload. And this is why I will tell you about the crashes but not complain: all you lose is a couple seconds to relaunch the app and get back in. It’s not a biggie.

The mobile in-siftr default view is pretty clean and easy to use
The mobile in-siftr default view is pretty clean and easy to use

I’ve been stress testing this in my own backyard; at UNM we supposedly have a wifi umbrella that covers the majority of indoor and outdoor spaces but in practice it is so frustrating that many students simply turn wifi off on their phone. I have been running all around campus, finding data points (I’m documenting the space for potential features in an upcoming campus-based game), snapping pics and typing in text, and quickly putting the device away or moving on to an immediately adjacent data point. I have uploaded more than 50 data points over a couple of long sessions and haven’t lost one. Lots of crashes, and some other glitches, but the data eventually all got there and I didn’t need to hold its hand to make this happen either.

I can’t express enough how nice it is to not have to worry so much about flaky internet making my mapping feel like a drag. If you used siftr over the last couple years, I think you will very pleasantly note this change.

A small word of warning though: my experience on mobile is limited to the iOS app. An Android version exists but I haven’t used it yet.

Cross all the platforms

As mentioned a bit above, siftr has iOS and Android apps. These make it really easy for those contributing to maps to find their siftrs, upload new data, and generally keep in touch. But siftr is just as accessible from the web, meaning you can add data, edit the siftr, or view the collection on just about any device. Having the website up on a large screen for a group to discuss the data is an especially useful thing.

Being used to working with folks in ARIS, it is really nice to not have to figure out the logistics around who has what brand device with them and how to work together to make sure everyone can participate. I still think a lot of classroom activities shouldn’t be 1–1 because talking to each other is an important ingredient in learning, but when the task includes going off on your own in your spare time to add things to the map, cross platform is really nice to have handy.

The UI’s the thing

Field Day has spent a lot of their development time since I last wrote making siftr look and feel a lot better. The changes are too numerous to mention, but there are a couple that I do want to single out (and likely I’m so used to it that I miss the big ones—write in and let us know what bug UI changes you see).

The first panel or tab in the Siftr editor for UNM - Space as Play
The first panel or tab in the Siftr editor for UNM – Space as Play

Hybrid mode

Previously there were two main styles of view: map with points on it, and grid of photos. Hybrid puts these together, showing the map with points on the right and a gallery of thumbnails (just of the data points in the current map view) on the left. This goes a long way in making it easy for a viewer to make connections between where things have been collected and the images that make up the data.

You still cannot see which thumbnail belongs to which data point, except by trying to find a zoom level on the map that makes this obvious. It is often hard to find the place a surprising photo was taken.

Edit: I found today that siftr now does show you where a data point lies. This makes Hybrid view very useful! In Hybrid View, hover your mouse cursor over the image whose location you want to find. The image and corresponding map marker jump a bit, allowing you to find it.

Where is the strange sculpture on the map?
Where is the strange sculpture on the map? Just hover over the image with your mouse cursor.

Improved workflows

Siftr now does a much better job of moving you through the many parts of creating something, whether this is the author creating the siftr or the mapper creating a datapoint. Each step is simple and gentle and leads to the next. Out mapping I found it quite easy to tap, tap, tap my way through multiple entries.

Rough Edges

Siftr has made some big strides to being easier, more reliable to use, and is likely useful in far more situations than it has been in the past. That is not to say that it doesn’t have rough edges or room to improve. I don’t want to make a laundry list of bugs and problems here, but maybe knowing about a couple of these can help head off any sense of unease when you’re getting started. I have found that knowing that there will be rough edges tames my expectations in a way that usually helps me get down to the mapping itself, and more easily distinguished between something that’s incorrect or inconvenient, and something that really prevents me from using this tool for real work.

For instance, siftr crashes a fair bit. I haven’t lost data or had it crash while in the middle of creating a data point. It mostly happens when I come back to it after a few idle minutes. This could be annoying but it’s not really so bad, and reminding myself of that is really all I need to forget about it in practice.

But the lack of video recording really does mean I can’t use siftr for lots of things that are ehtnographic in nature, like how Tim Frandy used the ARIS notebook in his Folklore 101 courses.

So here’s a couple things you might want to know.

