I had a great meeting with Gillian Dow at Chawton today. To be honest, I’d been worrying about it for weeks, knowing that the story development was in no state to be complete in time to run the even in March as we had agreed. I’d even been nervous about contacting Gillian, knowing I was letting the Library down on a promise I’d made last year. But worrying was not going to solve anything, so I bit the bullet last week, and wrote a short email explaining my problem, and fixing today’s meeting.
Gillian was very understanding, and we’ve fixed a new date for the experiment – the week between the 4th June and the 11th. But not only that, I think we cracked one of the main story problems I’d been having. Gillian went straight to the crux of my problem: that Montague Knight seems the obvious character to hang the story of the house upon, and yet his own biography doesn’t quite offer the emotional arc that I was looking for. Though he wrote (with his cousin, William Austen Leigh) the history of Chawton and its owners, its stops short of his own time there, and the emotion beat of loss happens after he dies, childless.
But it doesn’t, Gillian pointed out. Yes, Montague’s home improvement efforts at Chawton all seem positive and upbeat, but they are counterweighted by the loss of the home he grew up in. When he was 30 his father, Edward, sold the family’s Kent home, Godmersham Park. Suddenly, all the work Montague put in at Chawton gets an extra significance. And there’s an emotional beat, loss, which can resonate in the story of the dismemberment of Godmersham and Chawton’s libraries. It could also celebrate the news of some of that collection, a 1833 “Bently” set of Austen’s work with Montague’s bookplates in, being donated back to Chawton.
In other news I also tested the out the wifi plug controller and speaker with Chawton’s network, and they both worked. So all in all, it was a VERY good morning.
Last weekend at Geek 2017, I played Sarcophagus, a Nordic LARP (Live Action Roleplay). LARP, as we know it today, grew out of the international popularity of Dungeons and Dragons and other tabletop roleplaying games. It didn’t take long, in the late seventies and early eighties, for people to start making costumes out of blankets and swords out of camping mats and gaffer tape, to take the game away from the table and into the real world. Indeed, I played in one of the first commercial LARPs, Treasure Trap at Peckforton Castle.
People still do that of course, and the weapons have become better made, safer and more “realistic” in their design (with in the spiky aesthetic of fantasy illustration). LARP is not limited to high fantasy genres either. In the nineties there was an explosion of gothic LARP in the US, with people playing communities of Vampires. Any world can be recreated in LARP form, even the real one.
The popularity of LARPing in Scandinavia, led to style/variant with its own name, Nordic Larp (note, in this form, Larp has become a word in its own right, no longer an acronym). This style has gained an international reputation for attempting something more than recreating fantasy adventures, exploring its possibilities as an art form in its own right. Similarly, the form often eschews external, procedural adventures in favour of exploring internal, emotional struggles.
Thus it was that I, and a dozen or so other players (though we’ll return to the ideas of games and players shortly), signed up to a five hour experience that would involve us being locked up in a nuclear bunker with no hope of escape. The players ranged from Larp virgins to experienced Larpers from Belarus, a Canadian musician, lecturers and students. (Three of us are doing PhDs.) We weren’t in that bunker the whole five hours though, and given that I’m writing this, you’ll understand we were let out. But this isn’t like an Escape room game, where we have limited time to solve the puzzles and find a way out, neither is any of us expected to win by becoming the king of a post-apocalyptic society. (Though, as we’ll see, my character might have thought so.) In fact its arguably not a game at all. Our facilitator, artist Adam James, kept correcting himself when he used the word game, explaining that his Larping mentor disapproved of it. So we are not players in a game, but rather players in an improvised drama, and not just the players but the audience as well. Indeed, Adam defined larp as an artform where the participants and the audience are one and the same. (Which is something Robin Laws used to say about tabletop roleplaying games, though he’s had to drop that definition as the streaming of such games on Twitch and YouTube has become more and more popular.)
The object of Sarcophagus is not to escape or win, but to explore the five stages of grief, as modeled by psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her book On Death and Dying. First all though we had to work out who we were.
