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This Is What The Future Feels Like

6 Jun

how-did-you-do-that“What the hell did you just do to me?!” If I hadn’t actually spoken the words aloud, they were certainly running through my head (among other things), but let me set this up for you.

I’m an experience junkie. I’m especially interested in borderline crazy stuff that tests my limits: everything from extreme immersive horror experiences to Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation to raising kids. Even when I try something new though, the experience usually begins with the anticipation of what it might be and ends with a reconciliation of what it actually was. So it’s very rare for me to be totally and utterly blindsided. Hold onto that thought for a sec.

place_finger_hereI also produce interactive experiences. “Interactive” means something different to each person you ask, but I loosely define it as the integration of technology in an environment to extend, enhance, or personalize narrative possibilities. That “anything goes” vibe you’re picking up on is intentional.

ObamaWeCanOne of the most exciting and challenging phases of the production process is brainstorming with a group of creative people in a relatively untethered fashion. In some of these sessions, where anything is valid and the ideas are crackling with vision and potential, someone may ask me, “Is that doable?” Thankfully, I usually don’t need to have a ready answer in that type of session. At some point the execution of realistic solutions within the pesky limits of time, money, technology, etc., can be a creative art in itself.

When I noodle on some of the more challenging scenarios though, it often seems that the same technology limits keep popping up. I’ll sometimes daydream into a thought experiment of what would need to happen in order for those limits to begin to dissolve, and a couple high-level conclusions tend to recur:

1. We’re going to have to come up with some pretty creepy technology.
2. Our bodies will merge somewhat with technology.

gif-glitter-how-about-no-overlay-Favim.com-2079240This type of thinking quickly ventures away from the domain of viable experiences and into the realm of science fiction. In other words, it seems unlikely that we’ll get a practical glimpse of this kind of stuff anytime soon.

Or so I thought.

I get a lot of inspiration at events where I can connect with driven people who are doing interesting work and plummeting through their own personal rabbit holes of passion, often with fascinating results.

Cdhw9NmUsAAGVAi.jpg-large

Yup, a wig made of earbuds

When I attended SXSW Interactive this year, I was naturally drawn to the Interactive Expo. It was a refreshingly eclectic mashup of startups, universities, larger organizations, and individuals with only the coquettishly vague notion of “interactive” (there’s that word again) to connect them. I was most intrigued by a section that was dedicated to booths representing entire countries with exhibits that ranged from “we like tech and no, we’re not hungover” to specific demos.

In the Korea section, C-Lab, Samsung’s in-house incubator, was demo’ing a number of prototypes, and I saw a couple Gear VR kits being passed around so I dove in for a closer look. The guy at the booth had a headset in his hand that looked like a flimsy plastic rig for headphones, but without the headphones. It had a couple of small, approximately 1″ square foam blocks attached to either side and he placed it around the back of my head so that the blocks rested just under my ears. In other words, I was expecting Virtual Reality, but with nothing over my eyes or ears, I was pretty much just getting Reality. I didn’t come to SXSW for Reality.

b2Bf3KFjBq-10He stood in front of me holding a mobile phone, and to the best of my recollection he waved his hand over and across the screen and back, like a fumbling magician doing a trick that everybody knows isn’t going to work. And then he asked,”Did you feel that?”

And some part of me responded:

“What the hell did you just do to me?”

Because when he waved his hand across the phone, I MOVED! Or at least I felt like I did. It’s really hard to explain. My feet never left the ground, my body did not physically move in space, but I MOVED. I may have swayed, my line of sight may have shifted from side to side. The whole thing lasted about three seconds and was indescribably uncanny.

Once I had gotten over my shock of what happened, I asked him to do it again. And it happened again.

769f60059c56a56ad81e239b0668cae85b9.jpgThe device is called Entrim 4D, and it generates a small current that stimulates the vestibular system in a way that mimics the body’s response to actual motion. The purpose of this is to mitigate potential motion sickness caused by VR. Next, I did an actual VR demo of a racing experience, this time with a Gear VR rigged up with Entrim. With each turn of the virtual car, Entrim simulated the corresponding motion in my body, which was somewhat less off-putting since it was supported by the VR visuals.

