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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.

 

Into the Further: Virtual + Reality

10 Jun

captain-picard-full-of-win-500x381“Dude, how did you score those tickets?!”

I held the phone in disbelief.

I had heard about Into the Further 4D, a traveling, pop-up, virtual reality experience promoting the upcoming horror flick, Insidious: Chapter 3. That’s just a bunch of adjectives that you don’t usually see in the same sentence describing the same event, so I wanted in.

It was going to be in LA for a brief three days in May, and here’s the thing, the tickets were free, if you could figure out how to get them. After trying some broken promo codes, I had basically given up, until my friend called to save the day. He never really answered my question. It didn’t matter. We were going.

We showed up at a parking lot on the edges of Downtown LA just before noon on a Sunday, pretty much the most unhaunted time and setting to experience anything.

insidious_trailers_resize

Conveniently located next to Urgent Care

There were a couple of connected trailers that looked similar to the ones at last year’s Purge: Breakout escape room event. Blumhouse Productions is behind both events as well as 2013’s Purge: Fear The Night immersive theater production. Based on their track record, they are establishing a reputation for producing events that mashup horror with experiences not typically associated with horror. When they roll into town, you can pretty much expect that it will not be your run-of-the-mill haunted house.

NOTE: This event is gone, and it’s probably never coming back, and you’ll probably never get to see it, so spoilers will follow. make the world_front

I’ve been lurking on the periphery of the virtual reality scene since the first time I tried Oculus Rift at the 2013 NeuroGaming Conference and Expo. As an interactive experience designer, the lure of the latest and greatest technologies is a perpetual temptation and the siren song of VR can seem irresistible.

The amazing part about VR is how it can make the world around you totally disappear. The challenging part about VR, especially in terms of location-based entertainment, is how it can make the world around you totally disappear. It’s an uphill battle to provide guests with a form of entertainment that can essentially be experienced in their living room. Unless you replace the living room.

insidious_trailers_entry_resizeBack to the parking lot. We had reservations for a specific time window, but VR is generally not a high-throughput venture, and to maximize the horror, we were told that we would walk through alone. So we waited. And anticipated. And postulated. What on earth was going on inside that trailer?

The facade of the trailer was designed to look like a front door, and walking through it brought me inside the house of Elise, the paranormal investigator/medium from the first two Insidious movies. I waited as another inner door swallowed guests one at a time, and eventually me.

I entered a short, dark, narrow hallway and was accosted by an assortment of pops, air blasts, loud noises, etc., designed to put you on edge. I turned the corner and a ghoulish figure burst out, screamed at me that I had to help her, and directed me down a longer hallway toward a numbered door.

ins2The tiny chamber was cramped, dimly lit, and filled with all kinds of bric-a-brac that evoked the home-gone-wrong feel of the films. A monitor turned on and played a short video introducing the upcoming VR experience. A previously unseen door opened and another ghoulish and relatively sedate character beckoned me forward and into a chair facing a familiar red door. Seconds later, I was in the Rift, heading into the Further. Or so I thought.

The first thing I saw in VR was the same door that existed in reality. It opened and I “moved” through it and into Elise’s sitting room. She was waiting and warned me of some of the bad things that were afoot. Then things started to get real spooky including a few good scares that took full advantage of the immersive quality of the experience. There were some 4D effects including seat rumblings, and at one point, (I’m guessing) the assistant lightly brushed my arm in time with something wispy floating by. When things were about to get crazy, it faded away, and I was back, looking at the real door and being guided toward the exit.

The whole experience only lasted a few minutes, but it felt like something significant had been achieved. Haunted houses, 4D, and VR are nothing new to me, but combining all of them felt like a breakthrough. Even if it was basically a highly sophisticated movie trailer, this modest whole was definitely larger than the sum of its parts. I was satisfied with what I had seen, and curious about where it could go.  But before I launched headlong into the future, I found myself momentarily thinking about the past.

train_1I recalled a story I heard in film school. About 120 years ago, a couple of brothers were trying to figure out something cool to do with their Cinématographe — one of the first devices to resemble a motion picture camera. One of the first pieces that they screened was a short clip of a train arriving at a station, evocatively titled, “Arrival of a Train.”