The preparation took a couple of hours in itself, with Adam explaining Larp, running us through some improvisation exercises and helping us create a character for ourselves. To begin with, he littered the briefing room with pictures, some large (A3) some small. Some abstract, some figurative, some photographs, some drawings. Adam encouraged us to walk among them, pick them up, and see if any of them inspired thoughts about who we might be.
I latched upon a couple, a medieval drawing of a ploughman and a dead bird which may have been trussed into some sort of totem, and imagined the pastural post-apocalyptic fantasies of my youth, things like John Christopher’s Tripods and Sword of the Spirits trilogies, the seventies BBC series Survivors, and Riddley Walker(which is set very close to where we were playing). What about a character who’d actually looked forward to the end of the world, I thought, a character who’d foolishly imagined a clearing away of everything what was wrong with the world, and a return to simpler, purer times. Of course he would be disappointed, Adam had made it clear that we’d know we wouldn’t even survive long enough to see the nuclear winter, let alone a new Garden of Eden.
Talking about it with other players, I imagined that my character might be rather reactionary, not necessarily well liked. Then Adam passed around a “hat” with little slips of paper listing the jobs we might have had before we found ourselves in the bunker. We found out we were hairdressers, waiters, sailors, stockbrokers and gym teachers. I pulled out “politician” and everything fell into place. I didn’t once mention the word UKIP once, indeed I painted myself as someone who, like Churchill, had moved between parties, but everyone knew exactly what sort of politician I had been. We also got to pick a flaw out of the hat. I ended up an alcoholic, though frankly I felt politician was enough of a flaw.
Then we split into two groups. One of people that wanted close connections with other player’s characters (for example, sisters), and a slightly smaller group who preferred thinner, looser connections. I went with the second, thinking many will have seen my politician on television, but few would know me well. We workshopped our connections, the gym teacher had taught my children, the security guard was someone I ignored on the way into the gated community to lived in, neighbour to the stockbroker, and the waiter was the rebellious son of wealthy donors to my political campaign.
Some more improvisation followed, this time walking as our characters, in different situations. Then after a break, and some meditation on what the world would be like if we died today, we met up outside the Bunker for one last improvisation workshop before going into (in this case) as reconstruction of a WWII Anderson shelter. Adam asked us to find a position to start then read out a short introduction:
11:27—Radio and TV broadcasts are interrupted by breaking news. Brussels and Copenhagen have been hit by large explosions.
11:31—Unconfirmed sources report that the blasts may be nuclear explosions.
11:33—Similar explosions are reported in Paris, Stockholm and Dublin.
11:37—A black helicopter lands on the roof of the prime minister’s office in Oslo London.
11:38—Associated Press confirms that Copenhagen has been hit by a nuclear explosion.
11:40—The air alarm goes off in London. Most people haven’t heard the news and just think it is an exercise. A few run to the shelters.
11:41—TV and radio transmissions are jammed.
And we begin. I won’t go too much into what happened, every version is different. Suffice to say, my politician tried to build a power-base in within the group, before properly realising the hopelessness of the situation, and even then trying to get people to like him – I’d managed to keep my bottle of booze (creme soda) secret until, hopeless, I shared what was left to curry favour. The only scripted moments were that introduction above, the lights going out in three phases before ending in darkness, and one event that one of the players is previously given guidance on timing. Note the importance even in this mostly improvised story, of having kernels – events that happen in order, even if its only the lights failing and the (spoilers!) event.
Afterwards there was a (vital) debrief session, almost a decompression chamber. We had time to get happy again, and use to the light of day and discussed how our story developed. Adam observed that we hadn’t quite entered the depression stage when he had to bring it to its conclusion, and I thought we hadn’t quite had time. I felt my character had been bargaining to the last, and was teetering on the brink of depression when Adam came through with the torch and rounded us up. I was about to say something to that effect when Adam let slip that we were meant to spend four hours, not two in the bunker.
