Archive | September, 2013

Breaking Bad: Need a Third Eye For My Second Screen

20 Sep
I Heart Breaking Bad

I Heart Breaking Bad

I finally got a chance to experience Story Sync for AMC’s Breaking Bad.

DISCLAIMER: I’m a big fan of Breaking Bad; it’s one of the few shows I can remember watching from inception instead of telebinging my way into a state of catatonia.

RANT ALERT: I have almost nothing good to say about this, so if you’re generally having a nice day, and would rather not read about someone complaining about television, then feel free to check in later when I’m in a better mood.

Quick! Breaking Bad is about to start!

Quick! Breaking Bad is about to start!

Story Sync is a “second screen” experience, which refers to the use of an additional device (e.g., smartphone, tablet) while consuming a primary source of content (e.g., TV). Despite the high-tech sound of it, Story Sync actually requires you to recalibrate your habits by a few decades. That’s right, prepare to depart the world of DVR, Hulu, VOD, Netflix, iTunes, and any other means that you regularly use to consume content at pretty much ANY OTHER TIME than the exact moment in time when it originally aired, because Story Sync only really works as designed during the show’s original broadcast. Aside from the Super Bowl, I can’t remember the last time I watched a TV show during its scheduled airtime. At least the Super Bowl is a live event, broadcast once annually, with an unknowable outcome that will be spoiled within about five minutes of your engaging the outside world. On the other hand, it makes no sense for me to drop everything I’m doing in my life to watch a pre-recorded, serialized, dramatic show, but that is what AMC requires if you want to experience Story Sync.

AMC Executive Headquarters

AMC HQ

To get started, you must download the AMC Mobile app to your supported device of choice and keep it handy as you enjoy one of the best shows on television. As the show progresses, your device will play an alert sound whenever it has new synchronized content for you to consume, and the interface also provides a running countdown to when the next tantalizing update will be served. The second screen content is in the form of “cards” which contain a unit of content which is typically one of the following:

– relevant still photo from the current or a past episode

– relevant video clip from a past episode

– interactive multiple choice trivia question

– interactive poll

– advertisement; yes, advertisements.

imagesLet me just cut to the chase. Breaking Bad is an intense show. It has successfully navigated the murky waters of long-format television to create an epic story that has momentum and feels real without getting mired in its own intricacies. On the whole, the aggregate experience can be as visceral and emotionally satisfying as watching a great movie. The level of technical artistry from the writing to the cinematography to the editing, sound, music, etc. is exemplary and all of it is brought home by incredible performances by a very talented and well-cast collection of performers. [PING] Hold on, it’s Story Sync, be right back, I need to answer a trivia question. Dammit! Oh, that’s the right answer? Right, now I remember. OK, where was I? Without giving anything away, characters do unexpected things and the plot never fails to enthrall over literally dozens of hours. Particularly in these final episodes, there are moments of great pathos and emotional catharsis as [PING] Let’s see here, a poll: how would I rate Walt’s ethical decision here on a scale of 1-5. Hmmm. Well, could be a three, but I’m leaning toward two. Two? Three? Umm. OK, two. Cool, 31% of Story Sync’d America agrees with me; I feel so . . . connected.¬† Even the arguably relevant content which is designed to refresh your memory about a pertinent detail from a past episode is usually an inappropriately timed distraction.

You’re probably wondering why I don’t just pause the show so I can focus my attention on the poll and not miss what’s happening on the “first screen.” Well, this is a “live TV” experience, and pausing would cause me to lose my sync, not to mention run the risk that my second screen updates might actually end up SPOILING something I haven’t seen on the first screen yet. Also, while you can technically experience Story Sync on a non-live version of the show, it is provided as an unsynchronized “archive” version of all of the second screen content. This means that spoiler information for the entire show that you are about to watch is just a swipe away.

ya-voteBefore you write me off as a Luddite, (actually a pretty audacious proposition if you’ve read any of my other posts) I admit that the concept of second screen might have its place. I’m an unabashedly huge fan of Project Runway, which has a second screen feature that allows you to vote about whether you agree with the judges or whether you think a particular contestant is headed for disaster. Chances are, you’re probably already thinking or talking about the exact question and it takes about a second to form a quick opinion and cast a vote. The results are shown on the air in a corner of the screen in real-time and then they disappear. This works because Project Runway is a reality show and a competition. There is no disbelief to suspend and the second screen experience provides a brief, intermittent outlet to your inner judge with instant gratification. This type of entertainment has a familiar and expected structure (setup, competition, drama, judging, victory/loss, reflection) that is simply more compatible with a second screen experience that can enhance those inherent emotional beats.

