Are We There Yet?
By Mark Frauenfelder, Wed Mar 02 08:30:00 GMT 2005

How mobile technology can help unglue kids' eyes from the screen.

Are We There Yet? It's the name of a popular movie playing in theaters right now, but for most parents, it's the second least favorite phrase to hear while driving with their kids. (The very least favorite is, of course: "I really have to go to the bathroom," when you're stuck in traffic with no exit in sight). While there's not much you can do about making calls of nature go away by magic, many parents (myself included) have come to treasure the portable DVD player to take care of the "Are we there yet?" problem. On any road trip in excess of 20 miles, I hand a player and a stack of DVDs to my seven-year-old, and I never have to hear "Are we there yet?" again.

But I know, deep down in my heart, that what I'm doing is wrong. I'm teaching my daughter to become dependent on a form of entertainment that requires nothing from her. She just sits there, silently and passively, absorbing a Disney cartoon. I wonder if I'm destroying her capacity for self-entertainment.

That's why I was intrigued when John Paul Bichard, a digital artist at The Interactive Institute in Stockholm, contacted me about a research project called Backseat Playground that he's developing with two other researchers, Liselott Brunnberg and Oskar Juhlin. As he describes it, "Backseat Playground is a mobile gaming research project that will enable kids to play with the world outside their window from the back seat of a car."

The seeds for the project were sown by Brunnberg at the mobility studio of the Interactive Institute. She developed two games called Road Rager, which pits kids in other cars against each other using ad-hoc peer-to-peer networking, and Backseat Gaming, a "mixed reality game" that uses GPS and digital compasses to let kids point mobile devices at objects on the roadside and use them in the game.

"Last autumn we met up and decided to work together on Backseat Playground," says Bichard. "This collaboration brings together Liselott's earlier Backseat Gaming research, Oskar's background as a professor of sociology and project director at the Institute and my experience in art, games and mobile technology. I bring to the project my exploration of the relationship between forensic and games spaces, my ideas about episodic narrative and a desire to turn the whole world into a video game."

Bichard described a scenario from Backseat Playground by asking me to imagine myself as a child, "sitting in the back seat of a car staring out of the window -- imagine that the world moving past you is a vast game engine -- the objects, places and people around you are all part of an intertwining series of episodes that make up an ongoing game plot.

"You have been driving the same way for the past 4 days so you know all about the mean old guy at the petrol station who won't talk to you. Come to think of it, every gas station attendant seems to be hiding something -- what if they are all in league with each other? What are they trying to hide? How do you get any of them to talk? Do they know anything about how Mrs Lundberg disappeared? You know that someone was seen near the railway bridge. What if you searched the bottom of the riverbed beneath the bridge, using the aqualung you picked up from the last village? Not today, as the car turns before the bridge, you're going a different way into town. You see a phone box coming up on the right... the phone rings!!! Pointing your device at the phone, you answer it. A woman's voice tells you quietly and deliberately that the person sitting in the back seat of the car in front is the detective searching for you. Time to put on the sunglasses you found last week at the bus stop, and what about changing into in the clothes that are sitting in a pile on the floor of the phone box."

In this way, reality is mixed with the fantasy story delivered over the mobile phone.

Last week Bichard and his colleagues received news that Microsoft Research will fund the first iteration of the project. "We will be developing a working prototype at the end of 2005 to test ideas around interaction and episodic narrative. The scope of what we have defined so far should see us through the next couple of years."

Is the technology needed to make Backseat Playground work available today, or is this something that will have to wait? Bichard says the "raw materials" already exist: handheld game players, accelerometers, digital map data and wireless networks.

"But as ever," he says, "what is needed is a shift in thinking. One of the challenges is how to move from the existing models such as running arcade games on a phone or 'projecting' game structures and narratives onto a real space via a mobile device, to imbedding a game 'within' the real space. This will require not only new game models but also radically different business models for developers, mapping agencies, phone operators and publishers."

All I can say is go guys, go. My DVD player guilt is eating me alive.