Due to constraints of the day, we always knew we were only going to have two hours, but I would have liked to have played the longer stint if it were possible. And of course it is! If I get to play again, it will be a totally different experience. I won’t be a politician again, maybe I’ll be a historian, or hairdresser, and the stor(ies) will be, even if the lights still go out and “the event” happens as before.
I even thought about playing it in the bunker that the National Trust owns, on Orford Ness. Now, that would be cool.
Today I’ve been juggling two tasks. In the morning to went to the university library to look for anything useful in their copy of Montague Knight’s (and William Austen-Leigh’s) Chawton Manor and its owners; a family history. Its text is available on Archive.com of course, but I wanted to see if there was any interesting marginalia in Southampton’s copy. Sadly, the only addition was cutting from a relatively magazine, slipped between the pages to provide a colour reproduction of the naive but informative painting of the house that hangs in the Tapestry gallery, and which is also in the printed book as a line drawing.
But I did make some notes from the text. I got caught up in the story of Adam Gurdon: “who was disinherited and outlawed with other adherents of Simon, Earl of Leicester, has been described as a ‘ woody height in a valley near the road between the town of Alton and the Castle of Farnham.’ This region was not disafforested until the end of Henry Ill’s reign, and was a favourite ambush for outlaws, who there awaited the merchants and their train of sumpter horses travelling to or from Winchester. Even in the fourteenth century the warders of the great fair of St. Giles, held in that city, paid five mounted sergeants-at-arms to keep the Pass of Alton during the continuance of the fair, according to custom. […] There is a picturesque story of a personal encounter between Adam Gurdon and Prince Edward. The prince, we are told, ‘ desirous of putting an end to the troubles which had so long harassed the Kingdom, pursued the arch-rebel into his fast- nesses ; attacked his camp ; leaped over the entrenchments, and singling out Gurdon, ran him down, wounded him, and took him prisoner. He raised the fallen veteran from the ground, he pardoned him, he admitted him into his confidence, and introduced him to the Queen, then lying at Guildford, that very evening. This unmerited and unexpected lenity melted the heart of the rugged Gurdon at once; he became in an instant a loyal and useful subject, trusted and employed in matters of moment by Edward when King, and confided in till the day of his death.”
I was also researching speakers. I met with Ed last week, and between us, we decided there were five spaces that we need a speaker in. Meanwhile I’ve been ruling out Bluetooth speakers, which can’t deal well with swapping between streaming from different devices, and decided that we need wi-fi speakers. Which is a curse, because I had hoped to spend a few tens of pounds on each speaker. Active wi-fi speakers cost hundreds. But today I think I identified one which meets my needs – less than £150 each, doesn’t require a proprietary app and works with AirPlay for iOS and DLNA for Android and Windows. They are even rechargeable with a 10-12 hour battery life (though I’ll believe that when I test it with the regular switching between devices these will have to cope with), so I won’t be tied to power outlets when choosing where to place them. I’ve ordered two to test them, both on their own and in different rooms. If they work as I hope, I’ll get another three. If they don’t do what I expected, well at least I’ll have done soem early Christmas shopping. 🙂
I feel I need to record this here, but I fear it will be nonsense to most of my readers. Looking back at it it feels like the first step into incoherent PhD madness. So skip this one if you are looking for sense and inspiration.
I’m struggling with the Chawton project, tying myself up into narrative knots. Meanwhile my collaborator Ed is powering on with his part. Today I’ve been listen to his first pass at a number of audio mixes. Which sound great by the way, and make me a bit depressed at the lack of progress my part has been making.
The problem is all to do with the paradox of scripting an emergent story. When I brief Ed part of wants to say, “we’ll tell this bit of the story in this room, and so you need to use this sound,” but that defeats my object of trying to create stories with some sense of order whatever route visitors take through a place. So I wrote Ed a short but still rambling email, that I think captures what I’m getting at. Though it might be bollocks.