Categories are King

Category is the primary control you have over your collection. If this fits your data, siftr works well. If not, you’re mostly stuck with it. This came up in my last blog post about siftr because at that time categories had recently replaced the tagging system siftr was born with. Categories are very strong. They are linked with the color of map icon, and while you can turn individual categories one/off in the interface (along with other customizations) you cannot choose to view your data from a perspective other than categories. And you must pick from one of a very few color schemes to represent those categories. More often than not I find the palettes inappropriate for my categories, and feel a bit hamstrung by the number and variety of colors an author can select. It is a rare situation where there is any real correlation between the possible color of a category and its meaning. I still miss being able to define your own icons to represent data.

The Color Trap

However, one annoyance with categories is at least less. You can change which color from the palette represents a given category. If you end up with a category that has a terrible mismatch, say “cold” is represented by red, just open up your categories in the siftr editor and click on the red dot next to “cold”. This will allow you to choose another of the six available colors instead. This can also be helpful if you have more categories than colors and wish to have some control over the redundancy.

Here, I have clicked on the purple dot for
Here, I have clicked on the purple dot for “scenery” to change its color. I can pick within the selected palette.

Perhaps in the future you’ll be able to choose not just from on-palette colors, or in my dreams, be able to use this same interface to upload a custom map icon. That would lose the nice blending of points visual that is used to un-crowd the map at different zoom levels, but to be honest, this feature has always demo’d better than it has served my actual data. It tends to be over-aggressive in coalescing points so that it is hard to see where data points really are. Often this is a more important thing to see than a not-too-crowded map.

Maybe a bit too clean

In general, there’s still work to be done on making certain ideas and actions intuitive. The UI feels a lot like iOS 7 to me. It is clean and spare. It feels nice to look at on its own. But the spareness of the UI makes it easy to sometimes not see that there’s a button or option. In the editor for instance, there are a mixture of tabs at various levels, and some of the options are labeled only with images, not text. This has the overall effect of making it easy to not see where you set a certain parameter, or if you’re new, that that parameter is something you can set. In the screenshot below, we are in the “map options” tab of the editor, tab 2 across the top left of the screen, highlighted with thin blue line that is easy to miss. We are also in a nested set of tabs, indicated by icons without labels on the top right. Which tab we are in is indicated by the darkness of the icon. Below those, we are making a choice between two map styles, indicated by a thin blue outline. These too are illustrated by small images. There is description text for the active choice but not the inactive one. The huge map on the left (I believe) is only relevant to the (currently in the screenshot) inactive choice “focus on map” but it is still the dominant part of the screen.

2nd screen of 3 in the Siftr editor. Can you tell which are choices and which are tabs, or what either does?
2nd screen of 3 in the Siftr editor. Can you tell which are choices and which are tabs, or what either does?

One of the recent changes puts total control on the rendering of the background map in the hands of the author. On the one hand this is a nice level of customization. On the other hand, if the mapper needs a satellite or street view, they are stuck with what the author wanted. And since the theme is the second among 3 tabs, and the editor does not directly force the author to see this screen, chances are the author does not know they are taking this control from the mapper. You have to go through a lot of views just to see how you have things set up even though there are not that many options altogether.

Compare that to the “settings” screenshot from my first siftr post. While not as pretty, I would take the old set up if I could.

How the settings used to look in the Siftr editor
How the settings used to look in the Siftr editor

On the whole it is hard to know that the tabs are nested, what the icons stand for, the difference between being in a tab among many and making a choice for your siftr, and what indicates selection. Most of the options of all sorts are vague because you have to go on image alone, or hard to discover because you might just miss that tab on your way through the editor. The layout looks nice in how it is spaced and how the elements sit on the eye. But functionality of knowing and setting the important options seems to be impaired somewhat. I work around this by double checking the screen to see if there’s a tab or other icon whose functionality might be almost hidden but which might be important. The literacy of “clicking stuff to see what it does” is an important one, so I’m not altogether sad. But I have already fielded a few questions on the forums from people missing these details.

Similarly, going back to edit data points is a bit of a murky “click and see” process.

Image cropping

Another area of confusion, this time as a mapper, surrounds image cropping. When taking the photo, it looks something like a 4:3 ratio, the picture you see after snapping is long, maybe 16:9 or 2:3, and then the thumbnail you see most easily afterwards is square. The image linked in the ulr in the .csv file is approximately 4:5 and 800 pixels wide. When images are quick notes, this isn’t too big a problem, but any time the content of the image is key and not just something that is in frame, this uncertainty with cropping can be maddening.

