​Last week I gave a talk at the always wonderful Playful conference. The theme this year was Hidden. My chosen topic was the hidden relationship we have with objects, going beyond what we first see.

The talk I gave was about the space around objects that for most of human existence didn't exist - and in the last 40 or so years only existed for machines and a select few. The digital layer that sits on top of any object and has the power to change the shape, size, colour and even the meaning of what we see. This was brought even more into focus this week with Google's purchase of Magic leap, a company with a patent on a face-mounted headset which projects directly onto the retina, analyzes the environment and renders virtual objects in the physical environment realistically in the user's field of view. Even more reason to read on :)

Here at icoEx we are interested in why this matters. Why it is a place to play, as well as a space to fight for.

To give the talk, I abandoned keynote and broadcast my slides from my phone's screen, with the aid of a bag of shopping and an app we built that allows users to post messages onto barcodes. While the slides are available on the barcodes of the products I used, here's the full transcript (video should be online in November.) Or you can skip to the bottom of the page and read a sketchnote summary from David Burton.

Morning all. I am Steve Lloyd and amongst other things, I am Creative Director and co-founder of icoEx, an interactive studio based here in London. I'm liking the hidden theme and am here to talk about the relationship we have with objects beyond what we first see.

I want to talk about the space around objects that for most of human existence didn't exist - and in the last 40 or so years only existed for machines and a select few. This digital layer sits on top of any object and has the power to change the shape, size, colour and even the meaning of what we see.

I want to tell you a story about why it matters. Why it is a place to play, as well as a space to fight for. To do this, I am going to abandoning keynote and will be broadcasting what you can see on my phone's screen, in itself a hidden space for most.

The reason I'm doing this is because at icoEx, we have developed an iPhone app called GUM that attempts to explore and test out some of the ideas that I will try to cover. GUM is an app that scans barcodes and lets users read and leave messages.

Here it is. (opens GUM on phone and leaves barcode scanning screen open.) Any message left on a product can be read by anyone else with the app. (Scans can of Coke to reveal a message.) (Jack says… Nine teaspoons of sugar in this can. Sweeeeet. I know what you're thinking, so far, so product review software. So what?

Well, we wondered if this simple service could be used for more than product promotion. Our aim was to create an open and sometimes irreverent - discussion around products, sort of like Reddit but attached to a can of Coke. Maybe it could help reveal some of our hidden relationships with the things that surround us. Maybe we could help objects tell stories.

To test out this hypothesis, I'm going to try and tell this story with this bag of shopping. (Pulls out lidl bag.) Ahhh.. You're thinking 'so this guy shops in Lidl?' What does that say about me? Cheapo bargain hunter or knowing middle-class epicurist? Or both. Annita Roddik said “the first bite is taken with the eye".

What difference would it have made if I had used this bag? (Pulls out Monocle bag.)

Are we what we own? American Philisopher William James said in 1890 that we are indeed the sum of our possessions. It's clear that our personal, sometimes hidden, sometimes very public, relationships with objects are important.

What kind of complex emotions are occurring between a toddler and their favourite teddy bear or a 50 something year old man and his brand new sports car? Certainly for many, it is the social value that an object brings that makes it important.

(Reaches into Monocle bag and pulls out a pot noodle.)< (Scans Pot Noodle to reveal a message.)

Tyler says… “We are defined by our objects" Tyler Brûlé 2009

Thanks Tyler. For those who don't know, Tyler is the self-styled arbiter of taste for the 'Uber Premium' market. He published wallpaper and Monocle amongst many other ventures. He is a lover of objects. Mr. Brûlé loves his things. He is rooted firmly in the physical world. Hates the digital world and has no plans for making more digital objects, or a Monocle magazine app for the iPad. Why? you ask…… (Scrolls to reveal next message.)

Tyler says… “On an iPad, no one can see you reading Monocle." Tyler Brûlé 2010

For him, it's the physical display of an object that gives it it's social value. (Scrolls to reveal next message.) (Tyler says… “In public circumstances where you have to choose a seat, you can look at a person's shoes, you can look at their luggage, and oftentimes, it's interesting to see what they're reading as well. 'Do I want to be near that person or not? " Tyler Brûlé 2010

For Tyler there is truth contained in an object. What you see is the story. It's all there is. The brand contains all the meaning you need. Lovingly crafted in order to give you a visual shortcut.

