Play your cards: time for the tech

March 19, 2015 by

With the basic game mechanic selected for the re-worked scene, we were able to move onto how to technically realise this.

The task is to build a system that will sense the placement of a playing card onto the table at one of the points of the clock face, and trigger the playing of an appropriate sound file.
To tie in with the game mechanic, we only want the sounds to play when the numbered playing cards are placed in their correct position on the clock face (so a 3 of diamonds at 3 o’clock, for example), rather than just anywhere.

For the playback part of the system we are using QLab, a piece of commercial software used widely by theatre lighting designers for programming and running lighting cues for conventional theatre productions. David Haylock has found this to be a reliable off-the-shelf solution when he’s used it on other projects.

David is writing a bespoke programme to process the inputs from the sensing system and communicate them to QLab.

We haven’t yet finalised what kind of technology we will build the sensing part of the system with, but here are the two options we have explored so far.

From some preliminary research David suggested using RFID tags and readers to build the system. RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) is commonly used in the retail sector for theft prevention, and so the components are cheap and easily available. You’ll also be familiar with RFID if you use an Oyster Card on London’s transport system. Our plan is to put tags inside the playing cards, and mount small readers under the surface of our card table.

techblog1

We bought a few tags and readers, and David built a small test system. In its favour, RFID is quite stable and reliable. This is an important consideration if you’re relying on it to work, because it would spoil the immersive fiction if a technician had to come and help fix something during the scene. There is one major drawback though, in terms of it working with card games. Most card games (including our collaborative solitaire) involve stacking or creating piles of playing cards as part of the game play. RFID can’t really understand stacking (there are some complex workarounds, but basically stacking is out for our purposes). The RFID reader can only read the tag that is placed immediately on top of it. All tags piled on top of the first tag are blocked from being read, and so have no effect.
We think that this is a deal-breaker, so have looked around for other solutions.

David’s current avenue of investigation is image recognition, using a camera. David has recent experience of developing this kind of system from his work on the Playable City winning project ‘Shadowing’. He proposes using a PlayStation3 camera, which we will need to mount above the table looking down (with a birds-eye view of the card table). This part is relatively easy, we will just need to design our bespoke card table with a suitable structure above it to hold the camera. It is the recognition and processing of the images where the real work comes in.

A google search turned up several Open Source projects exploring this area, but after some investigation David has begun to write his own recognition programme. The recognition is a 2-stage process: 1 – the computer needs to recognise that it is seeing a playing card (markerless object detection); 2 – once it knows its a playing card, it needs to work out what number and suit the card is, by comparing the image it can see with the ones it has in its library and finding a match (Template Matching).

BlackTonicCameraTest

BlackTonicv2Camera

The potential down-sides of image recognition is that the system is very sensitive to differing light levels, but we propose to create a reliable lighting state by mounting a downward pointing lamp next to the camera above the card table to eliminate this issue.
The positives for our purposes are that the camera and system together behave more like the human eye – the camera sees the card on the top of the pile, and will be programmed to respond to that by triggering a sound. We will also be able to use a standard cheap card deck, rather than having to make or have manufactured a special card deck with RFID tags inserted.

There’s a lot more still to discover and test before we build the final system. Then there will be lots more testing! We’ll then build all of this into a specially constructed card table, which will conceal all the technology hardware, keeping the interface as close to the experience of a ‘normal’ card game as possible.

Play your cards: Developing the game at the heart of the re-worked scene

March 18, 2015 by

Some discussions with the show’s writer Clare Duffy helped to clarify our intentions for this re-worked scene: how we want the characters to be read; how we want the audience to feel; where the scene needs to get us to by the end.

Now we needed to find or create a suitable game mechanic to shape the audience’s interaction with the soundscape. I called on the services of games designer, and general genius, Holly Gramazio, to help us work out an elegant solution.

I was keen, if we could achieve it, that the interaction was actually the playing of a game, rather than an interaction that was essentially like pressing some buttons in a pre-defined or random sequence, which would likely be less satisfying.

Holly, David Haylock and myself spent an intense day of card-game-playing at the Pervasive Media Studio (its a tough job, but someone’s go to do it), trying out multiple types of existing and newly made-up card games. Holly’s inventive powers were put to good effect, and we came out of the day with the rough outlines of three possible options for games – each with a very different game mechanic. All three games were themed around the shape of a clock face (to tie in with our body clock theme), the first: a type of snap, the second: a simple betting game, and the third: a collaborative solitaire.

After some play-testing with friends and colleagues to test how enjoyable and easy to play each game was, and discussions with Clare the writer about which game type would fit best with the scene’s dramaturgy, I chose the collaborative solitaire.