Let’s get siftring

I don’t want fault Field Day too much for the rough edges in siftr or the above gripes to cool you on what really is a great and easy to use tool for getting to know our world together. I think you run into these kinds of problems when you have to guess at what users might do rather than being able to work through actual use cases. With siftr and ARIS, we are often in the case of guessing what people will want to do with tools whose uses we hope to emerge in some sense from the existence of the tool.

So I imagine these kinds of things get better by people like us trying to actually use siftr to make things with each other, finding those rough edges, and documenting them. As Field Day (or someone else) gets a chance to take another pass on UI or the data fields or whatever, if they have these concrete examples in their pockets, it should be easier to find ways to make the tool fit its uses and users better.

Siftr is a great, unique tool that gives more scientists, educators, and communities new ways to send us outside into our worlds to explore and share what we find. The general character of the recent updates is quite encouraging and exciting. I have found that colleagues and acquaintances—from the sciences to the humanities and in-between—find a lot of relevance in what siftr can do, and have an easy time picking up and running with siftr when ARIS seems like too much trouble, and their reasons seem to boil down to a few simple things:

  • Siftr has a tiny learning curve. It takes a few minutes to get fully.
  • Siftr is a simple tool to use. An idea and a minute is all you need to get started.
  • Siftr can support activities without a lot of up front work on the part of the teacher (or other sort of author). The content is created by the mappers by and large, and all they need is enough information to go out and find. You can even imagine that this step is minimal, and the first experience is more on-the-job training than data collection.
  • Because siftr is so cross platform, there are few barriers to entry or how you might use it with a group.

Siftr is often the shortest distance to going outside and exploring our world together instead of learning just from our books individually.

Even for those edge cases that seem to fall outside siftr, I’d recommend creativity. For instance, take the problem of no audio notes in siftr. While it is not a total substitute, in many situations we might be able to dictate to our phones, using their ability to parse spoken language as a way of disintermediating the audio record in cases where analysis really begins once a transcript has been produced.

Try a siftr!

If you’re in the area, I have a few siftrs going, and if not there are a couple others you might want to join.


  • UNM in spring – come with me to document the arrival of springtime on campus in plants, animals and people
  • UNM Space as Play – this is the map of possible game locations and ideas across campus I’m putting together.
  • Goathead – I’m hoping to eradicate some of these nuisance plants from the parts of my world where they are responsible for injuries and flat tires. If you succeed in removing a plant, take aa picture and share it with the rest of us.
  • Zia Catcher – The Zia, that is the Zuni sun symbol, is on the NM state flag, but that’s not all. It’s everywhere around here: shirts, skin, beer cans, everything. I thought it might be fun to mark some of the places we see this adopted (by most) symbol of who and where we are. If you see them outside NM, that would be fine too.


  • Digital graffiti gallery – This predates siftr itself and was my testing ground as siftr came to be and evolved. It was Ivan Kenarov’s project in my local games class in 2010, and is just a fantastic idea that has really stuck around for me and others. I wrote about my continued joy in using this as a lens to explore my community here, and there is a live siftr you can check out and contribute to.

Student-led game talks in spring 2019

I have added a new major assignment to my Games for Change class this semester. I’m asking each student to give a public talk as part of a six-week ongoing series. The idea, while a bit scary, may kill a few birds with the same stone. I thought I’d write about it here in case it helps anyone else who’s hoping to reach out through games in their community, and just to put down my thinking on the experiment.

I have been stymied by how to build more general awareness, in a university, about lessons we might learn from games, from seeing them as having broader cultural implications to the inventive projects that involve games to accomplish something else. I’ve tried to get faculty to play games or to come to events where students show off their games, mostly to little success. More intense collaborations around games, like building Mentira, have been great but because they are so intense are few and far between, especially with intense expectations around production of more traditional scholarship making it hard for people to take a hard left to try something new. I have had more luck with siftr because it is both very simple to pick up and meets outsiders closer to home.

Those who don’t know games already have a rather large set of barriers to overcome: time, skill, intent. Most are simply not going to suddenly decide to put a hundred hours into Civilization or see the hidden depth of Fortnite. But most here are familiar with the notion of giving a talk (so much so that one of the birds I hope to bludgeon is the oral communication requirement for our 300 level courses) and the idea of stopping in to a brown bag for a few minutes to lend an ear to an unfamiliar topic. I especially love this idea because it is a way to put students in the drivers seat and position them as the experts from whom others must learn.

