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Innovation

Nokia's Conspiracy for Good: How to play the augmented reality game

How mobile technology blurs the real world and fiction
Written by Jo Best, Contributor on

How mobile technology blurs the real world and fiction

"Hey buddy, it's been a while."

We're approached by a guy we've never seen before. We don't know him but he seems to know us. Or at least, he's pretending he does.

He shakes my partner's hand. I'm now sure I don't know this man.

He leans in to us and hisses sotto voce, "Cover up your bag."

We're deep under cover, attempting to infiltrate the recruitment expo of mysterious construction and security company Blackwell Briggs. Suited and booted, we're preparing to enter the lion's den and any clue to our undercover activism - an ill-placed logo on a bag, for example - could give me away...

...Or so Nokia would have it. In reality, I'm queuing outside a tent in Bloomsbury Square Gardens, while the drizzle beats down on me and the 150 or so other individuals who've turned up to play the final instalment of Conspiracy for Good, an alternate reality game developed by Heroes creator Tim Kring and Nokia.

Needless to say, technology plays a crucial role in the whole set-up, from augmented reality apps to stealing corporate data (have these people not heard of the HMRC fiasco?) to social media and even good old-fashioned text messaging.

Even the back-story for the fictional evil corporation we're battling against has its roots in tech - Blackwell Briggs is lobbying parliament for a mandate to combine government data with mobile pattern recognition to conduct surveillance on British citizens.

Of course, seeing as Conspiracy for Good is backed by Nokia, bringing down criminal multinationals can't take place without a fleet of mobile phones. In this case, players are equipped with Nokia X6s, preloaded with their very own Conspiracy for Good Ovi app.

nokia CFG conspiracy for good

The Conspiracy for Good app picks up the telephone
(Photo credit: Jo Best/silicon.com)

The Conspiracy for Good un-members, as the players are known, use the augmented reality app to pick up crumbs of information that lead them closer to shutting down Blackwell Briggs. When the phone's camera viewfinder is directed at given objects, various messages are piped to the handset, each one giving information on how to expose the murderous nature of its CEO, and a clue to the location of the next message.

The last Conspiracy for Good event earlier this month kicked off when the players' X6s recognised the Conspiracy for Good logo - a kind of loopy trefoil - directing players to find "golden dogs" and then a telephone.

nokia CFG conspiracy for good

Finding the golden dogs
(Photo credit: Jo Best/silicon.com)

The un-members duly wandered around Bloomsbury, pointing their mobiles at the designated golden-dog-bearing bins and phone box respectively, summoning up videos and text tips on what to do next, and flummoxing the hordes of tourists who have stopped by this quiet corner of London only to see hordes of besuited gamer types jabbing handsets at the street furniture and muttering about secret missions.

The Conspiracy for Good app is based on an existing beta app available...

...on Nokia's Ovi store called Point & Find, which works using a combination of GPS and image recognition to pick out landmarks from cities around the world and present information about them.

The iteration used for Conspiracy for Good was developed with input from Kring's team, a Nokia spokesman told silicon.com. "They were helping the [Nokia] development team in real-time to actually affect the application and what it was ultimately going to do," he said. "Tim's team would say 'wouldn't it be cool if the application could do this?' and our team would go off and bang away and write some code, come back and say 'we could totally do that'."

This August, the app was put to work informing gamers about how to succeed in the job interviews that formed part of the Conspiracy for Good plot.

The game's story has it that un-members must attempt to gain an audience with the Blackwell Briggs CEO in his office, in order to swipe a dodgy contract stored there - a contract that has been doctored to allow the company to illegally build an oil pipeline through land it doesn't own.

It's a meeting they can only hope to engineer by excelling in an interview with a Blackwell Briggs exec and being fast-tracked to meet the boss.

Each interview takes place in a meeting room with a symbol pasted on the door. By reading the symbol with the Conspiracy for Good app, the secrets of success are revealed.

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The DeadDrop app delivers some intelligence
(Photo credit: Jo Best/silicon.com)

I'm scheduled for an interview with the company's VP of legal and with a quick scan of the door decoration, I'm armed with the right information that means that, when I'm shuffled out the door, it's one step closer to the job.