I don’t really have a big problem with motion sickness in VR, so it’s hard for me to say whether it’s an effective solution. In fact, experiencing Entrim without VR, even for a few seconds, made me feel more icky than anything I’ve experienced in VR.

Remember that bit about seeking out experiences that test my limits? I appreciate the role that technology can play in blurring those lines, and while I might aspire to be Oz in my day job, I’m always first in line to be Dorothy. Fool me once, shame on. . . oh nevermind, just keep fooling me.

emotional-glassesA good show takes you on a journey down a path. Technology may play a part in paving the path or shining a light to guide the way. Regardless of the machinery behind the scenes though, creators ultimately provide an imperfect space that can only be completed by the imagination of their guests. There is an unspoken agreement that asserts the integrity of each party and the mutual trust between them.

My experience with Entrim made me feel that the agreement itself had been disrespected. Instead of being fooled, I felt like I had been hacked. That’s not to say that I felt violated, but it nevertheless felt like a line had been crossed with potentially unsettling implications. I recognize that it may seem like a disconnect to think that being hurtled through space at unnatural speeds on a roller coaster or having screens plastered to my face to force me into seeing an alternate reality somehow seems legit, whereas Entrim does not.

The distinction lies in how much agency the guest retains in owning their version of the experience. Consider: every experience ultimately asks you a question about how it makes you feel. A rollercoaster asks you how it physically feels to pull multiple Gs through an inversion. A movie, play, or dark ride asks you how it feels to experience that version of that story. A simulator or virtual reality experience asks you how it feels to replace your expectations of the real world. In each of these experiences, guests agree to be taken to the precipice of a creator’s vision and to choose to gaze or soar or remain indifferent as they see fit. In the best of those moments, we will each translate the art of the experience into something that is felt in a fundamentally personal way.

04-black-mirror.w750.h560.2xBy contrast, a technology like Entrim is an override that forces you to feel in a specific way. It removes the question of how it makes you feel, because it no longer needs to ask. While Entrim itself seems relatively harmless, it feels like an early waypoint on a slippery slope that may lead to some version of my sci-fi daydreams of creepy, cyborg technology.

Like it or not, we’re on this train and it’s not slowing down. As experience designers, it will be increasingly important to make and protect a space for our guests to bring their own feelings to the worlds we create for them. Otherwise, we may find that we create for nobody.

 

The Theatrical Ecstasy of Fuerza Bruta

2 Feb

girl_above_cropI knew I’d be on my feet and craning my neck, but the reviews failed to mention jaw fatigue from constant droppage.

I had a free night in New York and was determined to get myself into something kooky. Where to begin? I came across Fuerza Bruta and must confess that I had my doubts about whether it was my type of show. The scant reviews I skimmed referred to a nightclub vibe, and well, to be honest . . . I can’t stand nightclubs. Or at least that’s what I thought. But as she’s known to do, Manhattan whispered in my ear. I listened.

Day of the show was a piece of work. My colleagues and I had been in a windowless room for eight straight hours with a client and without a break. It had been the sequel of a two-day creative binge where you try and give everything you’ve got and hope it was enough. It was exhausting, gratifying, emptying, fulfilling all at the same time. In the interim before the show, I unwound with my colleagues in a spent inertia. I had no idea I was heading into a crucible.

drummer_cropThe show is general admission, standing room only in a generally featureless space that could be the Nirvana video without the bleachers. The lights went down and some drummers took the stage and set a tone for the event. The lighting was great, but it wasn’t anything I hadn’t seen before.

Everything after that was pretty much unlike anything I’d ever seen before.

Fuerza Bruta is a succulent flavor of performance art that doesn’t want a label, and I’m totally OK with that.

Our tendency to find the connection between an external narrative and one’s internal experience is the essence of the magic of story. In some cases, a good story can be like a wine with a long finish or a complex, aged scotch that causes one to quietly reflect on its rippled resonances. Fuerza Bruta is different. More like a mainline shot in the arm of something that would certainly get you arrested.