Learning to Talk

Over the last few years, I’ve found ways to spitball this a bit. The Local Games Lab ABQ student group put together a symposium here at UNM for three years in a row. The planning and the speakers were fantastic and diverse, though attendance was—as always here—hard to come by. They also held gaming open houses at both a small informal level and with a big yearly event, El Dia de los Juegos, where they brought in a bunch of commercial and locally developed games and set up an arcade/tradeshow.

dia de los juegos 2016 poster

Last year, I asked a student who was pursuing an independent study around games and storytelling if she were willing to plan a small, multi-speaker event around her topics of interest. She did and it was pretty wonderful. She put out calls for proposals in a few relevant places, from our department to Math to English, organized them into a coherent theme, and planned the event.

Choice in Play Flyer

Flyer from Bibiana Seng’s 2018 Event Choice in Play

I’d like to take this positive energy and turn it into something that’s not necessarily bigger, but more regular, something that emerges from the usual course of our work rather than only being possible through rather extreme dedication. So I’ve taken about a third of my Games for Change course apart, and refocused it on game talks. I’m very excited to see what we can do with this as a shared goal.

Yikes, how do we do this?

At the same time, it is always stressful to work out ideas in and for a public. And I don’t have a background in teaching public speaking. So right now, I’ve made a lot of room in the schedule for practice, feedback, and for learning by watching others. Obviously something like TED provides a lot to learn from that wasn’t there a few years ago when it comes to giving talks. I’ve assigned a series of talks by Hans Rosling because of the arc in his visual style from fancy graphics to physical props. But talks like these are so polished and professional that they may be hard to relate to. And I know we always have to struggle to see form instead of content. Extra Credits has hundreds of examples of what a game-related short talk might try to do, but again, clearly professional in terms of production and the background of the creators. I have been hoping that talks closer to home might be a missing link.

Just today, I found out that our university is hosting the American Indian Studies Association Conference this week. It’s perfect. Issues that are of extreme local importance, and which need new voices to find prominence, including treatment through new media by those closely involved. There’s a scholar and game designer talking about her games: Elizabeth La Pensee. And one of our former students who has gone on to Yale and now Stanford is also speaking. Of course, they are both at the same time and during a double-booked slot in my existing schedule, but that’s about typical. I’ve got to end this post now so that I can push aside other things in our schedule so that at least when students are in my charge, we can attend session or two.


Screenshot from Elizabeth LaPensee’s Thunderbird Strike


If you have any advice or resources that might help us in the quixotic task to increase the level of conversations about games in our community, I’m all ears. If you’d like to hear about pushing things aside to make room for something new, please get in touch.

Come and Check it out

We don’t have a schedule of talks yet, or a venue, but we’ll be speaking Thursdays from March 26 to April 26, somewhere on campus. Let me know if you’d like to be notified about details as they emerge.

LGLABQ at UNM in Spring 2019

Based on a conversation with our resident Vertebrate Paleoecologist about his lab, and in connection with an ongoing effort to set up and keep open a non-disciplinary maker space at UNM (the OILS Learning Lab), I’d like to try something new with the lab hours I put together for the Local Games Lab ABQ this spring. More generally, I’m looking for better ways to build momentum around place, learning, and play, here in ABQ.

LGLABQ Spring 2019 Poster

I’ll be in the OILS lab each Wednesday from 11-12:30, and I’ve set up a schedule of events that cover some of the most vital topics and projects related to games and local place about which I have some understanding and which might prove especially useful as practical introductions to the work, relevant to our likely audiences, from undergraduates looking to do something a bit more real than take classes, to grad students whose research programs may include some design based research, either in the two programs I moonlight in (Educational Linguistics and OILS), or elsewhere on campus, the staff and faculty already working on place and learning, or games, or anything near those areas, who are mostly and usually alone in this work here at UNM.

While some of our weekly events have us playing a game that was made here, or made for another locale, and seeing their projects as a whole, other weeks are specifically set up as training in tools like ARIS or Twine that make making games, specifically place-based ones, easy enough for anyone. A third kind of activity I have planned involves collaboration on the seed of a new idea using siftr, and open workshop time for people to bring in their work and get some hands on time or feedback with some support nearby.

If you’re in the neighborhood, and have an interest, I heartily welcome you to get in touch or simply stop by. Likewise, if you’re making games or learning about them, the whole idea of this lab is to find ways to support these interests in our community. I’d love to know about your projects and goals, and to make more connections around play, place, and learning locally. Maybe we’ll abandon the prepared schedule for something with a larger sense of shared meaning.

