Strategy Bot: An Experiment in Social A.I.

In this post I’ll introduce you to my new pet project: an experiment in Twitter automation. The Strategy Bot (pictured) is ‘programmed’ to select & retweet key digital media resources, case studies or news items that provoke a higher understanding of the formation of good digital strategy.

Strategy Bot
He thinks, therefore he tweets.

Some context… I will typically have the odd side project on the go at any one time. Recent examples have included:

  • Recategorising all my RSS feeds for mobile, web & iPad
  • Linking up Instapaper / ReaditLater / Pinboard & Twitter
  • Testing Facebook ads to see if I can drive Twitter followers
  • Playing with XFBML, the new Follow button and Google +1
  • Sketching people’s Twitter avatars with my new stylus

All of the above would be worthy of a blog post, and that might happen for a couple of them, but there’s been one project I’ve been thinking about for a while that I reckon just needs to be shared, because, dear reader, I need your help!

I’ve been interested in getting the most out of Twitter for a while, and I’ve been certain there is some utility among the network’s parasites: the lowly twitterbot. I’d love to perform an autopsy on one to see how they really work, as there are some excellent cases of these automata being actually quite useful or cool. For example:

  • Spotibot – @replies suggested music based on your requests
  • Wikipediabot – random links to Wikipedia pages every hour
  • Easy Joke – RT’s with “that’s what she said” on certain phrases

There are loads more listed on the Twitter Fan Wiki, and of course there are millions of spambots that behave in similar ways. But I wanted to make something that would be primarily useful to me, and that others might enjoy too.

The idea arose from the need to detect, share and archive truly excellent links, without cluttering my personal Twitter feed. Did you know you can automatically add Twitter links to Pinboard for archiving? It’s a bloody useful way to passively log the stuff that’s held your attention. And did you know you can create a self-hosted archive of all your tweets? I use Tweetnest to this end, where I’ve been logging my personal tweets here. Try searching for something!

Mr. Strategy Bot is just another way to add useful stuff to my own personal content library. But throughout the course of his life, I’d like him to be useful to everyone. Or at least, everyone that works in digital media (you gotta have a niche). So how should I automate him to this end?

In my attempts to pin down what makes these robots work, I found a number of approaches, typically making use of Twitterfeed (a pretty blunt RSS syndication tool) or the Twitter API (way over my head). I needed something that would let me ‘scrape’ the top links from a list of Twitter users, and automatically RT the top five links.

I have totally failed in my attempts, even after a whole evening spent in the depths of Yahoo! Pipes. For now, I’ve had to settle on the manual way. Yep, I’m manually RT’ing the links until I find a better solution, five a day, with a bit of prose each time to help round out his character.

I will continue to research means of automating his behaviour, as I think the idea of one’s own personal virtual pet social robot is a really powerful idea. Wouldn’t you agree?

[box]Please leave a comment if you can help create virtual life! Let’s give this guy his own A.I. existence out in the digital ether.[/box]

In the meantime, you should follow him on Twitter here.
He’s programmed to follow back!

The Subscription Options Plugin

My aim is to make my views on Digital Media, Branding and Emergent Technologies as accessible as possible not only to industry types, but to the blog-scouring early-adopting masses. My ongoing series on Augmented Reality has been relatively successful in boosting both the visitation and the subscribership of this blog.

Aside from the content I’ve written this month (May 2009 has been my most prolific since this blog’s inception) I have also started an SEO and social media strategy to extend the reach of the content I write here. I’ll share details later…

Anyway, the key element I want to tell you about in this post is my third strategy to make Digital Cortex portable to readers. I’ve started to provide readers with a range of subscription options, since the most common way for readers to subscribe to any blog and its content are through RSS, Email or Twitter. That’s when I came up with my brand new WordPress plugin.

I realised that my subscription solution might be useful to others also looking to grow their subscribership, so I created this:

The Subscription Options Plugin

This is how your subscriptions could look if you use my plugin.

I’ve turned my HTML code into a PHP-based plugin for all WordPress users that has the exact effect I aimed to achieve – to look good on a page, and for blog readers to easily grasp what each icon stood for.

Once installed it can be placed in any widget-ready area, allowing users to link to their various subscription options with ease.

PLEASE CLICK HERE FOR FULL PLUGIN DETAILS

What is AR and What is it Capable Of?

