Serendipity, ubicomp, and “over-coded smart cities”: an interview with Mark Shepard, creator of Serendipitor

Mark Shepard is an artist, architect and researcher whose post-disciplinary practice addresses new social spaces and signifying structures of contemporary network cultures. His current research investigates the implications of mobile and pervasive media, communication and information technologies for architecture and urbanism. His current project, the Sentient City Survival Kit, [which includes the iPhone app, Serendipitor] has been exhibited at the Center for Architecture, New York; the International Architecture Biennial Rotterdam, the Netherlands, LABoral Center for Art and Industrial Creation, Gijon, Spain; ISEA 2010 RUHR, Dortmund Germany, and the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York.

What was your trajectory into this kind of art practice?

I come from a background in Architecture and Media Art, and have been experimenting with alternate trajectories for what has come to be called urban computing for about ten years now. I have always been fascinated with cities and technology, and my practice has emerged out of a curiosity regarding how forms of mobile and embedded, networked and distributed computing can shape our experience of the city and the choices we make there.

Most location- and context-sensitive apps are about making things faster and more efficient. Serendipitor slows things down and disrupts the flow. Why do you think this is an important thing to do?

Computer science and engineering are practices that hold optimization and efficiency as important design challenges. And that’s all well and good when we’re talking about relatively instrumental applications of these technologies in urban environments. But artists frame questions in ways scientists and engineers do not, and when considering the implications of these technologies for urban life, one has to wonder what other criteria could be relevant. Who really wants a faster, seamless, more optimal and efficient life?

Projects like this are inherently multiple — even paradoxical. As you write on your website (quoting Deleuze), “AND is neither one thing nor the other, it’s always in-between, between two things.” Why does this kind of instability inspire you?

Well, as Deleuze says a little further on in that quote “it’s along this line of flight that things come to pass, becomings evolve, revolutions take shape.” Much of my work looks for ways out of static dichotomies that serve to maintain the status quo. Destabilizing tactics often reveal the more subtle and nuanced forces at play in a given situation, and help open up lines of thinking that can help us move beyond established belief systems.

How have people been using the app? What kind of feedback have you received — and what kind of data have you gathered?

The feedback has been surprisingly positive. People seem to really enjoy the app, and have been using it around the world. Many have suggestions of their own, ideas for new instructions, ways to share their routes, etc. Much of this is anecdotal in nature, however, and I do think that the plural of anecdote is not data.

What were you looking for when you set out to design Serendipitor? And what did you end up finding?

Serendipitor is one component of a larger project called the Sentient City Survival Kit (http://survival.sentientcity.net), a project that explores the implications for privacy, autonomy, trust and serendipity in this highly optimized, efficient and over-coded “smart” city heralded by ubiquitous computing evangelists for some time now. With Serendipitor, what started as an ironic proposition – that in the near-future, finding our way from point A to point B will not be a problem, but maintaining consciousness along the way might be more difficult, and that we would need to download an application for “serendipity” from the App Store – turned out to be quite popular when implemented as an app. I didn’t expect to find that the irony could be so easily lost in the process!

What’s next — for you, and for smartphone-enabled humanity?

Smartphone-enabled non-humanity, of course. ;-)

Smart organic windows: MIT CROMA

MIT’s CROMA group brings together researchers from media arts, architecture, and chemical engineering. The group “aims at developing technologies and use case scenarios for building responsive, programmable, and energy-smart architectural components.” Their “smart organic window” project proposes the use of electrochromic organic polymers to enable touch- and motion-sensitive brise-soleil techniques.

A basic premise of this work is that a programmable and responsive façade element can not only be aesthetically provocative and improve energy-efficiency of architecture, but also has the potential to alter the ways we relate to buildings and surfaces, opening exciting avenues for new kinds of interaction and experience, and requiring new skills and competencies in the fields of design, architecture, and engineering. (CROMA)

I’m curious to see what kinds of game design and storytelling projects will emerge out of CROMA’s research. A variable-opacity responsive window is pretty amazing, but the radical step is using such a window to articulate a ruleset or open up new vectors for communication…

Postopolis LA

postopolis

Dan Hill at City of Sound recently announced the next iteration of Postopolis, which will run this Spring in Los Angeles. Viz:

I’m hugely pleased to be able to announce another Postopolis, this time in Los Angeles, running from Tuesday, March 31, to Saturday, April 4, 2009. Two years after the first, at the Storefront for Art and Architecture in NYC and co-ordinated by BLDGBLOG, Subtopia, Inhabitat and City of Soundhere’s a snapshot of that – we now have a different line-up of organisers/curators, covering a little bit more of the globe and an equally diverse set of interests:

We’ll be taking the same broad brushstrokes approach to architecture and urbanism as last time and selecting a diverse set of SoCal-flavoured attractions for you. More details to follow, including the line-up of speakers and the precise details of the location. Polynodal LA makes picking the location a different challenge to NYC, but we’re nearly there. Either way, it’ll be free to the public, as easy to get to as LA makes it, and running from 1700 to 2300 each day.

