Pokémon GO and the cultural sector

If the mantra of the cultural sector is now: “Gotta catch them all!”, then Pokemon make particularly pertinent representatives. 

Gotta catch them all?

Many of you will remember the original Pokémon phenomenon: my cousins, who were small boys during the height of the craze, would frequently watch the show whilst visiting our grandmother. There were the usual anime tropes: “big eyes, small mouth”, the Americanised theme tune, and lots of cheering. With its catchphrase ポケモンGETだぜー!which translated to “Pokémon Gotta Catch ‘Em All”, Ash Ketchum (the lead character, known as Satoshi in Japan) and his array of friends, who changed regularly across the seasons, sought to capture and train some of the huge array of Pokémon – 729 named varieties – so that they could be made to fight one another in stadiums, in front of huge audiences.

I’m not sure I’m comfortable with the subjugation of an entire species for the entertainment of another, even if that species is fictional, but hey ho. In any case, “Pokémon is the second-most successful and lucrative video game-based media franchise in the world, behind only Nintendo’s Mario franchise“. To me, it certainly wasn’t as good as the cartoons from my childhood: She-Ra, Mysterious Cities of Gold, DuckTales. There seemed to be altogether too many close-ups and freeze frames: it was over-bright, and what the Hell was that yellow thing? Bear in mind, this is coming from a woman who was quite capable, in her youth, of suspending disbelief enough to watch Biker Mice From Mars. 

It was, and is, easy to dismiss the phenomenon as a means of making money (and it did, through its swap cards and Nintendo games, make billions of Yen) but aside from the fact it is fantastically entertaining and clearly a huge pop culture experience, it also has fascinating connotations with religion. In The Guardian article entitled If Pokémon Go feels like a religion, that’s because it kind of is, Hannah Gould, an anthropologist, wrote:

Shintoism, Japan’s oldest religion, teaches that the world is inhabited by thousands of kami, or gods. When made offerings of food and incense, kami bestow good luck in business, studies and health, but when disrespected, they can turn vindictive.

Pokemon are akin to these kami: they can be found all around us, capricious as any gods. And the adulation children still have for the Pokémon universe is often as powerful as those who believe in an afterlife. 

More fascinatingly, Gould cites Anne Allison, a scholar of contemporary Japan, and her work Millennial Monsters, when she comments that Pokémon:

demonstrate(s) a kind of ‘techno-animism’, which imbues digital technologies with a spirit or soul…This type of animism is embedded in commodity consumerism, where emotive ties between people and things are used to push products. But it is equally a means of fighting the dislocation of modern life by allowing consumers to create meaning, connection and intimacy in their daily routine.

I would suggest that Pokémon GO is an extension of this desire to reconnect with the “real”, as so much of it is dependent upon a participant’s activities in the physical domain. It muddies the waters between here and there, by using a phone’s GPS system to project an augmented reality onto the real world as seen through your camera lens. It is the sort of juxtaposition between the real world and the digital that captures, albeit fleetingly, our needs and desires. Perhaps, in this currently confusing world of BREXIT and 24-hour news, we need to have virtual reality in the form of a grinning, yellow, hyperactive Pikachu, transposed onto the world as we pass through it.

Capturing a Charmeleon: using GO in the cultural sector

Taking the old and making it new: the essence of the digital humanities.

One of the key elements of Pokémon GO are the significant stopping points within the app, designated by the designer Niantic and often being monuments, libraries or other sites of historic or cultural and local interest.

So how can the cultural sector ride this phenomenal wave of interest that’s currently being borne out? In the first instance, as a venue, you would need to determine whether you’re near a PokéStop or a Gym. If you’re on the map as a stop, then you are very likely to see an increase in visitors, whether they’re coming through the door or walking around the grounds. At such stops you can collect Pokéballs, or snacks for your creatures, or receive medical treatment. 

If you’re a PokéGym, then your venue will be a place for users to fight and train their Pokémon. You can also take over these venues, if your Pokémon are strong enough. I’m not quite yet (you have to be a Level 5 trainer), but you can essentially capture the flag at these Gyms, and become the anointed trainer there. 

The National Archives in London is one such cultural organization designated as a Gym in the Pokéworld. 

One GO user, Alex Finnis, has written an article on areas he’s tracked them through London. St Pancras Station is a PokéGym, for example, and Hyde Park is a rich hunting ground for the creatures.

