Story Room: Saving the World is Thirsty Work

26 May

“Are you ready to save the f–king world?” he asked. To be honest, it was a bit more than I had in mind after a day at work, but I exchanged looks with my companions and said, “Sure!” After all, what could possibly go wrong?

We were about to enter Story Room, a production of Two Bit Circus. I’m not actually quite sure what this group really is. I’ve seen them referred to as an entertainment company, a think tank, and in more pedestrian press, an agency. However, I had a great time at their STEAM Carnival last autumn, so for the purposes of this blog, I’m OK with thinking about them as a group that likes to make fun experiences. I think they’d be OK with that too.

hqdefaultSo, back to saving the world. In the real world, we were at the Brewery Arts Complex, an artist colony housed in a former brewery that is off the beaten path in an industrial part of Los Angeles. It’s an easy place to get lost in and quite mysterious in its own right. Certainly worth saving.

We were welcomed inside an anteroom and provided with a smattering of backstory. It involved aliens. It sounded important. And then a door opened, we entered, it closed behind us, and we were inside the story!

Half the fun of Story Room is not having a clear idea of what to expect, and I don’t intend to spoil that for you. The website describes it as a “unique multiplayer experience that combines problem solving with character twists to create a new form of live entertainment.” Clear as mud, but intriguing as hell.

journey-escape(4)However, if you’ve read their website, you’re probably wondering, is this an escape room attraction? If you haven’t experienced one, escape rooms are pretty much what they sound like: you’re placed in a locked room and have to figure out how to get out, usually within a fixed time limit. And there’s no guarantee that you will. Getting out usually requires solving a number of puzzles based on objects in your environment, while possibly fending off antagonistic or distracting elements. I has a tremendous time at last year’s Purge: Breakout, but I haven’t felt drawn to seek out similar experiences.

Although an escape room can be elegant and complex in the design of its puzzles, the underlying narrative can sometimes feel limited. The context for your situation ultimately boils down to being trapped and needing to escape. Although there is a binary, win/lose aspect to it that appeals to my competitive side, it tends to conflict with my desire to just be entertained.

Story Room shares many of the game mechanics and sensibilities of an escape room, but the narrative framework substitutes progress for escape. It’s a subtle nuance, and therein lies all the difference.

In Story Room, as we solved the puzzles, we learned more about our situation. Rooms started to feel more like scenes, and the puzzles themselves felt increasingly like a connected, rational part of the underlying story. On one hand, it’s a different means to a similar end, but it places the focus on the journey, not the destination.

As a practical illustration: we did OK with the puzzles, but we were occasionally assisted via a mechanism that was integrated with the story. Sure, my ego would have been more gratified if we had performed better, but I found myself less focused on winning or losing and far more interested in what would happen next.
In the final room, we had to choose between two objectives to pursue. Either one would have constituted “success,” but we decided based on what we had learned about the story in the previous rooms and how we personally felt it should resolve.

In short, this show lived up to its name. We were in the story! In fact, we discovered afterward that had we done better in one of the previous rooms, we may have learned something that could have influenced our decision in the final room.

magnacovblankeThe website boldly namechecks the Choose Your Own Adventure book series from the 80s & 90s. This type of branching narrative is a holy grail of sorts for experience designers in location-based entertainment, but can be operationally difficult to execute. It seems that on some level, even if we didn’t experience all the possible outcomes, they pulled it off.

The puzzles were excellently designed and thoughtfully crafted to require multiple participants to solve them. In similar attractions, multiple players allow you to simply “throw more bodies at the problem” by being able to more rapidly find hidden objects. In Story Room, multiple players are critical because many of the puzzles consist of discrete tasks that need to be performed in parallel. In the final room, we each had distinct roles to play to reach our objective.

iwantmoreWe were in there slightly over an hour, but time flies, as the saying goes. Understanding that like any production, they are limited by real resources such as budget and space, my main feedback for future productions would be to create more “scenes” even if each is shorter. Reflecting on how this show redraws the line between storytelling and problem-solving, I would love to see them take it even further and incorporate more branching, more rooms, and maybe even some live performers. In other words, more of everything that worked so well.

As you could probably guess, saving the world is thirsty work, so we were delighted to discover that the Brewery just happened to have a gastropub on the premises. Tasty food. Cold beer. Good times. Highly recommended.

If you’re in LA, and this show is still happening, I would recommend checking it out. And if you’re not in LA, why not? It’s real nice here.