ARIS, Twine, and Siftr

Twine is maybe the easiest game design platform out there. When I have my students make games with it, there is no tutorial. It is a very nice way to start telling stories that involve player interaction and may go in more than one direction.

ARIS I’ve written about lots before, but in case you’re coming here from somewhere else, it is an open-source AR game design platform, shepherded primarily by Daivd Gagnon et al. at Field Day Lab in Madison, WI, and that I’ve been involved with for about a decade now since I first started working with Julie Sykes on Mentira. It does a lot of things, but as a first approximation you could do worse than thinking about Pokemon Go or Ingress with their phone-based, GPS gameplay combined with the branching dialogue possible with Twine. ARIS is great for location-based games, where the phone mediates player’s interaction within place more than it sucks players in to the screen. It takes a bit longer to learn than Twine but is very accessible to non-programmers, novices, etc. of all ages. Someday I’ll write about how similar it is to Twine in other ways too.

Siftr is a spin-off of an ARIS feature called the Notebook. It is a collaborative map creator that I’ve written about before, and hope to put to use this semester as the first step in making a silly, largish scale game on campus. It is even easier to use that Twine and should be the goto tool for anyone wanting to explore/document place as a group.


Open Lab

Los Duendes: Folklore in Place

Zimm: Library as a game board

ARIS: Homegrown Augmented Reality

Making games easy: Twine

Siftr: Mapping campus for play

Mapping UNM 2: findings + brainstorm

Gaming campus

Mentira: Spanish Language Mystery

Surviving Alaska: bringing together indigenous and digital contexts in school

‘Analy Nyuwiich: forging partnerships through game design




Hopes for Spring to Come

Anyway, this is my siren call and stake in the ground for the spring. It’s easy to let time slip by because there are other obligations, and without a pressing deadline to compete, too hard to set aside time for the work we really wish we could be doing together.

I know of at least two groups at our university who are working on games right now, and I hope to share them with you soon too. One is a ARIS-based campus tour for new international students. Another is a chemical docking game, in the same genre I guess as Foldit, the well-known protein folding game. This one has an ambitious full freedom control scheme as part of its innovation.

Finally, I have added a new major assignment to my Games for Change class this semester. I’m asking each student to give a public talk as part of a six-week ongoing series. Again, I was goaded into this by our paleontologist, but the idea, while a bit scary, may kill a few birds with the same stone. More about that in a minute.

Please do come join us at the OILS Learning Lab this semester, or if you’re far away, let me know what you’d like to hear about.














Plaques, conversations, and quests oh my!

ARIS is great, but not always straight forward. I forget this since we have grown together over the course of a decade.

In particular, ARIS authors are faced with a bit of difficulty deciding which kinds of “game objects” to use when creating games and other experiences (plaques, conversations, items). A recent post to the forums the questions I’m sure thousands of other authors have faced.

Although the manual and other places do go over technical differences between plaques and conversations, this isn’t helpful enough. So here I’d like to share a bit of practical advice about choosing game objects. 

First, there is no one right answer. ARIS is very flexible, an open ended system for creating augmented reality experiences. Do what seems good to you. Chances are you’ll figure out something I haven’t. 

But, especially for newcomers, it’s nice to have a good place to start.

Start with Plaques

I use plaques until I really need something else. They are the simplest, easiest to create and use objects in ARIS. The way they show up for players in the client is similar to what you see in the editor. And yet plaques are still powerful. Already with plaques you get a deeper interactive system than with other ar tools like Aurasma. 

So what can a plaque do?

At minimum, a plaque presents the player with a title, a bit of media, and some words set below on the screen. 

Intro Plaque from our recent game, Zimm

So 99% of my plaques look like this one above, with an image on top and some text below (there is a bit of HTML to make the big, red font and paragraph spacing). When the player is ready to move on, they tap “continue”. It’s very simple for them and me. 

And within this format, an author can do a lot of storytelling. Plaques can represent turns in a conversation, quests being given, informational plaques, and so much more. The best advice I have for authors is to not let our vocabulary words limit their imaginations when it comes to representational metaphors. 

A plaque’s media need not be an image. A great and also simple use for plaques is to present video (or audio, but it’s clunkier). Putting videos in plaques may help you ditch text all together (note too that video playback in plaques is full screen by default, making them more immersive than videos inserted as character media which are constrained to vertical orientation within the existing conversation window).