You can also lure Pokémon to your location: once you have set a Lure, then Pokémon will be drawn to it and thus, those who seek them will soon follow. Some businesses in the United States have enticed players into their businesses by offering discounts on products for those who set lures; the more Pokémon, the more people trying to catch them, and visiting your business or cultural organisation.

Niantic are yet to accept submissions for businesses to become portals, as each stop or gym needs to be a public space and to be permanent, but monetising this must surely be the next step.

Hell no, Pokémon GO!

You may, of course, feel that engaging in augmented reality dumbs down the cultural sector: entertainment disguised for our consumption as education, but nothing more than crumbs allocated to us by the superior classes. With our faces glued to a smartphone screen, we rarely look up; and now, when we do, a corporation controls what we look at.

There are certainly arguments against its use. The US Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Arlington National Cemetery, both designated PokéStop, have asked that users avoid playing the game at the sites, as doing so was inappropriate to the sanctity of those places. And the Academic Medical Centre (AMC) in Amsterdam has asked that hunters avoid the hospital, after players were found wandering around restricted areas.

Are those the sorts of visitors we want to our libraries, our exhibitions, our rare collections? The answer is, most assuredly. Tech-savvy participants in the cultural experience are what push us forward. 

But engagement is, of course, more than simply packing numbers through the door, but also encouraging them to really immerse themselves with our collections. But how best to incorporate it into an exhibition? How can it be used appropriately, and effectively? 

I’m not necessarily suggesting that we plonk a Jigglypuff in the British Library, but there’s absolutely nothing wrong in using GO as a means of making  gamers familiar with cultural institutions that they would never have dared enter previously. And augmented reality has been used to great effect by organisations such as the Museum of London in the past with their StreetMuseum app. 

One of the interesting things about the Pokemon GO phenomenon is that, whilst using AR can often feel like an isolating, individual experience (one is usually bound to a particular area in a museum, or wearing Google Glass), there are a significant number of users reporting on the way in which hunting for the virtual creatures has actually brought people together in the real world. 

Tonight I caught a Bulbasaur. It was clinging to my lounge curtains, so I threw a ball at it and captured it. It was a singularly edifying experience, as experiencing culture should be. I am hooked. 


Professor Andrew Prescott at the National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth | 16th April 2014

Professor Andrew Prescott at the National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth | 16th April 2014

At the conference “Syrffio’r silff: hynt a helynt llawysgrifau Chaucer/From glass case to cyber-space: Chaucerian manuscripts across time” held at the National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth on the 14-16th April 2014, the keynote speech on the final day was given by Professor Andrew Prescott, Head of Digital Humanities at King’s College, London. The talk, entitled, “Manuscript Digitisation: some retrospective thoughts”, was recorded on an iPhone 5s and covers the talk and the questions thereafter.

Please click on the link above to access the Soundcloud recording of Andrew Prescott’s keynote. His excellent blog Digital Riffs can also be accessed here:

The Recondite & the Difficult

Rather sounds like an old Western, doesn’t it? The Quick & the Dead. The Good, the Bad & the Ugly. The Recondite & the Difficult.

The title of this blog post deviates slightly from the traditional themes of the American Old West, in that it is a quote from a piece of work by Tim Hitchcock entitled Digital Searching and the Re-formation of Historical Knowledge, and is absolutely nothing to do with Clint Eastwood or any of his ilk, but does refer to a stand-off of sorts, a Mexican stand-off if you will, between the old ways of researching and the new. I feel I may have lured you here under false pretences, but hang on in there.

I’ve been writing up a series of reports on the use of social media, augmented reality apps and virtual environments to enhance the more traditional exhibition format, and in doing so have started to explore the idea of cultural artefacts reinforcing social hierarchies, and of knowledge transcending physical formats like parchment, or paper. It’s all very vague and smells a bit “timey wimey” at the moment, but in the course of my research I had cause to take another look at Professor Hitchcock’s work and saw the following lines:

Both the methodologies of the social sciences and the evolution of the profession have effectively given prominence to specific types of information and relationships that privilege organic archives and recondite primary sources, interpreted by professionally trained individuals, as the source of legitimate truth…The most impressive footnotes in any monograph are those referencing archives and the most obscure of primary sources. We judge good scholarship by its engagement with the recondite and the difficult… [pp.82-83, 2007]

Of course, this is true. I’m often guilty of thinking it myself. And I can count any number of acquaintances who have raised their eyes at me when I’ve said I spent more time at my laptop than I do in an archive: some of them have no doubt made comparisons to other friends doing PhD research and compared the amount of time they’ve spent in the British Library to the time that I’ve spent there (thus far, none: don’t say anything, I have panic attacks about it).

