You can help… and get yourself a wifi speaker


I want to start with a clip of the Thamesmen’s 1965 classic “Gimme Some Money”*, because that’s the point of this short post. You may be aware that I need some versatile wifi (not Bluetooth) speakers for my experiment at Chawton. I spent considerably longer that I expected looking for some that did what I need, and also were affordable within my budget. I did eventually find some that were a few pennies less than £150 which was, to be honest, a good deal more than I wanted to pay but considerably cheaper than the alternatives.

I bought a couple to test. Not only do they do what I need, they do more. I needed them to work with all the wifi standards including Apple Airplay and Android, but they also have very good Bluetooth connectivity. They are very easy to operate internet radios, and two or more can be linked for a Sonos-like multi-room experience. They’ve got a great battery life. I think they are also very beautiful, designed with real Scandinavian flair. They are very well set up for a life beyond my experiment. Which brings me to my point.

Would you like one?

Having tested these two out both at home and on Chawton’s wifi network, I was prepared to buy the other three I need. Only to discover the price had gone up! Now, I’ve been in touch with Libratone, and they have kindly given me a discount that brings them close to the price I bought them first two at, just a few quid more than £150. So, I was wondering if anyone out there was thinking about buying a speaker like this for your house, or for a present, who might be prepared to let me use it for a week in June first.

If you want to help me buy one, I’ll keep all the packaging etc. and look after the actual speaker very carefully of course. Then after the Chawton experiment, I’ll reset it to factory settings, pack it all back up in its original packaging and mailing box, and send it you, paying for tracked delivery. (Given that the price rise is probably due to currency fluctuations, I think this is only likely to be an attractive offer to UK based helpers.) In return for helping me out, you’ll be able to take advantage of the discount Libratone have offered me, and of course you’ll have earned my eternal gratitude.

If you are interested you’ll probably know me well enough to have private contact details for me. If you don’t and are still interested, then I thank you for your trust. I won’t let you down, comment here, and I get in touch with you. I only need three more speakers, so it will be first come, first served. If you are quick you can also choose what colour you want.

*Fans of Spinal Tap will be aware that there wasn’t really a 1965 hit from the Thamesmen.

Untours moved to June

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 family seat. 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.

*Edited to reflect my realization that Montagu didn’t grow up in Godmersham – his father lived with this family in Chawton from 1826.

Robbers and speakers

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. 🙂

 

Forgive me, this will make little sense

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.

SO:

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?

Writing participant information for Ethics approval

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

 

 

 

Chawton Untours and more

It’s a funny feeling time. The calendar pages seem to flicker by as the year rushes towards its end, the the deadlines for various aspects of the Chawton project loom ominously. On one level I worry I have achieved so little and yet, on an other so much has gone on. So it seems inevitable that this post will consist of a number of short catch-ups on various aspects.

Untours

First of all, I’ve got a name for what we offer the public next year. I’d been struggling to think of how I’d present the project to Chawton’s visitors in a way that meant something. I’ve been calling it “the project”, “my experiment” or a “responsive environment”, none of which would sell the concept to potential participants. But a few weeks back I met a colleague who told me about an experimental opening of the Roundhouse in Birmingham. Working with a couple of performance poets, they opened the building for sneek previews that they called “Un-Tours“.

The National Trust’s Un-Tours are not quite the same as what I’m planning of course. But I thought it was a perfect name: visitors will explore the house with a volunteer, but the volunteer won’t be a guide leading them from room to room. They choose where they go, and what they look at, and the volunteer responds to their interests with the relevant natoms. So my volunteers are Unguides, and the tours, Untours (I decided we didn’t need the hyphen). I told my colleague there and then that I was nicking the name.

A collaborator!

The next exciting thing that happened was meeting Ed Holland. Ed is studying Music at Southampton, and was looking for a studio project. He has agreed to help me with the sound natoms. I met him for a second time yesterday, with the always brilliant Jeanice Brooks, and we started to break the musical narrative, focused on domestic life at the turn on the eighteeth/nineteenth centuries, which will reference the Jane Austen connections that Chawton has, without being about her (given there’s a museum dedicated to her just down the road).

Talking about sound

Of course between those two meetings with Ed, I’ve been thinking a lot about sound. As long time readers may be aware, I’m keen to put as few barriers/filters as possible between the visitor and the space they are in. So my preference is always for speakers, but Ed suggested that headphones may offer a more immersive soundscape for less money.