The opposite is true with a dramatic show. The level of impact of your emotional experience with the created world of the show is directly correlated to your engagement and attention. Every detail that is seen and heard on-screen is deliberately designed to deepen and retain your immersion in the story as it unfolds. But it’s a two-way street. While I can see that the idea behind Story Sync was to encourage a deeper level of engagement, unfortunately, it seems to have the opposite effect. Moreover, even the smallest amount of analysis or audience-testing would have yielded the same conclusion before it saw the light of day, or at least the dim lighting of your living room.

Walter White disapproves of Story Sync

Heisenberg votes “No” on Story Sync

Plain and simple, Story Sync represents an extraordinary lapse of judgment on the part of the decision-makers who thought this would be a good idea for Breaking Bad. When this show premiered more than five years ago, I’m pretty sure that the creators did not intend for the attention of their audience to be dissipated into a Chinese water torture of inconsequential irritations and distractions. I’m sure that there must be a creative and compelling way to keep fans immersed and engaged with this world, but I’m also sure that this isn’t it.

Choose Your Own Adventure: 21st Century Edition

13 Sep
Where's the Spoiler Alert?

Spoiler Alert!

I have many fond memories of the Choose Your Own Adventure series of books. I whittled away many hours of post-recess silent reading wandering through myriad outcomes in my imagination. I always wondered why that experience had to be limited to the world of books, and I thought it would be so cool if that sensibility could be woven into movies. Well, as it turns out it’s happening . . . . sort of.

When I was looking for apps to purchase for my NeuroSky MindWave EEG headset, I couldn’t resist¬†Paranormal Mynd: Exorcism from MyndPlay. Before I go any further, if you aren’t familiar with what’s currently happening with consumer-grade EEG technology, a brief background will be helpful. Electroencephalography (EEG) is the detection and recording of the electrical activity generated by the brain. For this information to be useful in a medical context, it is not uncommon for a recording device, typically worn as some form of headgear, to have anywhere from 16 to 256 electrodes. This grade of equipment can be expensive as well as generally impractical for casual/recreational use.

Medical grade data and great for metal night at the karaoke bar

Medical grade data and great for metal night at the karaoke bar

In the past few years, NeuroSky and other companies, including Emotiv and InteraXon, have developed consumer-grade devices that have 1-4 electrodes and range in price from $80 – $300. The tradeoff pertains to the quantity and quality of the data collected. NeuroSky’s MindWave headset uses a single dry electrode, but can be worn and activated in less than one minute. Their proprietary algorithms currently interpret one’s brain activity as variable levels of FOCUS and RELAXATION. From an application development standpoint, this allows for the conditional execution of routines based on either or both of those levels as needed.

Possession or just caffeine withdrawal?

Possession or just caffeine withdrawal?

Paranormal Mynd: Exorcism is essentially a movie that contains “decision points” which launch different scenes based on the outcome of some period of EEG analysis. The story is told primarily from a first person point of view. As the viewer, you are an exorcist, and the decision points require you to maintain a threshold level of focus for a period of time in order to successfully exercise your powers. In this title, there are only two decision points, and the entire experience takes less than ten minutes.

On one hand, It’s easy to dismiss this as something that I paid a buck for that entertained me for fifteen minutes. However, I found it unique enough to also see it as a proof-of-concept that raises some interesting questions about the potential for this style of storytelling.

The plot goes something like this . . .

The plot goes something like this . . .

Even more than the old Choose Your Own Adventure books, there is a game aspect to it that makes it more than just a story. While some of those books had multiple satisfying outcomes, others seemed designed to encourage you to exercise your judgment to find a single outcome that felt like “winning.” The MyndPlay title adds a new dimension by requiring some level of “skill” to trigger a desired outcome. In other words, your decision to access a certain outcome is separate and different from your ability to access it, which certainly amplifies the game quality of the experience. While a good game often has a great story component to it, I still make a distinction between when I’m in the mood to “play a game” vs. “enjoy a story.” This experience essentially combines the two, and it’s still an open question as to whether it works for me.

Other questions that I had:

Do I want to see all the outcomes? Even the ones where I don’t win? Do I want to try harder to see a different outcome? How does this meta-level of engagement change my emotional relationship to the story? Does it matter?

This title employed classic horror tropes with very little subtlety. Girl is possessed. Bad things happen if she stays that way. You need to save the day. Could this format be effective in the telling of more sophisticated stories?

Co-author of this post

Co-author of this post

Do the nuances of the decision mechanism enhance or detract from the experience of the story? For instance, I actually found it very easy to achieve threshold levels of focus, because my attention was riveted on the possessed character on the screen. In fact, I found I had to try harder to trigger a threshold of non-focus just to explore the alternate outcome. What if the threshold tests were structured in counterpoint to the content, e.g., what if I had to trigger a threshold of relaxation while watching the same intense scene? Would that make it too much of a game?

Basically, if this is an intermediate step in the exploration of a new style of storytelling, where do we go from here?

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