And I’ve no doubt that there is nothing that compares to the visceral thrill of discovering something that may not have been seen for a hundred years, a new path through the information quagmire, a new link forged in the chain of our knowledge. But very often, with the increasing digitisation of archival content in many libraries and museums across the world, that information can be accessed digitally, with no need to travel hundreds of miles and to attempt to gain access to a cultural institution that may or may not accept your academic credentials and give you access to the data you seek. It doesn’t necessarily have to be difficult to find in order for it to be relevant.

But it’s all part of that old Devil called cultural hegemony again, conditioning us to think that the harder it is to find or understand, the more important it must be, and that those who can get access to it must occupy a special level in the social hierarchy. Of course, there are those who would perpetuate that notion of the ivory tower, but not quite as many as before.

Searching through a digitised archive, some would argue, doesn’t allow for those serendipitous moments when you open one thing and find another thing entirely, or you pull out an old picture and it takes you down some other intellectual road in quite a different direction. It’s hard for that to happen when your search terminology has to be so specific.

The recent OWOT (One Week, One Tool) “barn-raising” saw a team create a web application called Serendip-o-matic, which:

…connects your sources to digital materials located in libraries, museums, and archives around the world. By first examining your research interests, and then identifying related content in locations such as the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA), Europeana, and Flickr Commons, our serendipity engine helps you discover photographs, documents, maps and other primary sources.

Serendip-o-matic allows you to save your searches and to then go back and start again with new search terms. Plus, it has a rather funky-coloured hippopotamus adorning the home page, which can only be a good thing. It is rather clunky at the moment but given it was bashed out in one week, it is actually a bit of a marvel. And it shows that the digital world is catching up – it wants to provide the researcher with those random items that produce our most profound leaps into the scholarly unknown. It’s got a sea-green hippo for God’s sake! It must want to help!

We’ve meandered gently away from my rather laboured Western analogy at the beginning of this blog post to zoology (albeit of the fantastical kind – it’s nearly 1.30 a.m. so you should probably just back away from me very carefully) but what I am essentially saying, or as Professor Hitchcock put rather more eloquently, is that technology is bringing the archive to us. It doesn’t have to be difficult and it can still provide interesting, worthwhile results. For those of us who require a bit of magic along the way, well, resources like Serendip-o-matic can do that too. Of course, the whole point of this is that I can now search for resources whilst still in my pyjamas, which I rather suspect they would frown upon at the British Library, and probably anywhere outside of my flat.

“Museum Welcomes Wikipedia Editors”

An article in the New York Times recently discussed the merits for cultural organisations of liaising with members of the public to increase knowledge of a museum or library’s collections. In the article, entitled “Museum Welcomes Wikipedia Editors”, collaborators working with the Smithsonian Institute were encouraged to edit existing Wikipedia pages or to create new ones based on archival content. Based on an idea established by Liam Wyatt (Wikimedian and founder of GLAM-Wiki), an edit-athon, usually supervised by members of an organisation’s staff, consists of staff and gifted amateurs, “lured….by the prospect of disseminating knowledge, a behind-the-scenes tour and a free lunch” [New York Times, July 26th], who want to edit and/or expand upon the entries in Wikipedia’s digital encyclopaedia. In the case of the Smithsonian Institution’s American Art Museum in Washington, this meant identifying topics on Wikipedia that they felt needed more information or new entries and creating a list which contributors could choose from to work with.

The Bodleian Library in Oxford conducted an edit-athon this year in relation to their Queen Victoria journals, with the intent of improving the Wikipedia entries on figures and events mentioned within the journals.

The New York Times article notes the elephant in the room: that more and more online users are eschewing the websites of cultural organisations and going straight to Wikipedia for their information. It is beholden to us, then, as the people within those organisations, to ensure the accuracy of the articles within Wikipedia and to embrace it as a new knowledge base, rather than ignore the fact of its use and to dismiss it as inferior due to the fact it is edited by members of the public.