However, one of the key investigations of this project is to investigate a set of “contention rules”, for when more than one visitor/visiting group enter the same space with different story needs. Of course, if everyone were wearing headphones, that soundscape contention wouldn’t be an issue. Which may be a good thing (for visitor experience) as well as a bad one (for my investigation). I’ve also been thinking about other ways my paltry budget might limit what we can achieve. I hope to store all the assets on the web (in Scalar currently) so that a volunteer Unguide can use any smart device to participate (BYD). But of course, that will (I’m thinking – you may know differently) limit each Unguide to delivering just one channel of sound to his/her visitor group. Of course that limits Ed’s ambitions for a multi-channel directional soundscape, but he is making contact with some of the sound guys in our School of Engineering to see if there’s any cool stuff (or speakers) we can use at Chawton.

Assuming we don’t get to borrow anything cool though, I’ve suggested that Ed:

  • Works on a creating a music/sound library based on the lowest spec – single channel a cheap Bluetooth speaker in each room.
  • Specifies the hardware requirements for a system that might deliver his ideal soundscape, either using a multichannel directional speaker system or headphones (Imagine 20 headphone users in the house at the same time). I can guarantee I won’t be able to afford it, but it would be useful research anyway. And we could test a limited version of the concept, with borrowed equipment, during the pilot stage (currently scheduled from the beginning of December in my project plan).

My budget, though tiny, is flexible (it’s my own money) so, I could maybe stretch to something in between the two extremes, if it was something that offered some of the functionality Ed would really want, and maybe had some domestic life afterwards.

Story troubles

The thing that I’ve had most trouble with these last few weeks is the story. I wanted to have at least three narratives – one of the history of the building (and I thought an early 20th century owner, Montague Knight, would be the easiest focus for that); one on Women’s Literature, and the Austen one, mentioned above.

I’n my innocence I thought that I would quickly knock-out an emotionally compelling Montague Knight narrative, but after weeks of reading, arranging and re-arranging, I’ve realised that (duh!) real life stories don’t comply with literary “rules”. Or rather, I’ve realised that maybe my standards, my expectations, for this were too high. I’ve wasted time trying down a rabbit hole, trying to craft a story that I was going to muck up anyway by letting visitors make their choices. I was crafting a traditional guided tour, not an Untour! So, I’ve decided on a different tack. Instead, I’m going to spend some time analysing the natoms I already have, and attributing a story beats to each one. The story should (after all) be procedural.

The outcome of this experiment isn’t (wasn’t ever) meant to be the best interpretive experience. all it is is a step towards the understanding how procedural narratives might work in historic spaces.

Interactive story beats

In my exploration of interactive storytelling I’ve concentrated on computer games, because I’m exploring the digital delivery of story. But I’ve already decided that for my experiment at Chawton next year, I’m going to “wizard of Oz” it – use actual people instead of trying to write a computer program to deliver the interactive narrative.

I’ve been thinking about the issues around that. People are natural storytellers, though some are better than others, so I have a double edge problem. As I recruit and train people to be my “wizards of Oz”, I need to train the poor story-tellers to be better, and weirdly, I need to train the great storytellers to be worse! My reasoning is this, I want to prototype what a computer might do, there’s little or no experimental value in simply enhancing a great storyteller’s natural ability with some environmental bells and whistles. So part of what I’m trying to learn is about how to systematize (is that a word? It’ll do) story.

I’ll explain about Kernels and Satellites of course, but I need (I think) some sort of simple system of identifying how different story elements might fit into the emotional journey the visitor is going to take.

So, I’m reading Robin D. LawsHamlet’s Hit Points. Laws is a game designer but mostly of tabletop, or “pen and paper” role-playing games (though he has written for some computer games too). This book attempts to systematize (I think it is a word) story, with an audience of role-playing gamers in mind. I think it may be useful for me, because it attempts to train the Game Master of such games (the “referee” who, together with the players, makes the story) to be aware of the emotional impact of each scene or action (which he calls, using a screen-writing term, “beats”) on the players, and better choose which element to serve up next to keep everyone emotionally engaged. Tabletop Roleplaying Games must be the most interactive, responsive, stories ever created. In a way, my “wizards of Oz” will be like a Game Master, not telling a story they prepared earlier, but working with their visitors to create a story on the fly, but keep it emotionally engaging.

