Blaugust 24: Crowdsourced Citizen Science with Crickets

During my Smart Cities Future Learn Course, the difficulties of getting getting people involved in data collection involved came up several times, and I even discussed gamification for projects in this post earlier in August.

So I wanted to share a university project I’ve found where the researchers gamified their data collection in order to deal with a massive amount of data – about crickets!

The Unviersity of Exeter are currently performing a vast, long-term experiment on a population of Field Crickets in Northern Spain, in order to study their evolutionary biology. This involves tagging crickets with numbers and setting up a network of cameras to cover every burrow they can find to collect data on the cricket’s daily habits. Of course, this has produced hundreds of hours of video, much of which is useless if the crickets aren’t around, and a small group of researchers don’t have time to watch all of it. So how to find the important parts?

This is where Cricket Tales comes in.

This website provides you with a virtual meadow marked with burrow locations and ‘houses’ which players can build by watching and tagging a certain number of videos, sort of like FourSquare in which you can make yourself the ‘owner’ of a certain spot. I haven’t played for very long, but it also seems like the longer you play at a certain burrow, the more elaborate your ‘house’ becomes.

After a short tutorial, you can then choose any burrow to watch short videos from. As you can see in the screenshot below, you can choose a particular button on the side to note an action at a certain point in the video. Many of the videos have little to no action in, so this is an effective, gamified way for the researchers to identify behaviours more quickly.

Pressing buttons when you see an action allows you to tag the video. This shows up in a newsfeed that all players can see

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Blaugust Day 2 – Gamification for Good

Another interesting issue raised in the discussions around the Future Learn: Smart Cities course that I’ve been doing is that whilst it’s vitally important to collect data on how people go about their daily lives in order to improve those lives, how do you get people to give you that data? This isn’t particularly dealing with people’s privacy issues or data concerns, but instead dealing lack of engagement. How do you persuade people that this is worth doing, and find a way to integrate with with their daily lives, so that it’s not an inconvenience in any way?

The concept of gamification was raised. Fitbits and similar devices  give rewards for activities. Apps like Habitica encourage you to treat everyday tasks like like an RPG. But could this be applied to the task of collecting city data?

Enter Pokémon Go…

<blockquote class=”twitter-tweet” data-lang=”en”><p lang=”en” dir=”ltr”>Pokémon Go has raised a lot of interest in AR investment. Expect a new wave of IRL games. Gonna be a cultural shift as big as mobile gaming.</p>&mdash; Robert Rath (@RobWritesPulp) <a href=”https://twitter.com/RobWritesPulp/status/757265234444754944″>July 24, 2016</a></blockquote>
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Augmented reality is likely to become a huge deal in the near future. Is would be amazing if that could be applied to Smart Cities – if people could see, overlaid with the city, both how data and services move through the city and how their data contributions affect it.

 

Blaugust Day 17 – So, Videogames and Violence (again)

Yes, here it is again, a scientific study that claims to maybe possibly prove a link between violent videogames and violent behaviour.

This is a topic that seems to time and time again rear it’s head, get proved and disproved, vanish and reappear with new data. It’s a tricky topic, one that the media loves and because of that, sometimes a lot of misinformation gets spread.

In the past, I’ve felt like I’ve had problems critiquing the ‘video games= violence’, because well, I was playing video games. Of course I was going to defend people virtually shooting other people, because I was going home and playing Team Fortress 2 in all it’s cartoon-ish goriness every night. I wasn’t being objective enough, I was going to defend what I enjoyed doing, and downplay the negative elements that might arise.

Yet, video games are not the niche pastime that many media outlets might like to pretend they are. They are ubiquitous throughout our culture – people in every demographic are playing games. So where is the increased violence, if so many of us are absorbing it, first hand through games, second hand through YouTube Let’s Plays, third hand through the many massive gaming communities and forums. Yes, there’s still something deeply flawed in the presented research, enough that over 200 academics, many of them leaders in the fields of psychology, politely but firmly condemned the findings.

