28 Sep

Digital Lyceum

My colleague, John Craig Freeman, and I recently received funding from the NEH (as part of their digital humanities start-up program) to work on a project entitled “The Digital Lyceum.” This project explores the virtual architecture of the live humanities event. In other words, we’re interested in identifying how back-channels (from virtual worlds to information streams) can enhance the learning and experiential capacity of a live lecture or performance. The project started from a sense of personal angst and excitement about the use of back-channels at conferences. All too often, back-channels digress into little more than a gimmicky distraction. We began to wonder what of these technologies add to the experience and what does not. We began to talk about how events need to be choreographed, orchestrated, and designed to produce a user experience that is in fact more interesting, more productive than the unmediated version. What information streams are appropriate for what events? And how can we design experiences where the technology (however novel) does not interfere with the intended outcome of the event? Ultimately, we hope to produce software that is configurable enough to accommodate the choreographing of mixed reality events.

In the short term, we have promised the NEH that we will research how this work is currently taking place and produce a website that includes best practices and ideas. We hope to communicate with those who are building tools and those who are implementing those tools in innovative ways. We hope to provide a resource for anyone interested in staging mixed reality events. In addition to that resource, we will continue experimenting with set-up and implementation during live events including UpGrade Boston and a Mixed Reality symposium to take place at Emerson College in February. As part of this work, we will begin to identify directions for future production and study.

In choreographing technology into live events, we hope to produce more than virtual bling. We see this work as an intervention into existing cultural trends where users are consistently multi-tasking with their phones, laptops, PDAs, etc. Walking down the street, sitting in a classroom, attending a lecture – these are currently contexts for talking on the phone, IMing with friends, and browsing Facebook. So how are these streams channeled into productive activity for the specific purposes? And how can these streams function as the raw material for cultural memory? Now thoughts, in the form of chat, can be connected to events, as part of the historical record. That alone holds tremendous potential.

We just set up a separate blog for this project. While I’ll continue to post some thoughts here that are directly relevant to the subject of this blog, the day-to-day research will be documented at http://augumentedplace.org.

17 Sep

New Tools, Same Rules

mobile phoneMyspace and Facebook have gone mobile. And new companies are cropping up each day to get in on the new mobile socializing. An article in the Boston Globe this morning featured two companies seemingly making a dent in this field – Utterz and MocoSpace each offer phone-based services for the never-disconnected set. So, with all these services to enable connection-on-the-go, one has to wonder how users are going to cope. The inundation of services and features on phones might just create a conservative backlash where people start using their phones to call people. But I don’t want to be hysterical here.

Social media can assist in maintaining connections – the successful type rationalizes the everyday tasks of social management (consider Facebook’s feed feature). What is not needed is anything that makes social management more complex. The business of Web 2.0 is all about constructing needs – creating the impression that the tool accommodates a problem or a project. So, complexity is a matter of construction. What might seem terribly complex today – using Flickr, Facebook, Myspace, etc. to communicate with friends – is in fact framed as simple. Even the most complicated technologies promise to simplify.

Mobile social media promises to simplify. It used to be that you had to take a break from your day to manage social relations. Now, it can be integrated seamlessly into your routine. Users can be immersed in their networks – making it redundant to externalize the process of connection. For instance, having to stop what you’re doing to call a friend on the phone to make plans. Those connections (excluding extremely strong ties such as family) that require disengagement with the network are more likely to be ignored. I have a friend who never checks his email. As a result, I see him less.

Most importantly, as social life is “simplified” through mobile media, it is re-connected to social space. The fortitude of social networks is not isolated, but it follows us wherever we go and is, as a result, more strongly associated with location. This is what I’ve been calling net-locality – when networks that require no physical proximity are re-instantiated in physical space.

14 Sep

Hub2 gets under way

The Hub2 initiative started this week in the form of an upper-division class at Emerson College. The community class is set to begin next Tuesday. At this point, we are enrolled to capacity, and are quite eager to get started. The Emerson class is conceived a little differently than the community class. For one thing, instead of having groups organically decide on the space they wish to explore, I am assigning a space to them. All the groups in my class will focus on Government Center Plaza, the windswept product of mid-century renewal that is universally maligned in the city. Originally, I was going to have them focus on the Boston Common, but it occurred to me that there would be little utility to their design ideas because the city has no intention of altering the Common. Government Center, on the other hand, is on the mayor’s short list for reconstruction and re-conception. The hope is that the outcome of the class will actually spark debate.

Even though the class is only one-week old, I’ve had some concerns about the implementation of technology. While Second Life is easier to learn and use than most CAD programs, it still has a rather steep overhead for beginners. There are specific things we need the technology to do – the problem might be that Second Life does too much. We need groups to be able to design social spaces, without first having to learn the nuances of 3D modelling. We need something like Virtual Community Design (VCD) software that affords users the ability to: build (in groups), socialize, connect to external maps, and export. It would function more like a 3D wiki, where users could collectively move, shape, produce objects without any advanced building procedures. I don’t believe anything like this exists. If anybody knows of anything, please let me know. It would have some of the functionality of Google Earth, some of Second Life, and some of YouTube. I envision a VCD application enabling groups and communities all over the world to engage in local design processes, while also being able to learn from other cities and neighborhoods.

Is it worthwhile for Hub2 to move in the direction of application design?