Show Us Your City

The people of Oxford are set to adopt a new family.

Three friendly, nomadic characters – that look somewhere between robots, simple objects and cartoon characters – will ask the people of Oxford to show them their newly adopted city. These characters will be lifted, rolled and moved between the city’s public spaces by the people. The characters will ask questions and suggest challenges all in a quest of discovering new places, finding out how people feel about the city and helping the people of Oxford to meet others they’ve not met before.

Each of the three characters is connected to the internet, constantly gathering data on their whereabouts and the responses to the questions and challenges. This data will be made openly available through Oxfordshire Open Data and will also be displayed on the characters very own website. If people haven’t bumped into them yet, their current location will be viewable for all, allowing people to catch up with them, wherever they are. This map also colourfully displays the paths the three characters have taken, visualising the ’emotional contours’ of the city through the succinct responses to the various questions and challenges.

30 thoughts on “Show Us Your City

  1. I love the idea of large objects, such as these characters, being pushed around Oxford’s public spaces. How do the characters ask questions and suggest challenges?

    1. The characters will be able to ask questions and suggest challenges through a combination of text displayed on their expressive faces, and sounds, possibly speech.

      The very first part of the project will be to work out the best combination of visual and audio to compliment the physical movement of the characters and their personalities. Currently we’re excited by the use of e-ink displays (like a traditional Kindle) but we need to carry out a bit of experimentation and play testing to determine the right answers.

      1. how are you ensuring access? Be great for all people to be able to interact, not just those who can read or hear?

        1. Accessibility is a key consideration in all our work right from the outset. With Show Us Your City, we haven’t yet finalised the public’s interactions with the characters as we need to test ideas, but there will be many opportunities for creating different, accessible interactions. Unlike so many art and/or design projects that rely heavily on an interaction or engagement with a visual work, which is often inaccessible if you’re visually impaired, we wanted to create the opportunity for multi-layered interactions and repeat encounters.

          There are many ways that the public can engage with Show Us Your City, and although the primary interaction currently is around the challenges and questions, there will be others. These could include engaging with the raw open data from each character to just being with the characters around the city. This is not just about accessibility, but how compelling the experiences are, no matter who you are.

          At the early stages of this project we will engage with as many people and communities across Oxford as possible, so we can get the multiple layers of interaction right for as many people as possible.

  2. Will the characters react differently depending on who interacts with them – for example a child vs an adult?

    1. Good question! They won’t be able to identify people directly, but the characters will be able to build up a rough picture of who is currently interacting with them through their answers. From this they will be able to adjust their following questions accordingly.

      Our three characters will also have different personalities. For instance we imagine the smallest of the three will appeal more to children and will have more energetic and playful starting questions.

    1. Yes, that’s a great idea. One of the characters we are looking to develop is an explorative, athletic character who likes nothing more than to find out where the action is happening across the city.

      This could happen through, for example, the character asking questions such as ‘Hey, I’m trying to get to Castle Mound before midday, could you carry me some of the way?’.

  3. A really playful idea that will have a lovely engaging experience, especially with younger audiences who are far used to conversing with large scale colourful non humanoids. I can see the selfie hashtags on social media already.

    One question is how and whether audiences will grow empathy for these characters and whether this feeds the successive questioning….

    1. We love the idea of the selfie hashtags too! We hope these guys are going to have a massive online presence and the people of Oxford will want to find them, hangout with them, take photos and selfies as well as play with them. We’re thinking of giving them a unique hashtag name to encourage this…

      How audiences will grow empathy with the characters is a very important question, and one we’ll have to consider and test to make sure we get it right. It will come from the right blend of storytelling, personality, character design, online presence and repeat audience interactions. We’re aiming to create a feeling of ownership between the people of Oxford and the characters.

  4. I’m imagining that somehow these friendly characters are full of light and dim when they are neglected and brighten or pulse with light when they are ‘happy’ and being played interacted with. Yeah, and I guess this builds on and I’m in agreement with Ashley’s comment – how will audiences grow empathy for these characters?

    1. Creating a really characterful interaction with only a pulsing light or a pair of animated eyes is we feel really key to this project. We’re also considering that the characters could be made to wobble slightly if they’re feeling happy.

      As well as considering how we can foster empathy through the physical design, we want people to engage with them online. The accompanying website will not only chart the trio’s path through the city, but also create a simple to read story of each character. For instance:
      “I was pointed towards three parks this morning and was taken on a walk through one. I’m hoping that this afternoon someone will take me on a tour of the high street!”

