Last weekend I was privileged to be invited to participate in a commercial hack day as part of Honda’s “Dream Factory” initiative. Hosted at the Guardian offices and organised by Rewired State, the hack saw 23 developers from across the country feverishly developing prototypes and concepts based on the brief supplied by Honda.
This brief was based on the brand message for the new Honda Civic, which is “If we never venture into the unknown, how do we get anywhere new?”, along with “The Power of Dreams” and the four key attributes of “Quality, Technology, Design and Evolution”. Needless to say this brief was much more vague than developers usually expect, so there was a lot of early panic trying to decipher a brand message into something that does something.
I ended up working on two hacks over the weekend. Based on the message, it seemed like perhaps we should take these metaphorical brand messages entirely literally, making something that literally used the power of dreams, or literally helps people venture into the unknown.
The Corridor of Dreams
This piece is meant to be integrated into a corridor wall, and is triggered when a person moves near the installation. The corridor then does some analysis of the movement and appearance of the individual, and attempts to ascertain what a possible dream might be. This dream is then rendered in the form of a pixellated icon that appears in a thought bubble as the person passes by. This is timed so that to an external observer, the subject is “dreaming” the icon. For the subject themselves, they are exposed to the dream out of the corner of their eye. In this way, it provokes the individual to reflect on their dreams in the context of the mundane corridor, and remind them to resituate themselves in terms of life goals and priorities.
In the time of the hack day, we didn’t have time to get it as mature as we liked, but it did function, and we had many people using the corridor during the day. These users were partly intentional, by judges and participants of the event, but since it was situated in a “working” corridor in the Guardian offices, many Guardian employees were also exposed to the piece.
The actual implementation was far more complicated than it might seem. The corridor used a range of different technologies that were frankly painful to integrate.
We used the LEGO NXT brick with ultrasonic sensors to detect movement (in order to trigger the event), a USB webcam to capture the image of the approaching individual, OpenCV to analyse the content of the image and an Arduino-powered “Peggy” display Gareth constructed, in order to create the dream display. This was all plumbed together using Python, and deployed on John Bevan‘s Ubuntu Nettop.
As the corridor of dreams was under construction, I (perhaps foolishly) started work on a second hack based on the idea of serendipity. At CHI this year, the closing plenary by Ethan Zuckerman was on the topic of serendipity in social media. He complained that social media tries too hard to surround us with a bubble of content we have been algorithmically calculated to enjoy. He argues for the importance of serendipity and exposing yourself to truly different experiences. Based on this, and the Honda Civic message of “If we don’t venture into the unknown, how do we get anywhere new?”, the concept was created.
GetLostBot is a free service that challenges you to break your routine and explore new places. Once you sign up, GetLostBot will quietly keep an eye on the places you visit. If it feels that you are going to the same places too often, it will send you a challenge. When this happens, you will receive a message with some mysterious walking directions. Follow these to discover a place nearby that you have never been to before!
GetLostBot uses the Foursquare API to track user checkins and examines recent behaviour. If the user has fallen into a routine, it finds a nearby location they haven’t visited and creates a challenge for them. It sends the user a tweet or email with a link to an unmarked map with walking directions to the new place. Importantly, it doesn’t tell the user where they will end up! The user is forced to “venture into the unknown” and follow the directions in an adventurous spirit.
All the developers were brought together on the Sunday afternoon to demo creations. There were some extraordinarily cool apps developed, including safety systems for bikes, live collaboration services and even a demonstration of ethernet delivered over chicken wire!
One of my favourite apps was “Don’t Break My Heart” by Rain Ashford – a wearable bike light that changed colour and beats-per-minute based on proximity. A cyclist wearing it on their back would give simple feedback to drivers following behind when they get too close.
There were a ton of cool apps, and you can find out more about them on the Rewired State hack summary page.
The first prize was deservedly won by Jordan Hatch for his Orchestra brainstorming tool. This is a really neat system that gives people 3 minutes to come up with points around a discussion, then reveals them at the end. The idea of “sparing a couple of minutes” for collaboration and implementing a scaffold for it is extremely powerful.
Four apps were also selected to go on to public vote in the Guardian website for a further prize. My Get Lost app was selected as the winning app within the “Evolution” category! This is a great honour, and hopefully this exposure will lead to many more people engaging with serendipity and getting lost more often!
The Guardian has written up the event here.