In a handy short opening chapter called “How To Pretend You’ve Read This Book” Laws explains “With its system of beat analysis, you can track a narrative’s moment-to-moment shifts in emotional momentum. Beat analysis builds itself around the following very basic fact:

Stories engage our attention by constantly modulating our emotional responses.”

Sadly though, I can’t get away with reading just this chapter. It’s only later that he actually shares the classification of beats that he uses in his analysis.

Hamlet’s Hit Points Icons and Arrows by Gameplaywright LLP and Craig S. Grant is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

He begins with two types that he says will make up the majority of beats in any story, Procedural and Dramatic beats. Procedural beats move the protagonist towards (forfilling the audience’s hopes) or away from (realizing the audience’s fears), his practical, external goal. Dramatic beats do the same for the protagonist’s inner goals. “We hope that the beat moves him closer to a positive inner transformation and fear that it might move him towards a negative transformation.”

Laws talks a lot about hope and fear. In fact he simplifies the audience’s emotional response to every beat (which he describes as its resolution) as being a movement towards one of these poles. I’ve got fear on my nascent emotional affect and affordances diagram, its one of Panksepp’s primal emotions, but I’m not yet sure where hope sits – I wonder, is it in care?

In both types of beat, Laws describes two parties, the petitioner, who wants the thing, and the granter, who must be negotiated with. Dramatic beats are mostly actual verbal negotiations, procedural beats might also be fights, tricks, races or other challenges.

From the way Laws describes them, I’d expect that most kernels in a story are likely to be one of these two types of beat. And the other types are more likely to be satellites. He lists:

Commentary – “in which the protagonist’s movement towards or away from his goal is momentarily suspended while the author underlines the story’s thematic elements.” Laws uses Mercutio’s Queen Mab speech in Romeo and Juliet as an example.

Anticipation – which “create[s] an expectation of coming procedural success, which we look forward to with pleasure.” The example here is “Popeye has eaten his spinach. (any given episode of Popeye)”

Gratification – “a positive emotional moment that floats free from the main narrative. They often appear as rest breaks between major sequences. A musical interlude often acts as a gratification beat (unless it also advances the story, as it frequently does in musical genre).”

Bringdown – the opposite of gratification. “Jerry Lundergaard’s car alone in a desolate parking lot, is completely iced over after his father-in-law bars him from a promising business deal. (Fargo)”

Then Laws offers us three “informational beats”:

Pipe – “A beat that surreptitiously provides us with information we’ll need later, without tipping the audience to its importance.”

Question – “introduces a point of curiosity we want to see satisfied […] a question usually resolves as a down beat.”

Reveal – “provides the information we were made to desire in a previous question beat, or surprises us with new information. In the latter case it might come out of the blue, or have been set up with one or more pipe beats laying the groundwork for the surprise.” The example he uses is the Revelation that Bruce Willis’ character in The Sixth Sense is dead. “We tend to be more engaged by exposition when it has been teased to us by a prior question, or can clearly see its impact on our hopes and fears.”

(Laws explains that literary fiction makes much use of question/reveal cycles to manipulate emotion, rather than the procedural / dramatic beats that fill genre fiction and thrillers.)

Laws goes on to analyse three scripted narratives in full, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and the films Dr No and Casablanca, but that’s not what I’m discussing now, though having recently rewatched Casablanca as part of my children’s continuing cinema education, I was  interested to read his analysis of that. It is worth pointing out, however, that the “curve” of a story like Casablanca is inexorably downward. Laws compares the maps his analysis creates with “the classic chart you may recall from secondary school literature classes” (which I’ve touched on before) and notes that the lines his analysis creates are “flatter overall. It tends to resemble a stock tracker measuring the progress over time of a slowly deflating security […] Even stories that end happily […] tend to move downward over time.” He explains that narratives build up fear with numerous incremental steps, before sudden uplifting moments of hope. So in most stories, there are simply more down beats than up beats, given that the up beats are more intense. I think there is also a point that Laws misses, in many of those narrative curves the absolute value of emotional intensity is being measured, with no thought as to whether the emotion is hopeful or fearful.

So, is all this useful to me? Well I think at the very least I think I can get my “wizards of Oz” to think about up beats and down beats, and make sure not to pile on too many down beats in a row without the occasional up beat. Whether or not heritage interpretation lends itself to procedural and dramatic beats, there is definitely room for question/reveal beats, and it could be argued that too much interpretation goes straight for the revelations without asking the questions or laying the pipes first. So I think it is something that may prove useful.

