Toni Alatalo is a chief technology officer and cofounder of Oulu-based technology company Playsign Ltd and TaikaBox’ partner in developing the Warjakka Augmented Reality app. This app restores the houses that existed around a century ago in the village of Varjakka. It offers users the chance to explore the buildings that used to stand there, and walk through a virtual gallery with a programme of visual arts created on – and inspired by – the island of Varjakka.
The augmented reality app is free and can be experienced everywhere, yet it is perfect for trying in Warjakka Puutarha – the Warjakka Community Gardens which now sit in the foundations of these long-gone houses.
In this TaikaTalk Toni speaks about the exciting benefits of collaboration between art and technology, bringing both businesses and cultural organisations to a whole new level of social awareness (we also just talk about games quite a lot!).
How and when did Playsign start?
It started in 2008, there were three of us: Pekko Koskinen, a game designer and a second technical guy, and Tomi Hurskainen, who was in charge of graphics and arts, and me. We wanted to do things related not just to design and playing, but also to real world problems and designs, that’s how the name was born. The core of game design and game theory lies in understanding what kind of a situation one is put in, what are the possibilities to act, what the consequences of actions are – and how we understand those consequences. Games have never been just about points, prices or competition. It’s basically about action theory and how to design an environment for action. That was the philosophy back then and it hasn’t really changed since.
We started by creating our first game – a mobile action game – and then, throughout the years, tried to apply lessons from game design to the real world. We were engaged in subcontract projects and created some learning environments and things for industry and city planning. It was quite random back in the days – we did whatever we could sell, and then used the money to make our own game… We switched a little in 2015: instead of aiming for our own games we made a product with the same name as the company – Playsign (we still do subcontracting and help other game companies with actual games, however). It is an automated platform for publishing virtual models of real world places. Mostly we did it for city planning and for development of building environments. The same technology works for historical content, like here in Varjakka with the Warjakka AR app.
Gaming is a big passion for many people. How did you decide to turn this passion into profession?
I started making games in the late 1980s for fun, in the 1990s I was mostly doing web stuff, but in the first half of the 2000s the game business became very different, though it was still the time of selling physical copies. In the 1980s it was normal for one or two guys or a married couple to make a game all by themselves – and then for this game become the year’s bestseller, like Commodore 64 games in 1986. In the 1990s indie games were also on top. But in the 2000s everything started changing: it became more about big studios making huge projects which seemed as gigantic as Hollywood movies, and their budgets were growing and growing. It was no longer possible for independent developers to get through the gates – of Sony, for example, to make a PlayStation game.
The change happened fifteen years ago in 2006 – it was the Apple iPhone. When the iPhone came and became a success, everybody could put games into the AppStore, and the whole business changed, going back to the indie roots. Suddenly small companies from around the world were emerging, making simple mobile games which started like a fun idea, and then millions of people started playing them around the world. The big publishers in Los-Angeles studios could only wonder why all the money is coming to the random small companies.
The iPhone gave people a chance, yet the marketing, reaching the audience and actually selling the game remained very difficult. It was not as bad in 2010, because there were less games. But of course, over the past ten years people have put over ten million games out there. In a way it’s impossible to be found: if somebody makes a great game and puts it into the stores, nobody notices it. If you actually want to make a living of it, there’s no guarantee of success. Even if you have a 100 million euro marketing budget and you’re a big American studio – they have failed so many times. People just have to push it a lot.
Take Rovio. ”Angry Birds” was like the 50th game they made. They tried all kinds of tricks in marketing but nothing worked, until a famous Swedish slalom skier won the World Cup and said that when she doesn’t ski, she spends her free time playing ”Angry Birds”.
And now Angry Birds represent Finland even more than the Moomins used to, as many believe. What was missing for you in the reality that you turned to the augmented reality, developing which became Playsign’s technical signature?
One reason was the company’s business idea and personal motivation to publish virtual models of real world places: we really wanted to help with societal development, city planning and how people can understand, for example, where the new crossroad is, or where they want a new bike lane…
I’m originally from Oulu and follow all the news. I spend a lot of time going around the city and enjoy skateboarding. From my perspective, the city interacts with us in a very random way: whether there’s a new construction site or a new road, it feels like a very sudden encounter leaving you with a feeling that you never actually know what’s happening.
There’s a law in Finland stipulating that if you want to build something, you have to do environmental studies, understand how it affects everyone around, then you have to inform the neighbours, and apply for the permits – considering the people’s opinions. It’s a big area of work – often bigger than the city actually has for communicating with people and asking for the feedback.
So the plans don’t really reach people, especially young people, because when the city organises an event like the public hearings, nobody knows. Even if some do know, who has the time or interest to go to some city seminar to discuss roads? People are busy living their own lives.
At the same time professional companies use computer models of the roads and construction companies and architects have fancy 3D building models – the professionals have great visualisation, but it’s not shown to ”normal people”, because they don’t really matter as long as the buildings can be just built. We’ve been wanting to help them have better communication, so that the future plans of the city will be more visible for people, the web and the industries – and so that they can view alternatives and give feedback. Then people are able to participate better in the city’s life.
This approach is actually the opposite from what is often expected from the gaming communities – isolation from the ”real life”. You do the contrary: use gaming technologies and design to get people involved into the real world matters. Why did you choose that?