What the above plaque looks like in the ARIS editor – don’t worry about code until you’re looking to fancy things up

A third thing plaques can do, and where the simplicity of plaques lets authors quickly make use of advanced interaction in ARIS, is “edit events” (blue button in the screen shot above). To a first approximation, “edit events” allows authors to give and take items to and from the player upon viewing the plaque. Interactions with hit points, keys, money, etc. are quite simple to put together. 

There are far more advanced things you can do with events too, like change the whole game world for all its players (not just each one who encounters the plaque). There are also other places you can use events. But giving and taking items from players is already a lot to play with. And running events from plaques makes their execution simple too. 

Finally, the text field in plaques can accommodate HTML and JavaScript. You can use HTML to customize the presentation of text, bold, italics and so on.

Javascript can be used to do just about anything. In the example above, we use it to make the device vibrate upon opening the plaque. ARIS even has its own JavaScript library and documented examples to do things like present leaderboards or insert the player’s name into text.

Starting with plain text then going to HTML and Javascript, all within the same part of ARIS, a lowly plaque, is an awesome way to start simply and ramp up into complexity. And these skills will transfer to other places too! Most text fields in ARIS have the same power of parsing code, and these languages have a few other uses too. 

Again, my first advice to ARIS authors is to use plaques until you really need something else. They can do so much!

Plaques, triggers, and locks

Another thing authors gain by sticking to plaques early on is learning the other functions of ARIS, especially triggers and locks, in a simpler context.

Triggers – How the real world and game world meet

Plaques (and pretty much everything else) are accessed through triggers. The starting point is to assume that every plaque needs a trigger. The most common kind of trigger is a location. As an author, you would create a location in the real world for your plaque, a place where the player could find it, by creating a location trigger and pointing it at the plaque in question. Until you have a trigger (or some other connection), your plaque exists in the game world but cannot be reached by a player.

Plaque and location trigger – basic mechanic of ARIS

There are many other kinds of triggers too, from QR codes, Bluetooth beacons, timers, and even AR triggers that work by the camera matching a given image to one the author sets. My previous post on the design of Zimm shows a few of these in action and the manual lists them all.

Locks – creating sequence from content

The notion of sequence in ARIS is determined entirely by locks, and this is another area where your initial assumptions may not line up with how ARIS is set up. By default, any trigger (in a scene—until you really get into ARIS, just use a single scene; they are messy) is always available to every player, even if they’ve already seen what’s there. Without locks, the game world is static. This is similar to many tour making apps, like Aurasma.

With locks, you go from tour to game. Real interaction becomes possible. Basically, you put a lock on a trigger by specifying the key that opens the lock, i.e. what the player needs to do or have in order to make the trigger accessible. You can lock triggers you’re done with, open up new triggers as the player progresses, and make triggers conditional upon pretty much any condition ARIS can keep track of. The manual and its tutorials have further details on their use.

Although there are other objects and mechanics for ARIS authors to explore and exploit, in many situations you can use plaques to accomplish the functions of these other, more complicated features. This is a great way to limit the complexity of your learning adn the design you are hoping to realize.

Below, I detail a couple examples of this, why I often use plaques in lieu of quests or conversations, even though I know ARIS quite well.

Plaques instead of quests

The Quests feature in ARIS is quite powerful, and equally complicated. I typically remove that tab from my games. I can accomplish the job (notifying the player of their progress and goals) with plaques and appropriate locks, telling the player at certain times that they should be doing something in particular or relying on them to move forward if the available options give them little choice. Making a few plaques to communicate game state is way easier than figuring out this whole panel:

This takes longer to learn than it looks; quests are complicated-just use plaques!

Plaques instead of conversations 

Authors often have a hard time deciding if/when to use a plaque or conversation. My general rule of thumb is:

Use a conversation if it needs to branch or page. Otherwise use a plaque.

The choices in conversations allow players to take different paths within them, and they also allow you to create a layered experience (page-ing), switching out text and media with each tap by the player. They are the main reasons, I’ll go to the trouble of using a conversation instead of a plaque.

