GDC 2014: The Pursuit of Loneliness

26 Mar

Last week, I attended the 2014 Game Developers Conference in San Francisco — it’s pretty hard to find a group of companies and people that is so unapologetically hell-bent on mind-melting. I won’t be providing yet another rehash of the headline-making announcements from Sony and Oculus, but I am excited to share some of the other experiences that caught my attention.

Before we get started, about a year ago, I had a lot of good things to say about my first experience wearing Oculus Rift. I’m still a big fan, but it was interesting to see the number of different ways that exhibitors incorporated it into their demos at GDC. Instead of being the star attraction, it was often a complement to some other amazing technology that the company was showing off. Not only is the experience of total audiovisual isolation/replacement evolving into a mainstay, but additional technology is being incorporated to allow one to remain in the experience longer and deeper.

OK, enough reflection. Onward into the bold, bright, and lonely future!

IMG_0682

Also effective as sunglasses

Sulon: I think the business plan for this company is, “Let’s take everything and then do that.” The Cortex (the crazy thing on my head in the picture)  uses an Oculus Rift to provide both Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality in conjunction with spatial scanners, handheld game controllers, wireless technology, a video camera, an Android tablet, and who knows what else. What does this mean? The camera provides a video feed of your environment that is displayed within the OR, but it is “augmented” with virtual objects that you could shoot at using the controllers. One of the augmentations looked like a teleporter beam and when I walked into it, the entire environment changed to virtual reality. However, in both cases, the sensors incorporated the physical walls of the room into the digital environment. In VR mode, it was possible to physically walk through the real room, experienced as a purely digital room, and proximity sensors would beep to let you know if you were about to walk into a wall. The Cortex is an ambitious mashup of cutting-edge technology and if they can work out the kinks, the whole might be greater than the sum of its parts.

Condition One Camera

Be careful where you point that thing!

Condition One: This camera was quite a spectacle on its own. It shoots in 360 degrees simultaneously in high resolution and at a high frame rate. At the booth, I used Oculus Rift to watch a short movie that was shot with the rig. Actually, it was three unrelated shorts that provided a good showcase of different styles and content. This was probably one of the only booths at GDC that featured an OR in a non-interactive context. However, part of the allure of VR is the experience of being instantly transported to another world. In a gaming context, I often forget what I’m supposed to be doing because I enjoy luxuriating in the visually rich, all-encompassing surroundings. It was a nice change to be able to relax and observe and not worry about being shot at or accomplishing something. It was also refreshing to see live action content as opposed to CG. Although these shorts had a non-narrative, verite style to them, I could see how this type of production could also be effective for a sophisticated and complex narrative piece.

Not me on Virtuix Omni

Not me rigged with PrioVR

Virtuix & PrioVR: I’m lumping these companies together because they fall into the category of, “Wow, this looks super cool, but it’s taking too long to cycle people through the demo so I’m going to pass.” Both companies feature technologies that complement the Oculus Rift with a sense of full-body immersion. The Virtuix Omni allows you to physically pace through a virtual environment using an array of proximity sensors embedded in a treadmill that parse data generated by special shoes that you need to wear. Seriously. PrioVR uses inertial sensors attached to various parts of your body to provide full body tracking. If any of this sounds remotely interesting and you were alive during or heard of the 1980s, I highly recommend Ready Player One. This book seems incredibly prescient except that many of the things that it anticipates happening 30 years from now happened last week. And it was written two years ago. Oops.

IDNA: In their own words, “IDNA is a new kind of storytelling experience at the crossing between an animation film, a choose-your-own-adventure book, and a video game. Each scene of the story is designed in 360 degrees; it’s up to you to decide where to look, simply by moving your device around you. The narrative is never twice the same, as your focus will seamlessly influence the course of the story.” Basically, it’s the narrative experience I was jonesing for in my blurb about Condition One. Talk about wish fulfillment. Recognizing that not many people have an Oculus Rift, they developed a “poor-man’s VR” version using an iPad. Holding the iPad up and rotating in a circle provides a decent emulation of wearing a HMD and turning your head. At the worst, you might be mistaken for one of those people who uses their iPad as a camera. I know it sounds like I’m poking fun at them, but I’m not; I think it’s a great idea, and a clever and effective workaround for a technology that is still very much in transition. Even better, this is basically the product of a handful of smart folks from Switzerland who are doing something creative. It’s incredibly annoying when Google/Motorola do essentially the same thing, restrict it to a phone that nobody wants, and make it sound like it’s the second coming of bread.

There was more to GDC than VR, and I was glad to see it. After spending about ten continuous minutes in one of these demos, I found it very difficult to reintegrate with my surroundings. I was trying to have an intelligent conversation with one of the representatives at the booth, but the part of my brain that was responsible for speech and words had come totally unhinged. Welcome to your future.

And now for some more than honorable mentions of people who are just doing fun, cool, stuff for its own sake.

A group of people playing together. No, this wasn’t the history exhibit.

