Nov 262007

At the Cross-Media Storytelling conference a few days ago I witnessed a strange event with one of the categories of speakers. There were three groups of speakers, forward thinking practitioners, catch-up heritage media representatives and theoretical, reflective academics. The last group had one or two useful observations wrapped up in PhD-like presentations but the two hundred strong continental European audience requested a little less complex rhetoric – I have talked about this problem before and upset a few in the process. But, that was not the strange element, it was that each academic, and I forcibly recall four in particular, were keen on de-constructing and putting forward the view that participation in and around web 2.0 is a myth. This ‘opinion’ would have been fine as a short two minute statement, but being academia they spent hours analysing it from many angles, backed each other up and of course gave many citations from esteemed writers and colleagues.

Now. Is it currently fashionable in academia to take the opposing view to popular media, industry? Probably, it gets you noticed. Is it common for several similar ‘theories’ to pop-up in one conference, a sort of academic zeitgeist? Most importantly is there any truth in what was being said? I don’t have time to write a long article on this (I am travelling – hence some probable typos and bad grammar) but I threw together a little diagram to support MY simple viewpoint. This diagram grew out my frustration of this one dimensional view (that only those who post/upload content are valued participators) and also from a live, real time, question I asked the last speaker who had put the theory forward for a fourth time. So I tried to get him to clarify what he meant, I paraphrase the question…
Gary: “Am I participating in this conference by asking this question”,
Speaker: “Yes of course”
Gary: “Then why are those who comment, rate, share, recommend, mash-up not considered participants in online social networks?”
The speaker then went onto to say academics have to draw a line in the sand between involvement those who may change the title of a podcast they downloaded for example and those who submit truly original content. Afterwards I said why do you have to draw a line when we are talking about ‘degrees’ of participation? He said academics like defined lines and specificity to be able to hang theories on – yet none showed any kind of digram or quantification of those lines. So here is my ‘line’ in the sand stating that participation in society, politics, online social networks etc: is not either on or off it is a continuum of degrees of influence. It is an analog and not a digital 0 or 1 as the academics represented seem to propose.

Myth of Non-Participation

All the speakers on the other side of the participation fence (I was one amongst the web 3.0, cross-reality stuff, putting forward simple concepts of co-creative communities and participation) talked about over mediation, moderation and artificial constructs that gave the ‘users’ (yuck word) a perception of participation in which there was none. My diagram above takes a different view. Anyone and everyone can have significant influence in the social network. Whether you simply share a video (The Sharers) with a friend or create one from scratch (The Creators), makes a statement and you are influencing. You can also have significantly more influence by commenting (The Critics) than by creating sometimes. You make a video that has ambiguous socio-political stance and the first comment may actually draw attention to what it is actually saying. I know many of ‘The Critics’ who fall into this. The other thing I was trying to represent on the diagram was scale, numbers and level. So we obviously have more of ‘The Consumers’ (passive watchers/readers) than say ‘The Editors’ – those who will take content and ‘modify it’ before presenting it. Also the potential ‘level’ of influence of each group is indicated in the right triangle, and one would imagine a focused blog post or moving YouTube video would have more influence – but as I said before if enough people rate it highly the actual influence is generated by the community, not by the original piece.

A few of the academic presenters talked about the environment the perceived participation exists in. That something like a TV show that utilises video stories from its community is filtering and doesn’t really allow them to participate – but who said Broadcast TV is about participation in the first place – especially the example from 1993 given! Another one said that a social network run by a commercial company is controlling and is naturally inhibits due to complex, proprietary interfaces the natural course of participation. My simple answer is, if any ‘environment’ allows the community to communicate with each other freely and have at least some degree of co-creation then it is totally valid. Open source is one end of this spectrum, but even then open source is still a ‘tool’ created by a small group of people for much larger members of the community that use it. One thing I referred to in my talk relevant to perception of involvement is something I call ‘pushed interactivity’. This to me is the real problem with so-called interactive services, point and click, pots of content. I have many tens of posts on this topic in the archive on this blog (which is founded on personalization of course) and its relevance here is the word ‘resonance’. To me participation is about resonance, what you do changes in whatever way the environment or system you are participating in. Period. When you perform any action in society (online or real world) you are participating in it.