      In this way we hope people will be able to make the direct connection between their interaction and the characters. For example after helping a character move to the park, we’d hope a member of the public would want to check back in online and see how the character is getting on later that afternoon.

      Hope that answers your question ok!

  5. It’s the best idea in the shortlist and it’s quite exciting in terms of promise. I feel there’s a big challenge in creating these creatures, both conceptually and technically. What would they be made of to ensure durability? If they’re movable how do you stop people taking them home? What’s the intended mechanism for interaction, a screen? audio?

    1. Thanks Tom! We’d agree that there are conceptual and technical challenges, but they’re the good kind of challenges, ones that can lead to an exciting project! :slightly_smiling_face:

      Your questions are very important ones too. The characters will be made out of advanced composites, like Carbon Fibre that are very light and strong, specifically in the right places. We have recently finished a project looking at sustainable composites too, so hopefully we can make these guys out of flax. We of course, will need to consider weather, floatation etc. They need to be completely sealed and virtually indestructible.

      We’ve been thinking about people taking them home and out of the city, we have a few ideas of what we’d do in this situation. For example, we’ve been discussing a ‘black box’ inside each one, so we know exactly where they are at all times, and importantly so does the public through the website. Our aim is that the public takes these guys in and they become part of the community.

      The interaction will be through movement, a display and maybe audio – We’ve mentioned this in a bit more detail above.

      I’d finally add, that I think to achieve this type of project we need an experienced team with diverse but complimentary skills and I think we have that! Our collaboration is a really exciting blend of creative and technical expertise.

      We have experience of developing character and stories; working in cities; delivering Internet of Things projects and products; building robust, reliable public installations in demanding environments; and designing research projects. We also have a solid, logical, iterative process, so we should be able to navigate all the challenges and deliver the optimum solutions to the questions.

      Thanks for your comment

  6. Really nice idea, sounds fun. Will the maps show some details of the interactions along the way? So people can follow the “stories” of the 3 characters?
    Also will the characters have “eyes” / cams -so people can see through their eyes at points on their trips?

    1. We currently envisage an overlay (or similar) to the map, that would display interpretations of the data, and therefore in a way the answers to the questions and challenges. Each character would have its own webpage and various social media channels, so we would automate some of this online presence too from the interactions and the data.

      At this stage we weren’t planning on them having a livestream camera. We are conscious of battery life, and therefore frequency of charging, but also the ethics of a livestream. We’d love to have a life-log camera though, taking a picture every minute or so, as this would be great for social and documenting their travels, but I think we’d need to explore this further with the public and look into the ethics of this more.

  7. To add to Tom’s question above, will all characters be made of the same material? Given that they may have different “personalities”, have you considered making them slightly different? E.g. one could be fluffy and huggable (but that probably wouldn’t work with rain…).

    btw. Do they have names? Are you going to give them names or will you let the public take care of that?

    1. We have given them temporary names for the moment, but this is one of the things we want to develop with the public. Engagement from the public right across the city is fundamental to the success of the project so we’re still thinking about how we would do this, but it would certainly happen early on in the process of developing the project.

      The size and shapes of each will be very different and reflect their personalities and hopefully you would feel more inclined to hug one over another (if that was the intention)! I mentioned strong and light materials to Tom, and this is necessary to form the core of the object – for technical requirements – but at the very least they will be different colours. I do like the idea that they could feel different, have different tactility, that could be interesting, if we get selected, we should definitely explore this further – thanks!

  8. I imagine a group of visitors, newly arrived to a strange city, interacting, not just one-to-one with these delightful beasties, but joining a small group of other visitors, actively participating in the fun and journeying together to see the sights, making new friends and avoiding the isolation of solitary tourism. I do wonder at tourism sometimes – we all do it, but if people’s faces are anything to go by it’s not always a joyous experience – this idea could change all that! I think it has huge potential.

    1. Thanks for your comment Fiona! This kind of group activity is something we would really like to encourage with our trio of characters and we will be looking to develop questions for them that best support this. The physical design of the characters may also help, for instance the largest of the three may require two people to pick him up at the same time which would motivate people to team up.

      We see the three characters as visitors themselves, full of interest in the city around them and we hope they become a playful talking point that brings together local residents and tourists alike.