I was triggered by quite a personal frustration, feeling somewhat like: hey, I live here and I follow the news, I should know more about things instead of asking, what on Earth is going on in Oulu and why can’t I do anything about it. Especially considering the fact that the city is using our – the taxpayers’ – money. As for the gaming community, yes, we spend some time playing, but then we go out and we want it to look nice.
As a businessman do you feel more like an outsider, or is social awareness of the business becoming more mainstream nowadays?
Maybe we, the business, are halfway to the right level of awareness… Many companies seem very aware, yet in the end money is often the thing that really matters. There are many processes that continue the way they used to just because it is fine for the people who benefit from it. They don’t see quick wins if they change the system.
Did you have temptations like that, having to choose between the awareness and quick money benefit?
We are balancing to stay practical and modest. We might talk with a construction company, having different ideas of how we do the project and suggesting that we should involve people earlier on to take more solutions into account, yet we are still not architects or designers, and if they say they want it their way, – keeping things secret from the public, not allowing comments and informing everyone after the plans are finalised, – we remain just tool-providers for them.
Even when we have to follow their will, however, we still try to plant the seeds of awareness, at least by sharing the experience of how useful communication actually might be. In the next project they maybe decide to get people’s comments earlier on…
Oulu has won the status of a European Capital of Culture for 2026, not without your participation: Playsign created the augmented reality elements for the Oulu2026 bid book. The big idea of the campaign was combining technology and art. How did you come to collaboration with art? What are your favourite results so far and what are the expectations and dreams?
AR fits well into city development and planning. The other thing is that it is exactly about combining art and technology. Playsign has always been a tech company with an arty spirit, developing the technological part together with the art one, drawing, taking photographs, creating websites and making music in free time. For me, personally, the closest art is dance, it has been my hobby for a long time. I even performed in a dance group, often doing contact improvisation.
Since 1995 I had a dream of enriching the dance experience using computers, exploring virtual reality in a very physical, embodied way, moving around in rooms and digital spaces at the same time. VR was a lot of fun, especially in small physical spaces which one could explore with new possibilities. AR doubled that fun – it literally unites the two realities, actual and virtual. We can augment space by putting different things into different places and see how powerful this is, especially when amplified by muscle memory.
The phone becomes a looking glass you get through like Alice. You can easily see a small detail if you just walk close to it, maybe even kneel to see it better, as if it was a little detail on a ”real” floor. You get this very physical mix of virtual and physical activity, your body and perception become augmented – that’s why I’m so enthusiastic about AR. The whole concept of awareness becomes augmented.
How do you think other businesses might benefit through collaboration with cultural organizations?
Concrete things work. Oulu Dance Hack (TaikaBox annual event bringing in artists from around the globe together to experiment with dance and technology) is a good example of it. Artists and organizations get a chance for long-lasting fruitful inspiration there.
For about 25 years it has been quite painful for me to see how Oulu is not one city, but two.
One is in Linnanmaa – the university, and tech labs’ ”city” – and the other is in the centre, the ”city” of art. The huge gap was actually physical, engineers and art people literally living in two different worlds, not hanging out together, not eating lunch in the same place, not having many chances to actually get to know each other.
It has been a strong characteristic of Oulu, all the attempts fading in the void of that gap – until now, with Oulu 2026, Oulu Dance Hack and Tech Art projects. People should just meet more and talk more and we should have this concrete hacks where results come out and people can see them… It would also be important to listen to the tech companies – they have concrete needs, but it doesn’t really work if somebody comes and says: ”Hi, this is my art, give me money for my painting on your wall”.
You seem to have quite a precise collaboration with TaikaBox in Varjakka. Where has it led you?
It has been beneficial for us, because this collaboration expanded and we got more chances to do what we love and can, and then to sell it. The next project we won to be developing is the AR for Suomenlinna in Helsinki. Collaboration with TaikaBox is a perfect example of how things should be with a technology company, art entity, the city and officials.
What usually happens is that the city doesn’t get anything done: although they have some ideas and wishes, when they try to find money they fail. A year passes and nothing happens. Or something might happen in two years, but without guarantees.
About three years ago we talked about AR in Varjakka with the city and TaikaBox. TaikaBox got funding and was quick. We started it one and a half years ago, and already a year ago the first version of the Warjakka AR app appeared. Thanks to TaikaBox, we were actually able to do something. And thanks to having the Warjakka app reference we were able to develop the bid book for the city of Oulu and are now able to sell to Helsinki and Suomenlinna – we have references and ready-made technology. Everybody wins when art organisations, which can be quick, unite with tech companies which want to do stuff – and the city has to take up the speed, otherwise not much will happen.
In the end the community wins due to that collaboration. Do you feel that in Varjakka?
I feel it has been very rewarding for all. I’ve never lived in Varjakka and didn’t know much about the space, only visited it once in the 1990s with the university photographers’ club. It felt like a magical place. Now I’ve learnt so much about it! We visited the site with archeologists and heard so many amazing stories of the people who lived in houses which now are augmented. I’ve also got some new experiences: my friend bought a sailing boat, and we’ve sailed to Varjakka from Oulu.
I always keep telling and retelling stories of Varjakka: there were so many people working, payday was on Saturday, merchants from Oulu market square came to Varjakka to sell things on the payday… It augmented my Oulu experience – now if I go to the market square, I can imagine how sellers were sailing off to Varjakka from there some century ago.
That might be the next step in Warjakka app – installing it to the Oulu’s centre.
So that you can see the boat leaving for Varjakka! That’s one of my dreams – to augment the whole of Oulu…
Toni Alatalo was talking with Lölä Vlasenko