Anyhow I don’t want to lose it. And so since I started this blog as a notebook, rather than a finished demonstration of my finely honed wisdom, you are about to get an actual note to self, the slightly edited text of that email. We can all work out what it means, if anything at all, later:
I’ve had a little epiphany thinking about your question. But I’m finding it difficult to put into words. You asked whether the six beats are connected to the recorded quotes. I said no, and I still think that but I also said that a couple might be relevant, and so they might, BUT (I think) not so relevant that you should mix them into the finished work. The ones I was thinking of were: Fanny Knight, Mr Knightly and Jane Austen. But none of those enhance any one particular beat, do you get me? So don’t need to be missed in so they are heard every time. The beats set the mood, or rather, illustrate a particular mood. So… I think we’ve looking for sound mixes that accompany the beats, eg Loneliness. In the fancy system that doesn’t exist yet, the system might choose to interweave the “lonely” track with the Fanny Knight quote. But we don’t need to do that, or rather to fix it as that, in our rough and ready version.
But that lead me to another thought. (The Epiphany.) Which is that we (I) can’t afford to put speakers everywhere. So we need to select rooms that we are putting speakers in, and for each room WITH A SPEAKER, create a choice of soundmixes, that match the whatever beat the operator (the Unguide in our case, a fancy system in the future) chooses in that Room.
So, day we have a ball in the Great Hall – at the very basic level we might have a choice of a Jolly mix (for Up beats), or a sad mix (for setbacks), do you get me? We could have six different mixes for the six beats I’ve identified ALL for the Great Hall, so that whichever beat is selected has its own music appropriate for the great hall, and ANOTHER six choices for, say, The Oak Room. Am I making sense? But of course we’ve actually got three stories, and even if they all share the first beat, that would mean a possible five mixes for the Library story, and ANOTHER five for the Montague story, for EACH room? Crazy huh?
But all of that could be a LOT of work for you, so we need to keep our ambitions in check.
Tell me how many mixes you want to create, and together we can decide on a limited number of rooms where we’ll put speakers (we did day nine, but I can live with just one), and a limited number of mixes for each speaker (I think we want at least two for this experiment). How does that sound?
In the evening after I visited the V&A, I’d managed to bag the last ticket for the last entry slot that day of the exhibition at the South Bank Centre. I’m a Moomin fan, having read all the books when I was a child. I’d already seen much of what was on show at the public Library in Tampere, Finland, which is the guardian of most of the Tove (best pronounced something like “Toover”) Jansson archive. The South Bank exhibition, Adventures in Moominland, takes advantage of the Tampare collection moving to a new home there in May to borrow part of the collection for a similar presenation to last year’s very successful Wondercrump World of Roald Dahl. Just like that successful family exhibition, this one also uses the author’s work to explore the life of the author.
Tove Jansson’s life was not entirely happy, she grew up during civil war in Finland, with loving parents whom she loved and respected in return. But while she was a progressive left winger, her father sided with the Fascists. Not only that, she had a hard time coming to terms with her lesbian sexuality. These are some quite challenging concepts to share with an audience as young as might visit this show, but the curators and interpreters did a very good job of it.
I wouldn’t be surprised if this exhibition sees less actual children than last year’s. While Dahl’s popularity has endured with every generation, in the UK Moomins grabbed the imagination of a good part of my generation in the seventies, and had brief surges of popularity with a couple of later children’s television series, but it seems to me that they are best known by people of my age, and not so quickly recognised by younger generations (except, I’m willing to bet, by the children of older fans – I know I read all the books to my own children).
The group assembled for my tour were, apart from one young fan, all adult. It’s harsh of me to say its what I expected – it was after all the last tour of a workday in term-time, so even the home-schoolers will have likely gone home. (And I bet, given the lack of school in the novels, that there is a correlation between homeschooling parents and Moomin fans, but I digress.) The format followed Wondercrump’s successful formula. An introductory talk from a host who warned of scary dark experiences ahead, but reassured us that though the Moomins often had scary adventures, they always ended happily. “Apart from Moominvalley in November” I said. Then she handed over to a guide, a young woman dressed in such a style as to resonate with Jansson’s illustrations of the Mymble, Fillyjonk and Toft, etc., without actually trying to be one.