The one other consideration is appearance. Instead of text below an image, conversations fill most of the screen with their image, and layer text over that semitransparently. Conversations need more specific image aspect ratios and the bottom part of the image can’t be important because the player won’t always see it. But they also, in blending visually, look a bit fancier. The text players tap is also customizable in conversations, but not plaques (well, maybe but I haven’t gotten an answer as to how). In a plaque, the player moves forward by tapping “continue” but in conversations you control not only the number of ways to continue but also the text that is used. You can use something like “tell me more…” as a more evocative option, or use other languages aside from localizing everything, even when you don’t need a branching interaction. 

Other ideas?

So that’s a basic rundown of what plaques really can be and why they are a good first choice for beginners and veterans of ARIS alike. If you’ve got other questions about them I’d be happy to hear. Or too, if you have a different set of default design pathways with ARIS.

What other areas can I hope to provide this sort of practical advice in, or otherwise share contexts of AR learning design, not just technical details?

Zimm – AR in the Library (Part 1)

I spend a lot of time thinking about what AR is good for, and mostly this means not just choosing content, but places to augment, and audiences to inhabit that augmented place. Some places feel impossible to play in and others feel like giant piles of potential. Today I want to say a bit about the latter.

The ghostbusters of Zimm

The creators of Zimm –  (Left to right) Chris Holden, Vanessa Svihla, and Yang Liu. Not present Cindy Pierard.

Libraries should be great places for AR games for a wide variety of purposes, and are an especially excellent place to take advantage of the new AR capabilities in ARIS and other platforms. Advances in the context awareness of mobile devices (AR vision, bluetooth beacons) make indoor games suddenly easier to pull off and more fun to play. Last year, I started working with a new colleague, Vanessa Svihla, and together with one of her students, we spent the spring putting together a small game in our own university library. We learned a lot that I hope might help others.

On this blog, I’d like to share a few thoughts about

  • How libraries could be places for playing are games and for constructive, creative work between departments, students, staff, and faculty. A new place for AR and model for collaboration that can open doors.
  • New AR features in ARIS and implications for design of AR games, especially in indoor spaces, and some design considerations for their use.
  • How a diverse group of people can come together around game design and place, and some suggestions for doing this kind of work in a way that is approachable and hopefully sustainable.
  • The pervasive nature of place. How we can use game design and play to engage with the places we live and work.

I’ve split this conversation into a few parts. If you’re coming to AR from far away, or just Pokemon Go, these articles might help you see the depth of purpose I and others have found in this work. There’s also a lot more on this very blog.

If you’d like to know more about Zimm itself, here’s a bit of basic info. If you’re in the area and would like to give the game a go, get in touch.

Intro Plaque from Zimm

Here, in Part 1 – Why Libraries, I lay out the basic reasons why I think libraries and AR could be like chocolate and peanut butter.

Part 1 – Why libraries?

Libraries are great places for so many reasons. They will likely play new and important roles in education and communities in the near future, and if you haven’t looked in a while, they already are. Precisely because “a place to find dead trees and ink” seems anachronistic now, libraries are confronting the future generally in more direct and creative ways on the whole than school. They are also very interesting to begin with and some of the only remaining public spaces in America, places to go and be and meet without needing to have a shopping agenda. Libraries provide diverse and deep resources, not just books and quiet. They are jumping off points for many journeys, from wizarding worlds, to job applications, to organizing community action. And while libraries are not playgrounds, places for yelling and jumping generally, they may be excellent places in which to structure other sorts of play. Each book is a world between covers, waiting to be discovered and shared. And even as the dead trees dwindle a bit, this basic ethos seems to pervade much of what a library might offer. I’ve felt it in every conversation I’ve had with a librarian over the last decade. They’re excited for the future and working hard to provide open doors that beckon in new ways.

the doctor

A third of a controversial mural in Zimmerman Library at UNM. It’s racist content set the stage for our design

This setting is an excellent place for AR especially. The chief strength of AR is to help people explore worlds hidden in plain sight. It could easily serve their roles as centers of discovery.

And as we focus on libraries, let’s keep these goals lofty. Too often, we tend to get a bit too sidetracked by solving logistical problems for patrons in the most basic sense. I’ve seen a host of AR projects set in libraries whose sole objective was to simplify the finding of a correct call number in the stacks. Sure, the sorting system (whether Dewey or LoC) is a barrier to outsiders finding what they need, but the real barriers to participation in a library space are largely psychic.

This mirrors a lot of problems with learning where we focus on the mechanics of knowledge uptake in a very general way, not realizing that most problems really stem from a lack of care and familiarity, feeling like the learning places are where you can become something great.