It wasn’t the most enjoyable of the games, but game-play got easier as the game went on allowing players more ‘brain-space’ to listen to the soundscape that playing the game will trigger. It was also collaborative, rather than competitive, which seemed right as the two pairs who have been experiencing the show separately until this point, and may be strangers to each other, will join up in this scene and remain together until the end of the show. So building something together seemed preferable than potentially introducing friction that wasn’t helpful in terms of watching the rest of the show. It also fitted dramaturgically, as the players would be piecing together a picture of a clock face, card by card, whilst listening to sounds and snippets of overheard conversation that will piece together and illuminate previously concealed elements of the narrative.

Play your cards: Why re-make a perfectly good scene?

by

I’ve been working towards bringing Black Tonic back almost since we finished the first run of shows back in 2009. That’s one of the reasons I’m so excited that we’ve finally made that happen in 2015.

As the years ticked by, and I gained some critical distance from the original production, something became clear to me. In our haste to get the show ready during the initial devising and rehearsal period, coupled with a lack of technical knowledge and very limited resources, we had failed to do justice to our original concept for the pivotal scene in the show – known to us as ‘Jo’s Room’.

The ‘Jo’s Room’ scene is where we take the audience to the dark (literally) heart of the show. We introduce them to ‘Jo’, a blind, card-playing criminal. In the original production ‘Jo’ was ably personified by an older male actor, and the scene was engaging, weird, and atmospheric. But I felt that we’d lost the metaphysical aspect of the character by having him physically there. He is our ‘Wizard of Oz’, and pulling back the curtain to reveal him there in his human size felt like a bit of an anticlimax.

You see, for us, ‘Jo’ is a blind-seer (in the manner of Tiresias from Greek myth), he ‘sees’ everything that happens in the hotel. He is profoundly blind and perceives no light, and therefore suffers from a genuine medical condition known as ‘free-running’ where his body clock drifts out of sync with the 24 hour clock by a few minutes every day until midday feels like midnight, and continues like this in an eternal loop. He also represents for us the ‘anti-hotel’: chaos, disorder, timelessness. Where the hotel is ordered, timetabled, obsessive-compulsive.

For the remount of Black Tonic in 2015 I wanted to re-design this scene to better communicate our character ‘Jo’. The way we’ve chosen to do this is to remove the live actor from the scene, and to invite our audience to inhabit Jo’s room in a way that allows them to almost ‘become’ Jo for the duration of the scene.

We are inviting the four audience members to play a game of cards together on a magic card table, where the laying down of a card allows us to listen in on a bedroom in the hotel and what is currently happening in there. As the game unfolds the audience members build a (sound) picture of the hotel, putting them in Jo’s shoes, so to speak.

We are lucky enough to be collaborating with Watershed in Bristol on the re-development of this scene, and are working with their Creative Technologist David Haylock to make this idea a reality.

Play your cards like midday is midnight – a new blog series charting the re-mounting of Black Tonic in 2015

by

Ahead of our 2015 re-tour of Black Tonic, we are taking the opportunity to polish, improve, and even completely re-make parts of the show to make it the best it can be for this new tour.

This blog series will chart the creative development process, and hopefully provide an insight into how a show like this gets made.

You can find all the blogs in this series here: Play Your Cards

Agent in a Box R&D

April 18, 2014 by

We were lucky enough to be awarded a ‘CATH’ grant last year, and have been working in collaboration with some excellent people to create a new concept using our 2008 production Black Tonic as its inspiration.

Agent in a Box is a collaboration between:

Katie Day – http://www.theotherwayworks.co.uk/

Alyson Fielding – http://www.pyuda.com/

John Sear – http://www.birmingham.ac.uk/facilities/digitalhumanitieshub/staff/sear-john.aspx  /  http://wallfour.co.uk/

Inspired by The Other Way Works’ 2008 immersive theatre production ‘Black Tonic’

This pilot project has been delivered through the Collaborative Arts Triple Helix, a research project by the University of Birmingham in partnership with University of Leicester, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council as part of their Creative Economy Knowledge Exchange programme.

Agent in a Box will eventually be an hour-long spy thriller, theatre game experience, to be played alone in an anonymous hotel bedroom.
Agent in a box is an exciting creative content offer for those boring evenings you spend in chain business hotels when travelling for work with only CNN for company.

The experience is delivered in the form of a portable box (the size of a box of chocolates), which can be purchased for yourself or as a gift. An interactive story of espionage told through paper fragments, phone and text messages, provoking the player to accept the invitation of the anonymous hotel room to become someone new if only for one night.

We are now seeking partnerships to help us develop the project.

Audience feedback from Launch Events

July 31, 2013 by

Our Launch events were blessed with sunny afternoons, and we had a great turnout at both. Here are the lovely things people wrote in our comments book after they’d listened to the audios.

Bandstand Audience comments in Guest book

West Park Wolverhampton
Wednesday 10th July 2013

A very enjoyable experience!

Absolute delight. Enchanting performance that had you oblivious to the other happenings in the park. Thank you.

A lovely experience, thanks

An enchanting experience, bringing a historic park feature to life!

My friend and I listened to the man/woman stories which created a sense of tension, unease and finally was very moving and affecting. The first experience of this kind I have taken part it, and thoroughly enjoyed it.