The guide led us in and as with Wondercrump, we discovered she was playing a two-hander with a disembodied voice. This time, it was Sandi Toksvig – guess Danish is a bit like Finnish. So so we progressed with these two guides, recorded and live, through spaces that evoked Sniff’s cave, Snufkin‘s tent, the woods of Moominvalley, a raft like that in Comet in Moominland, Moominpapas lighthouse island, and the Moominhouse itself. In each space the guide and exhibits focussed (mostly) on one of the books, and explained what each book had to reveal about Tove’s life. Even the youngest reader will recognise (even if they might struggle to put it into words, as I did when I was seven or nine or whatever) that the novel series (there were a couple of picture books too, but I only found those as an adult) start out as outward facing proceedural adventures but become more inward looking, dramatic, and psychological with each publication. It can put some young readers off the later books, but those who persevere have their first introduction to existentialism.
The South Bank adventure doesn’t follow the books in order, but structures the story about Jansson coming to terms with her sexuality and acknowledging her love for her life-long partner Tuulikki. Moominland Midwinter thus becomes the climax of the exhibition’s story. In the novel young Moomintroll wakes up early from hibernation, in strange new snow-covered world, which he doesn’t like at all, until he meets Too-ticky, the girl who shows him its wonders. I admire the curators’ resistance to chronology in favour of a more satisfying emotional journey, preceding Midwinter with the loneliness of Moominpappa at Sea, which actually came eight years later.
Maybe wisely, they avoid the last novel Moominvalley in November, altogether. As a young reader, this was the most important work for me. Taking place after the Moomins have left for the lighthouse island in Moominpappa at Sea, the other inhabitants of the valley move into their house and try to recreate their life, waiting for them to return. But they never come back. Jansson’s mother had died while she was writing this final novel, and she is said to have said she “couldn’t go back and find that happy Moominvalley again.” I can’t quite explain the emptiness that fills my chest, even as as an adult, as I remember finishing the novel as a child. I am convinced it was a vital moment, maybe the very first step in my journey to being a grown-up.
So, I wrestle with some dissatisfaction that the experience didn’t feature my favourite work, while at the same time being impressed with the effectiveness of their story construction. I was also even more impressed with the “mixed media” approach of exhibit, lighting effects, audio commentary and sound and live guide. In a way its a more scripted version of what I’m trying (and currently failing, it feels) to do at Chawton.
I feel it might be a technique that other places (and yes I’m thinking of the National Trust places I work with) should experiment with.
I finally got to the V&A today, for their exhibition You Say You Want a Revolution. I got turned away at the end of Cromwell Road last time, as the museum was being evacuated after a bomb-scare.
I’m writing this review on my way home, using my phone (so please forgive my typos) partly because I want to recommend you go, and there is not long left to see it.
The exhibition charts the western cultural revolution of 1966-1970, though John Peel’s record collection, plysbof course fashion and design from the V&As own collection and other items, such as an Apollo mission space suit borrowed from other institutions.
One of the gimmicks of the show is the audio, an iteration of the same technology used at the Bowie exhibition a couple of years ago. I didn’t get to go to that one, but I had a demonstration of that tech from the makers Sennheisser, at a Museums and Heritage show.
I wasn’t very impressed. Though these headphones, which play music or soundtrack to match whatever object or video you are looking at, were well received by the media back then, in my experience the technology was clunky. Other friends who’d been confirmed that they changes between sound “zones” could be jarring, and that it was possible to stand in some places where music from two zones would alternate, vying for your attention.
