Archive | August, 2013

A Chorus Line: An Immersive Paradox

26 Aug
Need I dignify this with an answer?

Need I dignify this with an answer?

Recently, I had the privilege of enjoying the final performance of a local production of A Chorus Line. It was produced by Woodminster Summer Musicals, and their venue, the Woodminster Amphitheater, is yet another stunning reason why Oakland is such an awesome place to live. August night, sun going down, ridiculous views, surrounded by trees, being entertained by highly-trained, talented people. Did I mention that they encourage you to bring your own beverages, without restriction?

Anyway, back to A Chorus Line. I had never seen any prior production or version, and didn’t know too much about it, so I was essentially experiencing the show for the first time. I guess this is the musical equivalent of somehow managing to have never seen Avatar. After all, this was the sixth longest running show in Broadway history. I won’t bore you with the details, but the five that are higher on the list essentially redefined the concept of “theatrical spectacle” for their respective time. Also, every single one of those other shows is based on or inspired by some well-known pre-existing work, such as a book or a movie, which basically provides instant cachet. Amazingly, neither is the case with A Chorus Line. I won’t rehash the historical significance and origins of the show, but I will share my impressions of experiencing it for the first time, almost 40 years after it opened on Broadway.

Aside from the title, does not have much in common with A Chorus Line . . . except greatness

Aside from the title, does not have much in common with A Chorus Line… except greatness

For those who are unfamiliar with this show, the entirety of the story occurs on-stage during an audition for positions in the ensemble (“the chorus”) of a hypothetical Broadway show. The characters are the auditioning dancers and the director/choreographer who is running the audition. That’s it. I don’t have a point of reference for how this show has been produced anywhere else, but I think it’s safe to say that this production’s minimalist scenic design was fairly typical. The set literally consists of an empty stage backed by mirrors. With the exception of a few technical modifications that occur during the course of the show, there are no set-changes to speak of. No windows, no doors, no “furniture”, no nothing. One even gets the sense that the action is approximately occurring in real-time. In other words, while there might be some amount of time compression, there isn’t a sense of action occurring tomorrow or next week. It’s pretty much all happening right in front of you. The plot is very straightforward: the director needs to cull the group down to four men and four women, and he uses the audition to get the dancers to open up to him. The show is basically the chronicle of that session, told through dialogue, song, and dance. It’s like the reality show of musicals, except about 20 years before the term lamentably emerged in widespread use.

Doesn’t sound very interesting, does it?

Oops, sorry inside joke.

Sorry, inside joke, you had to be there

But it is. And that’s what I’m trying to figure out and explore. There are so many characters on-stage that it’s hard to identify any as “main.” True, quantitatively some necessarily get more lines than others, but it’s hard to put your finger on any subset of characters and assign their motives and struggles as the lifeblood of the story. What about the director, you ask? Sure, he’s in every single “scene,” except he spends 85% of the time off-stage speaking to the dancers. Arguably, the entire cast of characters, which essentially share a common motive (to get hired), is the “main character.” That might sound interesting in an abstract, postmodern, academic way, but is any of this entertaining?

Yes. And here’s why. The dancers are led to believe that being honest and open with the director represents their best shot at getting the job, and that’s exactly what they do. Whether they are saying or singing something sad or funny or painful or shallow or reflective, it all comes across as incredibly raw and honest and vulnerable, and therefore compelling. Because there isn’t much of a story to speak of, there isn’t any way for a first-time viewer to anticipate who will speak next, or what they will say, or what greater significance it will have. As a result, it’s very liberating to not have to “keep up” with myriad plot machinations, twists, and intrigues. You’re encouraged to just sit back and relax and listen to what each character is telling you, and if you’re not totally into it, no problem, there are about 20 other characters on stage, and someone new will be rotating in shortly.

For me, where the creative concept of the show came full circle and ultimately succeeded was oddly enough in the minimalist scenic design. Because there is almost nothing to distract you visually, you actually don’t sit back and relax. You give each character your full attention and listen to their story, because there are no other distractions or competitions for your attention. This is the immersive paradox I refer to in the title of this post. You are provided with so little “information” to absorb and even less “metadata” about how to process or anticipate what is being presented to you, yet somehow the effect is to actually draw you in even further. It is the opposite of being overwhelmed, yet you are. And it somehow allows the truth of what the characters are saying to hit home even harder.