The apocrypha would have us believe that some of those audience members from two centuries ago ran in terror from the theater because they thought the train would burst through the screen. I remember thinking, “That can’t possibly be true.” These were sophisticated Europeans with elevated tastes, and this was after all a shot of a train arriving at a station. Nevertheless, although it’s hard to imagine standing in their shoes in that darkened room, I wanted to believe that the truth of their reaction probably landed somewhere between the abject terror of the legend, but far from mute indifference.

kerzeA more fruitful daydream is that everybody in that room knew that they had just seen something that they’d never seen before, and that they felt like they could see that much further into what this new, crazy thing could be. And each of those early viewers might have got something out of it, talked about it with their friends who hadn’t seen it, forgotten it, or got hooked at the gills. Except they didn’t have blogs back then.

VR is out of the living room. Reality just got that much more virtual. It will be interesting to see what happens next.

Story Room: Saving the World is Thirsty Work

26 May

“Are you ready to save the f–king world?” he asked. To be honest, it was a bit more than I had in mind after a day at work, but I exchanged looks with my companions and said, “Sure!” After all, what could possibly go wrong?

We were about to enter Story Room, a production of Two Bit Circus. I’m not actually quite sure what this group really is. I’ve seen them referred to as an entertainment company, a think tank, and in more pedestrian press, an agency. However, I had a great time at their STEAM Carnival last autumn, so for the purposes of this blog, I’m OK with thinking about them as a group that likes to make fun experiences. I think they’d be OK with that too.

hqdefaultSo, back to saving the world. In the real world, we were at the Brewery Arts Complex, an artist colony housed in a former brewery that is off the beaten path in an industrial part of Los Angeles. It’s an easy place to get lost in and quite mysterious in its own right. Certainly worth saving.

We were welcomed inside an anteroom and provided with a smattering of backstory. It involved aliens. It sounded important. And then a door opened, we entered, it closed behind us, and we were inside the story!

Half the fun of Story Room is not having a clear idea of what to expect, and I don’t intend to spoil that for you. The website describes it as a “unique multiplayer experience that combines problem solving with character twists to create a new form of live entertainment.” Clear as mud, but intriguing as hell.

journey-escape(4)However, if you’ve read their website, you’re probably wondering, is this an escape room attraction? If you haven’t experienced one, escape rooms are pretty much what they sound like: you’re placed in a locked room and have to figure out how to get out, usually within a fixed time limit. And there’s no guarantee that you will. Getting out usually requires solving a number of puzzles based on objects in your environment, while possibly fending off antagonistic or distracting elements. I had a tremendous time at last year’s Purge: Breakout, but I haven’t felt drawn to seek out similar experiences.

Although an escape room can be elegant and complex in the design of its puzzles, the underlying narrative can sometimes feel limited. The context for your situation ultimately boils down to being trapped and needing to escape. Although there is a binary, win/lose aspect to it that appeals to my competitive side, it tends to conflict with my desire to just be entertained.

Story Room shares many of the game mechanics and sensibilities of an escape room, but the narrative framework substitutes progress for escape. It’s a subtle nuance, and therein lies all the difference.

In Story Room, as we solved the puzzles, we learned more about our situation. Rooms started to feel more like scenes, and the puzzles themselves felt increasingly like a connected, rational part of the underlying story. On one hand, it’s a different means to a similar end, but it places the focus on the journey, not the destination.

As a practical illustration: we did OK with the puzzles, but we were occasionally assisted via a mechanism that was integrated with the story. Sure, my ego would have been more gratified if we had performed better, but I found myself less focused on winning or losing and far more interested in what would happen next.
In the final room, we had to choose between two objectives to pursue. Either one would have constituted “success,” but we decided based on what we had learned about the story in the previous rooms and how we personally felt it should resolve.

In short, this show lived up to its name. We were in the story! In fact, we discovered afterward that had we done better in one of the previous rooms, we may have learned something that could have influenced our decision in the final room.

magnacovblankeThe website boldly namechecks the Choose Your Own Adventure book series from the 80s & 90s. This type of branching narrative is a holy grail of sorts for experience designers in location-based entertainment, but can be operationally difficult to execute. It seems that on some level, even if we didn’t experience all the possible outcomes, they pulled it off.