My blog time is up. Duty calls and I have real time, real life conversation interrupting. You can participate in this particular discussion by being The Critic (comment), The Sharer (forward it to your peers), The Editor (copy paste bits, nick the diagram, write a nice soundtrack to it and re-present it to the world) or become The Creator (by writing an original piece on this topic, vs a fashionable one). An interesting question – is this post a comment? An original creation? Sharing? An edit? Whatever it is I believe it is participation and have some small influence.

Posted by Gary Hayes © 2007

Jun 132006

© Gary Hayes 2006Give people very simple and highly social tools for producing and creatively sharing content and truly inventive things will happen. In a growing ‘easy to publish’ movement the current user generated, digital personalized content explosion will continue indefinitely – the creative big bang. A digital stills or video camera and a computer in the right hands has already demonstrated wonderful things can happen. Give anyone a pen and paper and a thousand works can be produced, books, comics, sketches, screenplays, personal letters, song lyrics and so on. Give them a simple way (blogger, wordpress etc) to publish their thoughts, opinions and journals onto the interweb and we end up with 44 million blogs and rising. Give them a place like Flickr to store, tag and share their digital photos and as well as a billion images, covering the state of the planet, we also find something the creators never thought of or intended – endless mashups, games and interconnections between users content. In fact the simpler the tool set, the more people can play with it, create their own rules and more importantly extend the environment. Most so-called interactive services or console games suffer from the been-there-done-that moment when the ‘story world’ is exhausted as I mentioned a couple of posts ago. Even some of the RPG online games suffer from this in that you have rule sets, repetition and actions you ‘have’ to perform to continue or rise up the ranks, whatever is your preference – this constraint hinders creative production. So what do you do when you get given a completely new world where the narrative and rules are unlimited?

To answer that question here are some of my current, initial thoughts on being creative inside Second Life. A few have referred to this world now as the future of the internet – in that the 2D website will be replaced by a 3D space not disimilar to what is evolving here. That may well be true, in which case all the creativity we see on the web at the moment will morph into a cluster of shared 3D spaces. I will look in a moment though at photography, filming, creating games and original art inside SL but first what are the majority of the now quarter of a million residents up to? Most have unsurprisingly brought key elements of the real world with them – the three way street of money, socialising and sex. I differentiate the last two because there are only around 10-20 thousand involved in virtual sex – according to the purveyors of the various bits of ‘equipment’ you need to buy. I do feel most though use the world as a place to meet their peers or just as a ‘cute’ way to communicate (an alternative IM or chat room – see Tony’s comments a few posts ago). Of course there are those who are only after making a buck or two, selling clothes, gadgets, buildings and anything else that can be bought on the ‘outside’. For many, judging by the endless malls and classifieds, it is a place to hang and watch the tens of dollars trickle in, for a few it is a real income which means they really have given up the day job. Hats off to them, but not original.

I think many in the world also use Second Life as a means to live the life they never will be able to – the nice house, alternate (sometimes deviant) lifestyle and all the trappings in a nice, like-minded neighbourhood. But what else apart from money, socialising and sex? Is there anything really unique being created rather than cute representations of the real world – sure there are wonderful themed gardens and coastal scenes – but like the scene in the film Contact where Jodie Foster was told (I paraphrase) – “we did it this way so as not to scare you” when referring to how a higher race may communicate with us, by taking us to a familiar, pleasant environment. But what about the unqiue and higher art forms, photography, film, games, sculpture, art, literature, mash-ups and music? I talk about the first four here from a ‘producing-it’ perspective but will get to the last four in a future post.

I have been dabbling, like a few others, with ‘finer art’ photography, filming (machinima) and attending a few lectures. I have also been playing with scripting music and ai type 3D graphics motion but early days yet. I have seen some very nice original art pieces that are enabled by the very basic 3D tools you get as standard but only a handful of people are creating the truly original works. But what about photography? Well it is relatively straightforward to screen capture the world in second life, a what- you-see-is-what-you-get digital photography equivalent. But to produce anything of a higher standard, like real photography, you need to spend time. Not as much as filming of course, but devote time and effort. I have done a few trial shoots (images scattered in this post – Anya above) and found that all the same rules apply as to a real shoot – I have done quite a few professional real life photo shoots on and off over the years. You have to find willing subjects who take direction, you need good clothes, you need to use special lighting and find great locations with suitable environmental elements. Then there are the unlimited poses for the avatars (yes it is sometimes easy to forget when you are in the middle of shoot that these are just 3D graphic models). Then there are the endless expressions and props you have to manage.