Hot Shots: This game won the All In One Platform Award in the Intel App Innovation Contest. There’s no immersion and no storytelling, but I’m mentioning it for a couple reasons. 1) The developer was hosting the demo, and he was very excited to be there. In his own words, winning this contest created a massive change in his life and he was thrilled. It was contagious to see someone so excited and optimistic and talented. 2) His game was fun. It supported up to nine people playing it at once around a fairly big touchscreen. I appreciated that it’s too epic to play on a phone or a tablet, not really playable on a wall-mounted TV screen, and basically designed to bring people together to have fun. Total chaos. I was horrible at it. Still had a great time. Hope this is the first of many wins for this team.

Sorry, no points for urinating in the classroom

Tenya Wanya Teens: This game was in the alternative control exhibit. It’s a self-described “party game” for two players who each have about 16 buttons. The gameplay is simple. Press the colored button to trigger the action that’s appropriate for the situation. Actions include urinating, farting, kicking, punching, confessing undying love, etc. There’s just one wrinkle: the colors of the buttons keep changing, so not all actions are appropriate for every situation. The game lasted about five minutes and we laughed the whole way through. Unexpected, random, zany fun.

Goat Simulator: Thinking about the fact that people got together to make this has become my new happy place. Follow the link, watch the trailer. This is why we have games. Thank you Coffee Stain Studios.

The Source of Magic at IOA’s Wizarding World of Harry Potter

14 Jan

Singing into the wind. Bailing out the Titanic with a teacup. That is the sense of futility I feel when it comes to sharing something insightful that hasn’t already been said about The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal’s Islands of Adventure. The entire production is an unqualified success from the Butterbeer to Bertie Bott’s Every-Flavour Beans; from the Forbidden Journey to Filch’s Emporium. It’s a feast for the senses worthy of the Great Hall at Hogwarts, and cannot fail to delight even the most studious and persnickety of fans.

As much as I gaped, marveled, delighted, and thrilled at everything I was experiencing, there was one detail, which I keep coming back to that crystallizes the strong sensibilities at work here. After having made my way through Hogsmeade a few times, I kept noticing a building with a modest line outside of it. I’m sure with a bit of investigation, or perusing the park map, or asking a cast member, I could have figured out what it was, but I did none of these things, and decided to just allow myself to be surprised. About every ten minutes or so, the doors to the adjoining building would open, about 30 guests would be allowed in, and the doors would close again. Curiosity piqued.

When it was my turn to enter, I found myself in a dark room with walls lined from floor to very tall ceilings with shelves crammed with narrow, rectangular boxes. As I soon discovered, I was in Ollivander’s Wand Shop. A young guest was selected, and the rest of the audience was entertained with ten minutes of immersive theatre. The guest is placed into the position of a young wizard choosing a wand (or being chosen by a wand) and experiencing the necessary trial and error that ensues during the selection process. As we observe, wand/wizard mismatches can have chaotic consequences, and the show is punctuated by tasteful special effects that occur throughout the room. Before long, wand and wizard are well-met, and the guests are ushered into the “real” Ollivander’s where they sell real items in exchange for real money.

So why is it that in a land that features one of the most technologically sophisticated attractions on the planet, an exquisitely themed restaurant complete with a bar that sells real alcohol, and an infinity of detailed exteriors and interiors, I was so taken by this bit at Ollivander’s? The answer is simple. The decision to showcase this particular component of the Harry Potter mythology demonstrates a true respect and understanding for the material and why it resonates with our culture.

Imagine the blank sheet of paper. Now imagine the task of selecting from among the thousands of pages and dozens of hours that comprise the seven, often massive, volumes and eight epic films of the Harry Potter series. At the very least, it’s an awesome undertaking to distill that into a handful of experiences to unify in a themed environment.  However, at the heart of all those pages and frames and at the soul of that phenomenon is the universe of answers suggested by a simple articulation and the question it raises, “The world is a magical place, but what if I could learn to control it?” It’s no accident that Harry Potter takes place in modern-day England and not on another planet, or in the distant past, or a parallel universe. The allure of Harry Potter is the not-so-childlike hope that maybe this could be real. As we live vicariously through the young heroes (and villains) of the story, their entry point into this world that we desire is Ollivander’s. More so than Platform 9 3/4, Ollivander’s is where desire meets destiny, and the realization of one’s dream becomes personal. Selecting this vignette shows tremendous insight and sensitivity to what really matters in this epic story.

However, the execution is equally stunning. It’s a very low-profile attraction, and it’s easy to miss. You can easily enter the real store through an alternate entrance and be none the wiser of what’s happening in the adjoining room. This deliberate understatement in an environment of overload is a very tasteful design decision, and makes the experience feel even more special. Granted, it is somewhat of a holy grail to deliver guests a personalized, intimate experience in theme parks, but the sheer numbers of guests often make this an impractical goal, and tends to be at odds with another hallmark of theme park design: consistency. This makes the choice to use the modality of immersive theatre even more daring. Attractions have been breaking the 4th wall for generations as a technique to kickstart an immersive experience. From the Ghost Host and the talking skull to Indy and Evac, we have been personally invited to enter the story instead of just watch from afar. However, beloved as those characters are, they’re still a step removed from us, no matter how amazing the technology gets. Quite literally bringing Ollivander’s to life creates an impact that is not soon forgotten even if you are not the chosen one (and chances are, at my age, it’s gonna have to be a pretty slow day.)