Never Be Bored Again

20 Feb

rarelyLook around you. Where are you reading this right now? Chances are, you’re minutes away from an immersive, interactive experience that is waiting for you to discover it. Curious?

First, some background. I’m one of those people who has a hard time doing nothing. That sense of peace that comes from “getting away from it all” wears off for me after about five minutes, and I find myself looking for something stimulating. Not surprisingly, my young children tend to feel the same way. It’s something of a curse, but on a recent trip to the Central Sierras, a wonderland of natural beauty, I was determined to turn it into an opportunity. There just had to be something to do up here that would be entertaining for all of us, right?

screen-shot-2014-02-02-at-15-02-05I asked the Internet, and found a tourist-oriented website for the tiny village we were in, and scanned through the usual list of activities. Fishing: please no. Snowmobiling: need snow for that. Hiking: with kids, it ends up being “carrying.” Prospects seemed dismal until I came across “Geocaching.” That rang a bell — something to do with GPS and hiding stuff, but I realized that I really had no idea how one actually did it.

cacheiskingSkeptically, I installed a free app, waited for it to locate me, and discovered that there were DOZENS of caches within a few miles of my current location (in the middle of nowhere) including one that was 163 FEET away (we were in a local playground at this point.) I tromped off alone in a trance into the adjacent woods like a very slow, poorly-trained bloodhound, climbing over rocks, crossing brooks, crashing through brambles, trying to close the distance between me and whatever lay at the marker on my map. Soon, the other grown-ups got involved, and the kids buzzed around us discovering the fantastic natural playground surrounding them. Looking back, I guess my biggest misconception about geocaching was that it was something that you had to “get into.” However, without really trying, we had effortlessly and unexpectedly landed in the middle of an adventure!

product1We didn’t find what we were looking for, but we were undeterred, so for our second try, we chose a cache that seemed a bit easier. Each cache is ranked for difficulty and terrain, and contains a description and optional hints that guide you to the hidden location. We made our way to an unnoteworthy cluster of trees on a street corner that we would have otherwise driven past without giving a second look, however now it was imbued with mystery and potential. We descended upon it like a shoal of piranhas, discovered a camouflage canister hanging from a branch, and eagerly grabbed it, unscrewed the lid. The kids thrilled at the mysterious trove of miscellaneous knick-knacks within while we examined with curiosity the little notepad filled with messages from those who came before us. As we left our own impromptu scrawl for those who would in turn follow in our footsteps, we unwittingly jumped into the slipstream of a previously unknown world that was hidden in plain sight.

Now we were hooked and consulted the app for our next find. It was another easy one, embedded in a jumble of rocks that anchored the sign for a wilderness trail. Except now, the world was transformed; a rusted chain buried in the rocks became a  guardian rattlesnake and the unassuming container was a treasure chest of mystery and possibility. We were so engrossed in our adventure that we almost didn’t notice the car pull up behind us.

Hunger-games-gamemakersThe gentleman who stepped out introduced himself as papahog46, and told us that this was his cache. He just happened to be driving by, and he knew exactly what we were up to. I chatted with him a bit, and he said that he had recently come back from the Caribbean where he had left a few caches, and that he has also left a few in various places in Europe. The app allows you to log your finds, and leave a brief message, and he commented that many of the thank you notes he received were in other languages. After he left us to our meanderings, it occurred to me we had been having fun that he had made; transient explorers of a new world he created. We had been hanging out with the Game Maker!

mugglesI finally started to realize that this thing was big. I used the app to see what was around my house: dozens, including one a block away. The neighborhood around my work: lousy with caches, including four in the park where I often eat lunch. A random place where I stopped for lunch on the way to San Diego: loads. I realized that geocaching is nothing short of a global phenomenon that has created a parallel universe bound together by a community that borders on a secret society. It has its own lingo, which I picked up on from reading the entries in the logbooks — kind of like a written secret handshake. In fact, geocachers have appropriated the word Muggle from the Harry Potter universe to designate a person who is not playing, a shorthand that happens to be pretty much spot-on.

