Best Tech Opportunties at Festivals

EXPERIENCES (like this interactive shadow puppet show) at festivals are hands-on. They engage multiple senses.

EXPERIENCES (like this interactive shadow puppet show) at festivals are hands-on. They engage multiple senses.

If I asked you how you'd engage a festival audience of say 50K in a day, what technology would you use? 

Most would be quick to wonder if a mobile app would do the trick, but festival apps have been prone to fail. They're too lightly integrated into the festival to make any money and are only used once for the very short duration of the festival. It seems like a lot of work for little gain! It's a common concern in the games and festival industry I've found.

The good news is there's a range of interesting human and economic factors present at festivals that cry out for a very different use of technologies. Even mobiles and the internet can be used in real time, just differently to what you might expect.

Here's a short summary: 


  • Festivals are very natural & multisensory experiences.
  • Handheld technology like mobiles and cameras including products of any sort (eg maps) tend to be used for short bursts at a time and seldom (unless it's at a food bloggers conference).
  • Festivals are also too loud for mobile communication to be effective.
  • Mobile technologies and internet (on a desktop PC) works best before and after the festival.
  • Remote participation also enables a larger online audience in different time zones to participate live with each other and those at the festival, which is what I'm dedicating my time in development to.
  • People implement very old school ways of connecting with each other, like walking to find each other, sitting and talking, helping and working with one another face to face, and they expect to do so (especially at festivals meant to be historically accurate). It's like a village.
  • People learn through play in general, but at festivals they actively seek out new exotic experiences that challenge them. The culinary tourist at food festivals is 'bungy jumping' through their taste buds, pushing their limits for a thrill. I remember tasting the most exclusive range of artisanal herb infused goats milk cheeses and vanilla goats milk liqueur, but it was the goats salumi where I reached my limit.
  • Most festival audiences are not game players. The challenge is to provide them with a familiar playful experience without it being obvious that it's a game. The more familiar the experience is the wider the audience you get to engage in play. I use a ratio of at least 90% familiarity and 10% uniqueness where possible. It can be lower if you're targeting a niche audience and don't want to dilute the message.    

There are a few emerging and traditional categories of implementing technology at festivals that works however. 


1. Remote Participation Between Physical and Virtual Audiences.

There's an abundance of ways to facilitate the kind of interaction where those who can't make it to the festival experience it online instead by helping those who are at the festival. It can be both live and delayed using messaging, photo, video, audio and sharing of files.

I'm experimenting a lot with this at the moment, limited only by the availability of online software and electronics, and inspired by our team's imaginative story telling. 

The story of these two groups who need each other is that there is only so much the festival goers on the ground  are able to do on their own. They tend to be a small tightly knit group of people who bring their own unique skill sets. But that's sometimes not enough to overcome obstacles or perform tasks such as solving a mystery to the disappearance of a food culture. There's only so much they can achieve on their own. Sometimes it's a skill that's missing in the team and other times the team is limited by their own human senses. (Festivals as I pointed out above are the ideal space to play games that use all your senses in the same way you'd play Hide and Seek in a forest.)

Helping the party on the ground is an online audience that has been following and engaging them for quite some time prior to the festival game. It's now the chance of the online audience to give back and engage their idols on a more meaningful level and potentially even help leave something of lasting cultural value behind. For those who become most engaged, it feels like real satisfying collaboration.

And for the small team in the field it's like reaching out to borrow the sharp abilities of every animal in the zoo to become momentarily stronger, like saying "I'll have the eyes of a hawk who flies high above so I can get a bird's eye view and see what's coming way ahead of me. Then I need the long distance roar of a lion to signal everyone and the discrete stomp of an elephant that only those in my network will hear." And if we translate a beaver's knowhow to construct dams and a starfish's ability to regrow itself in a way that is inspiring the 3D printing revolution, I could imagine an exciting scenario of team work:

A day in Valentine's Day festival: The expedition comes across an antique oven with a missing hinged door. It needs replacement and restoration to get the oven fired up for re-learning a forgotten recipe said to be a delicious aphrodisiac. A photo showing the oven's maker is uploaded to the online community and they go to work sourcing images of what the whole oven complete with its door used to look like. One online member on another continent opts in to draft up a 3D file of the door, emails it to be 3D printed near the festival as a pattern for casting it out iron. The cast iron door is then delivered into the field where the expedition crew are waiting for it, like in the film Hunger Games.

