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A dumb way to get smart? Bristol launches pointless city game

Submitted by jesse_berst on July 8, 2013

I am all for augmented reality. The concept is to supplement a normal view of the world with additional information. The photo at right, courtesy John Angelo, shows how a city street might be overlaid with information if you were wearing Google Glass or a similar display technology.

But the experiment currently going on in Bristol, UK seems like a terrible waste of time and money. As you will read, they are setting up a citywide system that allows residents to have pretend conversations with lamposts, street signs and other urban objects.

Think of all the value they could have created. Directions to the nearest hospital. The arrival time of the next bus. The location of the closet public restroom. Suggestions on nearby sites and attractions. A way to report potholes and other problems. The resource "grade" of buildings, so residents can see which ones are energy-wasters. And on and on.

Instead they have programmed in oh-so-cute play conversations with no value. On top of that, they are doing it via yesterday's SMS text messaging technology instead of tomorrow's smart phone platform.

The one bright spot? The UK apparently has so much smart city funding that its cities can afford to flush money down the toilet. – Jesse Berst

As this Fast Company article explains it, the idea in Bristol is to allow residents and visitors to talk to thousands of urban objects by using repair numbers found on the objects as SMS codes. The text wakes up the object and it responds with text messages about that specific location, left by people who passed by at some earlier point in time

"Our starting point was a desire to use the city’s existing infrastructure to encourage human interaction through storytelling and story sharing," project co-creator Ben Barker said in the article.

Why text messages rather than a smart phone app?

"The buzz from your pocket when you get a text feels different than in-app interactions or other exchanges using a smartphone," Barker told Fast Company.

The Hello Lamp Post project comes from a submission to a Playable City program put on by  Bristol's creative technology companies to showcase their strength.


Jesse Berst is the founding Chairman of the Smart Cities Council. Click to subscribe to SmartCitiesNow, the weekly newsletter highlighting smart city trends, technologies and techniques.