Presently, most AR research is concerned with live video imagery and it’s processing, which allows the addition of live-rendered 3D digital images. This new augmented reality is viewable through a suitably equipped device, which incorporates a camera, a screen and a CPU capable of running specially developed software. This software is written by specialist software programmers, with knowledge of optics, 3D-image rendering, screen design and human interfaces. The work is time consuming and difficult, but since there is little competition in this field, the rare breakthroughs that do occur are as a result of capital investment: something not willingly given to developers of such a nascent technology.

What is exciting about AR research is that once the work is done, its potential is immediately seen, since in essence it is a very simple concept. All that is required from the user is their AR device and a real world target. The target is an object in the real world environment that the software is trained to identify. Typically, these are specially designed black and white cards known as markers:

An AR marker, this one relates to a 3D model of Doctor Who's Tardis in Gameware's HARVEE kit
An AR marker, this one relates to a 3D model of Doctor Who's Tardis in Gameware's HARVEE kit

These assist the recognition software in judging viewing altitude, distance and angle. Upon identification of a marker, the software will project or superimpose a virtual object or graphical overlay above the target, which becomes viewable on the screen of the AR device. As the device moves, the digital object orients in relation to the target in real-time:

armarker2
Augmented Reality in action, multiple markers in use on the HARVEE system on a Nokia N73

The goal of some AR research is to free devices from markers, to teach AR devices to make judgements about spatial movements without fixed reference points. This is the cutting edge of AR research: markerless tracking. Most contemporary research, however, uses either marker-based or GPS information to process an environment.

Marker-based tracking is suited to local AR on a small scale, such as the Invisible Train Project (Wagner et al., 2005) in which players collaboratively keep virtual trains from colliding on a real world toy train track, making changes using their touch-screen handheld computers:

crw_80271
The Invisible Train Project (Wagner et al., 2005)

GPS tracking is best applied to large scale AR projects, such as ARQuake (Thomas et al, 2000), which exploits a scale virtual model of the University of Adelaide and a modified Quake engine to place on-campus players into a ‘first-person-shooter’. This application employs use of a headset, wearable computer, and a digital compass, which offer the effect that enemies appear to walk the corridors and ‘hide’ around corners. Players shoot with a motion-sensing arcade gun, but the overall effect is quite crude:

100-0007_img_21
ARQuake (Thomas et al, 2000)

More data input would make the game run smoother and would provide a more immersive player experience. The best applications of AR will exploit multiple data inputs, so that large-scale applications might have the precision of marker-based applications whilst remaining location-aware.

Readers of this blog will be aware that AR’s flexibility as a platform lends applicability to a huge range of fields:

  • Current academic work uses AR to treat neurological conditions: AR-enabled projections have successfully cured cockroach phobia in some patients (Botella et al., 2005);
  • There are a wide range of civic and architectural uses: Roberts et al. (2002) have developed AR software that enables engineers to observe the locations of underground pipes and wires in situ, without the need schematics
  • AR offers a potentially rich resource to the tourism industry: the Virtuoso project (Wagner et al., 2005) is a handheld computer program that guides visitors around an AR enabled gallery, providing additional aural and visual information suited to each artefact;

The first commercial work in the AR space was far more playful, however: AR development in media presentations for television has led to such primetime projects as Time Commanders (Lion TV for BBC2, 2003-2005) in which contestants oversee an AR-enabled battlefield, and strategise to defeat the opposing army, and FightBox (Bomb Productions for BBC2, 2003) in which players build avatars to compete in an AR ‘beat-em-up’ that is filmed in front of a live audience; T-Immersion (2003- ) produce interactive visual installations for theme parks and trade expositions; other work is much more simple, in one case the BBC commissioned an AR remote-control virtual Dalek meant for mobile phones, due for free download from BBC Online:

A Dalek, screenshot taken from HARVEE's development platform (work in progress)
A Dalek, screenshot taken from HARVEE's development platform (work in progress)

The next entry in this series is a case study in AR development. If you haven’t already done so, please follow me on Twitter or grab an RSS feed to be alerted when my series continues.