This is only one major component of the new media format I'm developing. During my world trip I was inspired by Mats Adamczac's work in revolutionizing the digital gambling industry and a number of other interesting charity-giving projects that used social media technologies creatively. Mats predominantly embedded games in popular twitter feeds that had a healthy ecosystem of participation. When forming the games he made sure they couldn't be 'gamed' by strategically sprinkling in the player's need to also use other online platforms like Foursquare, Gowalla and Bambuser. Great games designed by Mats were Okampen ("Island Campaign"), Havskampen ('Harbor Campaign"). They were like an interactive version of orienteering, 1960's Rebus Rallies in Sweden, or the TV series The Amazing Race, except that the TV watchers got to help the racing team in the field.


2.Tools: "The Internet of Things"

On the surface these seem to be the familiar objects you'd find at outdoor events, in your home and workplace and even on the street. But built into them is electronics that connects to the internet so that you can do more with the objects.

A great example are the Budweiser paper Buddy cups that connect you on Facebook with whoever you toast with using the same cup. The cups use QR codes to 'capture' your Facebook account and NFC circuitry to 'share' it.


3. Wearable Tech

Wearable technologies that are seamlessly integrated into the equipment and clothing (leaving the user's hands free) can be empowering. For example, the warriors I interviewed at Burgfest loved the idea of wearing cameras embedded in their helmets to capture the battles from their own perspective. The potential of secretly wearing a microphone tickled their rebel fantasies while offering them a way to record their most ridiculous conversations, what they called Viking Humour. There is a wide range of sensors that can be built into clothing for triggering events and special effects around the wearer or sustaining their performance like Kolon Sport's Life Tech Jacket that houses its own wind turbine to power its electronics. 


4. Interactive Installations

Interactive installations are my forte. They can be purely mechanical or mechatronic ride, involve animatronic to give life to characters, or use any combination of these with digital technology. To monetise them it helps if they have a takeaway feature, or like the Buddy cups, perform a social task on the spot.

Another great example is the Fashionista Table I designed for the Frock Stars exhibition. As a visitor you were immersed in a digitally projected setting of a VIP fashion party. You could take photos of yourself with friends in poses together with your digitally projected fellow stars who stood with you. All these glamorous shots and photos of your clothes and accessories like shoes and bracelets went into the back Saturday-night party pages of a fashion magazine. There  you rearranged and captioned the photos before hitting "publish!". It was a real it that generated some heart warming moments where people serendipitously repurposed the interactive to create a record of themselves posing for their university graduation. I felt very fortunate.

Fashionista Table at the Frock Stars Exhibition.

Fashionista Table at the Frock Stars Exhibition.

And if you eat meat with a passion:

Picture being mad about eating beef, and entering a cooler where the finest marbled meets are on display. Standing before you is a full scale replica of a bull. Using hand gestures, you role play being a butcher dissecting the bull using digital animations projected onto the animal. With each gesture, you digitally cut away layers of the animal to reveal not only its organs but also why the meat is so fine and why the farmer is so proud of their produce and sustainable farming practices. Perhaps voice recognition even senses if you're in tune singing opera. The more in tune you are, the more of the animal and the endangered art of producing delicacies from animal offal and leftovers are revealed. 

How Festivals Work Like Epic Games

Burgfest Post 3: Disruptive vs Integrative festival Experiences

Jousting about to take place at Burgfest

Festivals like games need a healthy balance on spaces that let you either be active or rest. Making up the active spaces is a wide range of dynamic experiences working in harmony, exactly as they do in games (game mechanics as it's called). Those experiences are either more disruptive or integrative, and are equally fun and important to the ecosystem of festivals .

I've developed the belief that integrative experiences are more sustainable and scalable, but the best result is a mix of both disruptive innovation and integration. Twitter-based urban games where you run around solving clues with your whole online social community helping you are great examples of that duality, not to mention the awesome PR potential they provide.

Examples at Burgfest:

Disruptive Experiences

Who: Street performers and rides

How: This group is dependent on finding a large group of people they can convert instantly into their audience. Their important function to festivals (like in games) is creating serendipity and spontaneity.

They either move from one location to the next seeking out sizeable congregations or they work the crowd where there is a steady stream of traffic. There's a fast turnaround of shows that interupts the traffic flow. Shows tend to be free or donation based but can be great PR for another event. 

Below: performer with a vegetable puppet theater and mechanically wound rides.


Integrative Experiences

Who: Bakers, warriors, stage bands etc

How: This group works with its audience, team members, competitors and anything else in the rich tapestry of the festival that surrounds them to make them more productive. The festival around them, and often even what goes on beyond the walls of the festival is their commercial network, world and often even their lifestyle. This model of operation is scalable.

This group builds their audience. They get started with a call to action in the morning, and they remain active in engaging their audience till the end of the day. Many remain in a productive flow between festivals, making the activity their lifestyle, one they enjoy greatly. 

