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Alarum: capturing the heartbeat of theatre

Tasked with finding the pulse of the theatre for the RSC’s new myShakespeare platform, technologist Nat Buckley discovered a building with a life of its own

Alarum is an ambient visualisation of the data showing changes in sound levels and motion around the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. It’s about the heartbeat of the building, how it lives and breathes not just during the performance, but at all times. Most people will remember the theatre bustling with activity in the evening: they might arrive for dinner beforehand and stay for a drink or two afterwards. Of course, there are many people in many different departments working sometimes round the clock to make the experience possible.

To record this hidden side of the production, I installed four sensors around the theatre, recording changes in sound or motion levels. One of the noise sensors is placed in a busy Swan Bar, which is open to the public, giving a good view of how the audience activity shapes during the day. The rest are placed in staff-only areas: a motion sensor near the stage door, another near wigs and wardrobe department, and a noise sensor in the Green Room.

Together, these sensors paint a picture of a building with a life of its own. Seeing the activity as it happens makes me think of the theatre as a living organism, with it own cycles, routines and rhythms.

The sensors themselves are built using Arduinos (cheap open source microcontrollers) and very basic sensors that you can readily buy. I have attempted building my own complicated noise pickup using very cheap components, but (despite advice from a friend of mine, Jason Hotchkiss, who has built similar things in the past for his Noisy Table project made with Will Nash) I haven’t been able to get the right results with it in time. That has somewhat dented my geeky pride.

Alarum: capturing the heartbeat of theatreThe sensors send data over the internet to an external service, Cosm, which then collects the data in a reasonable format and makes it possible to share with others (you can grab it for yourself and make your own project with it). They attempt to communicate with Cosm every 20 seconds, though there are often network difficulties present so the data isn’t always so granular.

Of course, having the data coming in is only a part of the project. Another challenge entirely is interpreting what the data means. You have a flurry of numbers in front of you – how do you decide which numbers are meaningful? In what way? This was by all means the hardest part.

On top of the data I had built Alarum, the app that listens to data coming in and tries to evaluate its importance. It does it in a very crude way: I have preprogrammed thresholds which tell the app whether the levels of activity are low, medium or high (code is on GitHub, so you are free to play with it yourself). When they go up or down and back again it means something short-lived and sudden has happened. If the level goes up or down and stays at this level, it means the activity carries on or it has quietened down. This isn’t a very sophisticated way of looking at the data at all, but it helps convey the building’s heartbeat.

Alarum is a project I have been working on with Caper as a part of the MyShakespeare platform for the Royal Shakespeare Company. Together with Caper and Tom Armitage (whose Spirits Melted Into Air is an exploration of a performers interpretation of text) we began by working out interesting ways of using technology to look at what RSC do in a new way.

From the outset I wanted the data and the code to be freely available so it can be improved or repurposed, and RSC were more than happy to foster this kind of sharing. I am very grateful for the openness, fantastic support and cooperation of the team at the RST. Despite RSC being a huge organisation, things were happening quickly and effectively. They had been incredibly helpful in installing the sensors and keeping an eye on them once they were in situ. Occasionally, like all pieces of tech, they do need a restart.

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