by Michelle Lefevre
When it comes to arts organisations designing and releasing applications for mobile devices the rules are the same ones related to getting involved in a land war in Asia, you just don't do it. Over the years there have been a few good examples (how many of you use Akram Khan's iPhone app?) but Pavilion Dance South West have unleashed perhaps the best example yet of why mobile applications and arts organisations just don't mix.
"DanceTag" is being marketed as some sort of game and is available to users with either Apple's "iOS" based devices or Google's "Android" enabled gadgetry. Essentially what you do is get somebody to hold your phone so they can film you doing a 15 second dance somewhere.
This "performance" has some fairly cheesy, generic music added to it (presumably to avoid licensing problems although an interview with the developers claims this restriction is to "level the playing field" and encourage users to "try something new") after which the video is uploaded to the internet for all to see.
Funding for DanceTag came via Arts Council England (ACE), the National Endowment for Science Technology and the Arts (Nesta) and the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) through their Digital R&D fund. The cost of this little adventure? Not much, just £123,820.
Inside the application the video is added to a map and you are also awarded points (described as "value") for you efforts. The more points you get for a particular location the more chance you have of "owning" it.
If that sounds like a mash-up of Foursquare and Instagram then you would be right because that's almost exactly what DanceTag is. When we tested the application 7 days ago there was very little content to see and what was there wasn't worth seeing at all, like the guy dancing with a mop (not making that up!) DanceTag has been available for iPhone since last November and Android devices since late December.
As for what the application is supposed to achieve? Well, Pavilion Dance told us this much;
"DanceTag is a location-based game which combines dance and social media. Users create 15 second dance films to tag a particular location. They can upload a film just for fun or challenge other users to win points and competitions."
Pavilion Dance also told us that DanceTag "..brings together geo-location, short video, gaming and friend networks to get more people involved in dance." We would argue that if you are not generally inclined toward dance as a recreational activity then an application that uploads a video of you dancing in a public place is going to be about as much use as giving a farmer an electron microscope.
They did not respond to questions asking them how the application is able to "get more people involved in dance" beyond repeating to us what the app actually does in a functional sense, they also declined to tell us how many times the application had been downloaded and used.
Additionally, Nesta declined to provide the completed application form submitted by Pavilion Dance South West.
Design, Duplication, Disaster
Some dubious reviews of the application can be seen in both the iTunes Store and the Google Play Store from users with no other review history or empty Google+ profiles.
From a design and usability perspective the phone application (designed by a company called Mobile Pie) is fairly mundane. Just a collection of big orange buttons and not much else. One fundamental problem with DanceTag is that Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Vine, et-al are all pretty much one person operations.
The idea of the "selfie", as far as taking pictures goes, is really easy to achieve but filming yourself doing a spur of the moment dance in a completely random location is nigh on impossible.
The companion website (www.dancetagg.com) is equally uninspiring. The only video content available via the site is the "editor's picks" section on the homepage. At the time of writing this featured 3 videos that are all orientated incorrectly and, as you can imagine, the quality of those videos is very poor to say the least. The "game" and geo-tagging aspects of the application are not mirrored on the website.
As mentioned above this application duplicates, albeit poorly, the functionality of Instagram and Foursqaure.
With Instagram you can shoot 15 second videos, add filters to those videos, geo-tag them on a map and share them with your friends or the rest of the world if you choose to do so. When we asked both Pavilion Dance and Nesta about this duplication of functionality something weird happened.
Pavilion said this (via their PR company);
"DanceTag is a game which is specific to dance and aims to broaden participation in dance. It brings together geo-location, short video, gaming and friend networks to get more people involved in dance."
Nesta said this;
"Digital technologies are changing the way we consume, share and interact on a variety of subjects. DanceTag is tapping in this trend to broaden participation in dance. It brings together increasingly popular elements of geo-location, short video, gaming and friend networks to get more people involved in dance."
If you read from the word "broaden" the statements are almost exactly the same, word for word. So much for independent thinking.
Again, both organisations failed to explain why they invested such a large amount of money in an application, the features of which, were already available in established applications with tens of millions of users that anybody can get, free of charge.
Some DanceTag users attempt to film themselves doing a dance without realising that the phone is pointing in the wrong direction.
DanceTag is supposed to be a game but it misses several fundamental points about gaming by a thousand yards. Games are supposed to be fun and you're supposed to be able to win. Anybody faced with the nebulous gaming aspect of this application will almost certainly give up very quickly because it's just not fun to play.
An interview with the developers on the Digital R&D website attempts to explain the scoring system;
"To add a territory system to the game, the community-chosen winner of the game then "owns" that location until challenged and outvoted. For the Mobile Pie team, this was a unique challenge they hadn't faced previously: creating a game where the winner is decided by the community rather than programmatically. Wilson adds, "Unlike other games, there's no way you can automatically work out the winner because it's subject to other people's opinions."
In our limited time with the application we couldn't locate this voting system and the "challenge" section was completely empty. Pavilion's PR reps appear to be equally confused about how you win points with DanceTag telling Article19 that "points are based on a logarithm built into the game".
We think they meant "algorithm" but the games developers suggest, in their interview, that other users decide who "wins", or not, as the case may be. Nothing this application is trying to do makes any sense.
The dirty little secret that Apple and Google don't tell anybody about their "app" stores filled with hundreds of thousands of "apps" is that most of them are either ignored completely by users, downloaded once and quickly deleted or abandoned by their developers.
DanceTag is destined to follow one of those paths because it tries to fix a problem that doesn't exist. Instagram works because you take photos (and now videos) and share those with your friends because all you need is a phone, some friends and something to film or photograph.
For DanceTag you need at least two people, access to a location that the developers have classified as being similar to one somebody else has already gone to the trouble of dancing in and then hope the other person cares enough to still be paying any attention after everybody has figured out how the ridiculous scoring system works.
Who the hell is going to do any of that?
Further problems emerge when you take into account the fact that dance is a social activity. The reason you become involved in dance is to engage in challenging physical activity with other people, real people, that are standing in the same room as you.
People "get involved" with dance because of dancers and dance companies, they get involved with dance because of real people not poorly crafted phone apps.
Young people in particular need to be encouraged to get their faces out of their phone screens and into the real world a lot more. As for the perilously weak idea that DanceTag is all about research, you could have achieved much the same thing with Instagram, Twitter and some hashtags without spending any money at all.
For these features we will grade the project from A (the highest) to F (the lowest) on Policy: the reason for the project existing in the first place, Execution: how well was the policy turned into a practical product that people can use, see or take advantage of and Utility: how much use will the particular project be to actual people who have to use or experience it in some way.