As I mentioned, I choose to interpret each character as a facet of a single conceptual main character, which I conceive as “the daring dreamer.” Each of these characters approaches their personal challenge from a different angle and has a different story to tell, but every single one of them shares a common drive to put it all on the line to realize their dream. Most are honest about the fact that they’re not looking past the here and now, and some even have the courage to admit that this may not even be a stepping-stone to anything except professional disappointment. But that doesn’t stop them from dreaming. I believe that the mirrors, which arguably constitute the one “prop” in the entire show, intentionally reflect the audience back to itself as if to say, “This is you onstage.” I believe that the reason why people lined up for 15 years to see this show is that every person who watches it finds at least one character that speaks for them and challenges them to ask themselves, “Where is that daring dreamer that once was?” I know I did. Even if that resonance exists for only a handful of minutes, as represented by a single character, that feeling of being “spoken to” is powerful. That said, there may be any number of reasons why none of these characters truly speak to you, and that is at the heart of the beauty and mystery of art. But if the very notion of the daring dreamer is a hollow concept, then you may as well cancel your insurance and pack it in, because chances are, you’re already dead.

Isaac Asimov: Great Uncle of Themed Entertainment? Part 2

21 Aug

In Part 1 of this post, I made a provocative assertion about Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy being related to Themed Entertainment and then did absolutely nothing to back that up. I guess I’ve got some catching up to do.

SPOILER ALERT

This post will continue to categorically ruin any initial joy and surprise that you may derive from reading Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy for the first time. If you didn’t heed my warning last time, then be aware that I’m really giving up the goods this time.

THE MULE’S SECRET

Another Mule that has been known to affect emotional state

Another Mule that has been known to affect emotional state

Presumably, you have exhausted some wild orgy of violent fantasies about what terrific power would allow an individual to single-handedly, and against all odds, execute a conquest of unfathomable scope. As it turns out, The Mule’s extraordinary success hinges on his capability to adjust the emotional balance of human beings. As one of his recent converts quips, “It sounds like a little trick, but it’s quite unbeatable.” The Mule himself elaborates further, “Men’s minds are dials, with pointers that indicate the prevailing emotions. … I learned that I could reach into those minds and turn the pointer to the point I wished.” As the story progresses, we witness the dramatic military effects of what happens when The Mule can cause unwavering loyalty in his generals, or more interestingly, overwhelming despair in a targeted population. You may be thinking that this power which I have hyped is a hyperbolic literary hack, a shadowy deus ex machina which seems to have exerted its fearsome will on the voters of the Hugo Awards. However, Asimov imbues this absolute power with some caveats wherein which lie some clever and telling nuances.

It's good to be The Mule

It’s good to be The Mule

First, when the aforementioned convert is accused of having lost all power of objective thought, he replies, “Only my emotions are fixed. My reason is at it always was. It may be influenced in a certain direction by my conditioned emotions, but it is not forced. And there are some things I can see more clearly now that I am freed of my earlier emotional trend.” The admission of this duality of emotion and reason is an irresistible concept for me, because it suggests that The Mule’s power does not require total subjugation of an individual’s mental function. It is only necessary to affect or redirect the underlying emotions, and allow the individual to reason and function in an otherwise normal fashion. Put another way, our personal emotional truths are an inextricable part of the set of assumptions that we apply to everyday reasoning and function. While certain environments, such as school or the workplace, might suggest that we ought to conduct ourselves in a precise and logical fashion, The Mule understands that ultimately our actions are influenced, and in some cases dictated by our feelings.

The second nuance of The Mule’s power is the idea that the experience of a hunch, insight, or intuition, which we tend to experience as a flash of greater power, can be treated as an emotion, and thus be induced or controlled by The Mule. The implication is that those breakthrough moments where everything seems to come together and make sense don’t necessarily need to percolate from some deep, inner place, but can actually be triggered from outside oneself. I think the rest of the book concerns itself with some minor plot point concerning the evolving likelihood of millennia of dark ages, but by this time, I had set the book down, lost in my own reverie of insight.

It occurred to me that The Mule’s power is both what we strive for as storytellers, and what we seek every time we open a book, enter a theatre, or otherwise immerse ourselves in someone else’s creation. When we open ourselves to a story, it’s because we crave that tweak or that twinge, that insight and indignation, a shock or just a hush of reflection. And we’re voracious about it, because it makes us feel, and feeling is what reminds us that we haven’t quite had the life choked out of us by the doldrums of the everyday, quite yet. We are changed on the other end of it, and we might be changed in different ways each time it’s told to us. And we take that change with us back to our lives and the people in them.