The experience this time was an improvement. It was by no means perfect: I found the music would stutter and pause annoyingly, especially if I enjoyed the track enough to find myself gently nodding my head. Occasionally the broadcast to everyone’s headphones would pause so everyone in a room could share a multimedia experience (of the Vietnam war for example) across all the gallery’s speakers, screens and projectors. These immersive over-rides were effective, in much the same way as those at IWM North, but when a track you were enjoying or a video that you found interesting was rudely interrupted, one couldn’t help but feel annoyed. I found myself forgiving the designers however, for this and even the stuttering sound of the headphones, because it all felt resonant with that late sixties “cut-up” technique.
Where the technology really worked however was on two videos that topped and tailed the exhibition. In the first various icons and movers of the period were filmed in silent moving portraits of their current wrinkled and grey selves. Their reminiscences of the time appeared as typography overlaying their silent closed-mouth gaze, a little like Barbera Kruger’s work, while over the headphones you heard their voice. The same characters appeared at the end, that s time as a mosaic of more conventional talking heads. And for the first time, the interpretation was didactic as each in turned challenged the current generation to build on their legacy.
For me, one of the highlights was the section on festivals, which invited visitors to take off their headphones, lie back in the (astro)turf and let (another cut-up of) the famous Woodstock documentary wash over them on five giant screens.
The other things I loved were, dotted around among the exhibits, tarot cards that, at first glance, looked like they might have been designed in the sixties. But then you notice references to things like Tim Berners Lee and the World Wide Web. You realise these are a subtle form of interpretation, telling a future of the sixties that apparently came true and for those of us from that future, creating correspondences and taxonomies that connect the events of 1966-70 with today. The V&A commissioned British artist Suzanne Treister to create the cards, based on her 2013 work, Hexen 2.0. And the very best thing about them is you can buy them (pictured above) in the shop which must be the first time copies of museum interpretation panels have been made available for purchase.
Of course, the aren’t the only form of interpretation. About from the soundtrack, there are more traditional text panels, labels and booklets around the exhibition. But the cards show how cleverly the layering of meaning and interpretation has been created. Many visitors will have passed them by unnoticed, given them a cursory glance or chosen to ignore them, and will have had an entirely satisfactory experience. But for those that paused to study them in more detail a whole new layer of meaning opened up.
I visited with a sense of duty, to try out a responsive digital technology. But I found so much more to enjoy. This is a brilliantly curatored exhibition. So much better than the didactic, even dumbed down permanent gallery of the new Design Museum which I visited before Christmas. I urge you to go, if you haven’t seen it yet. It’s only on for another month.
A colleague who had visited the exhibition before told me how depressed it had made him: the optimism of that period seems to have been dashed upon the reactionary rocks of 2016, Brexit and Trump. But I came out with a very different mood.
One of the early messages of the exhibition is the period as a search for utopia. The final tracks you hear as you walk out (after the video challenge issued by the old heads of the sixties) are Lennon’s 1971 single Imagine and then, brilliantly, Jerusalem.
No, of course they didn’t find the Utopia they were looking for in the sixties, but we could build it…
Today I’m trying to finish all the documentation I need to Ethics Committee approval for the Chawton Untours. Right now, I’m looking in particular at the information sheet I’ll give participants before they agree to be part of the experiment. Looking at and writing all this over and over again mains me sort of “sense-blind”, and so though I think this is all written in plain English and is understandable to the man on the street, I’m not sure. So I thought I’d share it here. If there’s anything you think doesn’t make sense, drop me a line in the comments, please:
Participant Information Sheet
Study title: Responsive Heritage Narratives
[There’s a bunch of reference number stuff which I won’t bother blog readers with]
Your participant number: _______
Please read this information carefully before deciding to take part in this research. If you are happy to participate you will be asked to sign a consent form.
What is the research about?
For my PhD I’m researching how museums and heritage sites might be able to give every visitor an experience better tailored towards their needs, rather than the “one-size-fits-all” experience offered by guidebooks and exhibitions and even the current generation of interactive guides and apps.
Why have I been chosen?
As a visitor to Chawton you represent the sort of person that might visit any museum, historic house or other heritage site. This research does not involve people under sixteen.
