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SATE ’13 & the Gross Anatomy of Haunted Attractions

23 Oct
Cutting to the chase at SATE

Cutting to the chase at SATE

Last week, I had the pleasure of visiting Savannah, GA to attend SATE ’13. SATE (Storytelling, Architecture, Technology, Experience) is the annual design conference of the Themed Entertainment Association, of which I am a proud, card-carrying member! This is my second year attending this event, and I can’t say enough good things about it. It would be well within the bounds of this blog to provide a full report of the conference, but rather than reinvent the wheel, I can vouch for the high-quality recaps posted at entertainmentdesigner and micechat. As if having my mind blown by the entertaining and informative presentations and panels wasn’t enough, I also hung out with industry pros and peers at events held at a haunted hotel and the courtyard of a former jail. It was two full days of encouragement, stimulation, and inspiration, and I left with a head full of ideas and direction. But I wasn’t going home. I was on a mission. I was heading to Hauntlanta!

It's my blog. I can plug my childhood friends if I want to.

It’s my blog. I can plug my childhood friends if I want to.

When my friend Ted Dougherty found out I was going to Savannah, he insisted that I had to go check out NetherWorld, a haunted attraction on the outskirts of Atlanta. When Ted talks haunts, I listen — he’s the author of an award-winning book about the history of Knott’s Scary Farm and he logs the miles to check out new attractions. NetherWorld is regularly ranked as one of the best haunted houses in the country and even enjoys a high position on a list of the Most Influential Haunted Attractions of All Time, alongside Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion and other legendary spots. The accolades made the 3 1/2 hour drive seem fairly inconsequential.

I don’t want to disappoint, but I don’t feel that it’s fair to provide a detailed blow-by-blow review. These types of attractions rely on the element of surprise, and I respect the importance of not spoiling the experience. I will share some high-level impressions though. NetherWorld 2013 consists of two mazes, and the combined experience takes approx. one hour. Apparently, the attraction changes every year, which itself is a horrific consideration, given its massive size and density of detail. I sometimes leave these types of attractions, including those with presumably far larger budgets at theme parks, with a disappointingly sizable mental list of missed opportunities and instances of ineffective execution. My experience with NetherWorld was the complete opposite; I was struggling to hold on to the inexhaustible list of everything that did work, and my brain was in spasms trying to retain the outrageous sensory overload that I had just experienced . . . in a good way.

This kept happening

This kept happening

However, after leaving SATE, my head was full of story. Among other things, talking shop with Chris Huntley for an hour will have that effect. He promised that my brain would instinctively expunge his heretic theories so that I could resume normal functioning, but so far (thankfully) that hasn’t happened. As he pointed out, using the Haunted Mansion as an example, the story for most haunted attractions goes something like, “You’re in a really bad situation, and you need to get out, or bad things will happen. Good luck.” This would seem to justify an approach in which a haunted attraction is essentially an empty container for a potpourri of arbitrary horrific offerings. In fact, at NetherWorld, although the two mazes are distinctly themed, it was difficult for me to articulate anything more than the skeletal plot above for either of them. It seems that the lack of a compelling or unique story should have caused my emotional engagement to border on disinterest, but that wasn’t the case. So why did I love this attraction so much? I’m not exactly sure, but I’m going to take a crack at it.

I thought we were talking about haunted houses.

I thought we were talking about haunted houses

Without getting hung up on specific terms of art, understanding how we respond emotionally to stories may involve unwinding the relationship between “what” is being told and “how” it’s being told. This relationship is arguably more symbiotic and therefore less forgiving in non-immersive modalities. For example, while it’s possible to temporarily lose yourself in a great book or movie, it is almost impossible to totally forget that the story is happening to other people. If the art or craft of the storytelling falters, we quite readily fall back to the default state of being ourselves. Also, we instinctively and sometimes unconsciously act as critics and connoisseurs when we experience stories told in these ways. On the other hand, because an immersive experience inherently requires a material level of involvement by the audience, it begins to experientially resemble life or dreams. While we may form an opinion of the experience as it’s happening, it will be less natural for us to disengage and evaluate it critically. If some traditional storytelling components are missing or unbalanced, we tend to fill in the blanks ourselves and move forward, just as we do in life.