Pink Floyd Busts Out The Visi-Sonor . . . Again!

Pink Floyd jamming on the Visi-Sonor

The craft of storytelling implies a sense of neutrality wherein no medium can be considered superior to any other in an absolute sense, although the choice of medium and related artistic decisions should always support the spirit of the story. Personally, I have a strong interest in themed entertainment, and I feel that immersive experiences provide a number of new tools and modes for creative narrative expression. While The Mule could exercise his emotional control more or less at will without any external implements, he sometimes chose to focus his efforts through the use an instrument called a Visi-Sonor, which emits musical tones, but also stimulates the optic center of the brain directly, causing vivid hallucinations. I think it’s significant that Asimov chose to augment The Mule’s inherent gift of incredible power by suggesting that it could actually be enhanced when employed in conjunction with an immersive aesthetic sensibility. A strong story told with honesty and passion affects our emotions which affects our actions which affects our lives. That is power. And Asimov, a storyteller in his own right, wanted us to understand that. Buried in a plot-point in the second half of the second book of a trilogy, he tells us that one person CAN change the world, or the galaxy, or whatever term we choose to apply to those regions occupied by thinking, feeling beings. The beautiful truth though is that each of us can claim that power, and I consider it a great privilege to exercise it thoughtfully.

Isaac Asimov: Great Uncle of Themed Entertainment? Part 1

19 Aug
They gave best all-time series to WHO?

They gave Best All-Time series to WHO?!

I have been making my way through Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy. Admittedly, as of this post, I have only read two out of the three books, but that’s not going to stop me from drawing some crazy connection between immersive storytelling and his vision of the future.

SPOILER ALERT

NOTE: this article assumes that you haven’t read these books, or that you’re due for a quick backgrounder if you have. If you are one of the former, and you don’t want to ruin your experience of reading the winner of the one-time Hugo Award for “Best All-Time Series,” then you should turn back now.

A LITTLE BACKGROUND

No disputing Asimov's chops . . . as a writer

No disputing Asimov’s chops . . . as a writer

Isaac Asimov thinks big. Real big. The Foundation Trilogy takes place in the distant future. There are 25 million inhabited planets, and the galactic population is in the quadrillions. I’m not even sure how many zeroes that is, but it’s a lot. In other words, there really isn’t a useful point of reference or comparison for the scope that he envisions. The basic gist of the Trilogy is that amazingly this entire universe is governed under the structure of a single Empire. A new discipline called “psychohistory” has been developed that applies mathematical principles to project the likelihood of future events, largely based on the way large groups of people behave. So psychohistory isn’t going to tell you what your great-great-granddaughter will eat for breakfast 80 years from now, but it will probably do a good job of outlining the macroeconomic trends and political context of the world she lives in. In theory, psychohistory can be used to develop projections that span tens of thousands of years. Remember, Asimov thinks big.

Controversially, Hari Seldon, the most famed psychohistorian, proclaims that the aforementioned Empire will actually collapse sometime in the next 100 years, and will be followed by 30,000 years of  barbarism, until it will ultimately be replaced by a Second Empire. However, he posits that certain actions can be taken now that will reduce the expected duration of the Dark Ages to as short as 1,000 years. The people in power get upset, and they essentially exile him and his team to the outer bounds of the universe, where they create an entity known as The Foundation. From this protected point, he enacts what is to be known as “The Seldon Plan.” The balance of Foundation, the first book in the trilogy, consists of vignettes that illustrate how his plan has anticipated certain “crises” that occur long after his death, and how he has set things in motion such that the likelihood of withstanding these crises is actually quite high. In fact, a pre-recorded hologram of Seldon plays at pre-determined times where he basically congratulates the people of the future for surviving the most recent crisis and advises them to buckle up for the next one. No, I’m not leading up to some elaborate tie-in to Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln.

Are you talking to me?

Are you talking to me?

