Using “String and Sellotape” To Build the Magic Tate Ball: A Behind-the-scenes Interview with Ben Templeton

Can you recall, as a child, the wonder of asking a question and then shaking that round black lump of mystery called a Magic 8 Ball? Can you remember how it felt the moment before the answer was revealed through a haze of colored liquid? The Tate Modern, in London, released an app designed to capture that same sense of fun and whimsy, and they have succeeded. But rather than answer a question, after shaking your phone the app returns a piece of art from the museum. Perfectly named the Magic Tate Ball, I recently spoke with Ben Templeton, the creative brains behind the app and a producer at  the Bristol-based Thought Den. We talked, in part, about how it was created and how it was designed to marry a rich back-end database with a playful user front-end. 

Ben, welcome.

Hi Barry. Thanks for inviting me to chat.

My pleasure. Can you tell us where you are chatting from today?

I’m in the studio in Shoreditch in London at the moment; we have a location in Bristol and a location in London.

Thanks for taking your time to chat about the app you developed with the Tate Modern in London.  Can you tell us about the Magic Tate Ball?

It’s actually quite an interesting time for the Magic Tate Ball because – having been released on Apple’s App Store coming up to two years now – we are going to be updating it.  The original idea for the app was basically an easy way to get some casual art fans connected with works of art. The way we do that is we tap into the contextual feeds the smart phone can pick up. So that’s the date, time of day, the weather, the GPS location, and more. When the phone takes a reading of all this data it matches it to an artwork that it thinks is appropriate for that unique moment in time.

So it’s around 4:35 o’clock for you in London while it’s just before noon for me here in New York.  So, because italmost dinnertime for you, but almost lunchtime for me, and because you’re in London and I’m in New York, if we both did it at the same time, we would get different pieces of artwork?

I would cross my fingers.

If it works right.

That’s the case.

What does the app do with that information?  So, if it knows that I’m closer to lunch time, what might it give me?

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Well, we have put work into what the emotionally resonant triggers are in your surroundings, because 2 o’clock on a Tuesday is very different to 2 o’clock on a Sunday. While I can’t claim the algorithm is quite that sophisticated, our investigation did reveal how complex human beings are. For example, certain artworks just did not work at particular times of day, and in fact, our challenge in writing the content for the app was to find the most interesting stories hidden in the artwork. For example, one artwork was created in the middle of the night as the artist listened to prisoners of war being executed in the woods outside his prison.  So, there were some quite bleak stories along with the more cheerful ones. We had to ask what might be the most emotionally resonant thing in my surroundings to connect to that. And often it was – the connection was quite direct.  You know, if this piece was about food, then we could link that to lunchtime or if it was about freshness or cleaning or something then we could maybe link that to when you had a shower in the morning before breakfast.  So, it was about picking out the points of day or perhaps locations or the weather – a hook, I guess – to tie it to the story in the artwork.

So that the Magic Tate Ball, to me, gives the user a very whimsical experience – where they get to turn it on and you know, shake it like you would a regular Magic 8 Ball, and then it gives you something.  You see its collecting data from your environment and it gives you something, but as describe, it is built on all of this data. Can you say more about how vast the data was, and how you shaped and curated it?

Well, as I said, the very first task was a curatorial one and something that very much required a history of art understanding. We investigated the artworks in depth and pulled out the stories from those artworks. Beyond that, it was a bit more of a computer science problem. We took those stories and worked out, as I said, how we can relate those stories to data hooks.  And then, essentially, it was a very string and sellotape approach.  We have a large spreadsheet with –

I’m sorry. I’m not familiar with that phrase.

String and sellotape? I guess that means hands-on, arts and crafts, rudimentary. We took those stories from the artwork and we connected those to the data points, the tags, in a spreadsheet.  We weren’t able to create double relevance in terms of connecting it to multiple data points, but we would to a single data point like the time of day, or the weather, or your location. And this was in a spreadsheet with nearly 2000 lines. Then we turned that into a datastream the phone could read.

And do those 2000 lines refer to 2000 pieces of art or 2000 different ways to enter a particular piece of art?

2000 hooks refer to the 2000 different ways you can engage with our collection of artworks. The first version of the app has 140 artworks in the collection. 40 of those artworks were in the application on the phone itself and the rest downloaded on the fly, as they were requested.  Our aim was to keep the app below the 20 megabyte file limit of the time for download without Wifi.

So this is an app that can be used by anybody, anywhere all around the world, but suggests if you actually use it on site in this particular museum, you have a special experience.  Are you allowed to describe what that experience would be if one did it within the museum, or do we have to come to the museum to see it?

Well, the special experience is a fairly classic bit of interactive fun.  It’s a little personality test and when you get to the Tate you unlock a little character – a kind of guy inside the Magic Tate Ball – and he asks you a series of questions that determine what type of artist you are, whether you are a modernist, expressionist, or whatever. It is just a little bit of fun.

Can you say you more about how Thought Den, your company, in general, thinks about the way that a mobile experience can influence or shape a user’s relationship with a museum and its content, and how you understand the way the Magic Tate Ball fits into that?

Well, I think that’s quite a big question.  I suppose at the core of our practice at Thought Den is this idea of  play, and play being an excellent mechanic that helps people of all ages engage with things.  Play lowers the barrier to entry. As soon as you can make something fun, I’m more likely to lose my sense of fear, you know, in a fundamental way, that’s our starting point.  But in terms of mobile as a technology, Lic Tallon from the MET said recently that mobile is a behavior – needn’t be considered a technology.  We’ve been taking books around with us for hundreds of years.  It’s almost the same thing in effect.

So, our approach to mobile as a technology is to try and ignore the technology itself and put the technology in the background.  So, with Magic Tate Ball, our aim was to connect the user with the artwork in as intuitive and fluid way as possible, and that’s exactly how we like to go about the production of our work: How can we hide the technology?  How can we assume the technology is there in the background doing its hard work and then move on to the actual fun stuff, which are the stories and the interaction for the play and the learning.

For those museums who are inspired by what the Tate has done with the Magic Tate Ball, and are interested in thinking about new steps for enhancing the visitor experiences, what advice might you offer?

It takes time to really understand how technology can help in terms of bringing an audience closer to artistic and historical and dramatic content, so, I’d say, “Have a go!”  I think its really important that you have a go and you make those mistakes and you get your products in the hands of people as soon as possible, because what you actually learn through observation or through people using your product is far, far more than you would learn in the frustrations of building that project. There’s this whole cliché of rapid prototype development and minimum viable product development, and I would hate to turn out the same old cliché, but in truth, they are clichés for a reason.  You simply need to make stuff as quick and dirty as you like, going back to that string and sellotape phrase I used earlier.  The sooner you can make it, then the sooner you can get it in the hands of your audience and that will be a fundamental part of the process towards success – getting it in the hands of people and studying how they respond to it.

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About Barry

The Associate Director For Digital Learning, Youth Initiatives at the American Museum of Natural History.
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