I don’t mean to suggest that the techniques used at Ollivander’s are unique in the theme park world. The hundreds of cast members at any major park provide a unique and constant presence in myriad interactions that is easily taken for granted, but in fact lies at the core of seamless immersive experiences. However, there is nevertheless a harmony of theme, execution, and restraint at Ollivander’s that is uniquely transcendent, noteworthy, and inspiring. Pure magic.

Test Track 2.0 = Attractions 2.0

7 Jan

I’m just going to come right out and say it. I’m really just not into cars that much. Sure, I went through my pre-adolescent fixations with Hot Wheels and The Blue Flame, but as I got older, I grew to see a car as just another option that could get me from point A to point G. That said, I’m not completely immune to their charms; I could probably recite a full traffic school curriculum on account of an inexplicable magnetism for speeding tickets. However, even in a lottery fantasy scenario, a fancy car would still rate pretty low on the list.

Maybe it’s just real cars that I don’t like

Finding myself at Epcot, the day before IAAPA (which is another story entirely,) I surveyed my options and approached Test Track with an academic indifference, knowing that I would ultimately try to experience everything the park had to offer. I understood that the show had been redesigned within the past year, but I had not experienced its previous incarnation, so I really had no idea what to expect.

The first thing that got my attention was that the queue temporarily deposits you into a room filled with touchscreen kiosks. I picked up an RFID card, tagged into the kiosk, and found myself designing a car by balancing four fundamental characteristics: Capability, Efficiency, Responsiveness, and Power. OK, design is a bit of an exaggeration; from a technical standpoint, it’s more of a sophisticated menu system that allows you to select from a number of pre-designed models based on your personal preferences. Still, this type of interactivity was a first for me in a queue.

Sammy approves of Test Track

Before boarding the ride itself, I tagged my RFID card and “uploaded” my designed vehicle into the ride vehicle. The narrative of the ride is that you are testing your vehicle on a specialized track. Each phase of the ride tests a different characteristic, and features a monitor that ranks the uploaded vehicles, which makes the experience feel very personalized in an unexpected way. The ride itself was beautifully designed with a streamlined aesthetic that felt convincingly contemporary and even a bit futuristic, which is no small feat in the context of the dynamic technological wonderland of daily life. The Power test is essentially a speed trial that hits a speed of 65 MPH, making Test Track one of the fastest rides in the Disney universe. As the vehicle approached the unloading area, I thought the ride had a little bit of everything including high-speed thrills, and I felt pleasantly surprised, wondering what I would ride next. Little did I suspect that the experience was far from over.

Not a popular option in the 9-13 demographic

As I exited the vehicle, the first thing I noticed was that the younger riders, especially the boys, were FREAKING OUT! In a good way! Kids were tugging at their parents, begging to ride again before their feet had even hit the platform, and by the look on the parents’ faces, I could tell that this was not the first such request of the day. Boys were swaggering about how their car dominated the Power test (although low marks on the Efficiency test were conveniently ignored.) There was a buzz of infectious and uplifting energy that felt very special. Test Track is not a superlative thrill ride, doesn’t feature any fictional characters, and is not necessarily an icon of themed design, but these young riders showed a level of pride, ownership, and excitement that would be a high point in any designer’s career. I sought the exit so that I could get back in line and check it out again, but that turned out to be not as easy as I would have expected.

Play at your own risk

The first post-show area features a giant screen where I tagged my RFID card and saw my vehicle’s aggregate score compared to those of the other riders around me, along with a Daily Best. I noted with some disappointment that I was about 15 points shy of the Daily Best. The irrationally competitive side of me that mercilessly crushes anonymous opponents in in-flight, seat-embedded trivia games wanted the most Efficient, Capable, Powerful, Responsive car in all of Epcot on that November day. It had to be buried somewhere in that design kiosk and I was going to find it! I continued toward the exit with renewed intent.

And entered another room with touchscreen kiosks that I almost blew right past, but it was early in the day and I couldn’t resist those screens. At these kiosks, I designed a commercial by mashing up a narrator, music style, setting, and vehicle attribute into a short animation featuring my car, which I emailed straight from the kiosk. Mine was a cowboy talking about how powerful my car was while jumping around on the moon with a disco soundtrack. It was so much fun, I did it twice before heading toward the exit.

And found myself in yet another area with even more kiosks that allowed me to customize the look and performance of my car to a much greater degree than the queue kiosks. I fell into another rabbit hole doing this for a while, uploaded my design to my card, and brought it to another interface where I uploaded it to a virtual simulator and drove it around a video track. At this point, I started to realize that there was a possibility that I might spend all day at Test Track and I hadn’t even set foot inside the World Showcase yet.