The powers of people

I was at Chawton again yesterday (before going to Petworth for yesterday’s mobile fun) to meet with Jane, one of the house’s most experienced volunteers. I’d challenged her to give me a 45 minute tour of her choice. She really wanted me to tell her what I was most interested to hear, but I wouldn’t. I wanted her unbiased perception of what were the most “important” bits of her her encyclopedic knowledge of Chawton and the surrounding area to share, given the 45 minute time limit.

(I always recommend that 45 minutes is the absolute maximum for a guided tour. In fact I suggest that half an hour is what people should work to. People who want more will stay behind to chat, but there is some evidence from the National Trust’s monitoring of visitors for conservation, that the average dwell time in a house, whatever it’s size is about 45 minutes.)

In the end she gave me what I’d call an architectural tour of the house, pointing out how the thick exterior walls of the the original manor had become interior walls after Richard Knight’s extensions. It was great, and reminded me about some of the things I’d forgotten about being a tour guide that make guided tours (with the right guide) so entertaining.

I’ve always said that guided tours often offer the best historic house experience. A good paid or volunteer guide can weave a compelling story as s/he escorts you around the house. He or she can reveal things you might otherwise have have missed. They can respond to your interests, and level of expertise, to give you a tailored experience. But Jane reminded me how they can transform the place, by pointing out those thick walls, or turning over a framed note hanging on the wall to reveal the ancient deeds from which the paper had been recycled. A good guide turns their audience into detectives – rather than simply telling them how Montague Knight installed a safe into what once had been an old garderobe chute, they help their audience work it out for themselves – a moment of insight, that emotional trigger where everything that has come before “clicks into place and reveals the shape of the whole” as Tynan Sylvester puts it.

Of course, Jane’s tour also demonstrated that the VERY best historic house experience would be to have the guide all to yourself. Not everyone on a larger tour (and there were a couple running yesterday that we bumped into) could have lifted the framed note from the wall to read the reverse. As I hung it back on the hook, I had conservation alarm bells ringing in my head. Every handling, every movement of this glass framed note (which Montague Knight had hidden beneath the floor for future generations to find) put it at risk. The more people given the opportunity I had, the greater the chance that it might be damaged.

Not everyone can do what I did, arrange a personal tour at a time of my convenience after an email introduction from the Director. For those other tour groups we met, the guided tour experience gets diluted, less personal, less tailored to each individual’s interests.

The technological approach I’m investigating might be able to address some of the personalisation challenges, but can it ever offer the magical moments of insight that Jane offered me?

A little bit of the history of interactive storytelling at Chawton


I spent yesterday morning at Chawton, locating and counting plug sockets so @ll know my limitations as I design whatever the experience there will be next March. The visit reminded me that I had meant to write here of a previous digital interpretation experiment at Chawton.

Back then, in 2005, the Chawton House Library was not widely open to the public. Primarily a centre for the study of Women’s Literature, one could argue that the visiting academics were also heritage visitors of a sort, and the house and gardens also welcomed some pre-booked visiting groups, such as the Jane Austen Society of America, and local garden societies. In their conference paper, a team from the universities of Southampton and Sussex describe how, looking for “curators” to work with they co-opted the trust’s Director, Estate Manager, Public Relations Officer, Librarian and Gardener. All these people may have taken on the role nut just of curator, but also guide to those visiting academics and groups. The paper attempts to describe how their tours interpret the place:

visitors’ experience of the house and its grounds is actively created in personalized tours by curators.

“House and grounds are interconnected in a variety of ways, e.g. by members of the family rebuilding the house and gardens or being buried in the churchyard. Thus artifacts or areas cannot be considered in isolation. There are many stories to be told and different perspectives from which they can be told, and these stories often overlap with others. Thus information exists in several layers. In addition, pieces of information, for example about a particular location like the ‘walled garden’, can be hard to interpret in isolation from information about other parts of the estate – there is a complex web of linked information.[…]

“Curators ‘live the house’ both in the sense that it is their life but also that they want to make it come alive for visitors. The experiences offered by Chawton House are intrinsically interpersonal – they are the result of curators interacting with visitors. Giving tours is a skilled, dynamic, situated and responsive activity: no two tours are the same, and depend on what the audience is interested in. They are forms of improvisation constructed in the moment and triggered in various ways by locations, artefacts and questions.”