What will happen to me if I take part?
You will participate in an “Untour”. You are free to wander around the house as you might when visiting any historic site. The difference is that you/your group) will be followed by an “Unguide” who, in each location where you pause, will trigger some storytelling. The Unguide may show you something to read, read something out to you, or remotely activate lights, sounds that will help tell the story of the place. The Unguide is not a tour guide, and will not tell you where to go next or what to look at. You are in control. You may ask the Unguide questions, but the Unguide may not be able to answer all of them. The Untour should take no longer than 40 minutes.
The Unguide will keep a note of your interests and behaviours throughout the Untour and you may be filmed. Any video will be confidential, anonymously analysed and deleted. At the end of the Untour you will also be asked to complete a confidential, anonymous survey.
Are there any benefits in my taking part?
I hope you will learn something about the house and library here at Chawton. The experiment will tell you a story about the place which, though composed of historical facts, will be unique: tailored to your interests, and not quite the same as any other group’s.
Are there any risks involved?
There are no risks beyond those of an everyday visit to a historic house.
Will my participation be confidential?
Your Untour will necessarily take place when Chawton is open to the public, and other people, not least other participants taking their own Untours, will be able to see that you are participating. But we don’t need your name, address or other identifying information (except on the consent form). You will have a participant number, which we will use to anonymously link the Unguide’s notes, your questionnaire responses and any video evidence. All data will be kept confidentially on secure servers university servers, and deleted when the research is completed.
What happens if I change my mind?
You can end the Untour at any point. If, after the event, you decide you do not wish the evidence gathered during your Untour to be used in the analysis you can contact me (by email: [address]) quoting your participant number. I will delete/destroy any associated notes, forms, or recordings and inform you when I have done so.
What happens if something goes wrong?
In the unlikely case of concern or complaint, you should contact the Chair of the Faculty Ethics Committee [contact details]
Where can I get more information?
If you want to know more you can contact me direct at [email], or if you would like to read more about the background to my research, visit my blog http://www.memetechnology.org
Among the mince pies and over-cooked turkey over Christmas, I managed to find a little time to read an interesting paper. #Scanners: Exploring the Control of Adaptive Films using Brain-Computer Interaction shows once again, that the cool people are all at the University of Nottingham. What these particular four cool guys did was put a mini cinema in an old caravan. But this particular cinema wasn’t showing an ordinary film. Rather, the “film was created with four parallel channels of footage, where blinking and levels of attention and meditation, as recorded by a commercially available EEG device, affected which footage participants saw.”
Building on research in Brain Computer Interface (BCI) the team worked with an artist to create a filmed narrative that “ran for 16 minutes, progressing through 18 scenes. However, each scene was filmed as four distinct layers, two showing different views of the central protagonist’s external Reality and the other two showing different views of their internal dream-world.” Which layers each viewer saw was selected by the EEG device, for rather by the viewers’ blinks and states of “attention” or “meditation” as recorded by the device. The authors admit to some skepticism from the research community about the accuracy of the device in question, but that was not what as being tested here. Rather, they were interested in the viewers’ awareness of the ability to control the narrative, and their reaction to that awareness.
I was interested in the paper for two reasons. First of all, their conclusions touch upon an observation I made very early in in my own research, looking at Ghosts in the Garden, I got a small number (therefore not a very robust sample) of users of that interactive narrative to fill out a short questionnaire, and I was surprised by the number of respondents who were not aware that they could control (were controlling) the story through the choices they made. The #Scanners team noticed a similar variation in awareness, but more than that, they found that “while the BCI based adaptation made the experience more immersive for many viewers, thinking about control often brought them out of the experience.”
They conclude that “a traditional belief in HCI is that Direct Manipulation (being able to control exactly what you want to control) sits at the top of both these dimensions. We examined, however, how users deviate from line, and enjoyed the experience more by either not knowing exactly how it worked, or by giving up control and becoming re-immersed in the experience. […] these deviations from the line between knowledge and conscious control over interaction are most interesting design opportunities to explore within future BCI adaptive multimedia experiences.”