POD_dandelionBecause there are no formal rules except a common-sense code of conduct that requires you to be a good citizen, it didn’t take long to figure out that caches needn’t be limited to dime-store trinkets and logbooks. Caches could be designed like any other experience and could include a history lesson, or a series of related puzzles, or an elaborate story, or all of them at the same time. I realized that when I entered this world, I felt the same thrill of discovery and ignition of imagination that I get from the best immersive experiences. Except instead of traveling for hours and waiting in line and most likely seeing something that I’ve probably seen before, I could do this anytime, anywhere. Best of all, with an inkling of inclination and a jab of imagination, I could create my own world within the world. Perhaps even one that you’ll stumble into someday.

Wicked Lit’s Tough Crowd: Dead People

3 Nov

About midway through Unbound Productions’ performance of Wicked Lit, I couldn’t help noticing that although there were hundreds of us in the crowd, only about 30 of us were still alive by this point.

When I heard that Wicked Lit featured plays being performed in a graveyard, I flashed back to those cringeworthy moments of my youth making short films in cemeteries, and thought, “This can go very wrong.” However, it was October, and I’ll try anything once if it involves Halloween. As we entered the venue, I had no way of knowing that I was about to experience my favorite show of a very busy season of haunted attractions.

cover_1128171732012_rWe were at the Mountain View Mortuary, Cemetery, and Crematory in Altadena, CA. The facility’s ample grounds also include an extensive mausoleum, which pretty much makes it a one-stop shop for dead people. Although the show was scheduled to start at 7:30, we arrived at about 7:15 to find an entertaining pre-show involving a host who was part hypnotist/magician/paranormal investigator and his various assistants already in the process of various shenanigans. This part of the show took place in a courtyard with walls consisting of mostly occupied drawers of the not-so-recently departed. The living crowd was divided into three groups, and each was led to experience a different one-act play before regrouping in the courtyard for more entertainment and subsequent dispatch until each group had seen all three shows.

I could see that logistically this was already a very ambitious production, but I found that it was well-matched by the sophistication of the creative execution. The playwrights of the three pieces bill their work as “adaptations,” but a quick comparison between the source material and the final product suggests that this is perhaps an excessively modest attribution of what appears to be highly original creative work. The three main plays offered a diversity of themes, styles, and settings with minimal overlap making for a very well-rounded and satisfying experience. As a guest, it can be exhausting to mentally shift gears between three different stories in a single evening of entertainment, but each piece was rooted in a familiar spooky trope that made it easy to get your bearings, before these wicked geniuses proceeded to turn the tables on you.

Our first offering was Dracula’s Guest, and we began by walking through the inner halls of the mausoleum that were spookily lit throughout, an impressive feat considering the myriad corridors and stairways through which we passed. The play started in what was probably the most tradtional “set” of the entire evening — a classic three-walled construction of a 19th century inn. We were soon introduced to Jonathan Harker of Dracula fame, and noted the presence of silver bullets and other familiar trappings of nocturnal menaces. But as quickly as they arrived, these ephemeral wisps of familiar milieu were dissipated by the winds of a brisker, edgier narrative. Harker’s archetypal naiveté is warped by a fierce insolence and (dare I say, millennial) sense of entitlement that made me wonder whether he might actually be better off with a couple of fangs in his neck. We were whisked outside the mausoleum to witness Harker’s journey through the Carpathians, before trekking to the final scene in a vast graveyard that was expansively tricked out with dramatic lighting and immersive sound effects. There, we watched a fierce and decidedly risqué encounter between Harker and two of the Count’s comelier devotees, before returning to the courtyard for our next adventure.

Despite its familiar themes and melodramatic flourishes, there was a decided lack of campiness in Dracula’s Guest. The performances struck the perfect balance of not taking themselves too seriously while not taking the easy way out into parody. And just when the tension seemed to be too much to handle for a leisurely weeknight out in the graveyard, the piece ended and we were allowed to decompress with the appropriately themed intermission hijinks in the courtyard. It was a dynamic that would be repeated throughout the night, and it was always effective. During these intermissions, I noticed a unique intimacy and sense of community that permeated the entire show. I even had a chance to chat with some of the producers and learn more about the history of the company.

The second play was The Monk, and it took place in Inquisition-era Venice. In this story, the familiar anchor was that of a Faustian bargain, but with a modern feminist twist. Our heroine was a young woman who, through an unexpected set of circumstances, finds that the pension that has been supporting her studies has been absorbed by the Church. Without this support, as a woman with academic ambitions in 17th century Europe, she finds herself with no option except to join a convent. She enters into a deal with a satanic figure to gain her freedom from society and the Church, but instead of bartering her soul, she must use her powers of seduction to ruin a man of the cloth. The deal itself, and its attendant hooded ghouls and wicked devil, was staged in the mortuary church, a delectably sinful nuance of the production. Finally, we watched the climactic crescendo play out below us in the mausoleum’s beautiful garden from the unique perspective of a balcony.

