The Digital Ghost Hunt combines coding education, Augmented Reality and live performance into an immersive storytelling experience.

The Story

The Digital Ghost Hunt begins with the most boring coding class in history.  Students spend about 15 minutes programming a meaningless square to turn pointlessly blue.  After about 10 minutes, just as students are about to lose the will to live, their screens go blank. After a few seconds of nothing, the face of a woman appears on every screen.  She looks straight at the camera and says: "I need your help…The GHOSTS need your help."  Then there is a knock on the classroom window from outside. It's the woman, and she wants to be let in!

The woman is Deputy Undersecretary Quill, there to recruit them into the Ghost Removal Section of the Department for Paranormal Hygiene.  Under her tutelage, students will learn how to program their own ghost detectors.  They will then use these devices to explore a Battersea Arts Centre haunted by a real historical figure, one who was connected to the building in life.  They will use their devices to find objects and areas touched by the ghost, by detecting real physical phenomena such as radio waves, ectoplasm (ultraviolet paint), and high-frequency sound.  Each device will have different capabilities, forcing the students to work together to get all the clues.  The ghost, meanwhile, will be an occasional, sometimes frightening presence: appearing out of thin air, making eerie noises, and leaving strange smells and a chill in the air as it haunts the building, all through practical effects and the poltergeist potential of the Internet of Things.  Together students will unravel the mystery of the ghost's haunting, and help to set it free.  

What is it?

The Ghost Hunt is a mixture of education and performance, made up of three parts: 

  • With the connivance of teachers, an ordinary Year 6 school day will be hijacked and turned into a workshop led by our main characters.
  • Students will learn to use a basic library in the Python programming language to program their own ghost detectors – Raspberry Pi and Micro:Bit computers inside a 3d printed shell.
  • A few weeks later, they will explore a haunted Battersea Arts Centre in an immersive live performance.  The students will use their devices to find evidence of the spirit's activity, and in the process learn about the building's history and why she is haunting it.  The spirit (played by an actor) will respond to their investigations as a poltergeist through performance, practical effects, and smart home technology.

Project Context

...preparing students for success in the fourth industrial revolution, can hardly be more apt or more timely. (Jan 22nd 2018)

The Rt Hon Damian Hinds MP

Department for Education

Young people live increasingly digital lives, but this has not been accompanied by a higher interest in learning about the technology behind the devices and sites they use, as evidenced by the low take up of the new GCSE in Computer Science (BCS, 2017).  Teaching coding in schools is promoted by the UK Department of Education, but students often experience coding as a classroom assignment, divorced from their intuitive and creative experiences with commercial digital applications. 

There are several applications and initiatives to teach children coding, from commercial apps to coding clubs and the work of the Raspberry Pi and Micro:Bit foundations.  These applications all seek the increase in engagement and experimentation that can occur when ‘work’ is reframed as ‘play.’

However, these applications all take place within a screen, an approach that comes with its own problems. A screen can shift a user’s attention to the digital environment, to the exclusion of the physical one.  The Ghost Hunt’s approach is to bring the AR interaction fully into the physical space without the mediating influence of a screen, reconnecting audiences to the world around them.  No current program combines coding and drama in this way, using the learning of the former to empower agency in the latter. 

The addition of immersive theatre reframes the learning again, from ‘play’ to ‘performance.’  This second shift is important to reach groups not engaging with existing digital resources.  Performance may draw in groups who would otherwise be uninterested in or feel excluded from traditional Computer Science education.  The Ghost Hunt seeks to shift how the context of computer science is perceived, from a skill intended only for a narrow group to a tool of creativity and play available to all.


Ghost Hunt Partners

Ghost Hunt project partners across heritage, academia and the creative industries

The Ghost Hunt was created by Senior Developer Elliott Hall using the lab's personal research program.  After some initial technical work, he began co-writing the experience with Tom Bowtell, founder of children’s immersive theatre company KIT Theatre.  

With incubation support from the lab the project was accepted on to the Reframed AR/VR development programme run by Lighthouse in Brighton.  The project has now made a successful application to the AHRC’s Next Generation of Immersive Experiences programme, with Mary Krell from the University of Sussex as Primary Investigator and Carina Westling (Research Fellow at Sussex) and Elliott Hall as Co-Investigators.  It will be developed with project partners the Battersea Arts Centre, Robert Morgan of Playlines and Brickwall Films 

Current Status

The project has recently received funding through the AHRC’s Next Generation of Immersive Experiences funding call.  The project is scheduled to run from February until the end of October 2018, ending with a test performance with students at the Battersea Arts Centre. 

Project Team

  • Tom Bowtell

    Co-writer and Director

    Tom Bowtell is the Director of BAFTA-winning creative education company KIT Theatre and was previously co-director of immersive theatre company Coney.  He is the creator of the Adventures in Learning (AiL) system. Adventures in Learning (AiL) combine immersive theatre, digital interactions and game mechanics to deliver formal learning. Projects are designed in dialogue with teachers to ensure that teachers’ learning targets are embedded at their heart. Writer and director Tom Bowtell conceived Adventures in Learning in 2008 with the ambition to explore the potential of immersive theatre and game mechanics to inspire children to learn.

  • Elliott Hall

    Creator, Co-writer, and Co-Investigator

    Elliott is a developer and novelist with over fifteen years of experience in software development and research.  He uses Java, Python, and SQL to design and implement digital projects and further digital scholarship across the humanities.  

    He is also the author of three novels published by John Murray, the Strange Trilogy, as well as works in film and theatre.  The Ghost Hunt is his first attempt to combine his creative and development work.

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  • Mary Krell

    Primary Investigator

    Mary is a digital artist whose work spans performance, interactivity and narrative. Her work has been shown on multiple continents and she regularly collaborates with artists and thinkers from around the world.

    Originally from the USA, she has been based in the UK at the University of Sussex since 2002. Prior to coming to Sussex, she was the Head of the Design Department at Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle. Before entering higher education, Mary worked as a digital designer at Seattle's Saltmine Creative during the initial boom of the 1990s. While at Saltmine she worked on projects for Wizards of the Coast, Microsoft and the Pokemon franchise.

    Mary has also been an associate member of Forced Entertainment as a digital author.  With them, she created a number of interactive works that were exhibited around the world at venues including the ZKM (in Karlsruhe, Germany), the ICA (in London) and The Art Institute of Chicago. Nightwalks, an interactive virtual reality piece created in collaboration with the company won the Transmediale in 2000.

  • Carina Westling

    Project Manager

    Carina's research interests include interaction design and digital entropy, and she did her PhD research on the immersive interaction design and making culture of Punchdrunk. 

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