A ticket to play

March 7th, 2011 by

microtask_interactive_buststopSan Francisco is a great place to be a geek. The city is home to hundreds of startups including big names like Twitter, Craigslist and Zynga. Silicon Valley itself is just 50km round the bay.

Every year thousands of tech-seeking tourists cross the Golden Gate Bridge to attend events: the Game Developers Conference, Apple Keynotes, the Web 2.0 Summit – there’s an expo for everyone.

In such a tech-friendly town, it’s not surprising that computing is spreading into public spaces, affecting the way citizens interact with their urban environment. The first stop? That most boring of public places: the bus stop.

Routed to the stop
In late 2010 large touch screens were installed in 20 bus stops across San Francisco (with a little help from Yahoo). To liven-up that tedious wait for the bus, the screens run simple games and applications involving trivia, puzzles and good old fashioned alien annihilation.

Although the games themselves are pretty basic (more Pacman than PS3 stuff), from a gamification perspective this is exciting stuff. The bus stop screens have a built-in social networking system, enabling different neighborhoods to compete against each other. After a tough fight, the world’s first Bus Stop Derby was won by the inhabitants (addicts) of North Beach, who completed an impressive total of 150,000 games.

The “geeky and proud” residents of San Francisco are clearly having fun (though probably not getting to work on time), but the bus stop initiative also has serious microwork potential. With a smart set up, a wide range of companies could use task-based games in similar situations. In addition to the addictive, competitive element of the games, people could be encouraged to participate using incentives such as free fares for completing a set number of microwork tasks.

Gaming the city
The bus stop experiment also shows that it’s possible to use technology to modify people’s perception of everyday experiences. In Helsinki, the massive Jätkäsaari redevelopment project has surprisingly similar aims (plus a handy €60 million of investment money). As well as creating eco-friendly architecture, a key part of the Jätkäsaari project is changing consumer behavior: the idea is that visual stimuli and well-designed user interfaces can get people to interact with their environment in new ways.

Jean-Christopher Zoel, project leader for Experientia, one of the companies designing Jätkäsaari, believes that “people, their contexts, social networks, habits and beliefs are crucial tools for creating sustainable changes in behavior. We will therefore offer people ways to control their consumption and see the effect of their actions on the environment”.

In San Francisco, “gamifiers” are limited by the city’s established systems and infrastructure. Jätkäsaari is a clean slate – an opportunity for some real blue-sky thinking. Through Digitalkoot, Microtask has already shown how the gamification of crowdsourcing and microwork can be used to save precious text archives. Why not go further? You could potentially turn almost anywhere into an interactive space: bus stops, train stations, airports – all the places where people are usually terribly bored. If you can’t take the crowd to the interface, maybe it’s time to start taking interfaces to the crowd.