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