©Gary Hayes 2006Finally your photographic sensibility and aesthetic have to be utilised. Composition is critical in a world of unlimited depth of field – the angle of view, elements in the scene and overall colour ranges. These things apply to filming but then you have consider many more things such as animation, moving camera and filmic narrative which complicates things even further – more later. Photography is a very social thing in this world as to achieve good results the communication between avatars (and their puppet masters) is crucial. Just using chat or IM slows things down, one where you are in control of the subject is obviously better but most social, would be to use voice or skype during the session. The key point I am trying to make here is that to produce anything of aesthetic value you need to put in the hours – like the real world it requires dedication. The real world of CG animation likewise requires true dedication shuffling those millions of pixels around, you have full control, but also unlimited variables and possibility – an major effort in filtering and selection.

©Gary Hayes 2006This leads onto making machinima in Second Life – but which applies to any games engine filming. Firstly the story. OK this goes without saying but many machinima narratives have often been constrained or certainly curtailed due to the limitations of the medium. The best stories are the ones that play to the strengths of this medium and like my earlier post on ARGs in Second Life, use narratives that are rooted in the environment. There is a group in second life called alt-zoom that are pioneering filmmaking in this environment and a few friends are also pushing the envelope. Kronos (aka David) is, like me, learning the tricks of the tools and I will do a post later about the more craft/tech side of lighting, frame rates, colour balance, capture settings etc:. The technical side of capturing the real time ‘play’ is relatively straightforward as is the set building (which is a breeze and pleasure here). What is not so easy is the cinematography and the quality of the character animation and facial expression. Using a locked off or auto tracking camera is not so bad but to try and create scripted camera motion takes a serious amount of time especially when trying to achieve synchronicity with the actors – I will call avatars, actors from now on.

©GAry Hayes 2006There are limited sets of animations for the actors and the facial expressions have a long way to go (many are garish) so for now I tend to favour a more subtle approach and use head motion rather than theatrical, comedic standard actions. You can of course create your own poses and anims in tools like poser and import them and that is the only way for bespoke filmmaking in this environment. I am also trying to pioneer live filming in second life. Using a games controller it is feasible (still working on it) to have full 360 degree control over the positioning of the camera in real time, making slow crane shots or unique tracking shots much easier. This then makes the whole process more realistic, especially if your actors are improvising and are in control in real time of each of their animation suite. In fact this really gives second life an advantage over CG produced or games console based machinima in that the whole process starts to match a real shoot. I have included a couple of stills from a test shoot I have just done on this page also. A final ambitious goal for me at least is to try to do a multi camera shoot of the real time scenes – in otherwords you could have ten or more people logged in with three doing a real time three camera shoot while the other seven take the directorial, set design and acting roles. Check posts for updates on this.

As a slight tangent and following on from my earlier post on ARG’s in the world it was interesting pick up on a range of intitiatives set-up by Linden Labs (the world creators) to try to stimulate more, social games in the environment. The SecondCast podcast crew talked about a few on a recent episode called “To the Zoo”. It was no surprise that they also agreed that the less technology in the game, and the more that it involves social interplay and uses the worlds grammar, the more compelling it was. So they reviewed the in-game, games The Collective, SLictionary, Tech Warfare, Boogie Board, Danger Zone, Dark Life, Castle Wars and Blocks SL. The Collective went someway to using the world for the core of its game play narrative in that it required you to ‘experience’ as much as possible to accrue points towards a final play-off – so just saying hi to new people or going to new places was enough to take part in the game and it encouraged more than what most people do in the world. The one that garnered most social interplay was SLictionary. Yes more or less Pictionary, but in SL you a required to build (using tools that most experienced SL’ers are familiar with) objects and everyone has to guess what it is. Sounds simple and yes it was, but most time was spent on it. OK not quite an ARG but I will be playing it soon as it sounded like great fun. In the almost ARG domain there was also Mata Hari that has been covered by Anya, which really was a word puzzle game wrapped in a thinly veiled historial narrative. Not really an ARG, which should really be rooted in the story world of the one you are in and have a much deeper narrative structure, but by all accounts got people interested in more of the same. There are a few more on-going that I will post about later.