The third play was Las Lloronas. Whereas the first two plays were clever dramatic narrative retellings, this piece was an impressionistic feast of story, dance, music, multimedia, and a succession of absolute knockout dramatic performances by every single one of the players. The gist of the narrative was the retelling of an Aztec legend in which a native of Tenochtitlan finds herself wed to Cortes, and subsequently driven mad by his betrayal to the point where she murders her children. The four scenes that followed depicted similar vignettes that showed how this tragic pattern repeated itself in successive generations and increasingly familiar and contemporary settings. While each vignette was hosted and narrated by a handsomely demonic figure, the emotional current of the story was conveyed through movement and passionate performances that embody the special power of the theatre. I felt very fortunate that through the luck of the draw, our group saw this piece last. It was definitely my favorite, and in its final moments, it sent the types of chills down my spine that I had been seeking (and not always finding) all month.

I attended quite a few events this Halloween season, and felt that each was satisfying in its own way, but Wicked Lit was definitely my personal favorite. The material was developed and executed with a freshness and a depth that tends to be difficult or impractical for this type of seasonal event. I was particularly struck by the fact that there were no small roles. Every player had a meaningful, challenging part, and I am grateful to them for bringing so much energy and intensity to their performances, especially considering that each actor delivered three performances per night. Special kudos to all of the talented and passionate performers in Las Lloronas.

Unbound Productions is an exciting, passionate, and innovative group, and while I’ll definitely be back for Wicked Lit 2015, I look forward to seeing what they do in the interim!

The Most Fun I Ever Had Being Murdered

22 Jul

I died in tmeme3he Purge last week. OK, that came out weird, let me explain.

The Purge is a film that came out last year that generally, and not incorrectly, gets lumped into the horror genre. However, it’s actually a political science thought experiment wrapped in a veneer of science fiction dystopia that dials up the suspense until it implodes into horror. The general conceit is that in the year 2022, a new political party has “fixed” America; there is 1% unemployment and almost no crime. The catch: all crime, including murder, is actually legal during a 12-hour period called the Purge that occurs once per year. Despite its macrocosmic context, the movie had a minimalistic feel that focused on the experiences of a single family in a discrete location and the ethical dilemmas posed by this practice. It wasn’t a perfect movie, but there was something oddly compelling and surprisingly thought-provoking about it. I knew there had to be more to the story.

When I heard that there would be a sequel being released this summer, I knew I would see it at some point. However, when I heard that they were promoting it through The Purge: Breakout, a pop-up haunted attraction that was touring the country, I dropped everything to get a ticket. A haunted attraction in July? Talk about Christmas coming early!

928930cc-09e0-41e7-8d3f-751858ff0972The typical haunted attraction tends to be a fairly linear affair. You start at the beginning and keep moving until you get to the end, trying to absorb or avoid (depending on your preference) as many scares as you can along the way. In contrast, Breakout is billed as “An Immersive Escape Experience.” Groups of up to six guests are locked into the attraction at one time and given thirty minutes to try to figure out how to get out by deciphering clues and solving puzzles that are embedded in the surroundings. The concept of an Escape Room attraction is not new, and did not originate as a horror-themed show, but as some designers have discovered, they really are two great tastes that taste great together.

Welcome to the Hotel California

I found a friend who agreed that this sounded like an excellent way to spend an evening, and we headed out to the location, a parking lot on the outskirts of downtown Los Angeles where a few trailers decked out in full Purge regalia awaited us. As we watched the sun go down, I started to feel.

It wasn’t quite the stomach-churning dread of a haunted house. It was more of a light, but increasing anxiety that I would totally choke on the puzzles. I immediately reflected that I was grateful to be feeling anything! It occurred to me that going to the movies or even certain live events just wasn’t doing anything for me recently, and that one of the reasons why I keep coming back to haunted attractions is because they stir something that lies dormant for too long of a stretch.

