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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Prof. Terri Nelson’s Paris Occupé

Terri Nelson, a professor at California State at San Bernardino and long time ARIS user gave a close look at her ARIS game, Paris Occupy for a COERLL (Center for Open Resources for Educational Language Learning) webinar.

I saw her talk about her game at CALICO last May. I and every one else was on the edge of their seat for the whole hour. It’s a rare and special treat to hear someone talk in depth about their design from both the game maker and pedagogical points of view. You can learn a lot about the potentials of AR games, language learning, and also the triangulation of needs that can happen through the design of game-based learning environments.

It’s great talk and I’m really glad they recorded it and put it out there for us. It’s also a pretty deep game. She is one of very few people who have used the weight feature for example.

Minimize Clutter While Notebooking with ARIS

ARIS is most often used to author content for players to experience. But it also holds functionality for you to send players out to experience the world and share what they find with each other and you. This can be data collection, photo mapping, etc. The Notebook allows players to record geolocated media (video, audio, photo, text) and together to build a collaborative record of their explorations. This functionality has broad potential and combining data collection features with the other affordances of ARIS (making games, telling stories, etc.) is a truly unique thing. Being able to richly establish a context for those who you are sending out to do the collecting is a fantastic opportunity.

Buuuuut, if you’ve actually used the ARIS Notebook, if you really had people go out there and collect some pictures, etc. then you know that clutter is a problem, especially when there is a good deal of non-Notebook content you need players to see. After a bit, the map just looks like a mess.

Notebook Clutter in Chrono Ops

In ChronoOps, by the 503 Design Collective, notes left by players obscure the map and authored content.

Clutter exists because every note is marked on the game map for all players. This can be useful for viewing notes later, but it can really get in the way too. ARIS will continue to evolve, so this clutter may eventually be less of a problem. But there are some things that you can do right now as an author to clean things up for your players. Continue reading