The puzzles were excellently designed and thoughtfully crafted to require multiple participants to solve them. In similar attractions, multiple players allow you to simply “throw more bodies at the problem” by being able to more rapidly find hidden objects. In Story Room, multiple players are critical because many of the puzzles consist of discrete tasks that need to be performed in parallel. In the final room, we each had distinct roles to play to reach our objective.

iwantmoreWe were in there slightly over an hour, but time flies, as the saying goes. Understanding that like any production, they are limited by real resources such as budget and space, my main feedback for future productions would be to create more “scenes” even if each is shorter. Reflecting on how this show redraws the line between storytelling and problem-solving, I would love to see them take it even further and incorporate more branching, more rooms, and maybe even some live performers. In other words, more of everything that worked so well.

As you could probably guess, saving the world is thirsty work, so we were delighted to discover that the Brewery just happened to have a gastropub on the premises. Tasty food. Cold beer. Good times. Highly recommended.

If you’re in LA, and this show is still happening, I would recommend checking it out. And if you’re not in LA, why not? It’s real nice here.

Never Be Bored Again

20 Feb

rarelyLook around you. Where are you reading this right now? Chances are, you’re minutes away from an immersive, interactive experience that is waiting for you to discover it. Curious?

First, some background. I’m one of those people who has a hard time doing nothing. That sense of peace that comes from “getting away from it all” wears off for me after about five minutes, and I find myself looking for something stimulating. Not surprisingly, my young children tend to feel the same way. It’s something of a curse, but on a recent trip to the Central Sierras, a wonderland of natural beauty, I was determined to turn it into an opportunity. There just had to be something to do up here that would be entertaining for all of us, right?

screen-shot-2014-02-02-at-15-02-05I asked the Internet, and found a tourist-oriented website for the tiny village we were in, and scanned through the usual list of activities. Fishing: please no. Snowmobiling: need snow for that. Hiking: with kids, it ends up being “carrying.” Prospects seemed dismal until I came across “Geocaching.” That rang a bell — something to do with GPS and hiding stuff, but I realized that I really had no idea how one actually did it.

cacheiskingSkeptically, I installed a free app, waited for it to locate me, and discovered that there were DOZENS of caches within a few miles of my current location (in the middle of nowhere) including one that was 163 FEET away (we were in a local playground at this point.) I tromped off alone in a trance into the adjacent woods like a very slow, poorly-trained bloodhound, climbing over rocks, crossing brooks, crashing through brambles, trying to close the distance between me and whatever lay at the marker on my map. Soon, the other grown-ups got involved, and the kids buzzed around us discovering the fantastic natural playground surrounding them. Looking back, I guess my biggest misconception about geocaching was that it was something that you had to “get into.” However, without really trying, we had effortlessly and unexpectedly landed in the middle of an adventure!

product1We didn’t find what we were looking for, but we were undeterred, so for our second try, we chose a cache that seemed a bit easier. Each cache is ranked for difficulty and terrain, and contains a description and optional hints that guide you to the hidden location. We made our way to an unnoteworthy cluster of trees on a street corner that we would have otherwise driven past without giving a second look, however now it was imbued with mystery and potential. We descended upon it like a shoal of piranhas, discovered a camouflage canister hanging from a branch, and eagerly grabbed it, unscrewed the lid. The kids thrilled at the mysterious trove of miscellaneous knick-knacks within while we examined with curiosity the little notepad filled with messages from those who came before us. As we left our own impromptu scrawl for those who would in turn follow in our footsteps, we unwittingly jumped into the slipstream of a previously unknown world that was hidden in plain sight.

Now we were hooked and consulted the app for our next find. It was another easy one, embedded in a jumble of rocks that anchored the sign for a wilderness trail. Except now, the world was transformed; a rusted chain buried in the rocks became a  guardian rattlesnake and the unassuming container was a treasure chest of mystery and possibility. We were so engrossed in our adventure that we almost didn’t notice the car pull up behind us.

Hunger-games-gamemakersThe gentleman who stepped out introduced himself as papahog46, and told us that this was his cache. He just happened to be driving by, and he knew exactly what we were up to. I chatted with him a bit, and he said that he had recently come back from the Caribbean where he had left a few caches, and that he has also left a few in various places in Europe. The app allows you to log your finds, and leave a brief message, and he commented that many of the thank you notes he received were in other languages. After he left us to our meanderings, it occurred to me we had been having fun that he had made; transient explorers of a new world he created. We had been hanging out with the Game Maker!

mugglesI finally started to realize that this thing was big. I used the app to see what was around my house: dozens, including one a block away. The neighborhood around my work: lousy with caches, including four in the park where I often eat lunch. A random place where I stopped for lunch on the way to San Diego: loads. I realized that geocaching is nothing short of a global phenomenon that has created a parallel universe bound together by a community that borders on a secret society. It has its own lingo, which I picked up on from reading the entries in the logbooks — kind of like a written secret handshake. In fact, geocachers have appropriated the word Muggle from the Harry Potter universe to designate a person who is not playing, a shorthand that happens to be pretty much spot-on.