Weird

I segued into another area that was essentially a giant showroom for Chevrolet, the sponsor of the ride. I spent the least amount of time here since, you know, I’m not a car guy. However, I couldn’t help noticing that people were actually stopping to take pictures in front of the cars and check them out. Personal preferences aside, GM is a perfectly capable industry leader when it comes to making automobiles. However, GM cars do not have the fantasy appeal of  Ferrari or Porsche or Lamborghini, but at this point in the experience, I was starting to feel pretty good about Chevy. Corporate sponsorship of attractions goes all the way back to Walt, but I cannot remember a more symbiotic and positive example. Finally, after all this, the exit through retail felt gentle and inoffensive instead of the harsh return to semi-reality that it can sometimes be.

Leaked concept art for Test Track 3.0

To my surprise, not only did I like Test Track, but I loved it, and my enthusiasm extended above and beyond the ride itself. While many attractions provide a “best-case scenario” approach to the decidedly mundane and obligatory aspects of waiting in line and exiting, Test Track engages and involves you at every turn. From an experience design standpoint, there is not a single wasted opportunity to entertain and delight the guest. In fact, the ride itself is less of an inflection point in a humdrum routine, and feels like one of the many components of the overall experience, albeit one that is markedly visceral.

In the past year, I had the privilege of experiencing some of the most outstanding attractions in the themed entertainment world, including mind-blowing experiences at Universal Studios Hollywood, Islands of Adventure, and Cars Land at DCA. While those parks feature unforgettable, world-class, game-changing achievements, there is something about Test Track that announces the true future potential of experience design. I am a strong believer in the potential of interactive technology to take immersive experiences to a new level, but as designers, we must always be mindful of not letting the tail wag the dog. In my opinion, Test Track not only strikes a harmonious balance between technological innovation and thoughtful storytelling, but does so in a bold and fearless fashion that has truly raised the bar for the industry.

I never did figure out how to design the best car of the day, but my happy memory of the experience made me start counting the days until my own kids will be old enough to ride it with me and take a crack at it.

2014 Digital Media/Entertainment Trends

17 Nov

notliketheothersI was recently asked to research and report on the digital media trends that would have the most impact on the entertainment world in 2014, and I wanted to share my findings.

NOTE: If you are new to this blog, please note that this is not the ordinary fare. Will return with more posts about mind-blowing experiences and technology, once I return from IAAPA.

First the list, in case you’re a “just the facts” kind of person:

1. 2nd Generation “Smart TVs” Will Establish a New Platform Paradigm
2. Cross-Platform OS Convergence on Non-PC Devices
3. Entertainment Platform Convergence
4. Biometric Gaming Leads Innovation of Quantified Self
5. Internet of Things Creates New Opportunities for Location Based Entertainment
6. Google Glass Will NOT Take Off in 2014
7. Augmented Reality Will Not Be Mainstream Without HUD and Killer Apps

And here is some brief discussion on each:

1. 2nd Generation “Smart TVs” Will Establish a New Platform Paradigm

smarttvThe first generation of Smart TVs got a bad rap for either being difficult/nonintuitive to use or providing a lot of un-TV-like functionality that consumers didn’t care for. They also suffered from performance/processing issues related to hardware & bandwidth limitations. Some critics went so far as to write off the Smart TV as a failure.

The next generation of Smart TVs should be more intuitive to use and will be designed to integrate with and complement tablets as a second screen. Generally speaking, a tighter integration between TV, internet, and peripheral devices will be a catalyst for derivative trends in content creation & consumption.

Despite modest market forecasts, some retailers suggest that they will only be selling Smart TVs.

An entry by Apple into this space may have a “Rising Tide Lifts All Ships” effect. See Trend 2 for further thoughts on this.

References

http://www.trustedreviews.com/news/john-lewis-we-will-only-sell-smart-tvs-in-2014

http://www.theguardian.com/media-network/media-network-blog/2013/mar/11/beyond-apps-future-smart-tv

2. Cross-Platform OS Convergence on Non-PC Devices

While all eyes will likely be on Apple’s anticipated 2014 release of an actual Smart TV (not to be confused with their “Apple TV” set-top box), there are other players to track. Samsung currently enjoys a dominant position in the mobile market with their Android devices. However, they have announced plans to incorporate Tizen, an alternate open-source operating system, into phones and eventually TVs. On a smaller scale, Amazon expects to launch a set-top box (not an actual TV) to compete with the Apple TV set-top box.

For Apple and Samsung, these moves suggest that customers will have an optimized experience when they consolidate their media platforms in a single operating environment. For instance: iPhone + iPad + Apple Smart TV (iOS) or Samsung phone/tablet + Samsung Smart TV (Tizen), etc. Amazon’s popular Kindle Fire is built on the Android platform, which shows that rather than reinventing the wheel from a hardware standpoint, they will probably continue to deploy solutions on popular open architectures, and focus on strategies and relationships that leverage content.

What this means for entertainment is uncertain, but this type of convergence will give these companies extraordinary market leverage with respect to both direct competitors in the hardware space as well as content providers.