  9. Really great idea, and love that they all have different personalities. I wonder how the challenges will be created? Are they pre-written/recorded by someone then deployed at random?

    1. Thanks very much Carrie – their personalities are so important to the success of the project. The challenges will be developed through extensive testing and development with the public. They will be refined to fit the specific limitations of each of the characters. For instance one may be asked to be pointed towards particular things, whereas another may want to be rolled. The language of the questions and challenges will reflect these actions.

      In the first instance, the challenges will be pre-recorded before deployment. However, once deployed we are in constant, remote communication with each one of the characters. We will be carefully monitoring the quality of the interactions once the project is live, and can modify and add challenges and questions remotely, this will be important for many reasons – one reason could be that a challenge is to get to the other side of the city isn’t quite working, we can tweak the challenges remotely so the characters and public get there!

  10. I recall the near mayhem in Dundee when 50 Oor Wullies were on static display around the city – families became so engaged that they toured all the sites collecting selfies at each as if to verify their collection – the ‘Wullies’ were cool and of course had an historic connection to the city but the idea of interactive cuties like yours spread around a city is super cool – I’m suspicious that the enthusiasm witnessed with statics is as nothing to what will grab the cities when these wee fellas hit the streets

    1. Hey Steve, thanks for your comment!

      It’s great to hear that there was such a good reaction to the Wullies in Dundee – there’s something very special about an interactive experience revolving around characters in a city i think! It really captures peoples imaginations!

      I was heavily involved in the Shaun in the City and Gromit Unleashed art trails here in Bristol (both as a sculpture artist but also as lead designer on the interactive App & Website for those projects) so know first hand at how exciting (and challenging) a city-wide character trail is. I hope we can conjure the same feelings of intrigue and imagination in our project.

      Our challenge is to make our 3 characters so engaging that people want to come and find them, and then to interact with them. Creating engagement with something that people haven’t seen before isn’t easy, but our focus is on making these 3 objects have real heart and soul.

  11. Interesting…even better if they were characters with Oxford links..eg gargoyles etc. Think, that like another project, these could not sit bang in middle of congested city, in which many already struggle to get around the huge groups of language students, buskers, ad hoc street sellers.

    Sounds rather like “alive” versions of the city superlambanana creations in Liverpool, when City of Culture

    1. Character development will be a very important part of the project, and Gavin on the team is expert in creating objects with personalities and character, having worked a lot in city-wide projects like Gromit Unleashed and Shaun in the City. He is already very excited about researching possible character links to Oxford and making them work for the people of the city.

      Glad you asked the question about congestion… This is exactly the type of data the project will be able to map, and given the data is open and free, we hope this will help quantify, through the medium of big data, concerns that may exist across the city.

      And, we love the fact you refer to the characters as ‘alive’ versions of the Superlambananas. Superlambananas, like the Shauns, Gromits and Oor Wullies are a big inspiration to us and highlight the buzz and interest we’d like to generate through Show Us Your City.

  12. Thanks Vicki, this is a really great question.

    We’re planning on taking a few different approaches to avoid vandalism and theft.

    1) Cuteness. This can only go so far, but we’re hoping that by making the characters really cute we can help to dissuade some antisocial behaviour towards them. This also may have a social element too where people won’t want to be seen by others harming the characters. A great example of this that we’ve been inspired by are “TweenBots”, small cardboard ‘robots’ that navigate a city with help from humans … https://www.wired.com/2009/04/tweenbots-help/

    2) Visibly Tracked with GPS. The characters will be tracked visibly on the web, leaving a trail for the whole of Oxford to see. That they are being tracked will be clearly marked on them too and we hope this also dissuades people from taking them home!

    3) Robustness. We will be doing our best to make the characters as vandal-proof as possible. They will be made from a single strong but lightweight shell with all the electronics completely sealed inside. Hopefully this will deter all but the most determined vandal.

    4) Vandalism as Data. Even if the characters do get vandalised, this will be added as far as possible to the database. For instance “I was dropped at 02:32am outside this nightclub”… hopefully providing some useful data from their misfortune!

  13. As described by others above, lots of future potential beyond its original brief. There’s something about this concept – not least the physical shapes/characters inhabiting it – that has a particularly playful core to it, set as it is in this city’s high-brow history, culture and buildings

    1. Thanks for your comment Thomas, great to hear you think the concept has potential. As we discuss the idea with more and more people, the more we’re getting excited about the ideas that people are coming up with that make the core idea even stronger! 🙂

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