“Read Ahoy!” is a digital / physical installation providing children entering the school system with a simple challenge: find one or more books by matching spatial, aural, and verbal clues. Imagined and implemented as an embodied experience, “Read Ahoy!” employs a narrative familiar to Swedish children to ground the challenge and establish playful, well-defined goals: a Viking crew on their way back to Birka after a long trade journey is caught in a storm and sees most of their precious cargo, chest upon chest filled with books, wash overboard. The crew now needs help from the kids to recover them.
Part of a series of pilots developed for Habo Municipality, Sweden, and meant to investigate through co-design activities how to establish a shared, city-wide understanding of the possibilities offered by digital transformation and the smart / connected city approach, “Read Ahoy!” explores how children who have just started to read search and make sense of information in a blended space structurally recreating the way they customarily mix action in digital space, usually mediated by software and devices, and in physical space.
Framed to meet the UN SDG4’s sub-targets on “ early childhood development, care and pre-primary education so that they are ready for primary education” (4.2) and “universal literacy” (4.6), “Read Ahoy” is theoretically anchored in Benyon’s conceptualization of blended spaces, in Bates’ information seeking theory and information search tactics, and in Resmini and Lacerda’s formalization of information-based experience ecosystems. It was designed and implemented as a low-budget end-of-year project for the students in the Master’s in Information Architecture and Innovation at Jönköping International Business School in Jönköping, Sweden. It was installed in Habo Stadsbibliioteket from early June to the end of August 2019 and used extensively during the summer by local children under the supervision of the local librarians. Experience-wise, “Read Ahoy!” was conceived to:
“Read Ahoy!” in Habo consisted of two digital touchpoints, the “story box” entry point and the “salute screen” exit point, and it featured eight book chests bearing color-coded shields and containing 150 books in all, and the scaled-down bow, hold, and sail of a Viking ship. Keywords had been previously associated with the 150 books through a collaborative open card sorting run by the students, using titles and covers from the books themselves as the seed. Seventy child-friendly terms and topics were identified and then used to individually tag the books. Each book was associated with a minimum of three terms up to a maximum of six. The installation occupied 30 square meters in the children’s area of the library: the chests were laid out on round blue rugs representing water and connected by dotted blue paths created with adhesive paper on the floor, in treasure map fashion.
The “story box”, built on a Raspberry Pie, a Google Voice Kit, a 24 inches screen, wood, paint, and plenty of elbow grease, marked the entrance to the installation space: it was the first physical element that children encountered and the one acting as a threshold to the space of the story. On idle, the screen displays the silhouette of a Viking ship as seen from the side, with the message “Tryck på knappen”, “press the button” in Swedish. Pressing the button started a voice-and-image narrative: Freja, a crew member played by a student, tells the tale of how they left Birka, journeyed long and far and acquired many precious goods, but were caught in a storm on their way back and saw many chests of books washed overboard. Then Freja asks the children for help: can they recover some of these books, those speaking of three important subjects and that came from three specific chests?
This chests and subjects/keywords combination was randomly generated for each run, and led to a final screen, a map of all the chests as seen from the story box showing those specific chests and listing the keywords. Chests occupy the same position they occupy in physical space and bear the same shields. Spatial, aural, and visual clues converge to structure the narrative, the digital map, and the library space into one single blended space.
The map was displayed for 60 seconds, after which the story box resetted and returned to the idle screen and the suggestion to press the button. Pressing it would generate another run of the story. No time limit was imposed on searching for books inside those chests that matched the keywords: when children thought they found one, or when they had enough of searching, they could visit the ship, where they would find the “salute screen”, implemented as an app running on a tablet encased in a wooden box bolted to the deck. The app showed the crew waiting and offered children a choice between “yes, I found one or more books”, or “no, I didn’t”. Both successful and failed searches resulted in a video featuring a crew member saluting the children as heroes, if successful, inviting them to read the book(s), and then asking to leave them in the hold; or congratulating them for their efforts upon failure, telling them they could try again, if they wanted, like a real Viking would. Twentyfour short videos were shot in front of a green screen and post-edited to add effects and backgrounds. Students played the crew dressed in full Viking regalia.
A post-mortem in the fall provided preliminary take-aways that showed that the experience was engaging and well-liked: kids loved to look for books and loved the story. Still, some part of the narrative proved to be difficult to follow for the smaller children and would have benefited from more clarity. The same applied to understanding the seams between the physical and digital elements of the experience, something that could be solved by better integrated, extended voice-overs to supplement the initial instructions. Finally, some of the keywords proved to be too specific and would require a round of revision.
“Read Ahoy!” was developed starting from a brief called the “The Enchanted Forest”, an earlier, more complex idea for engaging small children and “reinvent the children’s library experience through design and technology and a liberal mix of digital and physical”. This was originally co-designed as part of a hackathon I facilitated at ENS Lyon in 2015. The original idea used a digital touchpoint for choosing broad categories that could be joined (for example dragon, castle, donkey), RFID or similar technology to track individual books, and LED paths mounted on a deck to guide the children. This original envisioning had no “end status”: Children would just experience an ever-changing maze of paths that would shift and light up like breadcrumb paths as they moved the books between the different chests and locations within the imaginary forest.
The project ran for nine weeks as an end-of-year project in the Master‘s in Information Architecture and Innovation at Jönköping International Business School, part of a course on “Digital transformation and renewal”. It involved a team of two dozens international students working under my supervision and occasional help. After an initial, two-week phase of idea generation and collective discussion, the students split up in groups to better tackle the different challenges presented by the installation: groups individually worked on the information architecture, the narrative and the user experience, the software and interaction design, all the way down to the hardware and the necessary props such as the story box and the ship. The process was entirely student-driven and students were free to move between groups in accordance with their interests, skills, and the needs of the project.
Most of the development and realization, including audio e video recording and editing, was done done in-house at the creative studio at JIBS with a small budget of roughly 700 EUR to cover software and hardware costs, wood planks, paint, sails and nails, and Viking attire. During the kick-off phase the students explored a number of alternatives and ruled out solutions using RFIDs, NFC, QR codes, or cameras for tracking the books, as they proved to be either too expensive, too cumbersome, or a combination of these. The idea of using LED paths was also scrapped early on because of both technical and budget constraints following the suggestions of lighting experts from a local company.
“Read Ahoy!” is part of the ongoing research framework on experience ecosytems developed in collaboration with Bertil Lindenfalk. A paper is currently being written on the design and implementation of the experience.