References

http://appleinsider.com/articles/13/10/29/amazons-anticipated-apple-tv-competitor-not-expected-to-launch-until-2014

http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2013-10-22/apple-preparing-65-inch-tv-for-release-next-year-analyst-says.html

http://www.businesskorea.co.kr/article/2143/tizen-phone-tv-samsung-reveal-smartphone-smart-tv-based-tizen-os-2014

3. Entertainment Platform Convergence

6a00d8341c858253ef00e55215cad98834-640wiSony’s PlayStation 4 and Microsoft’s Xbox One will both contain features that point to a convergence of different types of home entertainment on a single platform, including gaming, social media, TV, internet, etc. The lines between what are traditionally seen as separate, non-integrated forms of entertainment/media will start to become blurred, and this will pave the way for the development of “hybrid” experiences.

References

http://www.forbes.com/sites/jaysondemers/2013/10/31/the-top-7-technology-trends-that-will-dominate-2014/2/

4. Biometric Gaming Leads Innovation of Quantified Self

indexThe Quantified Self movement is primarily associated with self-help and health-oriented applications. However, as the underlying technology develops, it can be integrated as a unique component of entertainment, media, and marketing applications. Biometric sensors will be integrated into next-generation gaming platforms in an effort to provide a richer experience. The gaming industry, with its dynamic, competitive environment, combined with its commitment to large-scale R&D, is well-positioned to lead this development. Precedent strongly suggests that other industries can expect to benefit from a trickle-down effect of these innovations.

“Kinect 2.0 goes a step further by being able to determine where in the room a player is looking, what their facial expressions are to determine their mood, and even pick up the player’s heart rate based on tiny fluctuations in their skin color. All this information can be used by game developers to deliver tailored experiences that create more immersive and engaging gameplay.”

References

http://www.biometricupdate.com/201310/obje-acquires-novalon-games-in-push-for-biometric-gaming-revolution

http://www.psfk.com/2013/09/entertainment-trends-nbc-curve-report.html

5. Internet of Things Creates New Opportunities for Location Based Entertainment

worlds-first-flying-car-07With many trends focused on enhancing the home/mobile experience, LBE can start to feel dated. However, the paradigm of the “Internet of Things” provides a number of opportunities to enhance & streamline these types of experiences. Walt Disney World’s MagicBands is already old news, and despite its massive development and deployment cost, it really only scratches the surface of what’s possible. In the referenced video, Intel even uses a theme park as a complex model to show what IoT can enable. The focus continues to be on operational aspects, but extending these techniques and infrastructure to more entertainment-oriented applications is a natural next step.

References

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8pkhL432GNg

6. Google Glass Will NOT Take Off in 2014

3dglassesDespite all the hype, Google Glass will be more of a long-term play. Glass will continue to play a central role in the overall future of wearable technology, but it may not be the first device that people gravitate toward in this sector.

I think that Google overplayed its hand by introducing a photo/video capture capability in its pre-release product. This functionality has been a lightning rod for privacy concerns, and has possibly generated more negative controversy than positive anticipation for the product as a whole. Moreover, although they couldn’t have anticipated it, their timing couldn’t have been worse with the general climate of privacy-related issues in the news on a daily basis. The Google Glass mantra is to provide users with technology that is “there when you want it, and out of the way when you don’t.” This is achieved through a rudimentary yet effective integration with their “Google Now” service, and this in itself has the potential to radically shift the way people consume information on the move. That said, I appreciate their “go big or go home” approach to rolling out this product, and they clearly have the resources to back the long play.

References

http://marketingland.com/180-days-with-google-glass-hits-misses-what-marketers-need-to-know-64289

7. Augmented Reality Will Not Be Mainstream Without HUD and Killer Apps

grandma-ocularGoogle Glass is not AR. I’m 100% sure Google would agree with me on this. The AR landscape still lacks an effective, consumer-grade Heads-Up Display (HUD) and applications that really matter. I do not dispute that anyone who experiences AR for the first time, even in its current, clunky handheld-device modality, will feel awe, delight, and even a sense of magic. However, until it can be more seamlessly integrated into everyday life on both a hardware and software level, it will will continue to have limited penetration as a novelty or will be most effective in specialized, controlled use-cases.

References

http://www.thorntech.com/2013/04/augmented-reality-will-wearable-hardware-bring-ar-to-the-mainstream/

Life After Blackout

13 Nov

gogos_vacationSome people go to Hawaii on vacation to enjoy a little R&R in a beautiful setting. Others prefer a staycation where they can catch up on hobbies or just get back in touch with the simple pleasures of home. Me, I head down to LA for three successive nights of immersive horror theater. At least, that’s what I did in October.

It’s probably no surprise at this point that I enjoy haunted houses, but I have my limits. I think they’re great fun if I happen to be in the area, but I typically don’t drop everything in my life to go out of my way to obsessively check them out. As it turned out though, I heard about a few productions that got my attention. Delusion: Masque of Mortality bills itself as interactive horror theatre in which you find yourself a participant in events surrounding a mysterious plague. The Purge: Fear The Night is a guided experience through “six floors and 70,000 square feet of horror theater,” based on the movie The Purge. But it was BLACKOUT: elements that actually did make me drop everything in my life and plan a trip to LA.

My daughter was guest-editor of this post

My 3 y/o daughter guest edited this post

NON SPOILER ALERT: I’m hardly going to tell you anything about Blackout. If you want to know what happens in this show, then go see it. I realize that as of the date of this post, this is probably only possible unless you live in Chicago, but there’s always next year.