Not for the claustrophobic

Before entering, we had about five minutes to get to know our three fellow participants with whom we would be trapped, and indulged in the futility of concocting a strategy for getting out. I was nominated as some kind of leader. Anxiety level rises. One of the hosts came out and gave us the setup: we’re locked in some weirdo’s basement on Purge Night, which begins in 30 minutes. We need to escape or he kills us. Not necessarily true to the sophisticated moral complexities of the movie, but I wasn’t complaining. We were characters in the story, and it was about to begin! We were provided with some straightforward rules: don’t break or take anything, don’t try to use a light, if you trigger one of the emergency buttons (you are locked in, after all) then it’s immediate game over, no refunds, no questions. Oh, and there was one more thing, only about 1% of everybody who’s played the game has escaped. And you thought Vegas was rough.

Once the door locked behind us, the panic began. . . immediately. Any remnant of any strategy that we thought would have been useful dissipated in the first 15 seconds. In true basement style, it’s not very well-lit, which is a problem when your success hinges on finding objects in your environment. In addition to miscellaneous klaxons, sound effects, and the sound of your blood pumping in your ears, every five minutes there were very loud, periodic reminders that the Purge would be starting in 25, 20, 15, etc., minutes. Needless to say, when all five of us were huddled in a very small room and stuck on a puzzle, these reminders were anything but calming.

We solved a bunch of puzzles. We tried our hardest. We celebrated our successes. But in the end, we died. Murdered to be exact. Time ran out, and for us, it just wasn’t enough. If we had five more minutes! If we had only done such-and-such! Did we remember to look behind that one thing? We wallowed in the coulda-woulda-shouldas for a minute or two, but the general consensus from all of us was, “That was SUPER FUN!”

Totally Occupied The Purge

It was an exceptionally produced show. I love puzzles, and I felt that they were well-tested to be achievable but challenging (obviously, since we died!) The makeshift trailer setup was not at all reflective of the excellent production design and technical sophistication that kept our attention for thirty action-packed minutes in such a small amount of space. It was 100% adrenaline from beginning to end and when it was all over, I wanted more. However, part of what makes this type of show special is that it’s really something you do once and only once.

The coolest part of the show turned out to be something I least expected — us! A common feature of many immersive experiences is to get you out of your chair and into the action. However, this often takes the form of occupying the same space as the actors while they go about their business. The better-written productions allow for some latitude and improvisation, but there is still a script, and you’re still essentially watching, or in some cases being guided/goaded through some simple participation. Breakout was different — we were the cast. The story consisted entirely of what we did. There was one non-player cast member, but I think she was there to make sure that we didn’t go completely off the rails. And man, did we kill it! Before we got killed, that is.

I was in awe at how naturally we worked together as a team, despite the fact that we barely knew each other. People’s strengths immediately surfaced — the codebreakers, the searchers, the observers, the scouts — without any explicit coordination. Almost all of the puzzles required some form of cooperation, but it somehow happened in a seamless way. When it was all over with, we felt like old friends, and made plans to get together for future events once October rolls around. It was magical.

We are a culture that is screamingly desperate for personal connection. We are undoubtedly the most well-connected, lonely people that the planet has ever hosted. Breakout showed that when you put people together and give them a story and some purpose, you just might end up with something unforgettable. We need to be creating more experiences like this.

Reality is Overrated

15 May

Awesome PicHave you ever had that feeling where you come across something that stops you dead in your tracks, and then you take a step back, and you think,”Yeah, maybe that wasn’t such a big deal,” and then you let go of it for a few days, and then you come roaring back, and say, “No, that’s pretty messed up, the world needs to know about this.” I did recently, and you’re about to hear about it.

I just got a brand new Android phone, and as is recommended when you join forces with the Droid, I recognized that things are easier when you sign your life over to Google. Setting aside my knowledge that Google’s promotional offer of 50GB of free Google Drive space for two years is the cloud storage equivalent of giving away dime bags at a junior high, I agreed to have all the pictures on my phone automatically uploaded to “Drive” for “safekeeping.” I have kids, so the odds of my phone and all of its pictures ending up in any number of compromising situations involving bathtubs or impromptu aerodynamic trials are relatively high compared to Google accidentally losing my data.