How Festivals Work Like Epic Games

Burgfest Post 2: Popular festival experiences & merchandise

The most striking similarities I found between festivals and the Red Bull brand is how the most successful exhibiting businesses at Burgfest operated like its top performers. In fact I now see businesses and performers as one and the same. To simplify things further, I'll say that festivals nurture a performer-audience relationship, just like pop stars have their fans.

There's a recipe for spotting and creating popular festival experiences and merchandise that continually pull crowds or customers to performers all day long. At festivals it boils down to which customer relationships and products are most sympathetic to the common drivers and frustrations of the audience.

A simple example of how this works is Red Bull and its events. To me the brand is more than just an invitation to be active. The brand is a means for audiences to connect with their adventure-sporting idols through a flow of action and merchandise. Just like festivals, the events bring the idols and their audience closer together and match their excitement levels in a hive of activity that sees idol and audience feed of each other's effort. To sustain their state, a drink sympathetic of the audience's desire to stay feeling excited and active is served.

Now picture the moving mass of people at food festivals as being a bit like kids in a candy store, always on the lookout for the next great experience. Their ultimate goal is to remain feeling the delight of being in that flow. When they spot a performer that is as busy as they are, including any products that can help sustain their flow, they reach out to connect and a sale soon follows in many cases. It's like as if the audience is subconsciously saying "Hey you look like you're as active as I am, let's get together to maintain or even build off each other's flow." and  "I need an energy boost / a high to keep me going, your food and drink look like they'll keep me in the mood." The opposite effect is generated by performers who remain stationary with nothing to offer that is sympathetic to their audience's motivations. You can almost hear the avoiding traffic think, "I don't want to risk losing some of this wonderful flow I'm in to bring yours up to the same level as mine." That's not to say we're not a charitable human species, but just in that moment the audience chooses to stick with the 'champions'.

Together, the audience and performer build a healthy ecosystem that keeps them both in a positive flow, ripe for exchanges such as sales and attracting more customers.

The healthiest ecosystems at Burgfest were, in order:

1. Warriors

2. Bakers

3. Stage bands

4. BBQ grills


While some categories can be very creative and will be different across festivals, the way they work stays the same. I'll show how each of these categories work through a series of interviews in upcoming posts.

[Interestingly you'll find all of these ecosystems as motivational aids that keep you ina  positive flow longer in epic role playing games.]

Understanding how the most sympathetic relationships between the public and exhibitors can be constructed helps you both pick and create the experiences that makes a festival or pop-up show a hit.

How Festivals Work Like Epic Games

Burgfest Post 1: Preparing your audience.

Burgfest ("Fort Fest") is an annual festival for dark ages and medieval historical re-enactment. Every year, armies of warriors and artisanal food producers from as far away as Russia, converge on Neustadt Glewe in Germany to collaborate, live together and battle it out. It creates an amazing world I found to be reminiscent of the game mechanics of World of Warcraft (WoW) and brand values of Red Bull - features that make festivals happiness engines. So I entered the festival looking for signs of how people stayed in a fulfilling productive flow that lead them to experience a more sustainable feeling of happiness.

Before even entering the festival grounds you're prepared by an exclusive authentic experience. It's the majestic architecture of a town that hasn't changed for hundreds of years. Just look at how the buildings lean and sag under the weight of real heritage.

It's that authenticity that sets the mood and gives you a clue to the likely fun rules, goals and rewards that lie ahead of you. The subliminal effect is similar to a trailer video or a digital attractor designed to entice you to jump into an unfamiliar experience with anticipation of what you'll get to do next. [An attractor is an audio visual trick I used to implement to invite curiosity. It works by giving bypassing public a snapshot of what would happen if they engaged an interactive experience (which included the rules, fun obstacles and rewards they'd get to play with) all in about 10 seconds.]

At the entry, you get a discount on the ticket for having come dressed for the theme. Good monetisation can behave like a game - it's voluntary, sets the rules, and you get something back and even rewarded for fulfilling a set of goals. What I like about this model is that it taps into your love of heritage and lets you decide how far you want to go to prepare yourself with your friends for the festival. It essentially makes the festival both viral and a part of your lifestyle long before the event is even launched - a great branding exercise. I'm fascinated about the branding and monetisation potential of empowering audiences to prepare themselves long in advance.

And if you're a new visitor and came unprepared, you'll be able to kit your costume out at dozens of markets as part of the fun of exploring and role playing your back-to-your-roots persona you've had a hankering to reconnect with.  

The introductory experience worked a treat in preparing me. Nowhere else was I going to be welcomed like I am in an epic game, except this was better. It was authentic.