Finally onto true originality. There seems to be a lack of uniqueness in second life at the moment. I suppose the time it takes to become fluent in the environment means that only a diehard few will have the time to invent new things. Sure some new fashions have appeared but what does this environment provide us as raw materials to make the unique. Well a few are playing with the fact that in a world of ‘suppressed gravity’ and extended physics, where particle and layers animation is relatively straightforward combined with simple scripting, texturing and easily distorted primitive shapes – quite a few unique things are possible. Anya (again) introduced me to (aka) Clames Clanger (a professional music producer and filmmaker) who has his own special island where he creates unique, out of this world, but no so out of that world, pieces. They are all moving in very fluid ways and few reminded me forcibly of, getting back to the film I mentioned earlier, the transporter from Contact. All are truly innovative and pushing the imaginative envelope of a bio-mechanical future but retaining a naturalistic purity. Then there are his ‘nature’ pieces that exhibit a level of artificial intelligence many using particle physics. All great fun, profound and firmly rooted in what SL should be about.

Clames shows how the tools in the right hands can produce something special, sublime and unique. There are a handful of others ‘playing’ in this space so I am excited to see what evolves. It is was also great meeting up with him as he demonstrated something I had spent a few days creating from my real world panoramic photos, surround cycloramas for the film I am doing. So it was wonderful for Clames to show that SL has its own holodeck (thanks to Nightspy). Yes a box that contains a range of computer controlled, full surround imagery exactly meeting my needs – complete with Star Trek speech commands. More on that experience and how we work with it in a later post.

The speed at which information moves here really promotes creative thinking. The next thing is to move some real world media management thinking inside to provide a strong foundation and to allow the creatives to flourish.

To summarise then. In an immersive enviroment with a unique but simple set of tools anything is possible. I suspect the majority of the potentially one million by the end of the year (if the growth statistics hold up) will be doing what they always have done. A few though will pioneer, do what is impossible in the real world and create totally unique user generated content. It goes without saying that the late 2003 policy of Linden Labs on advice from the forward thinking Lawrence Lessig and his in-world talks helped a great deal in promoting creative thinking here – remove the barriers to unlimited innovation, these include a sense of ownership of the work but with that needs to be very accessible and easy to use tools, and SL has some of the best.

Post and photography by Gary Hayes ©2006

Oct 012005

Pelican Santa Barbara ©Gary Hayes 2005I have been in a philosophical, darkish corner the last few days. Things happen. In a related respite I remembered one the first interactive services I produced at the BBC – a broadband PC & connected CD service (current version) about the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Based on a TV series called “A State Apart”, the brief was simple, to tell the history of the separation of north and south Ireland – while focusing mostly on the long bloody and political battle between republicans on one side and the loyalists and British ‘occupation’ forces on the other. Right. After studying the history for several months something struck me – but first.

Sometimes life can be called routinely serendipitous. We expect random things to happen. Life carries on routinely day after day and then bang, the unpredictable. These can be personal events. You fall head-over-heels for someone totally unexpected, then a little later you hear news that an old friend overseas has contracted cancer. They can be global personal events. I still remember the shared confusion of a late afternoon in a BBC office on Sept 11th 2001 and recently in Australia the shared shock in a hotel lobby late at night as bombs went off in London. All have personal significance. All are part of being human, responding to regular and random external stimuli – being inter-active. Why then do we create so-called interactive services that are so dull? – the point of this post. How do we make interactive services more like life?

