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.



Emotionally compelling AR Views

Despite being an author and promoter of “augmented reality” games for more than a decade now, a dedicated enthusiast if you will, I find that what gets shown off most often as augmented reality in the end seems like a boring gimmick. This is disappointing in some ways (not all—experimenting in a medium has its own value). But even though this is what I see peddled around, I don’t think it has to be that way. What most tech enthusiasts and bystanders understand AR to be could become something more alive. And I have some ideas about how to get there.

Update – I added a section at the end clarifying where inspiring work in AR can be found. There’s lots out there but you need to be looking for it.

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Which iPads should I get for ARIS at my school/research program/community center?

Recently a colleague was setting up a new research program to do ARIS and other mobile stuff. She wanted to know what iPads (and other stuff) to get. Logistics like these frequently change and it can be tough to keep up.

Here’s my advice, current in February, 2017, for iDevices to get to use ARIS or other mobile software with students, museum patrons, or other similar populations.

  • iPad Mini 4, T-mobile cellular, 16GB, refurbished

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Another Awesomenauts – Making a game with a close friend

Another Awesomenauts Game Title

I haven’t had much chance to make games lately. Lots of leading design jams and student work, but not a project where we make a game and play it. A game we spend some time and energy on, where we try to realize a singular vision. Not in a while. But this last year, in my spare time on weekends and such, I found myself lucky enough to work on a new game. A couple weeks ago, we finished a 1.0 and ran it up the flagpole. It was exhilarating. It felt great to see it come to fruition and put it through its paces. I’d like to tell you a little about this project and where we might start to look for learning and games to come together in ways that can lead far.

My design partner’s name is Alex, he’s 5, and he’s my oldest son. Our game is called Another Awesomenauts.

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Today’s Meet – A Disposable Backchannel

This morning, I discovered a tool that may be of use to many of you out there, Today’s Meet. There are many ways to use this tool, but you can start out thinking about it as a disposable back channel. You can create a space for back and forth dialogue, short entries using the same 140 character count as Twitter. This space is not connected to anything else, but is accessible via URL, QR Code, and embedding. Each participant creates their own nickname in each “room”, allowing for anonymous or pseudonymous contributions. And the room self destructs after a certain amount of time (you specify). You can use Today’s Meet without signing in at all, but if you create an account, you get additional controls. If you pay ($5/month) you can get even more customization and features sold under “Teacher Tools”.


I’ve heard of many teachers conducting class on Twitter, hoping to introduce students both to the format of short online conversations and microblogging, and also the idea of being part of a bigger world. But Twitter really is the deep end. Not only is it a tool whose use is idiosyncratic and hard to pick up, there are real dangers there too. Most of the Twitter-linked pedagogy I’ve heard of really doesn’t intend to go this deep into what Twitter is, or how your presence there is a part of your public identity. Gamergate in particular revealed to me the dangers lurking there and really made me think twice about pushing students to work publicly by default.

I like the idea of introducing students to a modern writing and reading experience, but outside some real time and effort to devote to Twitter itself (and maybe some anti-litigation waivers to sign) I have wondered if I and my students might be better served by a mechanically similar but socially distinct tool. Today’s Meet seems like a good match to me.

Coming from another angle, as a teacher whose classes revolve around discussion, Today’s Meet has another appeal. In fact, this is how I came across it today. I’m reading a book about strategies for good discussions, The Discussion Book: 50 Great Ways to Get People Talking, by Brookfield and Preskill (2015). Using Today’s Meet is #5 (I’ll let you know a bit later if I’d recommend the book, so far so good). Upon seeing this tool, I had to take a break to try it out, and then write you.

One problem with discussions, well at least one problem I have in running a course with discussions at the center, is the sense that they are ephemeral, and since nothing concrete is produced, worthless. A lecture produces notes of facts, methods, etc. to be studied and recalled later, while our discussions are, in practice, not often used for reflective purposes later on. This shouldn’t be the case, but it is a bit out of the status quo for high-achieving college students to take notes about things that actually interest them and that they may want to think about again later, especially if all the ideas and examples are being generated by the rabble instead of the one with the PhD. My hope is that using Today’s Meet can help me and my students to produce something concrete to which we might return later, and to spice up our discussions in other ways too.

Even though we have other tools for collaborative discussion and development, adoption and use to this end—strengthening discussions—have not been strong. Google docs, sheets, and Slack channels are the ones I use most as they are essential to other parts of my classroom workflow. Students tend to see their participation in these spaces like this: totally formal aspects of their record of student achievement. Spontaneity, tentativeness, and separating what you say from who you are supposed to be don’t come easily. Because they are supposed to be saved, turned in, etc. these forms have not been properly improvisational as much as I would have liked. Too serious to use for making a small, offhand note. Perhaps I can present Today’s Meet as something a bit different. And that’s before we get to the fun of nicknames.

One more reason Today’s Meet excites me, and the reason I wanted to tell readers of this blog in particular about it, is that the simplicity and spareness of the tool makes it ripe for inclusion in bricolages built from multiple tools and mutation to other ends, maybe even for something its creators may not have imagined.

You can hack with this tool.

For instance, maybe you could incorporate a room from Today’s Meet into an ARIS game as a “webpage” object. Since a user does not need to log in, and since the room’s UI itself is so basic, it would not be too clunky to combine. And the QR code access option, just as is the case with ARIS, leads one to think about the coordination of an online discussion with places in the physical world.

As you consider this tool for use in your circumstances, think especially about how you might want to interpret the “nickname” feature. The authors of the discussion book think of it as a way to make it possible to discuss controversial topics without fear of recrimination or the bias of knowing who is speaking, but it also has tremendous creative potential.

One of the more salient features that games and learning folks have latched onto this last decade and a half is the ability for a game to let you be someone else. That person can be someone you invent or someone who is given to you, a shell you inhabit. Considering your actions and choices from the perspective of the character you inhabit can provide insight into many aspects of the human condition. Perhaps, some of this can be done with something as simple as a handle and a room to write in.

I’m excited about Today’s Meet because it fills some of the same types of needs the other tools I love, like ARIS, do.

  • It is simple to get started with.
  • It allows me to harness the power of connected computing.
  • It is underdetermined, so that I can think creatively about how to use it.
  • It is general enough to be broadly applicable.
  • It is small enough and not walled off: I can incorporate it with with other work and tools.
  • Let’s not forget, it’s free for me and everyone else to get started with.
  • If I need more, and am able/willing to pay, it is not a big wall facing me. The premium features are friendly to an individual consumer, not just institutions.