Tours are a brilliant way of organising all those layers of information, and I’m sure a personal tour from any one of the curators that they identifies would have been excellent. But the problem comes as soon as you try to scale, or mass produce, the effect. As I said at a conference I presented at a couple of weeks ago (I’m reminded I should write about that too) people, even volunteers, are an expensive resource, and so only the smallest places can afford to give every visitor a guided tour experience. Even then, individuals or families have to book on to a tour, joining other people whom they don’t know, and whose interests they don’t necessarily share. The guided tour experience gets diluted, less personal, less tailored to your interests. Which is when you start getting people saying they would prefer to experience the site by themselves, rather than join a tour. Of course some tour guides are better at coping with these issues than others, but visitors are wary of taking the risk with a guide they don’t know, even if they can recount experiences of brilliant guided tour experiences.

The project written about in the paper had two sides, one was to try and produce content for schools, but the other was of particular interest to me:

“The curators are interested in being able to offer new kinds of experience to their visitors. We aim to find out what types they would like to offer, and help to create them. There is thus a need for ‘extensible infrastructure’ based on a basic persistent infrastructure that supports the creation and delivery of a variety of content.”

And four questions they ask themselves are also of particular interest:

  • “How can we enable curators to create a variety of new experiences that attract and engage different kinds of visitors, both individuals and groups?
  • “How do we engage curators in co-design of these experiences?
  • “How can curators without computer science backgrounds contribute to the authoring of content for the system?
  • “How do we create an extensible and persistent infrastructure; one that can be extended in terms of devices, content and types of experience?”

At the time of writing the paper, they had conducted a workshop with their chosen curators, using a map with 3D printed features. Although “use of a map in the first instance may have triggered somewhat different content,” they discovered that “Eliciting content from curators is most naturally and effortlessly done in-situ.” (Which is my plan – I’m in the process of fixing a date with one of Chawton’s most experienced tour guides.)

I particularly liked the observation that “Listening to them is much more lively and interesting than listening to professionally spoken, but often somehow sterile and dull audio tapes sometimes found in museums and galleries.” So enthusiastically did the team connect with the curators’ presentation, that they decided to record the tours and edit them into the narrative atoms that were delivered by their  infrastructure. That infrastructure was not the subject of the paper, but if I recall correctly, GPS based running on “Palm Pilot” style hardware.

More importantly, the most pertinent conclusion was that the curators were best placed, not just to select the narrative atoms from the recorded materials but also “sort them into
themes and topics, so that the system can cater for people with different broad interests, for example landscape, flora and fauna, or how Jane Austen’s writing reflects the environment. This necessitates a learning process, which must build on existing practices and over time develops new practices based on experience and reflection.”

What I meant to say was…

Back at the University for the second day of PGRAS, the post-graduate archaeology symposium which I spoke at yesterday. My talk didn’t go brilliantly well. Despite my preparation last weekend, producing a script as well as my slide deck, I went off-script about a third of the way through, and didn’t get back on it, so I feel a lot of what I had meant to say went unsaid. I often find this when I a script myself, it’s seems I stick more to what I plan to say when I only use bullet points and ad-lib around those. When it’s a full script something in my mind rebels and I end up saying nothing in the script.

So, here’s what I meant to say:

