Poetics and place

I’ve been reading about a really interesting project to create a context aware interactive experience on the island of San Servolo. This involved creating a narrative which worked not just as long as the listener is in the right place, but also only if they are there at the right time and the weather is doing the right thing, so:

a mad woman of the asylum tells her story next to the sculpture in the park, but only in the afternoons; a piece of classical music – reminder of the music therapy used for the guests of the institution – can be heard by the users facing the south side of the Venice lagoon, but only during the nights characterized by the absence of clouds.

It’s a well realized attempt influence some of the resonances that can create emotional immersion in location-based narratives.
This isn’t quite context aware hypertext. In fact each segment was presented as a short video, so of course, the content of the video didn’t change dynamically according to context, but the choice of which video the user was presented with of made by context aware software.
I’m not convinced that pure video is the ideal medium for cultural heritage interpretation, after all, when you are in a place, you don’t wan’t to immersed in the video, you want to bathe in the atmosphere around you. This project demonstrates how a short video, triggered by location, time and weather becomes part of the place, but I’d like to how how a similar project with perhaps audio and the occasional augmented reality elements would work.
I can’t deny that weather is an important poetic element in narrative (consider “Its was a dark and story night”). In the digital narrative I’m currently exploring, the game Red Dead Redemption the emotional impact of some scenes, not just set pieces but moments during free-wandering play can be enhanced by the weather, be it good or bad. I’ve not yet worked out whether the rain in the lead up to one scene was co-incidental or scripted, but I think it was a a happy accident that as my character, John Marston, walked toward a location that I, as player, knew was a trap, the rain started and Marston’s footsteps splashed, doomladen, through the puddles. (It’s not all doom and gloom: shortly after I started playing I happened to notice this tweet from @r4isstatic: “Sunset through Hennigan’s Stead. Beautiful.” Actually his post on what makes the narrative of Red Dead Redemption so different from other shooting games is, though not weather related, well worth a read.)
Back to San Servolo, the rules that deliver a particular piece of video, don’t just take into account the place, time and weather: there’s also a rule that will block a particular video, if its already been shown to enough people – the idea being that users are forced to use the social network to share what they’ve experienced, and to hear about what other users’ experience has been. All in all, its a location aware narrative that really pushes the boundaries.
One interesting point is that “while the current location value is retrieved from the user device, most of the values of the environmental context are retrieved from different web services.” I went to a seminar yesterday from Michael Charno, Web Developer/Digital Archivist from the University of York. It was about linked data and the semantic web. I’m not afraid to admit that a whole bunch of it went right over my head, but he did point out one danger of drawing data from a variety of web-based services – what happens if that service is withdrawn, or even if (as the Library of Congress did to one of Charno’s projects) the providing organisation decides to change their web address? The permanence of the web services an interactive project like this draws on becomes a vital factor in user satisfaction. Cultural heritage organisations will be looking for a product to this to last some time without needing too much IT support, and users won’t be willing to wait around while somebody re-codes a bunch of links to restore basic functionality.
But that’s shouldn’t detract from the imagination shown by the team putting together the San Servolo project. Its a great attempt to explore a new poetics for the place-based narrative. And it inspired me to spend too much of today hunting around for more digital poetics…
Having been sidetracked into telematics, and intrigued by some of the work of Paul Sermon (this is my favourite, but this is more relevant to what I’m looking at) and momentarily impressed by have far we have come technologically in such a short time (check out these tiny dial-up ready Quicktime packages) I came across this online journal. I don’t know yet whether its going to be useful, but today it was definitely interesting.
Of course what I should have been doing is designing my evaluation for Ghosts in the Garden, and chopping the Wey Navigations narrative into HypeDyn chunks. Neither of those have happened. It may be a long evening ahead.

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