Reading stories about how Hari Seldon is always right is only entertaining up to a point. In Foundation and Empire, the second book, things start to get interesting. The Seldon Plan is virtually guaranteed to succeed, provided that there are no massively disruptive developments in technology or politics. And as mentioned, due to its extremely large scale, it is virtually impossible for a single person to influence the Plan’s outcome. However, something DOES occur that the Plan did not contemplate, and it is in the form of a single person, known only as The Mule, who happens to be a genetic mutant. Mutations, being inherently specifically unpredictable, cannot be accounted for by the Plan. However, it remains a possibility, however remote, that a mutation could result in something of cosmic significance, even if embodied by an individual. And that’s what happens. The Empire is effectively in shambles, and the Dark Ages have begun, but The Mule begins to aggregate power at an alarming rate. He is effectively unstoppable, even bringing the Foundation itself to its knees with relatively little effort. What terrible, irresistible power can a single individual possess that can operate unchecked on a virtually unlimited scale? It’s a great thought experiment to leave you with, because the answer to that question is where things get interesting.

To be continued.

Neurogaming Conference 2013: Expo Highlights Part 2

16 Aug
'Nuff Said

‘Nuff Said

In my previous post, I talked about some of the highlights from the 2013 Neurogaming Conference and Expo. Did I mention that the Expo was in a nightclub? So basically on a pleasant weekday in early May, while you were probably engaged in performing or avoiding something at work, I was hanging out in a nightclub making drones fly around with my brain. Man, I’ve always wanted to say that!

Anyway, where was I? Ah yes, the bar had just opened. My go-to industry event cocktail tends to be a Gin & Tonic. It tastes great in a plastic cup and it’s almost impossible to screw up. So drink in hand, I continued my explorations.

Tactical Haptics: These guys are developing a technology called Reactive Grip which is partially based on technologies developed out of the University of Utah. I’m not a gamer, so please feel free to correct me if I get some of this wrong. In a sense, they are extending the general paradigm of a motion-based game controller such as the Razer Hydra by Sixense by adding haptic feedback. Sounds straightforward enough, but it’s not. It was one of my favorite demos at the Expo, and I’ve been trying to figure out why. Basically, my limited experience with haptic feedback is that it’s like the 3D of the gaming world. With rare exception, studios are churning out 3D movies because they feel like they’re supposed to, and the end result is an obligatory, thoughtlessly-executed assault that is ultimately distracting. Haptic feedback can be the same way: I’m firing a big gun or driving a big car, my hands are buzzing, OK, I get it, tell me something I don’t know. I don’t feel that much more involved in the experience just because I’m feeling the exact same buzzing sensation too many times at totally predictable points.

Michael Buffer doesn't need Tactical Haptics

Michael Buffer doesn’t need Tactical Haptics

Tactical Haptics takes it much further. First of all, the haptic feedback in Reactive Grip is palm-facing so it’s accessing what is probably a more vulnerable and sensitive part of your hand. As a result, it lends itself to enhancing the types of actions that you would perform while gripping something with your palm and fingers. I have found a disconnect between the way you hold a standard haptic game controller and the object it intends to emulate, e.g., steering wheel, gun, etc. However, the form factor of Reactive Grip maps pretty closely to how you would hold a sword, for instance. In fact, one of their demos featured a virtual on-screen mannequin that you could hack with a sword. The continuity of what you see on the screen with what you feel in your hand is unlike anything I’d ever experienced. Even the level of feedback was regulated based on whether you were “touching” the mannequin or attempting to cut through it. The effect is uncanny, which is usually a good indication that you’re on to something big. Rather than providing a token enhancement, this technology really pulls you into the experience by engaging a critical sense in a well-considered way. These guys are looking to launch a kickstarter and they’re hustling on the road, making appearances at Meetups in the Bay Area. Worth checking out!

NextGen Interactions: I had been wanting to check this out for a while, because it allowed hands-on (or would that be heads-on) experience with the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset. One of the guys in line mentioned that there had been “a line to get into the line” to try Oculus Rift at the recent Game Developers Conference, so waiting for a few minutes seemed like a good deal. Jason, the founder of NextGen Interactions, was allowing visitors to experience a prototype of a game that he was developing that featured the headset. At this point, it’s hard to say anything about experiencing Oculus Rift for the first time that hasn’t been said before, but the general consensus, with which I agree, can be accurately summed up as HOLY $#!+!!!

