At the time, it felt like a flip of a coin would decide whether I studied Theatre or Media Production. Both disciplines are essentially about communication and experiences that move or entertain us. In the end I was swayed by rows of silver Apple Macs and something called the internet that lots of people were talking about. But over the years since I’ve never let go of the idea that when it comes to experiences, we’re all largely looking for the same thing. Whatever the medium, from a traditional theatre performance through to a multi-platform digital extravaganza, we need a human connection; a level of emotional resonance that gives the experience real value. And with the almost limitless possibilities presented by constantly evolving communication technology we’re in danger of not seeing the wood for the trees.
It’s incredible to think that in only 30 years we’ve gone from typewriter to touchscreen and from dog-eared A to Z to the all-seeing Google Maps. As everyday objects become connected, interactive and intelligent, the possibilities can be both intoxicating and overwhelming. I can’t help feel that technology, in all its shiny glory, can sometimes steal the show.
Designing any experience, from slicing bread to watching theatre, requires a solid understanding of what people want and the most appropriate way to provide it. While the sharpest knife is no doubt a pleasure to use, the meaning we get from slicing bread is that there will be a nice sandwich to eat at the end. If the bread knife could play music, take photos and tell you the weather forecast, wouldn’t that distract you from making a nice sandwich? At Thought Den we make digital things for web, mobile and installation that help organisations entertain and educate their audience. Besides indulging our appreciation of bread-based snacks, we regularly ask ourselves – how can we make the technology invisible?
This year we helped the world’s oldest provincial zoo to adopt some of the world’s newest gesture tracking technology. “Zoom” invites visitors to strike animal poses in front of a large screen to unlock images from the archive relating to that animal. Microsoft’s Kinect is capable of far more complex things than detecting an animal pose but we went with a simple premise; getting people to monkey around. We’ve found that the more hidden the technology, the more room there is for our natural behaviours to flourish.
Our goal with “Magic Tate Ball” was to give people a reason to engage with Tate’s collection by connecting artworks to their day to day lives. This wouldn’t have been possible without a smartphone that knows the date, time of day, precise GPS location, local weather data and ambient noise levels. Technology had a very important role to play, but was only very quietly integrated into the experience. A user simply shakes their phone and is presented with a beautiful piece of artwork that relates to their surroundings. A funny or facty Twitter-sized tag explains the connection, sometimes posing open ended questions to help the user explore other meanings. With such fantastic content it is less surprising the technology aspect could play a backseat role; part of the app’s success is the simplicity of the idea. The artworks are already packed with quirky stories and untold details that people will find interesting. The trick is to make it as easy and fun as possible for that engagement to occur.
Tom Cruise’s balletic swiping in Minority Report is a surprisingly enduring vision of the future. It looks pretty cool, which is probably what Spielberg wanted, and Tom seems to get quite a bit done. Heads-up displays in cars and augmented-reality contact lenses are part of the next wave of more ambient, user-centered interfaces with the somewhat dubious goal of allowing us to multi-task. If this is the future, I’d like to make sure there is an off switch. Five minutes on any high street shows us the sorry picture of an always-on world: zombie-texters, heads down, shuffling forwards, lost in their digital bubbles. My fear is that information over-load and hyper stimulation will shrink our attention spans to such a degree the world will be overrun with gibbering idiots.
But that said, the idea of no screens, or an omnipresent screen, is quite interesting. At first there were no screens, then a single screen in the corner of the room and now we have multi-screen viewing. Perhaps it’s not that long until we come full circle and the concept of a screen is lost entirely; every surface being used to browse information. Interactive reviews and comments on the back of a book; recipes projected on to a kitchen surface; fashion tips on the changing room door. There’s a very real appetite for contextually relevant content – the right thing at the right time. Indeed, smartphone apps are all about performing specific and singular functions for a streamlined user experience.
Yet despite a growing intelligence and sophistication our relationship with technology remains incredibly fragile. At times my phone knows me better than I know myself. It is often the last thing I look at before bed, and the first thing that swims into focus each morning. Even in a relationship as intimate as this it can sometimes feel like the only way to make an iPhone do what I want is to press my finger right through the screen, or screw it up in a ball and hurl it across the room. For all it’s ergonomic prowess and computing power, this slice of the future can quickly become inadequate in the face of organic, impulsive, random human behaviour.
Let’s not forget our bodies are far more sophisticated than any gadget on the market. We’re only 30 years into a revolution that has already massively changed the way we do things. With this enormous power, the most important thing is to keep our eyes on the prize – what fundamental human need or desire are we appealing to? And what is the simplest, most effective way to achieve that? I think the first step is to ignore the technology all together.