Magic Tate Ball: Last week's lunchtime talk
Ben Templeton and Tom Dowding presenting the Magic Tate Ball app
Last week we welcomed Ben Templeton of Thought Den and Tom Dowding of Mobile Pie to the Studio to talk about their recent commission, the Magic Tate Ball, an app developed with Tate.
Mobile Pie is a development studio that produces games and entertainment for mobile platforms.
Thought Den use cutting edge technology and a little bit of mischief to create rich and playful experiences that help people learn online, offline and on the move.
Both companies became Studio residents in 2008 when Pervasive Media Studio formed. They were working together on a Media Sandbox project called Happy Packages, an R&D project which involved experimentation with bluetooth, wi-fi and SMS, seeding gifts around the city by delivering content to mobiles at specific locations. Both Ben and Tom were pleased to note that the work carried out in 2008 has informed the development of Magic Tate Ball.
The brief from Tate was very clear and exciting, a brilliant platform for the two companies to pitch from. They asked for an app that was..
- for a casual audience
- a playful experience
- applicable outside the gallery
It was a bold move on the part of the institution to take the work outside the gallery space, and it is also far more costly to continue to licence the work for use within an app.
The collaborative team began brainstorming. As Mobile Pie make mobile games they spend a lot of time thinking about forms of games and how they relate to their work. From old school games, to physical/pervasive games, to family and board games. After brainstorming and taking influence from other forms of games, they came up with four concepts to pitch:
Art Hunter - hunt down artworks.
TamigARTchi - keep an artist as a pet, feed them, water them and sooth their tantrums.
AR - put works from the Tate collection into the real world around you.
Magic Tate Ball - the pitch that won was inspired by the magic eight ball.
Magic Tate Ball
When shaken, the Magic Tate Ball gathers data specific to you and your situation, and chooses a piece from the Tate collection based on these unique factors..
The date, the time, the sound around you, your location and the weather.
To enable the app to select a work specific to these factors, the team tagged every artwork in the collection and rated how low or high their relation to each factor would be.
The app will never show you the same work twice. You can also use the settings screen to toggle which factors are taken into account, allowing a user to explore the whole space and take some control over the experience. The team kept the app under 20MB so it could be downloaded over 3G, and calculated it could include 35 pre-packaged artworks for the app's offline mode.
The process of making the app was very manual. Each section of copy and each tag was manually data entered, meaning there are still a few copy errors, but this element of hand-crafting is what gives it the personalised edge over automatically generated experiences.
Once the team came to decide the look and feel of the app, the first decision to make was: should the phone be the ball, or should the ball live within the phone? They decided it was too much to ask of a user to suspend their disbelief to imagine a flat, rectangular phone as a ball. Instead they designed and animated a beautiful shining ball living on the phone's screen, held up by a parody of Escher's hand.
They designed and added a 'Find out why' button. Once the artwork has been chosen, there's a delay of a few seconds so the user can take it in. A banner then appears in the lower half of the screen, enabling them to find out why this specific work was chosen.
They decided the app was not about delivering a huge amount of learning, it was about opening up the collection in a new way. However they included an option to see Tate's official description of each piece for those who wanted to dig a little deeper.
During this process, Nokia requested a Magic Tate Ball for their app marketplace. This commission brought its own budget and allowed almost a complete re-build for a new device.
Once both iterations of the app were designed and built, they were ready to launch.
However, the high quality of their design meant that, once the app was submitted to Apple, they deemed the Magic Tate Ball too similar to Mattel's Magic Eight Ball, which the team admit they consciously parodied. Apple rejected the app. This was terrible news.
Thought Den and, to a lesser extent, Tate began hounding Mattel trying to get their blessing. They worked their way up the company until they were finally in contact with Mattel's head of legal. They sent him a copy of the app and after weeks of worrying, found out they loved it. In fact, were so impressed they wanted to keep in touch with the companies about potential future projects.
When the app launched, initial statistics were good. In the first two weeks they received 2,226 downloads with iOS and a staggering 15,215 with Nokia - this was because Nokia featured the app on their front page from the very beginning. It's common knowledge that visibility within the Apple app store is a big issue, as there is still no 'if you liked this, you might like..' feature. The companies knew they had to push the app in other ways.
They asked Tate why they hadn't promoted the launch of the app, and found out the organisation's social media channels were booked up so far in advance that there was no room to include the Magic Tate Ball. They did eventually announce the app, and wrote to Apple to ask them to feature it. Luckily, they agreed and Magic Tate Ball became #1 on Apple's 'What's Hot' page.
This caused a huge spike in the number of downloads, unluckily this was just as the team spotted a bug! However they fixed it very quickly and released a new version and the download stats from this show that updating an app maintains a user's interest in it, and keeps them coming back to use it.
As Mattel own the copyright to the Magic Eight Ball they kept in touch with them and updated them on the download statistics throughout the launch.
Tom and Ben then went on to introduce a few projects they are just beginning work on:
- an installation with Bristol Zoo using a kinect and AR, allowing visitors to become animals
- first multiplayer QR code game developed for National Museums of Scotland
- ambient search API, clever contextually aware search API that could be bolted on to searches made in our everyday lives
Were Tate understanding when the app was rejected by Apple?
Thankfully the institution was very philosophical about the whole thing. They are so busy, with so many different projects on the go, that by the time the app was developed it was almost old news to them. They knew this kind of disappointment was just part of life, taking risks, but were equally happy to write to Mattel to try and solve the problem, but didn't have much time to devote to it. The whole project could've been a lot more stressful if Tate had been on their backs before the launch, but luckily they had a much more casual and agreeable approach to it.
Had they considered changing to another emblem, rather than an eight ball?
They did briefly consider changing the graphic to a 'mystic diamond' or equivalent, but the whole concept is so quickly and easily pinned down by the familiarity of the eight ball. Users are acquainted with the idea of the app even before they begin using it, this is extraordinarily valuable.
How long did you work on the app and how many people worked on it?
8 people in total worked on the app, working for an equivalent of four full-time months. The team were not paid anywhere near enough, but it is a big, brilliant and important project for them to be part of. They couldn't say no and it was worth the monetary risks.
Had the team considered that the audience might not care about it sensing surroundings, and might be happy with a random piece from the collection?
They didn't do any testing to see if an audience would be happy with this, mainly because the artwork's relation to the surroundings is what makes the app so unique. It also brings a compulsion to use it again, reminded of the app when you are in a completely different situation. 'Now it's really loud, I wonder what response I'll get here..' You are drawn to play with it again and again.
What has the response been from the art world?
The team tried to hear from the artists whose work is featured in the app and there has been zero response. There has been a complete divide in opinions from art critics. The app either gets a one star or five star review. Some critics are very quick to deride it, saying it trivialises the work, others recognise it is an entry-point. The fact it is so divisive suits Tate's brand perfectly.