Better give the Oculus Rift a break

Better give the Oculus Rift a break

It’s real easy. You sit down in the chair, put on the goggles, and the world that you know disappears. Let me say that again. The world disappears. The first thing I did when I put on the goggles was look up and then look behind me. Yup, looking up at a tall building or back at an empty landscape. Total 360 degree immersion. Jason incorporated Razer Hydra as the controller which makes for a very intuitive way to move around, and once you start moving, it is impossible to continue believing that your chair is not actually moving. Actually, you basically forget all about the chair. Jason patiently walked me through the level he designed, where he had embedded some features that I appreciated including puzzles that required you to interact directly with your environment like picking up objects, stacking them, etc., which you literally do with your hands, thanks to the Hydra. As a testament to the level of immersion though, I found it very difficult to focus on what he was saying, because the whole concept of his voice coming in from some nightclub in San Francisco was totally alien to what was “real” for me, which was a post-apocalyptic landscape that I was intent to explore. After about ten minutes of this, it was time to move on, and I actually found it somewhat disappointing to return to the real world. Jason was meticulous about collecting feedback, and apparently my enjoyment of the Gin & Tonic made me a subject of interest with regard to the potential for motion sickness. I admit to a slight feeling of queasiness which I think I would have felt even without the drink. Hopefully, he had a control group. Oculus Rift did not invent virtual reality, but they seem to have figured out a way to engineer it in a way that will be consumer-friendly (i.e., it won’t cost thousands of dollars.) With developers like NextGen Interactions building content for the platform, it shouldn’t take long to catch on.

Coming Soon: Isaac Asimov posthumously sighs at what I’m getting out of the Foundation Trilogy.

Neurogaming Conference 2013: Expo Highlights Part 1

15 Aug

In my previous post, I talked a bit about Neurogaming in general. However, how does one even find themselves at a Neurogaming Conference? Good question, and someone should really aggregate a list of responses, because I’m sure it would be a fascinating read. Speaking for myself, earlier this year, I was searching for a project that would allow me to learn about robotics, Arduino, interactivity, etc., and I came across a book called “DIY Make a Mind-Controlled Arduino Robot.”

Lead me not into temptation

Lead me not into temptation

For $4.99, if your curiosity can resist this type of temptation, then your willpower is an order of magnitude stronger than mine. The details of this project are best discussed in a future posting, but in short, it makes use of a NeuroSky MindWave, which is a consumer-grade EEG headset priced at less than $100 that performs rudimentary analysis of your brainwaves, and interfaces with a software development environment and an “app store” featuring games, brain training, interactive films, etc. It didn’t take long to discover that there is a thriving community of makers, researchers, artists, and hobbyists who are actively monkeying around with these types of devices with astonishing results. From there, it didn’t take long to stumble on the conference.

The conference featured an excellent lineup of speakers participating in panels on a wide variety of topics, but in this post, I’m going to focus on the Expo. There were a modest but diverse array of exhibitors ranging from EEG headset manufacturers to research organizations to gaming startups to the city of Helsinki which apparently has a high concentration of both the gaming industry (Angry Birds) and neuroscience, go figure. For my part, my body was just moving my head around the room trying to figure out what I could plug it into, so here are some of the highlights.

If you look closely, you can see the headset

If you look closely, you can see the headset

Puzzlebox: The Puzzlebox booth allowed visitors to test-fly their Orbit product, which is a small helicopter that you can control with your brain using a NeuroSky headset. Because I had some prior experience with this type of headset, I was able to sustain flight for approx. 20 seconds on my first try. At this point, the level of control is essentially limited to on/off, or in this case fly/don’t fly. From what I understand about NeuroSky’s platform, it would be tricky to develop a product that you could both fly AND direct (e.g., turn right, turn left, etc.). The employee at the booth told me that they are planning to release additional functionality in the form of software upgrades to combat the trend of planned obsolescence that seems to be the norm in toys (and pretty much everything else) these days. She also mentioned that the founder had designed a mind-controlled pyrokinetic installation, but that it wasn’t quite ready for public consumption. So, basically, you’re one EEG headset away from recreating Stephen King’s Firestarter in the comfort of your own home. On a serious note, there is clearly a lot of creativity and energy at this company, and I have a lot of respect for their commitment to maintaining the value in their products through periodic updates. I can’t wait to see what they come up with next.