You’re probably wondering why I would bother to review a show without providing any details. It’s real simple: Blackout succeeds on a level and to a degree that is perpetually sought and rarely achieved in the production of immersive experiences. Period.

All you know about Blackout is: you need to sign a waiver before entering, it takes place in the dark, you must do as you’re told when prompted, there’s a safe word in case it gets too intense, and you must walk through alone. Is your imagination working yet? Mine was. From the moment I purchased the ticket, my mind was filled with questions. What the hell happens in there? What are they going to make me do? Does anyone use the safe word? Am I up for this? Can’t we just have a nice dinner somewhere and tell everybody we went?

The secret of being a good producer

The secret of being a good producer

I was experiencing a level of anticipation that most producers either 1) would enter into some Faustian bargain in order to consistently engender in their customers, or 2) are completely unaware of how significant this is to the overall experience and are probably in the wrong line of work. This was not a temporary state of mind either. Having bought my tickets about one month in advance, these thoughts crossed my mind with alarming frequency. Moreover, the show enjoys a certain notoriety; I have a friend who works in the haunted attraction industry — this guy scares people for a living — and he won’t see the show. So by the time I got in line, I was pretty worked up and more than a little nervous.

Unfortunately, this is where the details stop. I’m not even going to tell you about the line, except to say that in its own way, it’s part of the experience. I had waited for weeks, but those last minutes and seconds were an elasticity of dread. It’s maybe up there with riding Space Mountain for the first time as a kid. But different. Very different.

tumblr_m4n6fbTBra1r0gxhgo1_1280Fast forward about 30 minutes. I emerge, running, out of the dark, out of the building and onto the same sidewalk in downtown LA that I had lately and nervously ambled along on my way in. My eyes scan for something familiar; I see the people I befriended in line. I see my wife. We all breathlessly exchange snippets of experience, but it’s not really a time for words, and we all arrive at that conclusion at about the same time. I feel the crisply soothing autumn air on my skin now that I’m outdoors again. I’m soaking in the vibe of people milling on the fringes of this nondescript corner of downtown LA. I can hear and feel my heart beating; it seems to be returning to a more normal pace, but it’s not in a hurry. And neither is the rest of me. I’m alert. I’m aware of this strange, animal feeling where I can experience the world in five or more senses, and calmly it alights on my understanding. This feeling — it’s the feeling of being alive. Not the “oh my god that was so scary, I’m so glad to be alive” feeling. Quite the opposite: I realized that I hadn’t had that much fun in a long time.

Blackout is a visceral, emotionally turbulent, raw experience. It’s also not for everyone. But the feeling that I had after experiencing it, IS for everyone. If extreme haunted houses (note: criminally reductionist label) that have a safe word aren’t your thing, I get that. However, Blackout made me realize that I don’t get that feeling en0ugh, and I don’t necessarily need to go to Blackout to get it. Feeling alive is what being alive is all about. Making people feel alive, or feel, respond, think, react is an achievable goal for any experience designer. Whether they realize it or not, that’s what your guest wants when they come to check out your production.

brain-on-fireAs we made our way through the city, back to the car, out in public, it became very clear that there was US and then there was everybody else around us. We moved through the crowds in this glowing bubble that only we could see. We just had this incredible experience that lit our brains on fire, and nobody else had any idea as they went about their evening. There was no judgment or condescension on our part, but we felt different and special. And that feeling was important and persisted for the rest of the night, and for several days afterward. In fact, I can still conjure that feeling and remember what it’s like to feel my senses rip into the texture of life, and for that I’m both grateful for the experience and inspired to create something that can have that kind of effect.

Fried Cheese & Coke: Branded Experiences and Iconic Retrospectives

6 Nov

I lived in Prague during a period when email was still a novelty, mobile phones were seen in Tom Cruise movies as devices used for making phone calls, and internet cafes actually had computers in them. A popular means for distributing information was known as a “newspaper,” and a few were published in English for the benefit of the expat community. One of these featured a column called, “Easy Targets,” which was an unannotated list of people, institutions, concepts, etc. that would be recognizable to a contemporary reader. And that was it. Further commentary was neither provided nor required. A similar list published today might include, “Congress, Miley Cyrus, Facebook status, gluten-free beer, you get the idea.” One fateful afternoon, I picked up said newspaper and immediately sought out the Easy Targets, and at the top of the list was, “Smažený Syr.” For me, this was and is the absolute soul of wit. There is so much depth and commentary packed into those two words that it can still bring a smile to my face today. Let me explain.

I’m ready for my close-up

Smažený syr is Czech for fried cheese. In the fight for daily survival, which occurs at the intersection of 30-cent beer, a national/institutional disdain for last call, and an ambiguous notion of employment, sustenance is a fickle ally. At certain single-digit hours, one’s options are typically limited to: 1) hot-dog 2) sleep or 3) smažený syr. Smažený syr was notoriously and reliably available at a kiosk outside of one of Prague’s train stations, day & night, rain or shine. Many expats have had their lives temporarily saved (and ultimately shortened) by making this pilgrimage. Moreover, smažený syr often found its way onto the menu at almost every local restaurant, often masquerading as a main course, sharing the stage with a sidekick of french fries. The most common description of what it feels like about half hour after eating this is, “I think I just swallowed a hockey puck.” It’s a rite of passage. It’s a way of life. It’s wrong. It’s an easy target.

