My former Headshift colleague Felix Cohen posted about making ARGs local and social a few days ago, and his post prompted me to dust a post of my own which has lurked in a drafts folder for a few months.
Geolocation is now ubiqiutous if you’ve got the right device in your pocket. What was the preserve of dedicated and single-purpose devices a couple of years ago is now embedded into GPS-enabled mobiles. I can whip out my iPhone and figure out my location to within a few metres anywhere I can get line-of-sight to the satellites.
At the same time, geolocation is being embedded into the fabric of the web - any photo that I take with my iPhone can be uploaded to Flickr and automagically geotagged. More and more Wikipedia articles which relate to a physical location have lat/long data associated with them.
And the combination of services and devices has enabled play-like apps - I can check into a location with Foursquare or Gowalla, and stalk my friends as they do the same.
But at the moment, it’s a bit limited and a bit boring - all you can really do with these apps is check in and out of places - once you’ve done it a couple of times, becoming “mayor” of a location strikes me as fairly pointless.
Picking up and dropping random items has some (limited) appeal, but Gowalla’s current implementation is lacking the Pokemon factor - the objects have no intrinsic value, so once you’re done with the “oh, a luggage tag!” novelty factor there’s not a lot else to get excited about. I don’t find myself making a special trip to that Starbucks in the hope of finding the planet’s only purple three-legged Snorblax.
What this needs to really grab me is a cross between Gowalla-esque location “services” and geocaching. Treasure hunting is something that appeals to most people’s inner child in a big way - I’m willing to bet everyone has drawn a treasure map at some point in their lives. Geocaching makes this play into something socially-acceptable for adults, even if hunting down Tupperware boxes full of trinkets is fairly high on the geek behaviour continuum.
The physical nature of the caches prevents geocaching being something completely spontaneous. What I want is something that will fill in the odd 5 minutes here and there - inbetween buses, or when the train is standing at an intermediate station.
I started hacking together an iPhone app that would scrape the interwebs for geotagged “stuff” that was relevant to that location - a sort of ethereal Blue Plaque database. A quick moment of discovery - “hey, look who used to live around the corner” - would be enough to dispel the transitory boredom.
The problem with this is that it’s probably not dynamic enough to maintain long-term utility. If I’m standing at the same bus stop three times a week, it’s not going to take me long to exhaust the possibilities of geolocated data unless it’s somewhere that generates a lot of Flickr-style data. And the bus stops I frequent aren’t that photogenic. That idea breaks down completely if it’s somewhere trivial - like a coffee shop queue, for example.
So moving on from there, I started wondering what would happen if you combined existing information with user-generated ephemera. So as well as “Sir Worthy Citizen lived just down the road” and “Flickr users took these photos nearby”, you could add your own geocaches. I’m still not quite sure what form they’d take - tweets would be an obvious one. It would be a little bit like virtual digital graffiti - a virtual bus shelter I could scribble on while queueing for my double decaff skinny mochalatechino. The back-and-forth banter that Twitter can generate seems like it could be at home on a virtual toilet wall.
I also quite like the idea of collecting virtual “things”. The challenge there is making the “things” worth collecting, or at least quirky enough to be worth bothering with. Pokemon and Top Trumps are the most immediately-obvious models, but I don’t know how you initiate that kind of collectable - that’s what Gowalla does with the luggage tags and mocking birds, but they’re so random I don’t really care about them. And there’s no user creation involved, either - I can’t drop a “packet” of antiacids at Pizza Hut even if I wanted to.
Ultimately you’d want to overlay the kind of competitive behaviour that Felix was talking about in his post - maybe not fighting in the D&D sense, but certainly something that could be cooperative. Ideally it would be something that could build upon a virtual equivalent of the oh-so-English nod of recognition that you give to someone you see every day in the same place, but never engage with any further.
I like the idea of emergent “communities” of people enabled by digital echos of their past and future presence. And if I can actually engage with them in a playful way as well…
And I suppose it doesn’t have to be trivial, either - could you combine spotting duff streetlights a la Fixmystreet with a competitive factor? “Congratulations, you’re the reigning spotter of potholes in S10! But beware - X is rapidly catching up with you after spotting a graffitied bus shelter around the corner…”