I love the idea of an edit-athon and think it could be an interesting and fun tool for the National Library to employ, not just for their artefacts generally but for their forthcoming Chaucer exhibition specifically. For example, what are the articles within Wikipedia like for the artefacts within the exhibition? What are their counterparts within Wicipedia like? One use of QR codes within an exhibition setting (incidentally, the topic of my current report) is often to link back to appropriate Wikipedia articles. If we do that, and the articles are not appropriate or not fit for purpose, we are undermining the very intent of an exhibition, which is to disseminate knowledge.

Of course, one small downside (although this does negate the rather tired argument that the problem with Wikipedia is that its additions aren’t monitored and are therefore inaccurate/inferior) is that Wikipedia won’t accept an edit or an addition to their encyclopaedia without citations, to ensure validity. To that end the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney, Australia has begun adding a Wikipedia citation code to the bottom of each object record, so that when someone comes to edit an article which relates to one of the museum’s pieces and needs to reference it, the code can be grabbed quickly and inserted into Wikipedia’s editing interface. I’m not proposing that this is feasible for all artefacts within the National Library’s collections, which run into the millions, but it is certainly a very good way of navigating the divide between the physical record of an item and its digital counterpart, with the citation code representing a very neat bridge between the two.

I’m giving edit-athons generally a big thumbs up. I think they could potentially be a wonderful way of collaborating with the local and student communities here in Aberystwyth, in a relatively non-pressured setting: around a table, with laptops, and some free sandwiches afterwards. And I think I can speak for everyone when I say, most people will go a good long way for a free lunch, so a trek into the digital hinterland shouldn’t be any great stretch of the legs.

The St. Chad Gospels: Potentials for 3D in the study of manuscripts

 In this video, Bill Endres of the University of Kentucky talks about potentials for 3D in manuscript studies. He has scanned Lichfield Cathedral’s St. Chad Gospels, an 8th-century illuminated manuscript. For images of the complete manuscript, visit ‪http://lichfield.as.uky.edu
This video was made for the 2012 Digital Transformation Moot in London, sponsored by the Art and Humanities Research Council.

“Hello, I’m Bill Endres from the University of Kentucky. I want to demonstrate some potentials for 3D in the study of manuscripts. A challenge of digital versions of manuscripts is to offer scholars and viewers an encounter as dynamic as having the manuscript in their presence, one that can match on some level experiences like play of light on cracked pigments, or the feel of a pages stiffness as it resists being turned; experiences that lend themselves to knowing. At the same time, a digital version can never be the same as a physical artefact. Segolene Tarte calls digital versions ‘avatars’: they exist in a different reality, with different rules and potentials. They can offer unique and profound experiences of a manuscript.

One way to present a digital version of a manuscript in 3D is through video. Video flyovers offer a dynamic interaction by taking advantage of 3D techniques and the way that the eye sees. Motion or changing stimuli are necessary for clarity of sight. To see a 2D image clearly, the eye must make jitter movements to keep its photoreceptors active. This is not the case with a moving 3D image. These 3D flyovers are pages from the St. Chad Gospels, an illuminated manuscript made around 730CE that I imaged with the kind permission of the Chapter of Lichfield Cathedral. 3D flyovers offer a more intimate experience than 2D images, giving viewers a feeling of the manuscript’s dynamic nature; perhaps even inspiring awe, as desired by the medieval artist who illuminated the St. Chad Gospels. More importantly for researchers, 3D reveals significant information about a pages contours and condition, along with the layout of its text, its decorative flow and artistic flourishes.

 A 3D image combines a mesh file, representing a page’s contours, with a texture file providing the appearance of a page’s surface. With 3D images, I can change their texture files; that is, the image that covers the mesh. For the St. Chad Gospels I took a set of at least 12 different spectral bands for each page, ranging from near ultraviolet to infrared. I can generate a multispectral visualization by stacking all the images in a set and calculating values across the stack for each pixel. These calculated values can be mathematically represented, and a colour map applied to highlight salient features.

