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.

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.

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