Look at how much of the visual space around us is taken over by corporations and brands. We are surrounded by products and the space around them is tightly controlled, with carefully constructed branding, and highly-designed packaging, even as to where they are placed on a shelf.

What happens if something like Google glass becomes ubiquitous and augmented reality makes the hidden digital realm more visible? Maybe Glass isn't the answer and Apple will release sunglasses, Samsung will make a Monocle or retina chip. Who makes it mass market is irrelevant, the software already exists. Facial recognition can allow the wearer of a device to see linked in data, facebook photos and relationship status instantly augmented around a person in a bar.

Will the owner of the device choose what they see around the person or object? Who owns that digital space? Is it the person, the person who made the object or the person who bought it? Is it a closed system? What happens when individuals break in to this hidden space and leave messages for other individuals to read? Is this graffiti? Who owns this space around an object?

I was at a PR company a couple of weeks ago and we showed them Gum and stuck a message on a whisky bottle of a client of theirs. Immediately they were on about moderation and how can we take messages down. (I think that the've just got their heads around social and how they can influence and try to shape conversations and they were like..."oh no! not another platform to monitor!" like a communication version of the dutch boy with fingers in the digital dyke, plugging up holes to stop the truth leaking out. )

It's the battle for this space that I think offers up the greatest opportunities for playfulness and subversion - in the same way that street art, parkour, skateboarding, interventions do in our urban spaces and reddit, fourchan and wikileaks do online.

Lets see what Hobnobs have to say on this. (Reaches into Lidl bag and pulls out packet of hobnobs.) (Scans barcode to reveal a message.) Colin says… ““In a dichotomous society where there is conflict on allocation and ownership of resources, claiming space by one group could be interpreted as aggressive behaviour and a crime, by another." Colin l. Anderson

(Scrolls down to reveal a message.) Banksy says… ““If graffiti changed anything , it would be illegal."


So the comments stuck to a bottle of whisky today might be a crime in the future.

Obviously all this is speculation, and how people use a hidden channel is different from how they would use a less hidden one and I've been showing you a little glimpse into the future there, when augmentation is ubiquitous, but its something we've been doing to some objects for years.

(Reaches into Lidl bag and pulls out a book: Thinking fast and slow - Daniel Kahneman.) Some of you probably know this book already. Some may have a copy at home. Each copy is the same. Except its not. The moment you take ownership it starts to accumulate history. You underline, make notes, fold corners and who doesn't love buying second hand books and seeing someone else's notations in the corner. Hidden to all but you and a person 30 years ago. Maybe it could even break free of its bookish nature, maybe it could tell jokes

(Scans book to reveal a message.) Lloydie says… Nurse: “ Doctor, there's an invisible man in the waiting room.

Doctor: “Tell him I can't see him."

(Scrolls down to reveal another message.) (Lloydie says… Q. What can you never eat for breakfast? A. Lunch and dinner

(Scrolls down to reveal another message.) (Jack says… Q. What happened when the wheel was invented? A. It caused a revolution

(Scrolls down to reveal another message.) (lloydie says… There are two types of people in the world. Those that can extrapolate from incomplete data.

I only say this because it struck me. Why should ice lollies be the only objects that get to tell jokes? We just accept it as a normal thing but its like Eddie Izzard says "Bees make honey…which is weird because do earwigs make chutney? Do spiders make gravy?" Why can't books have a secret comedy dimension? Or Pot Noodles delivering poetry.

The hidden layers of a book are explored beautifully in S by JJ Abrams and Doug Dorst. (Reaches into Lidl bag and pulls out the book S- Daniel Kahneman.) It's been called "part work of art, literary experiment, and love letter to the physical expression of books". It uses 4 colour print to reproduce handwriting in the margins.