The density of data in 3D meshes offers opportunities to generate further information. One of particular usefulness for manuscripts is taking accurate measurements. Holes, flaking pigments, and features of letters and decoration can be measured for conservation and scholarly purposes. A convenient format for 3D renderings is Adobe’s PDF. Adobe Reader includes a measurement tool.

I am currently working with our Director of Research Computation and Application Development, Noel Adler, to deliver 3D images of the St. Chad Gospels over the Web. With the release of Web GL, a Javascript API for rendering interactive 3D images, this has become viable.

John Berger tells us that the relationship between what we see, and what we know, is never settled. Use of 3D presents new potentials for seeing, and therefore new potentials for knowing. 3D can supply practical data like measurements, facilitate interaction and tap into native ways of seeing. It opens an intriguing future, an inspiring one; one worthy of the digital humanities.”

More than Meets the Eye: Going 3D with an Early Medieval Manuscript | Bill Endres, University of Kentucky

Whilst doing some basic housekeeping of files and blog posts today I stumbled across the notes I took attending the Digital Humanities Congress in Sheffield last September, which I’d like to post here today.  

I recall finding it awkward having to leave rooms, often whilst the lecture was still in progress, to get myself to the next session, but once I’d gotten over the problems of navigating around each lecture room I managed to attend Professor Bill Endres’ wonderful talk on the use of 3D imaging when dealing with manuscripts, in particular the St Chad Gospels (an 8th century illuminated manuscript and one of the oldest and most important illuminated manuscripts in England). It also has a wonderful link to Wales, in that at some point during its history the Gospel found itself in the hands of a Welshman named Gelhi – who had traded his best horse for it! – and in fact in its margins contains the earliest examples of written Old Welsh. 

Professor Endres was interested particularly in “the ways that uses of visuals affect our epistemologies” – the relationship between what we see, and what we know. In his talk at Sheffield he suggested that the justification for the use of 3D imaging was to to return the manuscript to its original state, and thus enhance our knowledge of the item and to generate new information about it. He described how our vision is construction from a combination of 2D and 3D, and that if we see an upper portion of text our mind fills in the bottom. We fill in the gaps ourselves. Therefore, posited Professor Endres, would using 3D change our ways of seeing? Would we then create knowledge in slightly different ways?

3D, he said, was not simply there to assist in our understanding of the 2D image. It allows us, for example, to create infrared images as well as a normal image, which helps in showing bleed throughs on manuscript pages. Once the 3D is there different textures can be applied (by stacking multi-spectral bands), and thus the 3D image can show every lump and bump in the page – creating a dynamic experience for the user without the user having to access the original document. 

Professor Endres then went on to discuss the nuts and bolts of the project generally – that it began in 2010, and that the 3D required a lot of plug-ins and applications. They began the project using Web GL but the timescale “wasn’t working”, and so he attempted to use Adobe for 3D which, he said, “worked quite well”. 

They took 22 images of a page, quickly, and once they had the files they could use Adobe, “but it only work[ed] on a PC”, so that was obviously a limitation. However, the benefits of using 3D were multiple: the ability to measure defects on the manuscript page, for example, like areas of flaking paint. 

Professor Endres said that from a preservation perspective, the work in 3D was “valuable…but from a scholarly perspective, who knows?”

During the Q&A session afterwards, Endres addressed the potential pitfalls of using 3D imaging. The images “still have a computer generated look”. They had been forced to use a flat frame to get rid of shadowing on the page, “and because a manuscript is so dynamic and that’s lost somewhat in the image”. Melissa Terras, who was also in attendance, brought up the issues of truth and representation: the importance of maintaining a “digital truth on a pixel basis”, so that the user can go back to the original if necessary, but also navigating the basic fear a user might have of trusting what the computer image is telling you is correct.

I’m very interested, from my own research perspective, in how we can communicate the intellectual content of a manuscript, and how we can do so in a way which engages, and certainly the use of 3D imaging appears to be one method of doing that. But what of these issues of truth, and the practical problems of the user not being quite able to escape from the computer generated shine of a 3D image? Whilst some of these issues are technical and will no doubt be solved over time, the other is not so easy to shake off: whilst an enthusiastic amateur might be content to access a 3D image of a manuscript, would a scholar be happy to take what the 3D image is telling them at face value, and base their research upon it? This distrust is something which is not so easily solvable. 

The link to the Lichfield University’s web page for the St Chad Gospels can be found here