A delightful interlude in my day.

A lovely story. I much preferred the woman’s story to the man’s as I thought it was more complex and interesting.

Really enjoyed this in beautiful sunshine. Something very moving and thoughtful about the ‘voice experience’. Lovely! Thank you.

Transported to another world. Dreamlike experience. Excellent.

Totally absorbed in the story.

Lightwoods Park, Bearwood
Thursday 11th July 2013

This was so lovely. Will come back again and bring friends too. Excellent!

Amazing! Shame it finished too soon – gripping stories! A great afternoon and my second visit to this park.

I really enjoyed it. It’s excellent. It made the whole park into a kind of set, like a piece of art that was part of the play. Interesting doing the moves – becoming the characters for a moment. Loved the music and blend of different voices. Interesting watching the kids gliding on their bikes right next to where the ice rink was set. Great job!

Intrigued by the play of ‘fact’ and fiction. Sense of different landscapes – real, imagined, absent, hypothetical. Also enjoyed the threads of narrative and collisions with space/time eg frozen ice, broken slats round the bandstand.

Congratulations to all involved. A really enjoyable experience on a beautiful sunny afternoon. I liked the variety of characters and how the narrative unfolded, the integration of local knowledge and history really placed the work in the setting. Nice to be invited to move around and engage with the environment, help to keep you engaged. Will look out for more!

I thought it was great but I didn’t like listening to myself but I loved it I’m gonna come again! MAKE MORE!!

Superb experience, fantastic site-specific audio. Thoroughly absorbing. Enjoyed the natural backgrounds, sounds and rhythms. More please.

Beautifully layered and transporting. Really enjoyed it and impressed how all the voices are sewn together. Will recommend to others! Thank you!

Launch Events – save the dates

April 4, 2013 by

We are hoping to have the Bandstand App available on the iPhone and Android stores in early June, but the focus of the launch of the app will be two events in the parks themselves in July 2013.

Launch Events

West Park, Wolverhampton:  Wednesday 10th July 2013, 3-7pm
Lightwoods Park, Bearwood: Thursday 11th July 2013, 3-7pm

These events will be free and informal, and will be an opportunity to experience the Bandstand audio pieces in the company of other interested people, and meet the creative team behind them.

Illustrations – Development Blog – Katie Day

March 14, 2013 by

We have commissioned a local illustrator Luke Thrush to create the visual look for the smartphone App that will deliver the audio stories.

He’s drawn some beautiful illustrations for us, creating a real story-book feel to the App. We wanted something that would appeal to our audience in terms of the App interface, nothing to high-tech and whizzy. Something with an artistic quality that felt like a treat to use, rather than a series of buttons to get through.

I think he’s done an amazing job. Calvium who are making the App for us have put his drawings into the prototype App and they instantly transform it. We’ve got more work to do still on the App design, and we need Luke to draw us a few extra buttons and icons, but we’re getting there.

The image above is one of his drawings, and is part of the ‘splash screen’ image for the App. I don’t want to give too much away yet, as it would spoil the surprise when the App is published.

Recording Session – Development Blog – Katie Day

by

For the first time we actually recorded our voices at a recording studio, rather than a bedroom or outdoors. We have 6 different voices on the Lightwoods Park track, which seemed too many to record outdoors.

We recorded at the Blue Whale Studio in the Custard Factory, Birmingham, and had a good and productive day last Friday. I’m back there tomorrow to record the final two voices: Gareth, a long-standing collaborator; and Catrin, a 9 year old girl.

The photo features Tom Naylor (aka Mr Naylor MC), who came in last Friday to record his own pieces of text that he has written for the Lightwoods Park story. Obviously used to doing his stuff in front of a mike! In fact everyone was a real pro on Friday (apart from me – I’m reading the instructions!)

Once the final two voices are recorded, we’ll be sending the files to Mark the Composer/Sound Designer to get to work on pulling them together into a soundscape. We’re hoping for jazz music, wintry sounds, and the sounds of skateboards on a ramp, to compliment the voices and the story.

New collaboration for Lightwoods Park – Development blog – Katie Day

January 17, 2013 by

Katherine has been busy over the last few months researching for the Lightwoods Park, Sandwell Bandstand piece. This is a completely new story, developed through conversations with several community groups and park users.

One of the main features in the park (apart from the Bandstand obviously) is skate ramp. We were keen to involve this in our story somehow, and feature the people who use it regularly.

This led us to Mr Naylor, a local MC, keen BMXer and skate park regular. We’ve asked him to write some small sections that will be part of the audio experience, and eventually we’ll record him performing them too. This is our first collaboration with an MC, so its all new territory. We like the rough texts he’s sent through so far, so we hope that we can bring it all together in a way that makes sense! His style is very different from Katherine’s (who is writing the rest of it), so it might be a bit of challenge to integrate it all. We do think its worth the trouble though, as it adds a local authentic voice to the piece, and has the potential to open up the finished piece to a different audience.

Next Page »