  1. This is a session about storytelling. So I’m going to tell you a story, and like all good stories, its going to have a beginning, middle and an end. Given the audience I feel I must warn you – I can’t promise that this will have much archaeology in it. But I have included one piece, so keep an eye out for it
  2. Last time I was speaking in front of this forum, I explained that I was researching what cultural heritage interpretation might learn from digital games. Those of you that were here may remember that I’d was interested in eight “emotional triggers” (adapted from (Sylvester, 2013)) that engage players in games. You can ask me about these four afterwards. Right now I’m interested in these four, where I think cultural heritage may have more to learn from games.
    1. Generally we don’t like people Acquiring stuff from cultural heritage sites. But actually the “Can you spot ?” type sheets that heritage sites have for decades given to bored children, are using the acquisition trigger.
    2. Challenge is an interesting one, many games are at the best when the degree of challenge matches the player’s ability and they get into “flow”, but seriously how much challenge are cultural heritage visitors looking for, on a day out? We’ll briefly return to this in a while.
    3. Here’s a tip from me, of you have any musically minded mates looking for a PhD subject, then the world of music and cultural heritage interpretation is an open field. There is nothing published. Zero, Nada. Having done my literature review, its what I’d be studying, if I could play, or … er … tell the difference between notes, or even keep a rythym.
    4. But I can’t, so storytelling is the focus of my study.
  3. Before me move on to that, I’d like to pause for a small digression. Those of you who are still listening to me – take a moment to look around the audience. No I don’t want you to point anybody out. I don’t want to shame anybody. But just put your hand up if you can see anyone who isn’t looking at me, but rather looking at their mobile device.
    That’s OK. I know I can be boring. But it’s a demonstration of the secret power of mobile devices. They are teleportation machines, which can transport you away from the place you are physically in.
    And most cultural heritage visitors don’t want that. They have come to our places (they may even have used their phones to help transport them to this place – with on-line bookings or GPS route-finding) to be in the place.
    Of course, that doesn’t stop all sorts of people using mobile devices to “gamify” cultural heritage interpretation. This game at the National Maritime museum, is an example of one that adds new technology to the classic acquisition trigger. You co round the world, collecting crew and cargo from various ports. It adds the challenge trigger to the mix, because you can only SEE the ports if you look at the giant map through the screen’s interface.
  4. There’s a lot of research currently looking at interfaces for cultural heritage (Reunanen et al., 2015) considered for example, getting visitors to make swimming motions in front of a Kinect to navigate a simulated wreck site. But the more I read, and the longer I considered it, I’m more and more of the opinion that there is an interface for cultural heritage that technologists are ignoring: (click) Walking around, looking at stuff.
  5. Now, when it comes to storytelling, “walking around looking at stuff” is not without its problems. People like to choose their own routes around cultural heritage venues, avoid crowds, and look only at some of the objects.
  6. What that means, is that sites often tell their most emotionally engaging story, the beginning, (click)middle (click) and end ( click) towards the beginning of the visit, with a multimedia experience in the visitor centre, or if they can’t afford that, an introductory talk. Then, everything else (click). Which is what game designers call a branching narrative. And what Aylett (Aylett, 2000, Louchart, 2003) calls the “Narrative Paradox … how to reconcile the needs of the user who is now potentially a participant rather than a spectator with the idea of narrative coherence — that for an experience to count as a story it must have some kind of satisfying structure.” (Aylett, 2000). We can learn from our games address with paradox.
  7. Imagine then, a site where the visitor’s movements will be tracked around the site, and the interpretation will adapt to what they have experienced already. Museum and heritage sites consist of both physical and ephemeral narrative atoms (“natoms” after (Hargood, 2011)). Persistent natoms include the objects and the collection but also the spaces themselves, either because of their historic nature, or their configuration in relation to other spaces (Hillier, 1996). Ephemeral natoms are media that can be delivered to the visitor responsively including, but not exclusive to, lighting effects, sound and music, audiovisual material, and text.
    All of these natoms comprise the “curated content” of any exhibition or presentation. The physical natoms are “always on,” but the others need not be (hence the “ephemeral” designation). The idea of the responsive environment would be to eventually replace text panels and labels with e-Ink panels which can deliver text natoms specific to needs of the visitor. Similarly, loudspeakers need not play music or sound effects on a loop, but rather deliver the most appropriate piece of music for the majority of visitors within range.
    To reduce the impact of the narrative paradox (Louchart, 2003), the natoms will be tagged as either Satellites (which can be accessed in any order) or Kernels, which must be presented in a particular order (Shires and Cohan, 1988). Defining which natoms are satellites or kernels becomes the authorial role of the curator.
    Here’s comes the gratuitous piece of archaeology – does this diagram remind you of anything? (click) But in fact it seems somehow appropriate. Because, this is the Apotheosis moment. I want to make the visitor the “God” of his or her own story. Not quite putting them in the place of the protagonist, whose choices were made years ago, but both watching and controlling the story as it develops.
  8. I’m no technologist, so my plan is to “wizard of Oz” a trail run, using people following visitor groups around, rather than a fancy computer program. My intention is to test how people respond to being followed, and how such a responsive environment would negotiate the conflicting story needs of different visitor groups sharing the same space. I have a venue, the Director Chawton House has promised me a couple of weeks worth of visitors to play with, next year. This is where I am at so far, having spent a couple of weeks breaking down the place’s stories into Natoms.
    There’s a lot more to do, but next year I hope to tell you how Chawton’s visitors were able to explore the place entirely freely, (click) and still manage to be told an engaging story from (click) beginning, though (click click) middle (click) and end.