Wrigley to Launch New 5 Gum in UK

A new gum brand is about to hit the shelves. 5 Gum is designed to ‘stimulate the senses’ and it’s one of the most exciting new brands of the year.
I was lucky enough to get hold of a sample set:

IMG_0558The marketing lifecycle is about to kick off here in the UK with a heavyweight branding campaign designed to encourage product sampling. Let’s look at how the product was launched in the US, taken from the Wrigley corporate site:

  • 2007 In March 2007, Wrigley introduced U.S. consumers to 5, the most exciting development in sugar-free stick gum since the launch of Extra® more than 20 years earlier.
  • 2007 In August 2007, 5 gum unveiled its marketing campaign titled ‘Stimulate Your Senses.’ The advertising spots described “what it feels like to chew 5 gum.” Set against an industrial, futuristic backdrop, the cooling, warming and tingling sensations created by 5 gum flavors Cobalt,
  • Flare and Rain are expressed through dramatically stimulating visuals and sounds. The campaign also strongly leveraged magazine, cinema and online media advertising to showcase our new brand.
  • 2008 In 2008, 5 brand launched two new fruit gum experiences. Lush gum provides a crisp tropical sensation and Elixir gum is a mouthwatering berry sensation.
  • 2009 5 gum takes it to the next level with unique, game-changing flavor experiences. Solstice, a warm and cool winter, and Zing, a sour to sweet bubble, are new-to-world flavor transitioning experiences.

Do check out the 5 Gum YouTube channel for examples of the TV/Cinema creative, but in this post I’d like to review the packaging, which I believe is a point of difference that will give the product luxury status.

So to begin with, we’re starting with an initial three flavours: Cobalt – a cooling peppermint; Electro – a tingling spearmint and Pulse – a crisp tropical. Packs will reportedly go on sale at £1.50 RRP, to reflect that they are a considered rather than impulse purchase.

I’ll be looking at Pulse – the tropical flavour, which comes with little speckles of sharp citric stuff that actually gets your mouth watering when you first start chewing:

IMG_0560Notice how slick the box looks. Think about the colour of the last pack of gum you bought, and now say that 5 doesn’t look cool on this front alone. It does not look clinical like most gums do with their greens, whites and light blues. They look more like smart trading cards or a packet of condoms for that matter – gum for grownups.

IMG_0567It might be hard to tell from the above but the packs are slightly textured, with a heavy feel in the hand like holding a deck of cards. They slide into a back pocket pretty well. Build quality is excellent, made from a thick card and high gloss colour.

IMG_0569OK I admit the above is a shit picture, but it’s just to give you an idea of how you open and close the box. That flap of paper is embossed with glossy material so you can easily slide the box open with your thumb. Very James Bond. A bit like a book of matches, it’s an old school but perma-cool ‘paper technology’.

IMG_0570And there’s the money shot. You would not be ashamed offering someone a piece of this stuff, rather than one of those pocket-lint covered chiclets you have to fight the foil to thumb out. The designs on the inside are different for each flavour. This would be a great place to feature a QR code or even exhibit work from young artists.

And that concludes my short assessment of 5 Gum’s packaging. Look out for the TV, Online and Print creative coming soon. If you can’t wait, 5 have teamed up with Vice Magazine to generate early interest and reach into the difficult to please Hoxtonite crew – more info at Viceland whose readers have been asked to work with band Hot Chip to create a Launch Event in London that will stimulate the senses.

If you would like more of these sorts of reviews from me, please leave a comment. I look forward to hearing your feedback. Happy chewing.

Introduction

Augmented Reality (AR) is a theme of computer research which deals with a combination of real world and computer generated data. AR is just one version of a Mixed Reality (MR) technology, where digital and real elements are mixed to create meaning. In essence AR is any live image that has an overlay of information that augments the meaning of these images.

Digital graphics are commonly put to work in the entertainment industry, and ‘mixing realities’ is a common motif for many of today’s media forms. There are varying degrees to which The Real and The Virtual can be combined. This is illustrated in my Mixed Reality Scale:

mixed-reality-scale
My Mixed Reality Scale, a simplified version of Milgram & Kishino’s (1994) Virtuality Continuum

This is a simplified version of Milgram and Kishino’s (1994) Virtuality Continuum; simplified, because their research is purely scientific, without an explicit interest in media theory or effects, therefore not wholly applicable to my analysis. At the far left of my Mixed Reality Scale lies The Real, or physical, every-day experiential reality. For the longest time we lived solely in this realm. Then, technological innovation gave rise to the cinema, and then television. These media are located one step removed from The Real, a step closer to The Virtual, and can be considered a window on another world. This world is visually similar to our own, a fact exploited by its author to narrate believable, somewhat immersive stories. If willing, the viewer is somewhat ‘removed’ from their grounding here in physical reality, allowing them to participate in the construction of a sculpted, yet static existence. The viewer can only observe this contained reality, and cannot interact with it, a function of the viewing apparatus.