POD_dandelionBecause there are no formal rules except a common-sense code of conduct that requires you to be a good citizen, it didn’t take long to figure out that caches needn’t be limited to dime-store trinkets and logbooks. Caches could be designed like any other experience and could include a history lesson, or a series of related puzzles, or an elaborate story, or all of them at the same time. I realized that when I entered this world, I felt the same thrill of discovery and ignition of imagination that I get from the best immersive experiences. Except instead of traveling for hours and waiting in line and most likely seeing something that I’ve probably seen before, I could do this anytime, anywhere. Best of all, with an inkling of inclination and a jab of imagination, I could create my own world within the world. Perhaps even one that you’ll stumble into someday.

Reality is Overrated

15 May

Awesome PicHave you ever had that feeling where you come across something that stops you dead in your tracks, and then you take a step back, and you think,”Yeah, maybe that wasn’t such a big deal,” and then you let go of it for a few days, and then you come roaring back, and say, “No, that’s pretty messed up, the world needs to know about this.” I did recently, and you’re about to hear about it.

I just got a brand new Android phone, and as is recommended when you join forces with the Droid, I recognized that things are easier when you sign your life over to Google. Setting aside my knowledge that Google’s promotional offer of 50GB of free Google Drive space for two years is the cloud storage equivalent of giving away dime bags at a junior high, I agreed to have all the pictures on my phone automatically uploaded to “Drive” for “safekeeping.” I have kids, so the odds of my phone and all of its pictures ending up in any number of compromising situations involving bathtubs or impromptu aerodynamic trials are relatively high compared to Google accidentally losing my data.

Kung_Fu_Panda_Fan_art_by_Slacker_RBSo I’m merrily going about my life, taking too many pictures and videos of my kids instead of enjoying the reality of their company, and generally doing a serviceable job of being a decent dad. Flash forward a few hours and I get a notification that not only have my photos been uploaded to Google Drive, but that there is a new “Auto Awesome” picture waiting for me. If you’re not familiar with this feature, it basically adds special effects to pictures that you’ve taken that meet certain criteria. The effects can range from the mildly amusing and patently fake effect of adding a snow animation to a picture taken when it’s snowing to the moderately impressive compositing of several related pictures into a short, stuttery animation. There are other effects like photobooth-style compositing and an impressive feature that combines photos and videos into a slideshow/video presentation. Basically, if you’re the kind of person who likes to spend hours trying to turn your personal photos and videos into amateur-looking mini-masterpieces, then this is bad news for you, because the Auto-Awesome algorithm does it automatically and it’s actually pretty decent. As a technology enthusiast, I applaud the questionable diversion of shareholder value into the development of what is actually a very sophisticated application of powerful computer vision algorithms.  So far, so good.

More-Awesome-Than-A-Double-Rainbow_4663-lBut not really. Because Google didn’t make it snow in my picture, nor auto-create a panorama, but instead applied the “Smile” effect. If you’ve ever tried to take a picture of a child under the age of five, then you already know that your ok-fine-that’s-good-enough shooting ratio is somewhere in the neighborhood of 150:1. If you’re trying to take a picture of two or more children under five, then chances are one of you will burst into tears before an acceptable image is captured. And yet there we were, my two-year-old son, without any coercion or threats on my part was hugging my four-year-old daughter, who was patiently and willingly tolerating and even reciprocating it. I immediately took about ten pictures and felt that I had achieved moderate success. I immediately checked them out and found the usual assortment of unprovoked distraction, unilateral nose-picking, and asynchronous emotional expression that characterizes EVERY picture  I’ve ever taken of them.

dont-think-just-be-awesomeBut there was one gem in the bunch. He is hugging her with an angelic expression of contentment and security on his face, and she is smiling and touching his head in a loving way, accepting his embrace. However, her smile is tempered by a subtle reflective aspect as if in that moment she understands that she will always be older, and he will always be younger, and she will always be his big sister and while they will learn from each other and grow together, she will always be there for him in the special and unique way that only a big sister can be. Then I checked out the Auto-Awesome picture.

