Mapping Report

Blast Theory, mapping Uncle Roy All Around You by mapit

Used kit: Media Arts Practice

Project: Uncle Roy All Around You
Organisation: Blast Theory
Moderator: Liesbeth Huybrechts, Priscilla Machils, Annet Dekker (Virtueel Platform)
Date: 05/12/2009

Blast Theory is an art collective situated in Brighton which creates artistic games and performances that question the social and cultural implications of mobile and ubiquitous media. The group is known in the media art and performance scene for systematically engaging different disciplines and the public in their projects. For more information, see:

For this mapping, the moderators used chalk paper which allowed the participants to still see the writings and icons on the first sheet of chalk paper while other sheets were put on top of it. The group explained the icons – also printed on chalk paper – to the participants. Because of the size of the project, the moderators did not find the time to include the usage of ‘bombs’ and ‘locks’ in the mapping set to question the process in the end.

First, the participants talked about the internal composition of the team. Matt Adams appeared to be the person who directs and writes the bigger picture, the vision and translates that into networks with partners. Ju Row Farr, Adam's partner in Blast Theory and in personal life, translates that into concrete steps. The third partner in Blast Theory is Nick Tandavanitj, who is the technical brain of the three, since he especially enjoys playing around with materials and software. At the time of the project, Catherine Williams did the fund raising, marketing and negotiated relationships with the artistic partners. Helen Kirlew was the administrative and financial director.

The participants also discussed the funding (and the partners) of the project. For 25.000£, "Uncle Roy” was funded by the "Arts Council of England". It was mainly the result of a collaboration between the scientific "Mixed Reality Lab" (MRL) and "Blast Theory". People involved in MRL were Steven Benford, Martin Flintham, Rob Anastasi and Chris Greenhalgh. Steve invited "Blast Theory" to become partner in the "Equator" project: a six-year "Interdisciplinary Research Collaboration" (IRC) on how ubiquitous computing could mix up the relations between real and the virtual. The "Equator" collaboration was supported by the "Engineering and Physical Science’s research council" (EPSRC), which is the science academic funding body in the UK. This project had many partners, such as the "Royal College of Arts", "the University College London" (UCL) and "British Telecomm". "Blast Theory's" work package in the "Equator" consortium was called "Citywide" (the official title of "Uncle Roy") and had the explicit goal to allow artists to research the functions of ubiquitous computing in the city. Due to the lack of reputation of the group they did not participate in the financial benefits from the start. Nevertheless, "Blast Theory" perceived the collaboration in "Equator" as an opportunity, since it allowed them to situate their work in broader questions about the impact of ubiquitous computing. In June 2002, the group got 46,800£ from the "Arts and Humanities Research Board" (AHRB, which was called London Art Board). They also applied for 35, 000£ from the "Art Fund" and received this in October 2002. After a while, when they gained more credits in the art world, "Blast Theory" managed to get financial support through the "Equator" fund itself. For "Uncle Roy", they also tried to get sponsorship from Hewlett and Packard, Hutchison, Mini, Motorola, Hutu, Orange, PNC Telecom, T-Mobile and Vodafone but didn’t get anything.

Another subject the participants discussed was the experimentation and prototyping that took place during the project. The project group experimented with a curtain of sprayed water on which digital images are projected. This first experiment triggered the group's collaboration with the MRL and was used in another work called “Desert Rain”.

Blast Theory also actually constructed and dressed Uncle Roy’s office: the desk, chair, paint, lamp, ... They experimented with where the player was sitting and with her/his relation to the online players. They prototyped the online world as well: the outside of the office, for the online player, became a glowing, highlighted sphere in the virtual world. The interior of the office was filmed through a webcam so the online player could watch the street player.

Because of the locative character of the group's works, maps were an important way of creating participation in this context. There were four different kinds: a paper one, a map to mediate the working relation between engineers and non engineers, a 3D map connecting online with street players and the city and a mobile map relating online with street players and the city. Around March 2003, one of the most powerful tools to translat location based design decisions into technical code was created, to make the communication between Blast Theory and the more technical MRL more fluent. Martin created colour maps to visualise technical code, necessary to link digital content to the location. While it remains a mathematical system, the ability of designers or non-experts to author and update is dramatically changed by this approach. A PhD at the MRL transformed it further into a tool that could work for the authoring of any kind of location-based experience.

Blast Theory also made a video collage for Uncle Roy, called Spooky, presenting two nodes and intermixing them: the 'avatar as a ghost' and the 'idea of the virtual as an invisible world, existing around a real world'. This is a three minute cut-up of different films which all provide reference points for the city, ghosts, surveillance and the paranormal. The project group used this collage in the Equator meeting the 21st of March, 2001 to show the possibilities of a hybridity of events in a mobile game. The collage initiated participation, because the technical, social,...  partners could vividly imagine how the ideas of Blast Theory could be technically, socially,... translated.