Outside, I stop to chat with another Conspiracy for Good player. "I can't believe how seriously people take this," he tells me following his own attempt at a job interview. "I just went in there to take the piss and the interviewer threw me out."

Seriously is right - this may be an alternate reality game, but everyone involved has cheerfully agreed to forget the alternate bit.

The fictional universe has spread beyond Bloomsbury - traces of the companies and individuals that populate the Conspiracy for Good world have taken on a life of their own on the internet.

There's a corporate homepage for the fictional Blackwell Briggs as well as a Twitter account and blog for its equally fictional CEO Sir Ian Briggs.

Blackwell briggs CEO Nokia Conspiracy for Good

CEO of the fictional Blackwell Briggs and social media addict, Sir Ian Briggs
(Photo credit: Nokia)

There are also Facebook groups protesting about the company and a key plot point in the game even sees incriminating evidence leaked on The Pirate Bay.

Conspiracy for Good blurs the lines between the real and alternate reality in...

...other oddly disorienting ways: some of the characters in the game, for example, bear the name of the individuals that play them - musicians, who play at the game's closing party. The fictional Blackwell Briggs' oil pipeline threatens a library in Chatika village in Zambia, but the companies involved in the game are working to build a real library in the same village that features in the story, populated by books donated by Conspiracy for Good un-members.

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Inside the Blackwell Briggs corporate recruitment expo
(Photo credit: Jo Best/silicon.com)

The blurring does not always come off. There are reports dotted over the internet of people who believed the fiction was fact, directing their anger at Nokia for making a game out of murder, kidnap and conspiracy.

"In order to give [the characters and charities involved in Conspiracy for Good] credibility, we needed them to be real people, so all the people inside these different communities following this programme would believe it," a Nokia spokesman told silicon.com. "It rooted it in a sense of reality."

He added: "We tried to be transparent early on in saying there were lots of elements of fact and fiction and we were using an original storyline created by Tim [Kring] and in doing that, in making it as real as we could, that's sometimes the risk that you face - that people thinking this is really, really serious."

"That's the beauty of alternate reality games - people get super, super-involved... we've tried to do a really good job of being transparent but a lot of people think this is real, which is interesting and kind of dangerous all in the same way," the spokesman noted.

Paradoxically, it's in the real-world game - without the crutch of social media and unconvincing celebrity endorsements on YouTube - where the artifice works best.

With more than 130 people in five countries working on the Conspiracy for Good set-up, the real-world element of the game is carried off thanks...

...to a series of cleverly thought out touches: a camp of protesters is set up outside the recruitment expo, bearing more than a passing resemblance to Brian Haw's peace camp currently pitched up in Westminster, while Blackwell Briggs has its own corporate signage and marketing collateral to give out.

The actors play their parts to a tee: such is the effect I find myself sneaking into the ladies' toilet, turning the Conspiracy for Good bag inside-out in order to hide its logo after a Blackwell Briggs employee spotted the offending emblem. "Is that your bag?" he asked. No, I lied; it belongs to some bloke - medium height, brown hair - who's just disappeared around the corner. He duly follows his imaginary mark around the corner, stopping other players to ask if they'd spotted this elusive medium height, brown-haired man.

nokia CFG conspiracy for good

A couple walk their dog in Bloomsbury Square Gardens, alternate reality or no alternate reality
(Photo credit: Jo Best/silicon.com)

After two years of development, an online campaign that ran over several months, four real-world events and hundreds of players, the Conspiracy for Good game concluded earlier this month in Bloomsbury.

The Blackwell Briggs expo tent has been dismantled, the DeadDrop app has been removed from the Ovi store and the five Conspiracy for Good libraries are on their way to being built in Africa.

The game has been variously referred to as "a pilot" in a nod to its television-industry creator - so can we expect some more alternate reality from Conspiracy for Good?

The official response? "Stay tuned for the next episode."

Conspiracy for Good

The beginning of the end: outside the Conspiracy for Good closing party
(Photo credit: Jo Best/silicon.com)

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