06 Feb

Mixed Realities Symposium

Imaging Beijing

This Friday, February 8, I will be leading a panel discussion at the Mixed Realities symposium at Emerson College. The panel is titled “Immersion, Presence and Place.” Participants include John (Craig) Freeman, Usman Haque (via Second Life), Pierre Proske (via Second Life), Michael Takeo Magruder, Drew Baker, and David Steele. Each of the artists on the panel will have their work displayed in the Mixed Realities exhibit that opens the night before. With the quality of each of the pieces represented, I’m confident that we will have an interesting discussion. The panel starts at 1pm EST at 216 Tremont Street, Boston, MA and here in Second Life.

Freeman’s piece, entitled “Imaging Beijing,” is an extension of his existing work on the “Imaging Place” project in Second Life. Freeman produces panoramic nodes of the streets of Beijing, where locals describe their personal experiences of that space, and more interestingly, how that space conjures up seemingly unrelated personal experiences. He calls this concept a memory map. The Second Life-based artwork enables avatars to walk in and out of the nodes, capturing and inhabiting the intimate street life of Beijing.

Usman Haque will be talking about the piece “Remote” by Neill Donaldson, Usman Haque, Ai Hasegawa, and Georg Tremmel. This piece produces what he calls a fundamentally “human architecture” by suturing the physical space of a Boston-based gallery with a Second Life space. The human actors in Second Life, combined with the human actors in Boston, have to work together to create a merged space – one that is comprised of the collective efforts of the inhabitants.

Pierre Proske will be discussing his piece called Caterwaul. Essentially, mixed reality wailing wall, is a physical wall built in the Boston gallery that gives people the opportunity to verbally lament the loss of their loved-one’s time in online spaces. The chorus of lamentations will then be transmitted into Second Life, where an identical wall in Second Life will broadcast those voices. By crossing over, it allows mourners to speak to the “dead.”

Finally, Michael Takeo Magruder, David Steele and Drew Baker will be representing the piece “The Vitruvian World.” Stemming from da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, Magruder and his collaborators put together an installation where the human intersects with Nature and the built environment. Only now, this is manifested by the intersection of the physical, virtual and the network that connects them.

All of the pieces represented in this panel, while exploring the notion of “mixed reality,” seem to be drawing more significant attention to the “limits of reality.” In other words, where does the physical end? Where does the human end? And, where does the real end? In fact, it is the limits that provide tension in this work. We might be comfortable with a mixed reality, but when we confront the limits of familiar psychological and social categories, we grow anxious. This is what makes the work powerful, and I suspect, this is what will provide some interesting fodder for discussion.

Each of the pieces points to changing notions of place. In geographical terms, place is experienced space. It is meaningful space, enhanced by personal encounter, perpetuated by memories. But when space is “neither here nor there,” but a combination of the two, how does place take shape? Do digital spaces have the same capacity to be experienced as physical spaces? And what’s at stake? We might find answers to this question as we address the concepts of immersion and presence. Do we need to be immersed and present to experience? Consider Heidegger’s notion of dasein, or being there. For Heidegger, being was tied to presence. Human experience was always grounded in da-sein, never just sein. Is dasein possible in a mixed reality?

And finally, we might talk about the problem of attention. Multiple realities, multiple places, would seem to pull our attention in multiple directions. Does this work point to the loss of focus? Is it possible to be present, without paying attention? Or, do we need only to reconsider the current economy of attention? Perhaps, mixed realities points to new structures of attention, where we can distribute our payments for enhanced benefit.

The panel should cover some combination of these topics. If we all pay attention, perhaps we’ll arrive at some conclusions.

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.