Fuerza Bruta. Brute Force. That’s all you get coming into this thing. I could find no story in the traditional sense, but the energy of the show allowed me to quickly tune into a loosely cohesive framework wherein I began to discover new layers of personal meaning.

treadmill.gifOne of the opening vignettes involves a man running on a treadmill wearing nice clothes. He’s running against the wind. This is happening about six feet away from me. Props, chairs, tables, the familiar trappings of life, are placed onto the treadmill and he must avoid them. Other people join him on the treadmill and pass him by. The same people pass him again. The same props. The same situations. Sameness. Struggle. Submission. Time is passing. This is life! This was my life. This is what life was for me before I made some rather large changes. I recognized this and identified with it in a visceral way that cut me to the bone.

It’s also very important to understand that this is one of the few scenes that occur at ground level. Almost every other scene takes place above the audience. When you forsake the treadmill, there is only up, but it may require you to exchange one type of struggle for another.

sidewaysIn another scene, performers are running and flipping sideways back and forth along the inside of a cylinder that has been temporarily constructed around the audience. Later, nubile performers slipped and slid through a pool of water hanging above the audience, sometimes suspended low enough so that you could connect, exchange a look, touch a hand through the surface. There are no words, but there is a powerful language of movement, a vocabulary of speed, friction, collision, balance, and it all made perfect sense to me.

And there are no breaks. The show is a continuous overdose of visuals, sound, personal movement, and audience engagement. Far from feeling overwhelmed though, I found myself in an ecstasy of euphoria that lasted the entire show.

Now, if you’ve read any of my other entries, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that I am no stranger to the dark side. I enjoy haunted attractions, and I specifically seek out shows where I can find myself in an intensity of that dark unknown from which true knowledge of self often bubbles up.

flying_improvedThis just shouldn’t be my type of show, but it is. For me, Fuerza Bruta is a powerful expression of what happens when you stare into the blinding sun of possibility. It’s the courage of throwing yourself onto a path of uncertainty. The childlike joy of relearning everything you thought you knew. The ecstasy of soaring. It is a celebration of the choice to embrace the Brute Force of life and all its power and mystery rather than spending a lifetime trying to deny it.

I know I’ll be back. The show happened for me and made a difference. When I need a reminder of what it all might mean, I’ll know where to go.

 

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.

Aeropress: The Art & Science of Perfect Coffee

26 Jul

If you don’t believe that coffee makes you a more productive, creative, attractive, interesting, and overall better person, then you may not find the rest of this post very interesting. I wouldn’t go so far as to call myself a coffee geek. True, I occasionally roast my own beans, and will sometimes indulge in the zen of a pour-over, but most days I can make my peace with Mr. Coffee if it comes out strong enough. But that all changed when the Aeropress entered my life.

Like broadband, mobile phones and DVRs, I’m finding it increasingly difficult to remember what the world was like before Aeropress. I vaguely recall a notion that there were two worlds of coffee: the one at home where I could make something well above functional, but acceptably short of sublime, and the other in the outside world of expensive espresso machines operated by artful barristas in some aromatic sacrosanctum. For less than $30, the Aeropress collapsed those worlds into two minutes of meditative perfection.

I should host this in my kitchen

I should host this in my kitchen

Coffee is a ritual. I know that I am not unique in the peace of mind that I experience in the particular and personal way in which I prepare, measure, grind, filter, and execute the first and most important cup of the day. But with almost every method, you must ultimately disconnect yourself and trust the machine, the process, or simply time itself. Once your water is heated and your beans are ground, you are less than one minute away from coffee, but the Aeropress requires you to become part of the process. Without rehashing the details of how the system works, which is more thoroughly described elsewhere, the Aeropress requires you to exercise equal parts patience, finesse, judgment, and care. In other words, it takes a bit of practice, but you feel a true sense of connection with your coffee. For what it’s worth, in my opinion, the properly-executed result is as good or better than what I can get in a cafe in the Bay Area, which is High Praise across the board. If you’re looking for a good bean, I’ve been pretty fixated on Highwire Espresso.

You’re probably wondering, what on earth does this have to do with Immersive Storytelling Technology? Well, I’m not going to lie to you, strictly speaking, nothing. However, it’s worth noting that the Aeropress is known as an immersion brewing method. While simple, it has enough science and technique behind it to qualify as technology. And as far as I’m concerned, after a cup of this stuff, I’m ready to jump into just about anything creative, including my favorite pursuit: storytelling.

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