Korn Seang Edouard Song imagines, designs and creates technologies as creative expressions of potential futures.

Phototaxon

A photography game in creativity, where players seek the original and the peculiar in the monotony of their physical environment, drawing on their real-life experience, knowledge and character.

Montage of two screenshots of Phototaxon, as one tried to find a red parallelogram around the Centre Pompidou, Paris, and another to find a white circle at launch time.

Most video games take place in a fictional world, supported by a fabricated history, and governed by made-up laws, where abilities, achievements, and points are often disconnected from the players reality.

This becomes especially an issue when these games and other gamified apps are available right from our omnipresent smartphones, where they have the opportunity to pollute our free time and disrupt our attention at will. More than a passing disturbance, this influence gradually blurs the boundary between virtual and physical worlds with use, until the fictional achievements and arbitrary numbers take priority over our individual aspirations and needs.

Phototaxon is a stubborn camera application. It challenges players to capture photos that satisfy a given set of constraints, rejecting any other attempt. This game will unsettle even the most seasoned photographers by issuing more and more demanding specifications 1: from preferring a simple hue, to requesting a complex colour palette within a certain shape taken at a specific time of the day…

  • 1

    Constraints are extensive, and can require the photo to have (or not have) a certain color within a particular shape, demand a given angle (towards the horizon, or the ground…), a certain time of day (lunch, or golden hour…), a particular date range (autumn…), or a location, all with some tolerance to give players some leeway in their expression.

Montage of four screenshots, describing levels of intensifying difficulty (1—4), from requesting a single colour (1), a combination of colours (2), to a coloured shape at a certain angle (3—4).
Fig 1

From satisfying one basic level (single colour, left) to fulfilling a more demanding one (colour in a certain shape, at a certain angle, right).

To capture a photo and thus solve the puzzle, players have to move around, explore the world, examine their surroundings, use their knowledge of the environment as well as their ingenuity to find views that would be accepted by the machine. There is no alternative: this camera is as basic as it is uncompromising, it has no filter, no zoom, no flash, nothing, only the ability to take a picture or say no.

Fig 2

Finding the right composition to satisfy a given puzzle, resulting in a captured photo, that incorporates a watermark to allow others to play the same level.

When a photo is successfully captured, it is compared with solutions from other players, and receives a numeric score corresponding to its originality 2. The goal of the game is therefore not only to capture valid photos, but to capture original ones. More, these photos are not just a reflection of one’s resourcefulness, they become an expression of one’s originality and inventiveness, to be shared among friends, as a challenge to take a beter picture.

  • 2

    Photo fingerprints are generated on-device for all valid photos, approximating the different pixel compositions into short strings of text. The originality of a photo is computed through weighed comparisons of its signature with a small number of model signatures, that were compiled from fingerprints of past submitted solutions. Two signatures are expected to be similar if their photo compositions are similar, such that a photo will be deemed original when its fingerprint contrasts with all the model signatures.

Montage of two screenshots, showing an original photo, and its high score badge, along with a frequency map of photos from other players, locating the latter photo in a rare, infrequent, region.
Fig 3

An original photo with its high score, which was computed from comparisons with solutions from other players, and derived from its position on the frequency map.

Phototaxon is not a game played with the head facing the smartphone screen. On the contrary, it is one of those rare games that can be played with the application closed: once the specifications are known, players hardly need to point their phone to guess the outcome. Phototaxon encourages players to move around freely, have their heads high up, far from the device screen, observing and appreciating the intricacies of the real world, on the look for opportunities that might satisfy the unflinching camera.

Phototaxon is not a prescriptive game. While some levels may hint towards an obvious solution, the real challenge is to seek out the original and the unexpected. Phototaxon motivates players to make personal choices based on their own experience and judgement to find an answer, not to follow instructions of a scripted story.

More than the capture of photos, or the pleasure of presenting one’s achievements, Phototaxon gives players an incentive to look at their surrounding environment from a different perspective, from the scope of a machine, submitting them to the limitations of the hardware and the deficiencies of the software. It makes players confront their impression of the real world to the arbitrary of the algorithm, revealing aspects that would otherwise be overlooked. Why is it this difficult to find a yellow square? Why do we have this tendency to look at the ground? Is it easy to be original?

Phototaxon exposes, for the duration of a game, the biases and influence of social media and technology, making players satisfy the machine instead of followers, making them seek the original in the monotony of life and value the present time and reality, instead of fantasising about an imaginary future.

Phototaxon is a free-to-play game available right now on the App Store, and is described further on its minisite.