The Internet of Things and Auckland Theatre

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First published on Stuff and the New Zealand Herald in December 2015

ROW Z, SEAT 28. There's an unreasonably tall man sat in front of you, a lolly wrapper-rustler to your left and you can't see half the stage. But ah, just as the house lights dim, you see Row A, Seat 1 is free. Or is it? You whip out your iPhone, open the app, and a press of the button and a flash of a red light makes that prime spot all yours.

The theatre of the future, imagines Michael Adams, marketing, communications and innovations director of the Auckland Theatre Company, will have apps to book (or change) your seats, to give you running commentary, to book your dinner and drinks, to assist the stage manager, maybe even give you the view from the lead character's perspective.

3months Jack Ewing with his prototype theatre seat booking system

3months Jack Ewing with his prototype theatre seat booking system

Adams admits he had never before realised how creative the world of software development could be.  "People assume we're just nerds who write code, but the software development process is very creative - [so even that realisation] is a great outcome for us," says Mark Pascall, director of software developers 3Months, who are behind the new technology.

It was the shift to the ATC's new waterfront theatre, which opens next year in the city's Wynyard Theatre, that caused this welcome collision of thespian and technocrat.

Adams delivered a presentation to neighbouring busineses about the theatre's plans. Among them were 3months, who have space in the GridAKL innovation building right next door to the ATC's new home (construction of which is a month ahead).

Adams and Pascall got chatting, and ended up organising a 'hackathon'  - an intense weekend where developers lock themselves in a room with beer and pizza and emerge with working prototypes for new software.

The 3months hackathon cooked up four working prototypes: 'Chairs, Bro', the seat-booking system, an idea called 'TL;DR Shakespeare', which would deliver explanatory notes and commentary to audience members' iPhones as a play unfolds, 'Cat Herdr', an app to assist harried stage managers, and 'Plan your Night', an app to plan your entire evening from departing home to leaving the theatre. Pascall says the apps themselves almost aren't the point - it's the conversations they start.

So the last idea, for example, has Adams fizzing and definite commercial potential for anyone staging any sort of live performance. What if, he says, before you left home, the app told you the comparative cost and time of driving, walking or taking a bus to the theatre? If it delivered relevant traffic news en route, told you which neighbouring car parks had space, and booked you into a suitable restaurant? As you dined, it could 'ping' you a message to let you know the theatre doors had opened. At the other end, GPS tracking could let staff would know you had arrived in the precinct and so, if you were a minute late arriving, they could hold the doors open, knowing you were nearby.

"More and more businesses are nervous about digital disruption: Uber and the taxi market changed overnight, for example, so they are increasingly open to people helping them disrupt themselves a little," says Pascall.  "We realised we could work together to come up with ideas how to take theatre into the next century and bring the digital world in - and connect with a lost generation of people who don't go to the theatre any more.

"It is the intersection of technology with traditional business domains: you don't associate theatre with technological innovation but we are seeing this clash happen in every industry now."

A lot of the resulting ideas, including Chairs, Bro are possible because of the advance of tiny $20 'internet of things' computer chips which are capable of hosting all sorts of fancy gear. A small chip implanted in a row of seats can talk to your phone using indoor proximity sensors solving the issue of GPS sensors working badly indoors and incidentally, bringing the Minority Report scenario of targetted advertising speaking to you as you walk by is not too far away. They can also include accelerometers (to measure motion) and temperature sensors.

Programmer Jack Ewing, 23, built the Chairs, Bro prototype with another developer. His starting point, he says, was to consider improv acts, and how an app could allow audience members to become part of the show by using it to trigger props like fans, lights, and smoke machines. The time constraint of the hackathon led them to instead consider its use for a more simple, but no less effective purpose. The chip talks to an app with a map of the theatre, and sends power to two LED lights, one red, one green, mounted on the back of each seat in the theatre, letting people know if they are vacant or reserved. A simple push of a button on the app means you could swop seats in the seconds before curtain-up.

Adams went to a theatre in Amsterdam last year inside a converted waterfront warehouse where their main production is the story of Anne Frank, set in a 1-to-1 replica of her attic and built on a railway track which encircles the audience - a true theatre-in-the-round play where audiences can listen in Dutch, hear real-time English translation in their earpieces and follow subtitles in a range of other languages with a live captioning system. That's already given him thoughts about how all this new tech can help him produce multi-lingual performances to capture the cruise ship passengers pouring off boats less than a kilometre away. "We are a 32-weeks-a-year evening experience, but we have a 365 day a year venue in a prime tourist area - so what do we do in the daytime?" he asks.

"We want to put useful technology right at the heart of theatre, either in the creation of new modes of theatre, or innovations that will enhance the audience's experience," says Adams. He's got heaps of ideas now. Say you're staging a thriller and want to do a bit more than dimming the house lights to "emotionally warm people up to the experience of danger and thrill" - well you could send them interactive messages in the week before the show: "We want to expand the experience so it starts before 8pm at the theatre door."

And what about hiding an accelerometer in every seat so that they can get real-time data about what the audience really think about a play. Does shifting around in your seat mean you're bored? Does the seat tipping forward mean you are deeply enthralled? As with all the other ideas, Adams is counting on technology to deliver the answers.