The Fantastia Express

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This is an article about an augmented reality practice-based research project,The fantasia Express, commissioned by the UK Department for Transport through an InnovateUK competition. And about how a non-writer tried to create a story around a train journey from London to Edinburgh.

I am an artist who specialises in technology-driven public realm work that distracts, diverts and creates participation from the general public. Most of the time, I am trying to create a mechanic or system that disarms the audience and gives them the freedom to be both present and be themselves when confronted by unusual circumstances. It is their behaviour, reaction, and participation that most interests me. This is similar, in many ways, to Roy Ascott’s ideas on the same subject from the 1960s;

“Ascott challenges artists to acknowledge information technology as the most significant tool of the age and insists that it is the artist’s obligation to use this technology. Yet, unlike Nam June Paik’s vision, Ascott’s is not ironic; rather, it is utopian in its embrace of a new medium, excited by the potential of a thriving, dynamic exchange between technology and art to empower the spectator and deepen his or her experience”.

For me, writing and storytelling were a means to change the behaviour of train passengers. My main objective was to create a shared experience that connected passengers to both passing locations and to each other. I felt that a locative story was the best way to do this. Rosemary Kay, from Immersive Storylab, was brought in at the beginning as lead writer and she became one of many collaborators on the project. It was a very steep learning curve.

The inspiration for the project was a 5-minute YouTube video, Documenting the Bewegtes Land Project, where 400 residents along a 19-mile train route put on short performances for passengers. These whimsical vignettes showed everything from “running” bushes to a shark emerging from a lake and startling canoers. I felt that this type of theatrical site-specific performance could be reimagined using immersive technology, specifically augmented reality, and applied to a much longer journey. We took inspiration from Bewgates to create a 4-word manifesto. Our content had to be locative, automated, scalable and ridiculous.

This resulted in Fantasia Express becoming two things. Firstly, and officially, it was a public demonstration of the application of location-based augmented reality within and outside a moving train carriage. Secondly, it involved an alien spaceship sent to earth to capture relics of our imagination; a cross between “Predator” and “The Hitch-hikers Guide to the Galaxy”.

From a narrative perspective, it was new territory for everyone. A long train journey presented a specific set of requirements that we described as the “narrative anatomy of a train journey”. No matter at what point a passenger joined or left the train or in which direction they travelled, we presented them with a story consisting of a beginning, a middle and an end. This story punctuated their journey at geographic points, allowing them to dip in and out of the experience. We used a simple interface, which showed a countdown timer for the next event, along with an audible alert for the larger AR set pieces. The central concept of Aliens sent to earth to collect myths was not only ridiculous but it allowed us to practically tie together lots of different stories and landmarks within a single storyworld.

The project involved a long initial process of researching and identifying interesting facts and stories about the route from London to Edinburgh. Some things worth Googling are: the Lambton Worm, Berwick-upon-Tweed still being at war with Russia, The Falkirk Triangle (UFO), The Barnburgh Cat, Deadmans Chair and Roman Gods of the Tyne). We picked a few stories for the fully scripted and narrated AR experiences, whilst others we presented as illustrated Wikipedia (Fantasiapedia) style content. We directed users to look out for landmarks visible from the train and for features that we had given made-up names, such as ‘space mirrors’ for Solar panel farms.

Our initial plan was to create a radio play script to reduce dependence on the unknown technical and production resources that would be available. Although not touched on in this article, the technical element was two-thirds of the project. Imagine inventing a film camera and trying to make a film at the same time. Creating a radio play script gave us a kind of augmented reality location-based podcast. The script then went through several small iterations before we realised this was not the best approach and we should have thought about the story more like a comic book, resulting in a major script cut and revision.

We then got to the point about two thirds of the way through where we had some early animations of key scenes and could go into the studio to record actors. This was the first opportunity for us to get a real feel for the creative experience. But, it was still not right. The key learning was that when a user is holding a phone to explore an AR scene, it can get uncomfortable quickly and 30 – 60 seconds is a good working time-limit. So, again, we had to carry out a large script edit and tweak some of the stories. We had the help of Simon Spencer, a comic book writer, to make the final revision (another 50% cut) and this time we decided on a single actor to play all the parts.

The final output of the project was a public trial with the support of LNER (London North East Railways) over two weeks from 17th Feb to 1st of March 2019. We used Google cardboard for the ending and Android phones preloaded with content that we could leave with passengers. We set aside the first week to test and tweak the mechanics of our testing methodology, which was a very wise move as a public trial on a busy intercity train is an incredibly difficult environment. This resulted in changes to the testing approach and the user interface. In terms of how we tested in the final week, we created two frameworks; one full experience test of the whole system that we could only do with a small number of passengers and another framework that allowed a much quicker and more agile way to demonstrate the AR and VR setpieces. After observing people interacting with the project, we made one large improvement to the UX, which was to add a gaming component that allowed people to collect points each time they logged an event.

Fantasia Express was an ambitious prototype of many creative and technical elements. The public was universally positive but the story did get a little lost. The potential is there but it needs more iteration, more tightening and a few more jokes. There are some elements that I would like to push and explore more. For the Angel of the North, a contemporary sculpture in Gateshead, UK, viewable from the train, we created a story about how, for one night, the Angel decides to go out on the “toon” but “…Exhausted the angel returns to his post. He may weigh 200 tonnes but compared to the queens of Newcastle, he’s just a lightweight.”

For part of this, we went out in Newcastle and recorded audio of local Geordies discussing the Angel in a taxi rank at 2am. I think the project lends itself to more experimental ways like this to create a narrative that reflects the locations more deeply and to use the technology to add generative and real-time inputs.

All this leads me back to the initial objective of changing behaviour, One of the full tests I observed involved a young family traveling together but completely separately on the train. A mother (iPhone), 5-year-old daughter (iPad) and 8-year-old son (Nintendo Switch). I sat in a seat close by and, for 30 minutes, their journey was transformed. They looked out of the windows, followed prompts, played the augmented reality set pieces on cue, shared the experience and looked at the scenery together.

And then we lost them. The content became a bit repetitive and it was too long to wait before the next rich content was due to appear. I still felt joy! We had successfully converted devices typically used to suck people into themselves to make people connect and be present with the real world and with each other. We had also added some magic to what is often seen as the pain and inconvenience of a train journey.

With the recent passing of Robert M Persia, I think it’s timely to be reminded about the importance of the journey and not just the destination. My standard joke during The Fantasia Express was to say, “Time flies when you spend tens of billions of pounds on high-speed trains or time flies when you’re having fun”. It’s a typically flippant remark by me but it highlights an often forgotten truth in the transport sector. The perception of time is relative; a good book or film can speed up a long journey faster than any vehicle.

Alastair is an AHRC funded PhD in Architecture at Liverpool University, part of  The Centre For Architecture and The Visual Arts. He also co-founded arts practice Meyouandus. At the heart of everything is his desire to bring artistic and creative experiences into the fabric of society and into people’s everyday lives and interactions.