disbeliefIn short, stories that do not have a deeply immersive component must suspend disbelief so that you can accept the story that is being told to you. On the other hand, immersive experiences must suspend disbelief so that you can accept the story that you end up telling yourself. This is a key insight for me as a storyteller. As a writer and filmmaker, I recognize that I often try to direct and control my audience’s reactions. For instance, I might evaluate the success of my piece based on how many people laugh or jump or cry at specific points that I have crafted. However, as an experience designer, that approach might not be ideal. A successfully designed experience may encourage a viewer to integrate what she is experiencing in a very personal way and with a highly individual outcome. To paraphrase Asa Kalama, another speaker at SATE’s story segment, sometimes the most effective approach in developing a successful experience may lie in providing a compelling framework for a guest’s creativity to blossom, and then getting out of the way!

Slow news day

Slow news day

Back to NetherWorld. A haunted house is a classic immersive experience. I may have been more forgiving of “what” was being told to me, because I was captivated with “how” it was being told. This is not an argument for style over substance. A total disregard for story and plot will cause a haunted attraction to be indistinguishable from a fun house, and would not be successful in my opinion. Nevertheless, an exceptionally designed experience may emphasize the “how” by expertly employing abstract narrative tools that are not necessarily story-driven. For instance:

Pacing:  There needs to be a rhythm of emotional flow to the experience. Thrills should escalate and punctuate with an unpredictable but considered periodicity.

Cohesion: Although I couldn’t really put my finger on the details of the plot, there was something generally “demonic” about the scenic design which provided a baseline of thematic continuity. To clarify, in this particular attraction, it would have been jarring for me to if I had encountered a vampire or an alien in the attraction, because it wouldn’t have “fit.”

Variety: Within the cohesion, there must still be a diversity of stimulation that doesn’t feel repetitive.

Spatial Design: The space should be designed to obfuscate, disorient, reveal, etc., as required by the other narrative components.

Motion/Body Engagement: Moving through a physical space, crouching, running, walking in a circle, fatigue, fluctuations in temperature, etc., all have the potential to influence emotional engagement.

I’m not suggesting that the above elements are absent in less immersive storytelling. However, while there is no formula for accessing the magic of emotional response, as storytellers, we can still draw meaningful conclusions about the effectiveness of certain techniques for certain experiences. This may sound very obvious and automatic until you encounter an attraction that has been ineptly executed. Bottom line: NetherWorld probably wouldn’t make a very good book, but it’s so effective as an experience that they make it look easy.

But that was over and done with, and I understand that Atlanta has a bit of a zombie problem…

To be continued.

Shhh, There’s a Speakeasy Coming to San Francisco!

7 Oct

No, not that one. Nope, not that one either. This one’s the real deal, and it’s opening in January 2014, but I might be able to get you a sneak preview!

A couple weeks ago, I was wrapping up a meeting with an associate at Cafe La Boheme in San Francisco, a suitably appropriate place to evaluate various plans for making the world a more entertaining place. At the end of the meeting, he asked me what I was doing the following night, and proceeded to give me a silver pocketwatch with a dog tag conspicuously attached to its chain. He said, “Call the number on the dog tag, they’ll tell you what to do.”

Once I got home, I called the number and received further instructions on where to show up and what to say when I got there. The following evening, we left the nighttime streets of 21st Century San Francisco, walked through the doors of a nondescript building, right into the year 1923 and the world of The Speakeasy.

The Speakeasy will be a work of immersive theatre. Like many newly-minted terms in art, technology, culture, etc., it’s both challenging and somewhat pointless to attempt to concretely define immersive theatre because every new show seems to expand the scope of what it can encompass. Generally though, it refers to a theatrical experience which “breaks the fourth wall,” which is a fancy term for saying that the conceptual, invisible barrier that typically separates the audience from the players is understood to be nonexistent. In short, when you come to an immersive theatre show, you should expect to find yourself onstage. I am personally very interested in this concept, because it employs many of the storytelling sensibilities that are found in the world of themed entertainment and theme parks. If you think of a theme park as a giant work of immersive theatre, then you can start to get a sense of the exciting possibilities for both of these types of entertainment.