The major problem seems to be that more than forty years after the first video games, they are still a political hot potato in The U.S. certain parts of the world. Could it be that studies would like to find a definitive link in order to satisfy certain people of importance: please note that ‘proved’ link opens at a quote by Bill Clinton. When he was president. When he was the President of the United States. The google summary for that book is actually disturbing – citing several major shootings that I’m sure some would love to blame on something as simple as video games.

However, this is more than a black-and-white issue of right wing politicians pandering to conservative voters, because there absolutely are issues with online communities centred around gaming.  I recently took The Social Media Reader down off the shelf for the first time since I graduated, and it fell open at a page on trolling (how I loathe that phrase) from E. Gabriella Coleman’s ‘Phreaks, Hackers and Trolls:The Politics of Transgression and Spectacle.’ Every sentence could have come straight from any of the last year’s articles on Gamergate. Yet there’s the question, does the games themselves engender violent and other sociopathic behaviour, or is it the online environments, that frequently are only peripherally do to with the games, but were built by the first ‘geeks’ who inhabited online spaces (and games) and closed in on themselves when the rest of the internet masses appeared, eventually lashing out at anything they perceived as a threat.

This is far too big a topic for one blog post in one evening. It only started through that Open letter that I linked above, and I’m going to link again because it’s important – these 200+ academics are the ones who are right, not coming down on one side of the issue or the other, but saying, this is a finding that we can’t accept, and neither should you. Especially if you play videogames.

Blaugust Day 6 – In which I get kind of really emotional about Warcraft

I’ve spent today in a bit of a quandary – I knew right from the start that, today being the day the new World of Warcraft expansion was announced, I wanted to write something about it. I just didn’t know what. I considered various angles of the social media lead-in, the community itself, and couldn’t come up with any one topic that would fit into a single blogpost, because Warcraft is simply way too big to fit into a couple of hundred words. So I decided to wait, watch what came out of the announcements, and then make a decision.

Up until the point where I opened up wordpress to write this, I still had nothing to write, because this had happened and I felt completely, emotionally, blown away.

I sat watching these in complete silence, actually lost for words at what I was seeing, and totally entranced by them. It was a very weird feeling, and it’s a feeling that I’ve only ever had from the big narrative moments and plot twists in this game.

So this blog post isn’t about the communities I’ve encountered in World of Warcraft, wonderful and complex and utterly unique to the game though they are. It’s not about Blizzard Entertainment’s social media strategy leading up to this unveiling, clever though it was. It’s about the ability of a fictional, immersive fantasy world to move me, in a way that’s kind of separate to the game itself. One of the reasons that I’ve never written about WoW is that I’m a little embarrassed about the depths of my devotion to it’s storyline and overall universe, and it’s something I don’t tend to tell people about. Interestingly, it’s not through ingame communication but through other people’s blogs, podcasts, fanfiction etc. about WoW that I’ve learned I’m far from alone in these feelings about the game (shout out to Alternative Chat, whose daily blogging inspired me to take up Blaugust in the first place.)

So, my next act is going to be to leave off this post (sorry that there wasn’t a whole lot of actual content in it) and go and write some some fan theories, and maybe even a little fanfiction. That certainly won’t be appearing on this blog – though I do have a post about fanfiction and it’s place in online content coming up.

Fine, who I am kidding? I’m going to go watch that trailer a few more dozen times, and enjoy the feeling of being completely hyped.

And before I go – a big thank you to Blizzard, even though they will most likely not read this. They’ve made me very happy today.

This is not Trivial: A Letter to the Creators of wonder.land

Dear Damon Albarn, Moira Buffini, Rufus Norris and co,

A short while, I went to see your new musical wonder.land, a play set partially in the online gaming world, and partly in the ‘real’ world, with increasingly blurred lines between the two (The Guardian gives a good synopsis here.)

As someone who has played online RPGs, there were things that I liked about it, and indeed related to a lot, and there were a few things which I didn’t, which I’ll hopefully get to write about in due course.

But before that, let’s for a minute talk about the elephant, or more specifically two elephants, on the stage in this show.

