99% Invisible – Fodder for community investigations and AR game design

So a couple weeks ago my wife said we should try listening to this new podcast she heard about. 99% Invisible, hosted by Roman Mars. Not only was it interesting and made the long hours down to the Gila short, but I quickly realized it should be required listening for my Local Games in ABQ students should I teach that class again. I also began thinking about how it might serve as the starting point for place-based investigations through ARIS or other tools, collectively across the world.

The title – 99% Invisible – encapsulates neatly what I think AR and mobile have to add to teaching and learning. Most of our world is actually invisible to most who live in it. Learning means gaining new perspectives and information that allow one to see and act on the world in new ways. But it’s not just the title that inspires me.

A short review

Each episode is a short (~4 to 20 min.) engaging story about a particular place, building, or issue, like how skaters see the world (episode 71 – In and Out of LOVE). Mr. Mars has a good feel for mixing the general and particular, so that each episode tells an interesting story that one can engage with on a human level, but that makes one think broadly too.

In the case of the skater episode, he describes the visual perspective of built environments particular to skaters and their conflict with the powers that be over the use of public space.  This theme is at hand for me because of my history and where I live and work. It is something I already reference frequently in describing the possibility of augmented reality to uncover what’s invisible in our world, but he said it better than I have, and also taught me things I didn’t know. Kevin Bacon’s dad is a rather famous architect and he designed Love Park in Philadelphia which became a truly famous skate spot. He saw skaters’ use of the park as something awesome and validating of his intent as an architect. I teared up listening to his skate-protest of the re-fitting of the park to be less friendly to skaters, from a documentary excerpted in the episode.

Even though the podcast focuses mostly on buildings and goings on in the Bay Area, each episode makes me want to find out new things in my own community. There is always a theme that evokes what needs to be said and found out where I live. These stories are begging me to make the transition from hearing about something to starting independent investigations.

Connection to teaching and learning about place

Not only am I personally inspired, but these stories have pedagogical value because they feel like easy on-ramps to the investigation of place. I imagine students listening to one, then either deriving questions together, or following pre-figured prompts, to find out more about the issue at hand and dive into the worlds in which they live. Certainly one of the obstacles I’ve faced thus far as a teacher (and challenges worth facing) is orienting students to open-ended work. And this podcast seems like a possible catalyst.

Some other good points

  • On the 99% Invisible website, they have supplemental information for each of their stories.
  • There are already 81 episodes. A lot of themes to pick and choose from. Maybe the teacher doesn’t even have to do the picking. That way there are many paths to success without having to invent every branch.
  • They are well-produced pieces of media. A good example when it comes to design or if students are interested in producing radio.
  • Interesting and relevant people are interviewed for the episodes. Not just good for listening but for instructing the process of diving into the community.
  • Did I mention they are short? I think my students might actually listen to them.

Collective Action through “game” design

Rather than going off on my own and  just trying something out with my students, I want to take a different approach. I want to make something for everyone to use. And though there’s no reason such investigations need be limited to a mobile game platform, I have a few reasons for wanting at least a part of that to be through the use of a mobile tool like ARIS. Most stem from mobile’s ability to connect investigators across time and space. Among them

  • Better data – the possibility of collecting diverse information about a theme across a variety of perspectives and locations.
  • Curation and collection – analysis and perhaps action are more possible and meaningful when working from more data. New questions are capable of having meaningful answers.
  • Interest – The idea that someone on the other side of the world might be undertaking this same investigation and you would see each others’ collections is justifiably interesting.
  • Scale – Inherent in the entire ARIS project, and much more broadly in digital technology and open source, is the sense that I can put something out there and if it interests others, they can just take it and start using it, modify it, and share back. This is how technology can accelerate learning.

And apparently that ‘s where I’m stuck. What makes it hard to go further with what feels like a very good idea?

  • Wanting to do justice to the entire series, not just one episode.
  • Wanting to cram the wholeness of all possible place based investigations that could emerge from each story into a limited interactive system like an ARIS game.
  • Wanting to find good “game mechanics” to give investigators helpful and automated feedback and guidance that is meaningful in relation to the actual theme at hand and not cheap “gamification” or “grading”.

The first two seem like pretty obvious things to avoid as design parameters, and the third might prove to be difficult. They are not easy criteria to dismiss all the same.

There’s also the fact that no one has yet made in ARIS a distributed collection activity that has flourished among a broad user base. Sure, hundreds of people have fired up Rupee Collector, but Jim Mathews Soundscapes has had very few players, and ditto with Shadow Capture. Even the well-known Digital Graffiti Gallery, while fun, never amassed a large number of players or has yet resulted in interest enough to develop a working imitator since the advent of the Notebook (ARIS 1.6) took the original offline.

If I hurry, I could have something to try during GLS. Anyone have any ideas?

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