The Smile effect had identified a different picture in which my daughter has a totally fake senior portrait smile whereas my son looks like he just bonged a 6-pack of Coors Light and is about to yak. It then combined my daughter’s “classic” smile from this picture with the content smile of my son from the first picture to create the “perfect” photo. Except, it’s not perfect, it’s unsettling, because the moment captured by this Auto-Awesome picture NEVER HAPPENED in reality. The algorithm cleverly merged the two pictures with the “best” smiles, and it’s basically impossible to detect the modification. Now before I launch into total rant mode, please note that I understand:

  • Auto Awesome did not delete my original photos
  • Auto Awesome can be turned off
  • Auto Awesome photos can be deleted
  • You can replicate and exceed the results of Auto-Awesome on your own
  • I have free will
  • Google does not force you to use this feature
  • It’s a free world (online . . . mostly)
  • Don’t be evil

080312-total-recallI am fascinated with the concept of the plasticity of memory. Beyond that, I am obsessed with the pursuit of capturing and articulating my truest sense of an experience, and in denial of its ultimate futility. The idea that repeated viewings of an Auto-Awesome picture have the potential to alter  your memory of what actually happened is personally horrifying to me.

It also concerns me that as a culture, we not only have the capability to recreate our past, but that it can be automatically done for us, and have it be considered “awesome.” I know it’s all in fun, and it’s probably just another R&D project run amok, but I still think that the implications of playing fast and loose with “what really happened” are worthy of reflection. Social media already provides us with a powerful platform to reinvent ourselves and to present a crafted fantasy identity to the world for passive consumption. I understand that these types of services do not force you to make misrepresentations, but they provide the always-available and tempting option to tease the truth into something more, and to craft our online identity into the ideal that we have failed to achieve in meatspace. There is nothing inherently wrong with putting on a good show — we generally don’t show up to a social event in reality without having made some attempt to look our best. However, we still retain the intent and the creativity to design and execute those decisions in front of real people. “Auto” removes the intent, “Awesome” removes the creativity, and the internet removes the meaningful context. Combined with the force multiplier of social networking, it’s the death of reality by a billion tiny cuts.

Finally, aside from the statement that it makes about what is “worth remembering,” or that an algorithm can be trusted to make that decision for you, this type of technology has the potential to rob us of the nuance and beauty that we were trying to capture in the first place. Because if you think about it, once you turn your back on reality, what else is there?

GDC 2014: The Pursuit of Loneliness

26 Mar

Last week, I attended the 2014 Game Developers Conference in San Francisco — it’s pretty hard to find a group of companies and people that is so unapologetically hell-bent on mind-melting. I won’t be providing yet another rehash of the headline-making announcements from Sony and Oculus, but I am excited to share some of the other experiences that caught my attention.

Before we get started, about a year ago, I had a lot of good things to say about my first experience wearing Oculus Rift. I’m still a big fan, but it was interesting to see the number of different ways that exhibitors incorporated it into their demos at GDC. Instead of being the star attraction, it was often a complement to some other amazing technology that the company was showing off. Not only is the experience of total audiovisual isolation/replacement evolving into a mainstay, but additional technology is being incorporated to allow one to remain in the experience longer and deeper.

OK, enough reflection. Onward into the bold, bright, and lonely future!

IMG_0682

Also effective as sunglasses

Sulon: I think the business plan for this company is, “Let’s take everything and then do that.” The Cortex (the crazy thing on my head in the picture)  uses an Oculus Rift to provide both Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality in conjunction with spatial scanners, handheld game controllers, wireless technology, a video camera, an Android tablet, and who knows what else. What does this mean? The camera provides a video feed of your environment that is displayed within the OR, but it is “augmented” with virtual objects that you could shoot at using the controllers. One of the augmentations looked like a teleporter beam and when I walked into it, the entire environment changed to virtual reality. However, in both cases, the sensors incorporated the physical walls of the room into the digital environment. In VR mode, it was possible to physically walk through the real room, experienced as a purely digital room, and proximity sensors would beep to let you know if you were about to walk into a wall. The Cortex is an ambitious mashup of cutting-edge technology and if they can work out the kinks, the whole might be greater than the sum of its parts.

Condition One Camera

Be careful where you point that thing!