Kung_Fu_Panda_Fan_art_by_Slacker_RBSo I’m merrily going about my life, taking too many pictures and videos of my kids instead of enjoying the reality of their company, and generally doing a serviceable job of being a decent dad. Flash forward a few hours and I get a notification that not only have my photos been uploaded to Google Drive, but that there is a new “Auto Awesome” picture waiting for me. If you’re not familiar with this feature, it basically adds special effects to pictures that you’ve taken that meet certain criteria. The effects can range from the mildly amusing and patently fake effect of adding a snow animation to a picture taken when it’s snowing to the moderately impressive compositing of several related pictures into a short, stuttery animation. There are other effects like photobooth-style compositing and an impressive feature that combines photos and videos into a slideshow/video presentation. Basically, if you’re the kind of person who likes to spend hours trying to turn your personal photos and videos into amateur-looking mini-masterpieces, then this is bad news for you, because the Auto-Awesome algorithm does it automatically and it’s actually pretty decent. As a technology enthusiast, I applaud the questionable diversion of shareholder value into the development of what is actually a very sophisticated application of powerful computer vision algorithms.  So far, so good.

More-Awesome-Than-A-Double-Rainbow_4663-lBut not really. Because Google didn’t make it snow in my picture, nor auto-create a panorama, but instead applied the “Smile” effect. If you’ve ever tried to take a picture of a child under the age of five, then you already know that your ok-fine-that’s-good-enough shooting ratio is somewhere in the neighborhood of 150:1. If you’re trying to take a picture of two or more children under five, then chances are one of you will burst into tears before an acceptable image is captured. And yet there we were, my two-year-old son, without any coercion or threats on my part was hugging my four-year-old daughter, who was patiently and willingly tolerating and even reciprocating it. I immediately took about ten pictures and felt that I had achieved moderate success. I immediately checked them out and found the usual assortment of unprovoked distraction, unilateral nose-picking, and asynchronous emotional expression that characterizes EVERY picture  I’ve ever taken of them.

dont-think-just-be-awesomeBut there was one gem in the bunch. He is hugging her with an angelic expression of contentment and security on his face, and she is smiling and touching his head in a loving way, accepting his embrace. However, her smile is tempered by a subtle reflective aspect as if in that moment she understands that she will always be older, and he will always be younger, and she will always be his big sister and while they will learn from each other and grow together, she will always be there for him in the special and unique way that only a big sister can be. Then I checked out the Auto-Awesome picture.

The Smile effect had identified a different picture in which my daughter has a totally fake senior portrait smile whereas my son looks like he just bonged a 6-pack of Coors Light and is about to yak. It then combined my daughter’s “classic” smile from this picture with the content smile of my son from the first picture to create the “perfect” photo. Except, it’s not perfect, it’s unsettling, because the moment captured by this Auto-Awesome picture NEVER HAPPENED in reality. The algorithm cleverly merged the two pictures with the “best” smiles, and it’s basically impossible to detect the modification. Now before I launch into total rant mode, please note that I understand:

  • Auto Awesome did not delete my original photos
  • Auto Awesome can be turned off
  • Auto Awesome photos can be deleted
  • You can replicate and exceed the results of Auto-Awesome on your own
  • I have free will
  • Google does not force you to use this feature
  • It’s a free world (online . . . mostly)
  • Don’t be evil

080312-total-recallI am fascinated with the concept of the plasticity of memory. Beyond that, I am obsessed with the pursuit of capturing and articulating my truest sense of an experience, and in denial of its ultimate futility. The idea that repeated viewings of an Auto-Awesome picture have the potential to alter  your memory of what actually happened is personally horrifying to me.

It also concerns me that as a culture, we not only have the capability to recreate our past, but that it can be automatically done for us, and have it be considered “awesome.” I know it’s all in fun, and it’s probably just another R&D project run amok, but I still think that the implications of playing fast and loose with “what really happened” are worthy of reflection. Social media already provides us with a powerful platform to reinvent ourselves and to present a crafted fantasy identity to the world for passive consumption. I understand that these types of services do not force you to make misrepresentations, but they provide the always-available and tempting option to tease the truth into something more, and to craft our online identity into the ideal that we have failed to achieve in meatspace. There is nothing inherently wrong with putting on a good show — we generally don’t show up to a social event in reality without having made some attempt to look our best. However, we still retain the intent and the creativity to design and execute those decisions in front of real people. “Auto” removes the intent, “Awesome” removes the creativity, and the internet removes the meaningful context. Combined with the force multiplier of social networking, it’s the death of reality by a billion tiny cuts.

Finally, aside from the statement that it makes about what is “worth remembering,” or that an algorithm can be trusted to make that decision for you, this type of technology has the potential to rob us of the nuance and beauty that we were trying to capture in the first place. Because if you think about it, once you turn your back on reality, what else is there?

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.

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

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