There are little bits of ephemera secreted in at relevant chapters. It's a delightful physical object. Abrams said that "to physically hold it is kind of the point." One reviewer called it an argument for paying extra for a physical book, "a possessor of wonders that cannot be translated into digital bits" But why couldn't a digital book be a possessor of wonders? isn't there as much scope for delight and reward in the digital realm?

Why don't more ebooks have interesting audio or explorable maps in a way that would never be possible on paper? How about additional digital content for the physical book, sounds, songe, films and virtual objects. I suppose the short answer is, that to create quality content takes extra time and energy, the extreme levels of production that went into S are the result of many hours of work.

So what if the additional information is added by the users of the object? Can we wiki the world around us? Access to digital input devices is ubiquitous, why not let individuals tag their possessions? Adding personal information digitally is the idea behind History tag (Reaches into Lidl bag and pulls out pair of jeans.)

(Scans Jeans to reveal a message.)

David says… “We put our computers to sleep, we give names to our cars and we mourn when a pair of jeans comes to the end of it's life" David Hiatt

This idea taps into the buy better, buy once ethos and the humanisation of the objects we own. HistoryTag is designed to show the history of a thing from its creation, through its life with its first owner, and onwards as it gets passed on and handed down. An item tagged with a unique Secret Code from HistoryTag has its own page on HistoryTag.com, where photos and tweets chronicling its life will gather. so if those jeans get handed down or end up in a second hand store their stories will go with them. This is essentially turning a piece of denim into a Spime.

Product barcodes are not really spimes because a single code refers to every product with that code. Spime is a word coined by Bruce Sterling (Scrolls down to reveal a message.)

(Bruce says… “Spime is a contraction of “space" and “time" and means a futuristic object, that can be tracked through space and time throughout its lifetime. An object can be considered a spime when all of its essential information is stored in the cloud." Bruce Sterling

The history tag version works for an object of love and affection that you care deeply for. So sharing memories of a specific object makes sense, but what about tracking individual things that are produced in the millions or billions and that come off the production lines every day? What are the stories behind these objects? You may know this, but when a Taser gun is fired it leaves behind tiny traces of paper. The Anti-Felon Identification System includes bar-coded serialisation of each cartridge and disperses confetti-like ID tags upon activation. It tells the story of who fired and when. What if we could digitally track every bullet? Anywhere in the world? What hidden stories would that tell?

What if I could flick a switch to see a 'corporate responsibility layer'. Could this make companies behave in more socially responsible and accountable ways? (Reaches into Lidl bag and pulls out can of Tesco spagetti.) (Scans barcode to reveal a message.) Richard says… Tesco has reduced sick pay in an attempt to reduce levels of unplanned absence, which has led to concerns over employees continuing to work despite poor health (otherwise faced with a reduced income).

Is this the act of a company that values its staff?

Maybe it makes you think about your values and you put it back on the shelf. A worrying development for many corporations I imagine.

There is an idea described by Timothy Leary - that every person interprets the same world differently. they view everything through a subconscious set of mental filters formed from his or her beliefs and experiences. He calls these 'Reality Tunnels'. In a world augmented and mediated by technology - whose reality tunnel will we be looking through?

(Reaches into Lidl bag and pulls out Monocle magazine.

(Scans barcode to reveal a message.)

Anaia says…

“We don't see things as they are, we see them as WE are."Anaia Nin

So to end. Let's spare a moment to think about poor Tyler? How can you know the social value of the object that defines you when you don't know what the other person is seeing?

Until then, we have GUM. We thought that the sort of minds that inhabit playful are the sort of folk who might like to play in this hidden space, so we have a product and an ipod for non IOS participants (our beta test MVP was one platform only at this stage). So the hidden channel for you to leave messages about the day is a packet of Hobnobs. We'll collate the messages left there and display them at the end of the day. A kind of hidden shared pinboard or digital biscuit graffiti.

Thanks to Playful for having us, and if you want a copy of the talk, you just need to download GUM and scan this bag of shopping. I have copies of the receipt for anyone that wants it. Thanks.

And thanks to David Burton for the sketchnotes



Steve Lloyd