Super Mario Meets Bitcoin in the Augmented Reality of "1 Up Fever"

I caught up with the self-described "small Italian girl" behind the augmented-reality game in which you snag bitcoins, Super Mario-style.

The 1Up Fever from Silvia Dal Dosso on Vimeo.

When I first heard about bitcoin, I imagined fake money within World of Warcraft or a Zynga game. I imagined a digital currency that players could buy into to accelerate gameplay and skip character levels. After learning the ins and outs of the decentralized crypto-currency, I was still consumed with gamification concepts and wrote pitches for a bitcoin documentary for a production class at school.

It turns out that Silvia Dal Dosso, a filmmaker, artificial intelligence scholar, and Florentine native who’s been hovering between Berlin and London for the past few years shares some of that sentiment. But Dal Dosso has created something much more inspired from a dream she's dreamt ever since attending Germany's Fusion Festival a few years ago.

Her product, as seen above, is a mockery of her idea as much as it is a prototype of her prescribed scenario: An augmented reality game, called The 1 Up Fever, in which people walk about cities collecting the bitcoins they see through the perspective of their smartphone’s camera. You know that Yelp feature where you point it at a business and it starts giving you reviews? It's kind of like that.

Dal Dosso shot, conducted interviews, created motion graphics, and edited this piece by herself (with some assistance from her professor and some musicians) as part of an assignment for a documentary class. Silvia’s sogno nel cassetto (Italian for “dream in the drawer”) of a Mario Bros.-esque augmented reality coin plucking game could be coming true now. Her documentary-mockumentary has garnered so much enthusiasm from Berlin’s bitcoin community that developers are now helping turn the augmented reality into reality.

I completely ignored my math professor while chatting with Silvia at my desk this morning:

MOTHERBOARD: Dimmi tutti, what's your story? What's your day job? Do you have bitcoins, or are you just curious?

I'm 27, Italian. I left Italy when I was 23 and started living between Berlin and London. I was studing in Firenze, then I took one year of study in Berlin—as Erasmus, you know—then I went to London to write my thesis on artificial intelligence and posthumanism at Goldsmith University. The thesis is called The Cybernetic Bestiary. I'm now translating a book about cybernetics and posthumanism by K. Hayles called How We Became Posthuman, from English to Italian. I do not own bitcoins, I was just curious about the phenomenon.

Ok, spiegarlo, explain it. This game looks amazing, but it's not real?

The game is giving you money when you are able to go and grab it, exactly like when you play Super Mario Bros., but this is fake. It's just my invention. I've been talking with many game developers and AR programmers to develop the real app, but we are still developing a pilot.

So it will be real?

It would be quite impossible with the actual technology. We are developing this now and it would take more then a year to produce just the pilot. You have to be a proper genius to develop something like this. I just have the idea and I have some notion of programming and tracking and that is it.

Ok, I just had to confirm. Germans tend to complicate that place between fantasy and seriousness. I'm mostly German by descent. Anyway, the POV graphics we're seeing on the players' phones in your video, you made those?

The gamers were acting and I built the motion graphics later in After Effects. All the funny small animations are GIF files I created during the night and then mounted on After Effects. Officially the movie was produced with the Met Film School Berlin equipment through a two month documentary course I was in.

So, it's all your idea? Un sogno nel cassetto? I'm impressed. 

Grazie, si, era il mio sogno. I played Super Mario when I was a kid. It's actually very funny for me to see all these old geeks discussing my idea, because I'm just a small Italian girl.

When did you first have this dream?

Three years ago at Fusion Festival, as I was telling you, because all of Berlin, for like two weeks, was whistling the Super Mario song randomly in the street after Fusion Festival. So, I started to think of how it would be if all of Berlin were Mario land.

…some friend of mine was telling me this story of crazy people who were starting to accept bitcoin as a real currency in their clubs and restaurants.

When did you find out about Bitcoin? 

I was just back in Berlin and some friend of mine was telling me this story of crazy people who were starting to accept bitcoin as a real currency in their clubs and restaurants. It was April.

And you completed this film in June? Brava!

Yes. I slept for three months on couches, changing place almost twice per week. I had all my stuff in the car, [to the] point that I was feeling like camping in the city. It was a great sensation to get ready for school and production by washing my teeth beside my car and watching the street landscape around.

I even made a curious botanic experiment. I convinced myself that if my small plant of basilico was surviving through all of that squatting, I could survive too. I was bringing that little plant everywhere. And she is actually still alive.

Where did you find your bitcoin subjects?

Interviews were collected at re:publica, which is a blogger meeting taking place every year in Berlin. The Bitcoin Kietz is actually real and the people you see in the video are meeting every months at Room 77, and they are firmly convinced to represent the future. A stock broker, a game developer, a re:publica organizer, an editor from Der Tagesspiegel, a bitcoin application developer and many other hackers and geeks were interviewed.

The junky kids from the old 90s arcades will start to play Mario in augmented aeality, jumping on rooftops…risking their life on train tracks. They will do that to earn real money.

It could be pretty attractive, playing a real-life video game through your smartphone for real money.

My aim was to raise questions: Where is this money coming from? Who are the developers of the game? Why do you think they're giving you money? What are they using your jumping, data-roaming, and geolocation-tracking for? And I think the great interviewees I found on re:publica, c-base, and room 77 were taking the dare and coming out with genius statements.

I had many discussions with hackers, game developers and such, during the making of, and we agreed that despite the game still not being possible to make with these smartphones, it's just a matter of time. The junky kids from the old 90s arcades will start to play Mario in augmented reality, jumping on rooftops, exploring the rivers on their gummy boats and risking their life on train tracks. They will do that to earn real money and the virtual money of the future that is already here, with the bitcoin cryptocurrency.

So, as an Italian, what do you think about Mario?

I think Mario is more like a New Yorker immigrant. Like one of the first Italians who came to New York or something. The most famous Italian migrant worker of all the time; that guy on the train. Very old style italian immigrant. I guess i'm a new style Italian immigrant. Maybe.