Foc.us: The founders of this company were among the friendliest people at the whole conference. They market a different sort of headset. Rather than trying to figure out what electrical signals are being generated by your brain, their device actually stimulates your brain using a method called transcranial direct current stimulation (TDCS). The foc.us is marketed toward gamers, but the technique has a history of therapeutic application and as a cognitive aid. This device is unregulated by the FDA and was essentially self-funded, but when you think about the things that are FDA-approved and funded by institutional capital, you quickly realize how this might actually be a good thing. So I tried it. The guys advised that you probably shouldn’t use it for more than 40 minutes in 1 day. I wore it for about 7 minutes., and probably would have kept going, but there were people waiting. The sensation can best be described as “prickly,” and lives in a grey area between “annoying” and “not quite painful.”

I'll take this over Olestra any day

I’ll take this over Olestra any day

It reminded me of how I feel about exercise — you’re basically lying to yourself if you think that it feels good, but you exert a temporary override on your subjective definition of “tolerable.” So did it do anything? I’m glad that I tried it, but it’s difficult to get a handle on the effects after only one trial. I do know that while I was wearing it, I was talking the founders’ ears off by providing them unsolicited business advice about the product. They seemed like good ideas at the time! I want to say that I felt a little bit more tuned in and focused afterward, but in the interest of full disclosure, it was evening, and I realized the bar had just opened. Generally, it’s exciting to see technology that was previously the domain of medical research and military training make its way into the mainstream.

In my next post, I’ll share a few more mind-blowing highlights and more about the bar.

Neurogaming Conference 2013: The Enchanting Prelude

13 Aug

For the purposes of this post, we’ll just pretend that “blog” is short for “backlog.” I attended the 1st Neurogaming Conference and Expo in San Francisco in May 2013, but chances are, you weren’t there, and you’ve never heard about Neurogaming, so we’re cool. By the way, I get a real kick out of the fact that this was the first incarnation of this event. This is one of the few instances where you can show up to the party early and have it be a good thing.

NO! This is not neurogaming!

NO! This is not neurogaming!

To start, I’m reminded of a comment that was made by one of the panelists on the “Investing in Neurogaming” panel. He basically said, “NEVER use the word Neurogaming with consumers.” This made me laugh out loud, because it explains the odd looks and slow backing-away when I mention the word to people. The conference actually touched on a number of interesting topics including medical/therapeutic and educational applications, and business/industry considerations in addition to “gaming.”

So, what does it mean exactly? Like any other recently-minted compound buzzword, the answer to that question is somewhat up-for-grabs, so I’ll take a hack at it. For me, neurogaming means the deliberate incorporation of emotional dynamics into the feedback loop of gameplay. Notice that I’m not talking about sensors or lidlocks or pharmaceuticals or mind control or anything like that. In fact, I’m deliberately taking a position that is not based in technology or biology, because it has helped me zero in on what fascinates me about it. I would go so far as to say that using my definition, arguably Neurogaming has been around for decades.

Have a seat = pwnd (literally)

Have a seat = pwnd (literally)

Take for instance (some of) the chess players that you see in a typical metropolitan park. Personally, I get spooked just walking by these guys, watching them move their pieces with efficient lethality before commandingly pummeling their timeclocks. If that doesn’t affect your game, then you should check your pulse.

People play games for any number of reasons, but some kind of emotional kick is almost always at the root of it. However, this dynamic potentially leads to a couple of dead ends.

The calm before the storm

The calm before the storm

First, games inherently require a level of abstract mental processing which competes with and interrupts the emotional experience. Unless you have a very vivid imagination, chess is still some funky-looking pieces on alternate-colored squares, and there’s probably a lot of ping-ponging going on inside your head that keeps you from developing an impractical level of emotional momentum. In fact, for certain games, it’s probably advisable to contain your emotions so that they don’t negatively impact your performance, in which case the emotional payoff is felt afterward. Second, despite the standard bluffs, threats, intimidation and occasional laughter that characterizes most gameplay chatter, there usually isn’t a method for any of this emotional energy to be utilized directly by the game itself. None of this is to suggest that emotions do not have a real effect on gameplay. Even a casual engagement with board games suggests that the opposite is true. However, my definition requires a “deliberate” as opposed to incidental incorporation of emotions. And what better means than technology to facilitate that; hence the conference.

Personally, looking at the trends, technologies, platforms, and prototypes that were discussed at the conference from a few steps back has allowed me to get a better grasp on their implications in other areas, including storytelling and experience design, regardless of whether an actual game is part of the equation.

