Big Gaming with Steve Bull, NYC


If you spend enough time trolling the streets of New York for interactive designers, one person or another will lead you to Steve Bull, a gregarious New Yorker and self-professed digital Gepetto.  The founder and CEO of Cutlass, Inc and Cellphonia, Bull is a major player in interactive game design or ‘BIG Games’ and has lent his design prerogative to interactive operas, big-city digital treasure hunts, thinking-outside-the-box inspired, outside the museum interactive historical tours, and more.  In his free-hours, Steve teaches location-based interactive and location-based design at the NYU Tisch Interactive Telecommunications masters Program (ITP).

I caught up with Steve in New York’s Battery Park on a sunny Saturday in May.  Together we demoed one of the interactive, location-based, historical tours he completed for the New York Historical Society, a mobile documentary about Frederick Douglas’s life as a freed slave in New York at the turn of the century. Encircled by the steel giants of New York’s downtown Tribecca neighbourhood, we used Steve’s iphone as our tour guide and re-imagined ourselves within a different historical narrative, one detached from our surroundings; the audio was hushed by the constant murmur of construction just blocks away at Ground Zero.

Given the costs associated with maintaining museum expositions and grounds, it seems that more museums and foundations should adopt similar initiatives to deliver their curated exposition content outside the confines of museum-walls.  In Barcelona, I could imagine re-tracing Gaudi or Picasso’s footsteps around the city.  I’d like to walk Chicago’s city-blocks and learn about Jane Adam’s hull house or Burnham’s city plan or the famed fire’s path of destruction.

As I continue my travels, I’m curious to see what other initiatives are emerging to transform our cities into learning laboratories.

Following our meeting in NYC, Steve was kind enough to answer a handful of  follow-up questions via email.  Here are his answers.

[Side note: Want to hear more about Big Games in the states? Listen to Segment 2 of this To the Best of our Knowledge radio interview with Katie Salen.)

Me:  What’s your day job?

Steve Bull:  mobile user experience designer and publisher.

Me: What is the future of big games and or location-based, interactive games?

SB:  I predict a solid future for big location-based interactive games.  There are several hurdles to overcome: reluctance by the carriers to deliver the games because of liability concerns (e.g., player getting next clue on cell phone screen by wireless download is crossing the street and hit by motor vehicle and does not die and player's father is an attorney), creating compelling game(s), strangers playing together (doesn't seem so difficult but I believe there are some issues here that need to be addressed)....

Me: What is your favourite Cutlass or Steve Bull  original big-game project and or interactive project to date?

SB:  Cutlass Treasure Hunts on college/university campuses -- fun competitive game play, the players get it.

Me:  How do you think big-game technology can be utilized to engage people in other disciplines, e.g., education, community organizing, etc?

History games for intermediate and high school students using GPS cell phone handsets. Community organizing -- look at tweets in Iraq, the young people are having a wonderful time pushing for governmental reform. The activity is dangerous and meaningful.

What’s your dream project?

Large scale interactive GPS game/movie making project with multiple outcomes possible. Players write and play their own endings.

Me:  Outside the realm of big-game initiatives, do you see an opportunity for municipal administrations (perhaps the Bloomberg Administration?) to use mobile technology to better serve their constituents? For efficiency-purposes?  To deliver certain services? Any examples?

SB:  311 is accessible in the street by anyone with a cell phone. 511 along the Interstate. 911 for emergencies. In Holland Tunnel radio broadcast of travel alerts. Kiosks. Kiosks with blue tooth downloads have not been optimized yet.

Me: Do you ever feel like this kind of technology is a distraction?

SB:  A distraction from what--life? This kind of technology is a distraction and a part of our lives. It is dangerous for pedestrians to engaged in cell phone conversations while crossing an intersection.

The individual might be run over by a motorist distracted by his/her cell phone call. Children in the backseats of SUVs are distracted by movies played on the headrests in front of them rather than looking out their windows bored and engaging their parents. (I am against video media playback in vehicles. I am in favour of interactive and passive audio experience.) It will take years for a polite proper safe social etiquette to emerge. There are lots of issues here fro exploration. The individual must decide the level of distraction--I am ignoring cell phone calls at this moment. I turn off my cell phone in movie theatre and church. Doctors set their devices to vibrate.

Me:  What is your favourite technology and or other blog or blogs/ print-publications?

SB:  Space imagery returned by NASA remote instrumentation; under ocean photography; in car GPS systems (Garmin) that free the driver from worry about directions to the destination and instead allow the driver to break the rules and look out the window. I am unsure how many drivers ignore their GPS and whenever I go back to the goal of getting there the GPS puts me on my path; audio books; my own code noodling--I am a software artist, better-n-better interactive game development tools.

Me:  Other than Cutlass, which firms do you think are doing the most interesting and or relevant work?

SB:  Big Players are iTunes/iPhone/iPod/Apple, Nokia, Google, Fox Mobile, NAVTEQ-TeleAtlas.  Small players are SocialLight and Proboscis.

For a more extensive look at Steve Bull's work, check out one of his Living Labs Global Showcase's here.

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