Back to 1923. I can’t really tell you what went on in there, but it was a lot of fun. It might have involved classic cocktails and casino games. If you’re curious though, the theatre company that is producing the show had a successful Kickstarter campaign that will give you a flavor of what they’re creating without spoiling any surprises. As I mentioned, The Speakeasy will not be open to the public until January 2014. However, in the interim, they are running exclusive previews on Friday nights to test out ideas, generate buzz, and engage potential supporters. These aren’t actual performances, but if you’re interested in the bleeding-edge of the local theatre scene, it’s a great opportunity to meet the creators and producers and get involved in the early stages of a very unique experience. If you would like to attend a preview, please contact me and I’ll see if I can let you borrow the pocketwatch for a night.

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?

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.

Venice Beach’s Magic Walk Streets

30 Jun

I was scheduled for a midday meeting in Santa Monica recently, so I decided to take advantage of the favorable timing and location to spend the morning doing something nice. For me, this usually means trying to find a great local place to enjoy a cup of coffee and absorb a new neighborhood. Having grown up in Southern California, I always had a fondness for Venice Beach which happens to have a number of well-regarded cafes so I made my way to Intelligentsia on Abbot Kinney Blvd. I probably hadn’t been to Venice Beach in at least 10 years, and the visits from my college days were usually punctuated by all-hours visits to bohemian dens such as Van Gogh’s Ear or daytime boardwalk serenades from rollerskating, electric guitar wielding, portably amplified djinn. Abbot Kinney is . . . different from all that, but still uniquely Venice. That said, after abandoning any hope of comfort and slothful assimilation into Intelligentsia’s decidedly unergonomic furnishings, I found myself successfully caffeinated and seeking more dynamic stimulation. I had a nice time browsing the various shops, but I figured I had time for at least one adventure. I temporarily became one of those annoying people who becomes completely absorbed in using their phone while trying to move through a public space, and a bit of serendipitous internet searching led me to a walking tour of “hidden” Venice. I read the section on the “walk streets” of Venice with interest and looked up and noticed that I was literally at the corner of Palms & Electric Ave. which marked the beginning of the walking tour. Coincidence?

Not much traffic.

Speed Limit: N/A

As directed by the above post, I sought the “narrow pathway through the bushes and trees,” feeling like some kind of urban conquistador, and believing that it was very possible that I was the only person on earth who knew about this secret passageway. I found myself on a “street” that was just about wide enough for 2-3 people. Most people would probably consider this a sidewalk, except there weren’t any of those tedious automotive streets adjoining it to lend the critical “side” appellation. On either side, were actual front gates that led to actual front yards and houses with actual street addresses. It was narrow enough that in some stretches, the trees and bushes on either side created a living archway of shade and natural beauty.

Traffic Circle

Traffic Circle

Emerging from one of these walk streets into the “real world” was a bit of a shock to the senses. Not that any of the surrounding streets are particularly congested or busy, but strolling the walk streets just feels “right” and everything else just feels “wrong.” It’s as if we really missed the mark as urban planners on a global scale, and that this is how we were actually meant to live, build, and grow communities. All I wanted to do was to get back into that outdoor corridor cocoon; so I did, finding the entrance to another one of the streets so that bliss could once again ensue.

The architecture on these streets is the typical mashup of styles that one expects from certain coastal communities — a bit eccentric, generally inconsistent, but with a satisfying coherence from the shared values of comfort and uniqueness. A treehouse here, a lost dog sign there, an empty patio ready to welcome drinks with friends at sunset; it feels like life is being lived here, not that this is some novelty or sideshow. As I wandered, my mind felt more at peace, and I felt able to shelve my thoughts, forget about my phone, not obsess over my meeting, and actually just enjoy being in the moment. I realized that this special environment, literally hidden in plain sight and free for anyone to explore, transported me to an inner place where I could observe my surroundings in a pure state of wonder and reflection. It is the quintessence of the type of immersive experiences that I seek in travel, installation art, themed entertainment, transmedia, etc., and a vital inspiration for the immersive experiences that I hope to create for others to enjoy.