The first one actually comes right at the end, when character of Ms. Maxome come ends up commiting crimes in the real world as a result of having complete freedom to bully and injure in the game world of wonder.land.Given the topical nature of this, when multiple people have now been arrested for the consequences of online acts, from ‘swatting’ (faking emergency calls to send an armed police force to someone’s house), to falsifying records to get people fired, ‘doxxing’ – finding and publicising someone’s details and address so that others can harrass them, and all of these actions are driven by having the tools to act without any repercussions or recrimination, it was unexpected to see that in the show’s climatic scene, the villain shown to actually have a mental illness and in a dated gag straight out of the 1950s, is taken away kicking and screaming by the men in white coats.

Aside from diminishing her actions to ‘she’s just a crazy person’ rather than explore the effects that a places of zero consequences can have on people, which trivialises the real consequences of online abuse both for the perpetrators, who are regarded as merely in need of help, and the victims, whose problems are downplayed because they’re ‘only online’ and they can ‘just switch off the computer, this is a shockingly insensitive moment in a play that attempts to deal seriously with mental health issues.

In the first act, the main character’s father has a gripping solo scene where he sings about his gambling addiction, and the way it consumes his thoughts. Elsewhere, main character Aly admits to her wonder.land avatar how much she hates herself, and longs to be the girl she sees on the screen, a moment that comes after her online friends confess their own problems: parental abuse, depression, anxiety, body image problems- and this brings us on to the second jarring moment of the musical, when at the end of the verse, an apparently male character confesses ‘Sometimes I wear my sister’s bra! Is that so wrong?’

Now, I truly, truly don’t think that was a line you intended to play for laughs.

But people in the theatre did laugh.

Several high profile trans writers have done articles on how online worlds, and becoming someone or something else helps them in the process of transitioning to the person they are now ( Samantha Allen’s fantastic and deeply personal article about this is no longer online, but it is referenced in this article)

Elsewhere, there have been some incredibly tragic cases of transgender people within the gaming communities committing suicide in the past year. People such as Kate von Roeder, Rachel Bryk, and other like them, do not deserve to be relegated to the catchy punchline of a comic song. These are real lives that you are portraying on the stage, and real life experiences. Please, please, do not trivialise them.

While I am not an expert on these topics, I didn’t feel comfortable sitting back and letting these moments pass unnoticed. wonder.land has finished it’s run in Manchester now, but it is already set to appear at the National Theatre in November. Damon Albarn, Moira Buffini, and Rufus Norris, you do have the chance to change all this before then. Sadly, I doubt that you will. Instead of a show that could have been a groundbreaking account of the double identities so many of us carry in this day and age, you have given us a show that punches down on the very people whose stories it wants to draw from.

Note: As I said before, I am not an expert on either mental health or gender identity. I have read through some GLAAD articles on sensitive reporting and would urge anyone writing about these topics in any form to do the same. Any mistakes that may have been made here in terminology or explanation are inadvertent, and completely my fault.

Thoughts on VR Social Media (The Oculus Rift Deal)

Pretty much the biggest piece of technology news this week is that the kickstarted VR gaming headset, the Oculus Rift, has been bought by Facebook in a phenomenal $2 billion dollar deal. It’s drawn a great deal of negative criticism from many areas and honestly, some of it is possibly justified. Game developers have withdrawn from deals, fearing the Farmville-afying of their product. Backers of the project have complained that the product they helped create has been passed off to make a quick buck. The Guardian suggested that the Oculus being bought out by an ‘uncool’ company such as Facebook (something we’ve commented on  will hurt the headset massively, citing a game developer who claimed, ‘This will set VR back 20 or 30 years.’

So, the Oculus is doomed, the gaming industry is doomed, VR is doomed. R.I.P. the Oculus?