You can't make this stuff up

You can’t make this stuff up

So when I tried to wrap my head around the idea that there could be an attraction in Atlanta dedicated to Coca-Cola, my first thought was smažený syr. It’s not a terrific stretch to prejudicially pigeonhole the World of Coca-Cola as a temple to American capitalism, providing dubious educational value and celebrating a product that is bad for you. Now, that’s an Easy Target. Seriously, Coca-Cola makes smažený syr look like a health fad. I had to check it out.

Figure 3

A shadow passes across the land

The attraction chronicles the impact that Coca-Cola has had on world culture for the last 100+ years. After a guided introduction followed by a screening of a surprisingly psychedelic animated short (i.e., commercial), guests are left to explore the rest of the attraction on their own. Setting aside for the moment the photo-op with the company’s polar bear mascot and the 4D theatrical feature, WOCC resembles a traditional museum with a number of exhibits focused on corporate artifacts culled from various times and places. Love it or hate it, Coca-Cola has some of the most recognizable, inventive, and iconic branding of any product sold anywhere, and the various exhibits make it clear that they haven’t rested on their laurels at any point in their efforts to get us to keep buying it. What’s even more remarkable is that as a product, Coke has remained relatively unchanged, which makes it somewhat of an outlier in the fast-paced world of global corporate commercial one-upmanship. In fact, this nuance lies at the heart of WOCC’s best feature: Vault of the Secret Formula.

Last known whereabouts: Atlanta

Last known whereabouts: Atlanta

The Vault immediately appealed to me, and it was the first exhibit that I visited. The theming begins as soon as you enter the exhibit through the larger-than-life vault door that looks like it was lifted from the set of Goldfinger. Next, you are visually scanned and cleared for security in a waiting area before entering the actual space. The first thing you notice as you enter is that it smells like Coke; it sounds weird, but it’s very subtle and it works. The exhibit proceeds to relate the history of the Coca-Cola company from the perspective of the secret formula. You learn how the formula was developed/invented by a pharmacist, and how it made its way through successive entrepreneurs, visionaries, and businessmen whose primary objective was to safeguard the secret. The formula is transformed into a character that enhances the fortunes of everyone who possesses it, and for the last 100 years, it has literally been kept inside of a vault with extremely limited access.

The exhibit is filled with interactive features including a steampunk device that allows you to try to replicate the secret formula by manipulating some primary flavor characteristics, and a motion-controlled interactive game in which you attempt to successfully transport the formula back to the vault before it falls into the wrong hands. Throughout, there are cleverly immersive ways of revealing additional information including whispered rumors from overhead and drawers containing information that you can peruse. In essence, they have taken the history of a corporation and turned it into a riveting adventure. Moreover, in this telling, the history of Coca-Cola is made out to be nothing less than the realization of the American dream. The exhibit ends with a 360 degree movie projection which is reasonably impressive, and in a surprising twist, the screens slide apart to reveal the star of the show: the actual vault.

A proud day for Coke marketing execs

A proud day for Coke marketing execs

I exited the exhibit a bit surprised at how roped in I got to the experience. I feel that on the basis of its creative execution, the Vault is an unqualified success. However, in the context of the idea that a museum about Coke is a classic “Easy Target,” it seems all the more impressive. After this experience, I was able to set aside my sense that the Polar Bear photo-op was kind of creepy, and that the 4D theater experience felt out of place, and that the other exhibits, while interesting, felt a little self-congratulatory. On the other hand, the Vault works because it’s not just another attempt to make you believe that drinking Coke makes you a better, happier citizen of the world. What lingered for me was the journey I felt that I had taken, and it had everything to do with the effort that was made to transform this material into a story, and to involve me in its telling. Personally, I didn’t come home and fill my refrigerator with Coke and hang framed pictures of John Pemberton in my office. However, I felt that it was well worth my time to visit WOCC, and it provided yet another opportunity to learn/re-learn/remember something that I will carry forward into my own practice: a good story and an earnest effort to creatively involve your audience in it can make ANYTHING compelling.

Now, if they had only served fried cheese in the Tasting Room.

Coffee, Beer, Zombies, and the Future of Immersive Entertainment

30 Oct

Unfortunately, it couldn’t be all play, all the time in Atlanta. We had a full day of work ahead of us to set the record straight on a few items.

Does Octane deserve to be considered one of the nation’s best coffee establishments? Yes. Especially when paired with a popover from the adjoining Little Tart Bakeshop in the Grant Park location.

Will Rosebud provide a superlative experience for the discerning brunch enthusiast? We started with fried cheese grits with smoked cheddar and pepper jelly. Need I go on?

Can Porter Beer Bar live up to its reputation as one of Atlanta’s best destinations for enjoying a wide variety of amazing beer? Early results are extremely promising, but from a due diligence standpoint, we feel that it would be imprudent to end our investigation prematurely.