With which, I think I agree.
The other reason the paper interests me is that they described their research as “Performance-Led Research in the Wild” and pointed me towards another paper to read.
Last weekend, I found myself running up and down stairs in a disused shopping mall in Reading, getting chased by, and shooting zombies. To celebrate a friend’s fiftieth (and mine, as my friends clubbed together to buy ticket as a present for my upcoming big birthday) we were participating in an immersive experience run by Zed Events.
Gathering at the appointed time around the back of the mall by an unassuming door, the ten of us met with fellow players who’d booked in smaller groups, pairs or even on their own. We were briefed by a Zed Events employee, with some very clear out-of-game rules, mostly about health and safety (don’t punch the zombies) but also reminding us that the zombies were actors and that we must not use personally offensive language (though they assured us that screaming “Fucking Die! You Zombie Bastard” is not personally offensive).
But then they opened the door and we were welcomed into the diagesis, the game-world. We were greeted by employees of Centesis, as volunteers for a flu drug trial. We signed disclaimers (real) and the official secrets act (not real), locked our personal possessions (phones, keys, coins) away and were being briefed when the alarm went off and everything went dark.
I don’t want to spoil the story for those that might want to participate, but I can share this video, from Zed Events’ site:
Did you watch it? All that running around in the semi-dark, not quite knowing what was going on? It’s exactly like that.
I’ve mentioned players, but it’s not actually much of a game. There are always enough of you around to shoot a zombie before they catch you, none of the player characters are in any peril. You don’t even risk the temporary death and re-spawn of a video game. There are a few escape room style puzzles, but nothing as challenging as you might find in a real escape room.
The emotional engine driving this experience is presence. It is the immersive, dark atmosphere, the limited range of vision, the pathetic torches that some of have, the feel and weight of the guns we carry, that enables our suspension of disbelief.
The story structure is effective as well. I won’t spoil it for you, but you’ll guess it encompasses a military experiment gone wrong, and a limited time to escape before a special ops team comes to destroy the evidence, including us. But within the confines of zombie-lit, Zed Events know how to raise the tension: the group works together at first, then is split in two, each with a security guard to help us, but in the final act, we are split into even smaller groups, and forced into exploring the darkness on our own. There is a Big Bad too, an unkillable armoured Zombie called … Martin.
The division of play/fear affect in my own emotional responses were at odds but in an intriguingly constructive way, at the same time I found my self screaming “Run! It’s Martin!” while the other half of my brain was inwardly grinning at the playful absurdity of the situation. I had great fun.
It’s it worth the money? It’s not cheap, but if you can afford it, it’s worth doing, especially if you are prepared to get into character.
I’m doing my ERGO application today. That’s the University’s Ethics risk and approval system, and they’ve worked hard to make it as simple as possible, but it does take time. And so its time to pass on a useful tip to those starting out on their PhD studies. This is the third approval I will have got (and I’m pretty sure to get it, its low risk ethics-wise), during my time here. I made the mistake of applying for each bit of research that I wanted to do separately, with a relatively short expiry time. Once for some on-line data collection, the results of which which will feature in my thesis. Once for some recorded oral interviews which didn’t really get anywhere, and which probably won’t feature in the end.
But what I should have done is apply for the whole of my research, at the beginning, and set the expiry date for when I expected to finish my PhD. I didn’t realize that I time that I could do so, but as I go through the risk assessment for the third time, I realise that I’m ticking pretty much the same boxes each time. I guess I might have thought, back then, that the nature of my research could drastically change, based on what I had learned in the early years, but it hasn’t. And even if it had, I bet its easier to update the one approval that to do (as I have) three.
Update: Though, when I get to the question “Does the research involve working with: […] Class 3B or 4 lasers?” I’m disappointed that, apart from the “Yes” and “No” options, there isn’t also “I wish!”