Taking on the great AI escape to help Cambridge’s Childrens Charity Week

PUBLISHED: 10:57 08 June 2017 | UPDATED: 14:38 09 June 2017

The Ominous Office, 101 Cambridge Science Park Rd, Milton, Cambridge, Laura Wilkinson (far left) from the charity with the team who put the room together from left, Chris Gissing, Laura Vincent, Jason Leonard and Peter Hibbert. Picture: Keith Heppell

The Ominous Office, 101 Cambridge Science Park Rd, Milton, Cambridge, Laura Wilkinson (far left) from the charity with the team who put the room together from left, Chris Gissing, Laura Vincent, Jason Leonard and Peter Hibbert. Picture: Keith Heppell

Iliffe Media Ltd

A fiendish game experience on the Science Park will benefit children’s charities in Cambridge. So how did the IoT get to be so much fun?

The Ominous Office, 101 Cambridge Science Park Rd, Milton, Cambridge, Mike Scialom tries to escape . Picture: Keith HeppellThe Ominous Office, 101 Cambridge Science Park Rd, Milton, Cambridge, Mike Scialom tries to escape . Picture: Keith Heppell

An artificial intelligence-enabled escape room quest is an unlikely concept to debut as part of a fundraiser for Cambridge Children’s Charity Week but the experience proved delightfully entertaining when presented by a hugely talented Citrix team on the Science Park on Friday.

Citrix is a multinational software firm providing tech which enables people to work smartly and remotely. The Cambridge site is its R&D home, and the AI Escape Room concept has been developed using its open-source IoT platform, Octoblu. And yes, the game has a corporate social responsibility (CSR) component, but the team has really invested time and resources into this experience, as director of product development Chris Gissing explained in his introductory remarks.

“CSR is not a tick-box,” he said. “Our values and the way we operate are core to us and CSR is very, very important, with two days a year for each employee to go and work for a charity or non-profit.

“We got involved with Cambridge Children’s Charity Week (CCCW) last year and created a puzzle hunt which was outdoors, and we thought ‘how can we do more next year?’ My personal hobby is escape rooms – the design element is fun for me.”

Citrix's director of product development, Chris Gissing . Picture: Keith HeppellCitrix's director of product development, Chris Gissing . Picture: Keith Heppell

CCCW’s Tracy Wilkinson is delighted with the level of involvement. “It’s fantastic, it’s so innovative,” she said.

Citrix has been on the Science Park for five years and has 160 staff. It’s one of those US firms which likes its people to get out and do stuff in the local community, so 10 per cent of staff time is set aside for whatever interests them personally in the same way as Google has Google Friday, where one day a week is devoted to exploring workers’ own ideas and projects. Chris is certainly up for it.

“We had a conference last week in Orlando and we did something similar to this experience with healthcare,” he said. “It was an IoT (Internet of Things) and smart office experience that involved the use of sensors and biometric readers.”

Chris created the puzzle environment with Citrix software developer Peter Hibbert, automation developer Jason Leonard and project coordinator Laura Vincent. The trio sits behind the console, which is powered by Raspberry Pis.

The Ominous Office, 101 Cambridge Science Park Rd, Milton, Cambridge, Mike Scialom tries to escape . Picture: Keith HeppellThe Ominous Office, 101 Cambridge Science Park Rd, Milton, Cambridge, Mike Scialom tries to escape . Picture: Keith Heppell

“The whole room is powered by 10 Raspberry Pis with things connected to them, and they talk back,” says Chris, referring to the bargain credit card-sized computers created in Cambridge. “The dynamic of the room is powered by Citrix software products. Citrix Octoblu is our IoT engine that allows us to build things together to provide contextual computing. All the things in the room are IoT-enabled. Octoblu is free, it has full support for all Citrix products. We see this as a growth area – there’s very few standardised ways to mesh things together. We’re not trying to achieve an industry standard, but Octoblu is a way of getting involved. It’s a community-based project so modules can be added by users.”

Escape rooms, for the uninitiated, present challenges for teams to solve in order to get out.

The Citrix game experience has been sold to 15 teams from organisations including Taylor Vinters, Cambridge Consultants, Acteon and the University of Cambridge. The slots were over-subscribed. That may have been because Janet Banner, Lloyds’ East of England director, got involved with the marketing, but it may also be because it’s a perfect quest for Cambridge folk, involving teamwork, intuitive thinking, logic, technical nous and, certainly in the later stages, a whole lot of adrenalin.

The gameplay involves a rogue AI assistant, Lucinda, who appears on a screen giving you clues about her real-life colleague who has gone missing. Except the clues are sometimes not very helpful and the colleague isn’t missing, she’s trapped in the escape room and wants help getting out. If it sounds devious, that’s because it is.

We go into the AI Escape Room. I’m in a team of four. You get an hour to solve the puzzles. Chris paces the floor offering clues if you get stuck.

First up is a box with various arrows and circles in different colours. You have to follow the arrows and count the circles to go to the next one. When you get the right answer the box opens, except there’s another box inside which is harder to get into. There’s various keys to safes, a UV torch which you use to see various instructions written in unlikely places, some instructions on a computer, some bits of hardwire to wire up, some … I can’t say more as I’m not supposed to give clues, but suffice to say they’re tricksy, sometimes fiendishly so.

Six Citrix teams had already solved the puzzle, but ours was the best time – we finished with nine minutes to spare. It was noticeable that every team member had useful skills to solve some of the puzzles, so teamwork is crucial. It’s a great way to find out how other people think – or don’t think, but act intuitively. Every time you crack a code and push on to the next clue makes you feel like you just won Mastermind.

The AI Escape Room, as well as being a fantastic charity fund-raiser, is a great way to discover how an IoT-enabled room might work. Who knew the IoT could be so much fun?

- Find out more about Cambridge Children’s Charity Week at www.camccweek.org.

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