The Oculus Rift Kit. Picture from http://www.oculusvr.com

You see, I can’t help but feel all this naysaying is a premature knee-jerk reaction. The Oculus Rift has always been a really exciting piece of technology, and yes, it was created for gaming and mainly backed by gamers. To kickstarter backers, selling the project probably does seem like a betrayal and it’s a fair reaction. But a properly working VR headset could be used for so much more than just gaming. People have already started making films for the Oculus Rift, with a 360 degree field of view. and from my perspective, social media applications for the Occulus Rift would be amazing. Imagine a kind of Skype or Google Hangout where you can talk to other people as if they were in the same room? Or even create a virtual hangout space which you can customise however you want. One of my favourite novels of all time is Idlewild by Nick Sagan, which takes places in a future where people attend a virtual reality boarding schools (online teaching could be another application, maybe?) and very cool idea in that book was the characters creating their own fantastic worlds to live in while they were online. Sony went some way towards creating this with the PlayStation Home, but VR could take it a lot further.

After all, there are plenty of people in the world who don’t game, but would still have a use for this. Personally, until recently the Rift felt like a gimmick to me. A great idea that people then used to make short indie demos and, um, porn simulators (yes, it exists, no I’m not linking it. You can google that at your own peril.) I could be wrong, but I do think the injection of investment and social media aspect could be the first step towards virtual reality headsets becoming a part of everyday technology.

Making Sound Free

Over the past few years, I done a lot of work in making sound, sound of all kinds, which led me from doing electroacoustics and recording my friends overblowing clarinets to wanting to study sound design, which led to me studying at Salford Uni which is where this blog started… over time I’ve accumulated vast folders of audio that’s just sitting around, being useless. And that’s sad.

I’m making this short post as a promise to myself to upload more sounds to Free Sound. I have a tonne of files from my H2N field recorder marked ‘Zoom (x)’ which are so old I don’t even know what they are.

Anyone who has read my blog might have noticed I spend a lot of time talking about YouTube, and of course I spend a lot of time (one might say, too much!) watching what various YouTube channels have to offer. I’ve seen a lot of great short films, comedy skits and webseries, but sadly I’ve noticed a recurring theme in some of them – the same sound effects. For example, over and over and over again, I’ve watched people get punched to the exact same ‘smack’ tone. I’ve heard the same ‘pigeon wings fluttering’ when a flock of birds fly off… well you get the picture. These people are making great videos, but they end up relying on the same CDs of bought sound effects, rather like relying on the same royalty-free music tracks as everyone else (*Cough* Incomptech *cough*). I don’t blame the video makers in the slightest, but wouldn’t it be great if there were more sounds out there, and that more people knew about the stuff already out there?

Free Sounds is a website for creative commons sound effects, that anyone can upload to (it is moderated, but just for accurate description etc. mostly.) I’ve talked about it here before, but honestly I never get sick of how great this site actually is. It’s sound effects, and they’re free, often even for commercial use. Awesome.

I mean, I get that some people are still suspicious of creative commons. Why would you give your work away? Well, honestly I’m not using any these sounds, plenty of them were made for students projects, some for fun, some are good quality, some aren’t, but even the low quality stuff might be useful to someone. It’s a great feeling when someone messages you to tell you that washing up sound you created whilst testing a borrowed RN-09 over a year ago turned out to be just what they needed in their radio play.

Also, I don’t feel this resource undermines the great professionally produced that are for sale out there. There’s still a place for those – in professional or semi-professional production. But it allows anyone who wants to make films, plays, audio dramas, anything involving sound, a place to go for everything they need.

As proof, here’s the credits of Lucius, a famous indie-made horror game from last year. Every single sound in a game which was designed to be extremely creepy/atmospheric (with moments of graphically bloody violence) was from FreeSound.org. Without that, the developers might have been dependent on a smaller selection of sounds that, while high quality, could have been limiting and even cut into budget used for other things.

Picture from YouTube – ‘Lucius Part FINAL [LP]’ by PressHeartToContinue
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pe9KCiIROcY&list=PL_8APVyhfhpe5tRryLQGgbTN3DCdqMT6J&index=9

So there, just wanted to share the love for this site and others like it, and maybe encourage someone to upload their sounds – you never know where they might end up!

Anyway, I’m off to play with Cubase and figure out what all these files are…