So as we look at libraries for AR and other games, let’s see our design challenge as a need to realize the potential for exploration there. If the imagination is there, navigating call numbers might be more of a quest to complete, or a puzzle mechanic, not just a simple navigation UI concern. We should begin to think in terms of long lost treasure maps as much as an efficient system for locating a desired title.

We should remember that there’s more to finding your way than being able to locate a spot in the stacks.

Libraries are partly specific and partly generic

One of the problems faced by place-based AR projects is that the design feels too parochial, hard to pass on to others in new places. Libraries offer some help. Libraries today are large, varied, mostly indoor spaces. Stacks are just the beginning. And unlike a lot of the unique settings for AR (say a specific neighborhood in Albuquerque), libraries exhibit both the universal and local. No other library is quite like yours, but there are a lot of similarities across most, both in what you’ll find and how the space is organized. AR design work done in a particular library has potential to be easier to localize to other places and settings.


This exact mural isn’t in your library, but incidental art is commonplace. Our use of it in Zimm is easy to pass on.

Libraries also have potential as a sort of neutral ground, a place not controlled entirely by a single interest, use, or age group. Such neutrality can be hard to find in schools, but it is badly needed now, as we realize our divisions among job descriptions, disciplines, and function prevent us from addressing the educational needs of this century. We are bound within our roles, timetables, and departments, and libraries may give us some of the space we need to collaborate in more meaningful ways to supercharge learning beyond the ordinary.

As usual, what should be a simple blog post about a cool idea to make games in the library turns—for me—into a polemic on structural issues in education. So rather than going too far down that road, I’ll just list a couple reasons this stuff matters.

  1. Agency for all. Staff have power here along with faculty. And students can easily be welcomed as co-owners of action and planning in a way that is just not possible in other areas. This neutrality is hugely important for empowering all stakeholders, a goal often missing from educational design and reform efforts, whose inclusion should be important as a basic humanistic principle of this work we call education.
  2. Scale. It has been maybe the chief difficulty of educational innovation. How to spread ideas beyond their original contexts? Usually, and this is not a good approach, just convenient in a world of mass media, we put the idea in a box and send it off, excluding of the needs and expression of interest of multiple stakeholders in the new spaces. All stakeholders interests and needs need to be addressed, not just what those at the top demand of those below them. The internet affords new forms of growth in partnership—grassroots, non-hierarchical—that we hope to use as better routes to scale.
  3. Sustainability. If an important project depends on the drive of a single person and their incentives, what happens when that person takes another job or decides it is not worth the trouble to keep pushing that stone uphill. Including others meaningfully is the first step in creating something that is more like an aspect of the ecosystem instead of just a pet project.

Not every single experiment needs to tackle these beasts head on, but work done without a consideration of how it leads into their toothy jaws and back out again is doomed from the start. If you’re new to this topic of conversation, I’d recommend reading Seymour Papert’s The Children’s Machine. It was written in 1993, a decade after his (and others’) groundbreaking Logo software was introduced to school, alongside computer hardware, with the idea that they would revolutionize education in schools. They didn’t and Papert has some cogent and timeless thoughts about why not.

Zimm – Parts 2-?

So that’s why libraries, structurally, might be good places to make AR games. Next, in Part 2, I’ll mention a few ways that the affordances of AR match the constraints of the space and where some apparent possibilities for design lie. We’ll look at some of the features of the game we made at Zimmermann (it’s called Zimm) and what we learned about the realities of making games in libraries. It’s also a good chance to look at some of the newer AR mechanics available in ARIS.

In Part 3, I’ll go through some of the practical logistics of this work, how a group of people can come together around the idea of making a game in a library, learn to work together, set appropriate expectations, and use this work as a way to grow closer together and understand your common cause as well as the burgeoning art of AR design. Usually, we spend a lot of time with AR talking about mechanics of the software, but not the groupings of people who will make these games. The latter is hugely important if this work is going to go anywhere in the end and remain a vernacular rather than a license we buy into.

If I get to Part 4, there’s one other issue that came up with Zimm that feels central to me when it comes to making sure we do the best work we can with AR. Place. Place is always important and more than location. Even when you don’t plan for it, it intrudes. Instead of seeing it as an unwanted variance, we can listen to it to do educational work that is more vital and relevant to the lives of those who participate in our experiments.

I’d love it if these articles, or just their titles, got someone else excited about making games in libraries, and not just to find call numbers. Once we have a few people experimenting in the area, the real interesting conversations can begin.