What? You wanted to hear about the actual conference? I guess I got carried away. In the next post in this series, I share some stories and experiences from the event, including my highlights from the Expo where I attempt to plug my head into everything that I can.

AWE 2013 Highlights – Part 2: ChatPerf, Seebright, Hermaton

2 Aug

In Part 1 of my highlights from AWE 2013, I focused on the challenges that attend the quest for the holy grail of Augmented Reality: a wearable solution that provides a seamless experience. It’s a high-stakes game with a lot of heavy-hitting players and the outcome will potentially have significant impact on the high-tech sector, and possibly society in general. In this post though, I want to touch on some organizations that charmed me because they seemed to be doing things that nobody else was doing, yet still pushing the envelope and having a lot of fun doing it.

ChatPerf

Scent never looked so good

ChatPerf: You can watch movies and listen to music on your phone. With haptics, your phone can even generate some useful, if rudimentary, tactile feedback. But smell things on your phone? Admit it, you’ve been waiting for it, and it’s here! I would have been happy to trade the sheer novelty of experiencing scent coming from a phone for a certain lack of polish in a product that still seems to be in the first-gen/preorder phase of its lifecycle. However, what charmed me most about ChatPerf is that they have already managed to make this product attractive and fun. It comes in different colors, and the overall aesthetic does not necessarily clash viciously with the well-considered design of the iPhone. You literally plug it into an iPhone, and then tap a button on the screen which causes the device to emit a fairly potent aromatic puff. Yes, you can literally see it puff! There is a Willy Wonka/steampunk aspect to it which is delightfully dissonant and unexpected. The developers at the booth told me that each unit is good for 200 blasts (trust me that’s more than enough) especially since each unit can only generate a single scent. However, they said that they are working on a single device that will generate 1000 different scents. Yeah, kind of stopped me dead in my tracks, too. Now that I’ve crossed that off my list, I’m hoping that there will be at least one lickable smartphone at AWE 2014.

Seebright Spark

Has anyone seen my phone?

Seebright: As I’ve previously indicated, the Holy Grail won’t be found anytime soon. Personally, I think the folks at Innovega are on the right track, but that’s a whole other discussion. However, we clearly live in an age where we are essentially undaunted by the prospect of technical limitations, and when we want something, we want it now! At least, that’s what the folks at Seebright seem to be thinking. I hesitate to oversimplify what they’ve done, but I haven’t come across anybody else who is doing it, and it works, so here goes. The Spark is a piece of headgear into which you insert your phone, that uses optics to beam an image of the phone’s screen into your line of sight. Once you’ve played with AR long enough, you get to an apex of frustration where you want to take duct tape, an old watering can and a thick rubber band, and attach your phone to your head. Seebright feels your pain, but they put a lot of thought into it, and the Spark looks and works quite well, despite seeming to be a somewhat low-tech solution. It seems to be an intermediate step that may see itself made obsolete by the HUD that currently only exists in everyone’s dreams. However, so far we’re hearing a lot of talk without a lot of results, whereas the Spark makes you feel like we’re getting somewhere and tries to scratch that itch. I think that technology like this can facilitate prototyping of new experiences since they bridge a gap that is currently too wide, impractical or expensive to traverse from where we’re currently standing.

Hermaton

And you thought your dreams were weird

Hermaton: A central feature of AR, and one of the reasons why it has such a magic quality, is that there is no substitute for experiencing it firsthand. Nowhere is this more evident than with Hermaton from Darf Design. By definition, all AR requires a real-world object to serve as a “marker” to anchor one or more layers of virtual content. While this marker can be anything, it’s typically something 2-dimensional like a page in a magazine, or with the rapid development of computer-vision algorithms, a 3D object. In most cases, you’re dealing with an “average-sized” object, although there are some impressive examples of augmenting an entire building. However, Hermaton is basically a marker that you can walk inside that surrounds you. Words and pictures simply won’t do this justice. Even the marker, which was deployed as two full walls of a booth, is a compelling piece of abstract art. Hermaton succeeds as installation art, architectural statement, immersive game/story, and most importantly a satisfying experience. My experience walking through it was to temporarily lose myself in a novel form of exploration. There are interactive components on the environment, but they can be difficult to access, which requires you to slow down, absorb your surroundings, and enjoy the journey. It’s a powerful archetype for immersive storytelling, and I’m sure there will be followers and copycats. However, I can’t wait to see what’s next from this group.

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