First let me meander a little more. Life is often called tedious or routine by ‘most’ people unless they occasionally get bolts out-of-the-blue, These can be good or bad, in fact the more good or bad the more we grow – a life led chained in the dark alone, safe and sound is not normal and we wither. A hundred thousand years of evolution has bred into us a fear of the unknown and to expect the unexpected. I won’t go on apart from saying good storytellers know how to introduce the unexpected when least expected because that motivates us to hang in there to see the resolution. We love to resolve and in doing so think we are more prepared for next random event – good old experience (we are fooled into thinking we get that from Hollywood blockbusters, how we are duped ;-). Speaking of unexpected blockbusters a ‘what the bleep’ diversion. Our brains strive to record significant out-of-the-ordinary events by creating odd cross-associated neural maps – we personalize them. In fact the more dis-associated the better so the memory is better protected, and unlikely to be confused with similar traumatic events. Suddenly falling in love is associated with Egypt and CD’s? Who knows?

Anyway back to the point, I apologise for drifting – things have happened a little unfocused. On a personalized media and practical level why is the internet so un-random? It just sits there, doesn’t know who is sitting in front of it and won’t do anything until prodded. At the other end of the spectrum we have so-called sophisticated console games. I remember playing the first level of Halo on the X-Box over and over to see what serendipity or chance was built in. Zip. Well so little as to be non-existent. The alien space ship landed the same time and place, I shot a few aliens. I walked around to the base over the hill and every few minutes another alien ship landed. When it all died down, everything stopped and I wandered hoping that something different would happen. Nothing did – so I pretended my character was me and did silly voice-overs (just kidding Machinima came way after me getting bored with Halo ;-). The same earlier with Tomb Raider – lets hope future games are more random. The popularity of mmorpgs suggests the key attraction is that other humans act in a kind of natural and random way – holding a sense of disbelief. But what of services that are person to machine. As a simple example lets go back to Northern Ireland and my BBC 1996 production.

Alongside the usual click, see, learn methodology I was always pushing for a few ‘random’ engine elements. I actually built three subtle, chance things into the early prototype. The first one was straightforward and used in many other services since, as you travelled (clicked) around the sounds and music tracks were semi-randomised. This helped the feel of the service no end – occasional shouts, or gunshots, or bombs, or TV news, or birds twittering, all gave it a reality. Secondly was a perspective engine. This was subtle and many users just didn’t notice it, which was great. We wanted this to be used by young people primarily on both sides of the fence. Having realised that they would reinforce their own prejudices by always looking at their side of the story (this was strongly a two sided perspective piece – lots of vox pops, formal interviews, parochial news etc) – I wanted to create a ‘tool’ that would help each side understand the other. So – a ‘perspective engine’ was the order of the day. It simply tracked what you looked at and gradually balanced your view by offering less of one side if you didn’t venture to the other – in fact some of this was made to be chance with occasional natural break interstitial moments giving alternate perspective. Knowing it was happening was great fun, watching people us it even more so – they seemed to get it.

Finally and this was the most moving part. Given the fact that over 3000 people had been killed at that time in Northern Ireland because of the Troubles I wanted to reflect that in the service somehow. As in Iraq at the moment in 2005, from one day to the next we are kept at a distance by a sanitized media from the horror of unexpected car bombs that kill 10, 20 people at a time. What is it like to stand down the street as 10 people are slaughtered? I spoke to many people in Northern Ireland that had witnessed events such as that and some who had planted the bombs. So for the final part of making this particular interactive service reflect a sense of that I built a ‘lock out mode’ – at very random intervals, taking total control of the screen, the service would quickly fade to black and in small white letters the name, age and how they were killed of one of the 3000 would sit there for about 5-10 seconds, no sound – then it would fade back to where you were and you could carry on. This really made it for me. It had a poignancy and felt natural (apart from compressing 30 years into an hour or so experience!!). It was though an important message told in a way that reflected life – sudden good or bad events. It failed really because it was all bad and in fact Northern Ireland is one of the most lovely places to live on the planet, great people, landscape and full of life. This had to be reflected too. The final product sadly had all of the above removed and turned into a typical ‘encarta-type’ service. But putting ‘serendipitous’ moments into ‘non-human’ driven interactive personalized services – is our next challenge. Many people are working on it, wonder how far we will ever get?

Posted by Gary Hayes ©2005