Having completed a circuit and finding myself more or less where I started, I noticed that I had lost track of time. I ordinarily abhor being late to meetings, especially with people I’ve never met, so I dashed off a quick text, “running late. inexcusably detained by local magic.” The reply came back momentarily, “no problem. magic is good.” I knew it would be a good meeting.

AWE 2013 Highlights – Part 1: Epson Moverio

14 Jun

I made the journey from Oakland to Santa Clara to attend the Augmented World Expo (AWE 2013) last week, and enjoyed a day dedicated to the magic of Augmented Reality (AR). AR is a rapidly developing technology that has the potential to be a real game-changer in the development of immersive experiences and entertainment. There was a lot to absorb and discover and I will be sharing some of my personal highlights over the next few posts.

First some background. AR is hardly mainstream; it has only been deployed in a commercial context in the past few years. AWE is only in its 4th year, and the event has an electric air of excitement, novelty, and discovery to it. I attended it last year, and I was surprised and happy to see how much it had grown in terms of attendees and exhibitors since then. At last year’s event, I had been hoping to try a Heads-Up Display (HUD), which is basically a fancy term for futuristic eyewear that allows you to experience the world like Tony Stark or The Terminator.

Governator

As seen at AWE 2029.

The development of a high-quality, consumer-grade HUD is the type of holy grail achievement that would have a dramatic, transformative impact on the mainstream engagement with AR. In my opinion, as it’s currently conceived, Google Glass will not provide the type of game-changing, HUD-enabled AR that I am referring to. However, based on the attention that it’s getting, despite the fact that it’s not even for sale yet, it seems clear that this concept is captivating the public’s collective delight, or disgust, depending on your perspective.

To my recollection (and disappointment), there was not a single eyewear exhibitor at the 2012 event. This year though, an entire section of the expo was dedicated to eyewear and the topic of wearable computing was very hot. What a difference a year makes! I made a point of visiting every single eyewear booth, and attempting to try on every single product I could get my hands on. For pure entertainment potential and application, I was most impressed by the Epson Moverio.

Somehow, not that cool.

Epson Moverio BT-100: Not quite cool.

Don’t get off your horses just yet — this is not the grail, but it does seem like a step in the right direction. When you look at this image, remember: this represents the best effort from the marketing department of a multi-billion dollar, global corporation to make their product look cool. If they can’t pull it off, it’s probably not there yet. Does he look relaxed in that picture? Actually, he’s just rendered slightly immobile by the sheer weight of the glasses. OK, it’s not quite that bad, but it basically takes quite a bit of hardware to pull off what is otherwise a very impressive experience. The glasses project video content so that it looks like you’re watching a screen from a few feet away. The gear also natively supports 3D content without any additional enhancements or hardware. I could almost, almost look forward to a long airplane flight if I had this handy, which incidentally is probably one of Epson’s most compelling use-cases.

However, the glasses are essentially see-through, so that when you’re not watching any content, you can still see the world around you. Enter AR. Epson has been working closely with interested partners to support the integration of aftermarket components with some impressive results. Rig up a standard-issue webcam and load up a custom application on the Android-powered hardware that ships with the glasses, and you have a very compelling wearable AR solution. In fact, Scope Technologies was exhibiting alongside Epson and was demo’ing an impressive AR-driven training solution that was built on their “hacked” version of the Epson platform. Although I was only watching a monitor of what the glasses were projecting, and was not able to experience it myself, it was a promising glimpse of something real which I’d previously only thought of in conceptual terms.

In general though, this integration was a mess. Cables everywhere. 3rd party accessories mashed into each other and poking out at odd angles. A bit of showmanship and legerdemain to create the illusion of a seamless experience. One developer had to integrate an Android tablet into his setup to provide some missing functionality in the Epson-supplied box. The end result was . . . cosmetically challenged — about the furthest thing you could get from the elegance of an iPhone or the milligram design precision of Google Glass. However, there was a DIY sensibility to it that was driven by the fire of wanting to touch the future NOW, and not when some massive corporation hands it down to us from on high. I loved it!

In Part 2 of my posts about AWE 2013, I talk about some of the smaller exhibitors who are breaking exciting, new ground.

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