Atlanta is a flexible concept

“Atlanta” is a flexible concept

Refreshed and recharged, and in gratitude to Atlanta’s gracious hospitality, we thought it was only right that we do our part to assist them with their zombie problem. Atlanta Zombie Apocalypse promises an interesting variant on the standard haunted attraction. Unlike NetherWorld, which was incongruously located a few blocks from suburban strip malls, AZA is convincingly nestled in the woods off a deserted stretch of highway. The attraction is built on and around the grounds of a deserted motel and it didn’t take much effort to believe that zombies might be nearby.

For those who don’t frequent this type of entertainment, the haunted attraction industry is all grown up and embraces more than what we endearingly referred to as a “haunted house” back in the day. There are a growing number of variants on the theme of scaring people for fun and profit, including haunted mazes, haunted trails, scare zones, haunted hayrides, etc. Many attractions aggregate and even mashup several of these styles to make sure that you don’t get too comfortable. AZA provides three attractions which can be generally described as 1) haunted house/haunted trail mashup, 2) haunted maze + paintball and 3) haunted house/immersive theatre.

cdc-zombie-posterOut of respect for the organizers, I won’t give up any spoilers, but I will share some general impressions. Admission can be purchased on a per attraction basis. I was here from California and was in the middle of nowhere, GA. I was going to all three.

Although the attractions can be visited on a standalone basis, some of the employees had specific ideas on the order in which to experience them if you were seeing more than one. They were essentially imposing a meta-level of story and emotional engagement that hadn’t actually been accounted for in the overall design of the attraction. The best part is: different people had different opinions on the ideal order, and they were pretty passionate about their individual assessments. It was like having a personal team of horror sommeliers. More importantly, it was unscripted proof that the tendency to find story in our lives is central to the human experience. It also echoed my thoughts on the very personalized reactions that one can expect from immersive experiences.

Unlike many haunted attractions, which are essentially self-directed (i.e., here’s the entrance, proceed to the exit,) each of these attractions had a guided component. While the most memorable features of many attractions are the live performers, the level of interactivity is typically low and unidirectional: they scare, you scream, keep moving. The guides and performers at AZA added a sense of theatricality and interactivity which enhanced the the overall immersive quality of the experience. The first attraction we chose was called “The Curse,” and it took advantage of the ample, wild surroundings by using parts of the neighboring forest as the set. There was a backstory and a mystery to the attraction, and we were recruited as investigators and addressed directly by the guides and performers. Although I saw room for improvement, I was certainly entertained.

All in a day's work

The blogger in the line of duty

For me, the main attraction, and the reason I found myself in Conley, GA deferring my important research of Atlanta’s brewpubs, was the “Zombie Shoot.” We were provided with a semi-automatic AirSoft gun (essentially paintball, but using specialized BBs instead of paintballs) and protective headgear, and were told, “Aim for the head or the chest. Keep firing until they go down.” Pretty much the exact opposite of your standard preshow advisement, “Keep your arms and legs inside the vehicle at all times.” Also, in case it’s not totally clear, you’re firing at real people, I mean zombies, not cardboard cut-outs or animatronics. Did it work? Mostly. Was it fun? Definitely.

Maybe King Lear actually IS the future of haunted attractions

Maybe Shakespeare actually IS the future of haunted attractions

The final attraction was called “?” and I think it’s telling that it might have been my favorite even though on its surface, it seemed to be a standard haunted house. Why? Story. It was the most theatrical of the three and featured the most interesting and inventive story, while still remaining focused on trying to scare you out of the building. Granted, we’re not talking Shakespeare, but it was a refreshing and successful variant on what could have been an uninspired production.

The production value in these attractions was not award-winning, and the storytelling was not expert, but I’m still glad I checked them out. It was all produced with a lot of heart, and everybody from the people selling the tickets to the performers and guides and zombies seemed to be having a good time and wanted to make sure that we were too. By providing three very different, hybridized attractions, it was clear that the creators were willing to take some risks and try out some new ideas, which will always impress me more than playing it safe.

Crossing the line from a one-way performance to an interactive experience can immediately raise many expectations that are potentially difficult to meet. The biggest challenge becomes the reconciliation between the audience’s sense of agency and the practical and aesthetic parameters of structured entertainment. It’s a tricky balancing act between living an experience and playing along. To choose an extreme yet practical example from this show, being provided with a gun and an opportunity to fend off assailants is real and pulls you right into the experience. However, remaining cognizant of where you can and can’t shoot can temporarily pull you out. It trades the steady equilibrium of an evenly immersive but passive experience for one which attempts to balance instances of deep immersion within a more structured rules-based framework. The resulting dynamics suggest a hybrid with gaming, sports, and other experiences that would otherwise seem at odds with what (in this case) is essentially theater. Personally, I think that finding a satisfying balance in these intersecting sensibilities is a challenge worth taking on, and that we’re hopefully just scratching the surface of the types of experiences we can expect to enjoy in the future.

imho

Sharing What I've Learned...of Creating Experience with Deep, Emotional Connection

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 26 other followers