Later advancements in screen media technologies allowed the superimposition of graphical information over moving images. These were the beginnings of AR, whereby most of what is seen is real with some digital elements supplementing the image. Indeed, this simple form of AR is still in wide use today, notably in cases where extra information is required to make sense of a subject. In the case of certain televised sports, for example, a clock and a scoreboard overlay a live football match, which provides additional information that is useful to the viewer. Television viewers are already accustomed to using information that is displayed in this way:

Simple Augmented Reality, televised football matches augment meaning with digital graphics
Simple Augmented Reality, televised football matches augment meaning with digital graphics

More recently, computing and graphical power gave designers the tools to build wholly virtual environments. The Virtual is a graphical representation of raw data, and the furthest removed from physical reality on my Mixed Reality Scale. Here lies the domain of Virtual Reality (VR), a technology that uses no real elements except for the user’s human senses. The user is submersed in a seemingly separate reality, where visual, acoustic and sometimes haptic feedback serve to transpose them into this artificial, yet highly immersive space. Notice the shift from viewer to user: this is a function of the interactivity offered by digital space. VR was the forerunner to current AR research, and remains an active realm of academic study.

Computer graphics also enhanced the possibilities offered by television and cinema, forging a new point on the Mixed Reality Scale. I refer to the Augmented Virtuality (AV) approach, which uses mainly digital graphics with some real elements superimposed. For example, a newsreader reporting from a virtual studio environment is one common application. I position AV one step closer towards The Virtual to reflect the ratio of real to virtual elements:

An Augmented Virtuality, the ITV newscasters sit at a real table in a virtual studio
An Augmented Virtuality, the ITV newscasters sit at a real table in a virtual studio

There is an expansive realm between AV and VR technologies, media which offer the user wholly virtual constructions that hold potential for immersion and interactivity. I refer to the media of video games and desktop computers. Here the user manipulates visually depicted information for a purpose. These media are diametrically opposed to their counterpart on my scale, the cinema and television, because they are windows this time into a virtual world, actively encouraging (rather than denying) user interactivity to perform their function. Though operating in virtuality, the user remains grounded in The Real due to apparatus constraints.

Now, further technological advancements allow the fusion of real and virtual elements in ways not previously possible. Having traversed our way from The Real to The Virtual, we have now begun to make our way back. We are making a return to Augmented Reality, taking with us the knowledge to manipulate wholly virtual 3D objects and the computing power to integrate digital information into live, real world imagery. AR is deservedly close to The Real on my scale, because it requires physicality to function. This exciting new medium has the potential to change the way we perceive our world, forging a closer integration between our two binary worlds. It is this potential as an exciting and entirely new medium that has driven me to carry out the following work.

To begin, I address the science behind AR and its current applications. Next, I exploit an industry connection to inform a discussion of AR’s development as an entertainment medium. Then, I construct a methodology for analysis from previous academic thought on emergent technologies, whilst addressing the problems of doing so. I use this methodology to locate AR in its wider technologic, academic, social and economic context. This discussion opens ground for a deeper analysis of AR’s potential socio-cultural impact, which makes use of theories of media and communication and spatial enquiry. I conclude with a final critique that holds implications for the further analysis of Mixed Reality technology.

An Opus to AR – It Begins

Here it goes. The first entry of my grand opus on Augmented Reality, and why I think it will be the most impacting new media form we have had since the rise of the Internet. I will serialise a total of 10,000 words, hyperlinked where appropriate, and with illustrations where possible. The title of this work is as follows:

Assessing an Augmented Future: What is Augmented Reality, What are its Potential Applications in the Entertainment Industry, and What Will its Emergence Mean for the User in Society?

Series Order:

  1. Contents
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. What is AR and what is it capable of?
  5. Gameware: A Case Study in AR Development
  6. Constructing a methodology
  7. Reverse Engineering: Locating AR within its wider context
    1. Virtual Reality
    2. The Internet
    3. Mobile Telephone
    4. Summary
  8. Deconstructing AR: assessing it’s socio-cultural impact
    1. Applying McLuhan
    2. Applying Baudrillard
    3. Applying Benjamin
  9. Conclusion
  10. Bibliography
    1. References
    2. Further Reading

Please stick with me, I plan to release each element over a the next few weeks beginning today with Part 2, my research abstract. Grab an RSS feed and please chip in with your contributions.