Condition One: This camera was quite a spectacle on its own. It shoots in 360 degrees simultaneously in high resolution and at a high frame rate. At the booth, I used Oculus Rift to watch a short movie that was shot with the rig. Actually, it was three unrelated shorts that provided a good showcase of different styles and content. This was probably one of the only booths at GDC that featured an OR in a non-interactive context. However, part of the allure of VR is the experience of being instantly transported to another world. In a gaming context, I often forget what I’m supposed to be doing because I enjoy luxuriating in the visually rich, all-encompassing surroundings. It was a nice change to be able to relax and observe and not worry about being shot at or accomplishing something. It was also refreshing to see live action content as opposed to CG. Although these shorts had a non-narrative, verite style to them, I could see how this type of production could also be effective for a sophisticated and complex narrative piece.

Not me on Virtuix Omni

Not me rigged with PrioVR

Virtuix & PrioVR: I’m lumping these companies together because they fall into the category of, “Wow, this looks super cool, but it’s taking too long to cycle people through the demo so I’m going to pass.” Both companies feature technologies that complement the Oculus Rift with a sense of full-body immersion. The Virtuix Omni allows you to physically pace through a virtual environment using an array of proximity sensors embedded in a treadmill that parse data generated by special shoes that you need to wear. Seriously. PrioVR uses inertial sensors attached to various parts of your body to provide full body tracking. If any of this sounds remotely interesting and you were alive during or heard of the 1980s, I highly recommend Ready Player One. This book seems incredibly prescient except that many of the things that it anticipates happening 30 years from now happened last week. And it was written two years ago. Oops.

IDNA: In their own words, “IDNA is a new kind of storytelling experience at the crossing between an animation film, a choose-your-own-adventure book, and a video game. Each scene of the story is designed in 360 degrees; it’s up to you to decide where to look, simply by moving your device around you. The narrative is never twice the same, as your focus will seamlessly influence the course of the story.” Basically, it’s the narrative experience I was jonesing for in my blurb about Condition One. Talk about wish fulfillment. Recognizing that not many people have an Oculus Rift, they developed a “poor-man’s VR” version using an iPad. Holding the iPad up and rotating in a circle provides a decent emulation of wearing a HMD and turning your head. At the worst, you might be mistaken for one of those people who uses their iPad as a camera. I know it sounds like I’m poking fun at them, but I’m not; I think it’s a great idea, and a clever and effective workaround for a technology that is still very much in transition. Even better, this is basically the product of a handful of smart folks from Switzerland who are doing something creative. It’s incredibly annoying when Google/Motorola do essentially the same thing, restrict it to a phone that nobody wants, and make it sound like it’s the second coming of bread.

There was more to GDC than VR, and I was glad to see it. After spending about ten continuous minutes in one of these demos, I found it very difficult to reintegrate with my surroundings. I was trying to have an intelligent conversation with one of the representatives at the booth, but the part of my brain that was responsible for speech and words had come totally unhinged. Welcome to your future.

And now for some more than honorable mentions of people who are just doing fun, cool, stuff for its own sake.

A group of people playing together. No, this wasn’t the history exhibit.

Hot Shots: This game won the All In One Platform Award in the Intel App Innovation Contest. There’s no immersion and no storytelling, but I’m mentioning it for a couple reasons. 1) The developer was hosting the demo, and he was very excited to be there. In his own words, winning this contest created a massive change in his life and he was thrilled. It was contagious to see someone so excited and optimistic and talented. 2) His game was fun. It supported up to nine people playing it at once around a fairly big touchscreen. I appreciated that it’s too epic to play on a phone or a tablet, not really playable on a wall-mounted TV screen, and basically designed to bring people together to have fun. Total chaos. I was horrible at it. Still had a great time. Hope this is the first of many wins for this team.

Sorry, no points for urinating in the classroom

Tenya Wanya Teens: This game was in the alternative control exhibit. It’s a self-described “party game” for two players who each have about 16 buttons. The gameplay is simple. Press the colored button to trigger the action that’s appropriate for the situation. Actions include urinating, farting, kicking, punching, confessing undying love, etc. There’s just one wrinkle: the colors of the buttons keep changing, so not all actions are appropriate for every situation. The game lasted about five minutes and we laughed the whole way through. Unexpected, random, zany fun.

Goat Simulator: Thinking about the fact that people got together to make this has become my new happy place. Follow the link, watch the trailer. This is why we have games. Thank you Coffee Stain Studios.

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.

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