Further, in order to fix the nodes, they scribble in private notebooks and on bits of paper. Things that are important are distilled, typed and digitally shared. This enables the whole group to have equal access to the work, in a mobile way. Whiteboards are used as a shared interface, a collaborative and collective space, “a good Google wave”, retaining and representing the complex interactions. The advantage of the whiteboard is that it has the fluidity to take a photo of it, wipe it clean and rebuild the story on a white back ground the day after. The photos that the group collect of the process of creating and playing, function as the memory of the project.

Blast Theory also did several role plays during the creation process as well. Iterative trials were done, like theatre performances with different groups of people, to experiment with the politics of interaction – and especially questions of identity, trust and agency - in the creation process and questioning the so-called emancipated person in the mobile web. These role-played relations gained depth via a residency at the Banff Centre in a small mountain town in Canada, April 2002. Here Blast Theory did a series of exercises that had a big impact on the development of Uncle Roy. Ju made a questionnaire for the group, exploring the politics and feelings of comfort of inhabiting the street and the city. All of the group members did this interview and it appeared that they shared a common sense of fear about being detached from the spaces that they regularly walk through. Ju also did an in depth interview, using the same questions, with a person performing a “marginal practice”. This person was Jo Going, a New York artist who lives in Alaska – deliberately four hours away from other people - for 20 years by herself and having no living relatives, claiming to have no fear and no sense of loneliness. From these interviews, Ju uncovered detailed tactics, varying in where and how people related themselves to surrounding space and other people and objects. The tactics included how they walked, how close to the building, where they looked, their awareness of people on the street, how they put their arms, how they dealt with safety, how they sat on the bus to decrease their vulnerability. Blast Theory prototyped the technology in in close relation to the very different ways in which people experience the street.

Based on the test maps and trials Blast Theory made a test description with the University College London (UCL) to be more specific to the programmers of the MRL about the scenario. Because of the complexity of Uncle Roy, with different kinds of partners, there exist 9 written descriptions of the work. Some are applications, others are documents that keep collaborators informed (most documents are dated from March and April 2003).

Creating these hybrid relations between people, objects and spaces demands a lot of translating in the form of low-tech diagrams, system architectures of boxes and lines. They glue hybrid information zones together in a high-tech way via orchestration software into hybrid relations. Quip is a software architecture developed by the University of Nottingham. Chris was the key architect and Martin was the designer. It directs the play between online and physical players on a matrix. (e.g. what happens if there’s only one person on the street and 100 people online or what if 25 people are on the street and only 1 person is online?). When Can You See me Now? was performed again in 2003 in Rotterdam, DEAF, they tested the technical development of this orchestration infrastructure, incorporating all platforms they were using for Uncle Roy.

Further, the group got interested in working with a lighter instrument like GPS (with an interesting relation to military history). They researched this device in a series of workshops with MRL around location and mobility. The GPS interface experiments by MRL and Blast Theory, led to the most embryonic building blocks of Can You See me Now? (premiere in December 2001) and Uncle Roy. After a series of workshops in London, they realised that GPS was too expensive and the results were too much out of range. In the Bystander workshop in 2002 they experimented with video as a locator medium. Since the video did not appear the right solution, they got a new idea to that led to one of the most important decisions and technical investigations of Uncle Roy All Around You, namely the choice for self-reported positioning, instead of GPS. At DEAF festival, Rotterdam, Blast Theory builds an application that used Flash SS Pro, which is similar to a pocket PC application which would allow people to run a Flash movie full-screen. The first design of the PDA interface in April 2003 was a photoshop document that visualised the functionality. To design the self-reported relation between the public and the surrounding space, Jon was working about a month on a navigational ring, like a compass. The navigational ring was tested several times, but in the end they kept it simple, namely a PDA with a small part of the map visible on it, with in the middle an icon that says “me”.

Finally, the participants discussed the closure and evaluation of the project.“Uncle Roy” was one of the group's favourite performances, but they didn't perform it again after the third version, because of the complexity, costs and the risk of loosing the real connection to the city. The project led to a lot of new opportunities for Blast theory in large research consortia. Blast Theory may have been a small segment in Equator, but became one of the biggest outputs. The EPRC reviewers appreciated its innovative quality, public dissemination, engagement with science, technological drivers and research papers. There were a lot of evaluation mechanisms, often via quite standard user centred and interface design methods, present in the process. The interviews informed the design quite early in the process. Based on that, the makers role played the public. In earlier stages, there was a possibility to demo the mobile interfaces, without relying on back-end, via faking messages. There appeared to be some hidden panel at the bottom of the devices that could be opened via a secret button. The “real” public tested the overall experience in the end. In Uncle Roy the street and online players were tested separately three or four weeks before the release, since they are not very dependent. These user tests led to improvements of the interfaces, bug fixing, the structure of the experience.

Text by Liesbeth Huybrechts