And I hereby publicly promise to attempt to capture the proceedings as I did last time (though those who were there in New York will have noted I ran out of steam on the last day or so – eternal apologies to those with unfinished write-ups). Can’t wait – the last time I visited LA it prompted more than a few thoughts. And if it’s good enough for Reyner Banham, it’s good enough for me.

Postopolis! LA is sponsored by the Storefront for Art and Architecture and ForYourArt, to whom we are very grateful, and it will be part of Los Angeles Art Weekend. Postopolis LA logo by Joe Alterio. (city of sound)

Location-Based Ambient Storytelling

[The entirety of this document, including lists of deliverables and a preliminary timeline, can be downloaded in .pdf form here.]

Summary

This course of directed research seeks to identify and implement a range of context- and location-based storytelling techniques by leveraging ubiquitous computing technologies – including mobile communications devices, broadband wi-fi networks, real-time sensor systems and the Internet itself – to create a layered, pervasive and interactive story experience rooted in physical space.

The primary deliverable of this project will be a so-called Alternate Reality Game (ARG) centered on the newly-constructed School of Cinematic Arts (SCA) building at USC. Working in concert with a team of mobile storytelling investigators and technologists headed by professor Scott Fisher, I will coordinate the development of narrative content for a long-arc story experience intended to enrich the physical and virtual environment of the SCA with layers of mystery, playfulness and interactivity.

By implementing a small-scale location-based ARG such as the one proposed herein, I expect to glean a variety of quantitative and qualitative insights into the limitations and possibilities of this nascent narrative form. These insights will feed directly into my primary doctoral inquiry into the question of how an increasingly mobile, ubiquitous and interoperable communications infrastructure can enable new forms of computationally-mediated narrative, both in terms of traditional author-to-audience storytelling and emerging modes of collaborative networked expression and participation. Further, by creating and managing a small team of co-conspirators (see “Approach,” below), and by extending an invitation to participate in the project to the SCA community as a whole (both through the mechanics of the game itself and as a part of the development and pre-production process), I hope to broaden the level of interest in this kind of storytelling by inspiring others to investigate new avenues for the transmedial exploration of character and myth.

Background

Alternate Reality Games (ARGs) are a relatively new form of narrative gameplay – the earliest incarnations of the genre date to the late 1990s and early 2000s – that use the real world and all its myriad communications modalities as the surface upon which to layer story and interaction. As a spatially- and temporally-distributed storytelling form, ARGs deploy narrative across a wide range of expressive media, including physical spaces and artifacts, websites, game worlds, books and graphic novels, music, television and movies, online video, rumors, cell phone content and live performances. For the player-participants of an ARG, apprehending the story and the mechanics of the game is an active investigative or archaeological task, a process of uncovering mysteries and sifting through answers in an effort to find the right questions. As such, playing an ARG is fundamentally distinct from traditional game or story forms in which a “magic circle” of play or spectatorship ceremonially defines the boundaries between the fictional and the real. In an ARG, the line between “in-game” and “out-of-game” is intentionally blurred. Jane McGonigal, a leading researcher in the field, describes this approach as the “this is not a game” (TINAG) aesthetic. When this aesthetic is adhered to with a modicum of discipline, the ARG as a story medium becomes more akin to hoax-making than novel-writing (although, it should be said, an ARG could conceivably deploy a novel as a component of its overall storytelling strategy): like a good hoax, a successful ARG will conceal itself beneath layers of compelling real-world information. Players of ARGs thus often begin playing the game before they even know that a game is afoot. In the apotheosis of this form, by the time players realize that there is an intelligence guiding their investigations into the mysteries that have inexplicably infiltrated their lives, their desire to uncover the truth of the matter becomes irresistible, and players will pursue the mystery to the end of the line, oftentimes sharing their insights and solving game problems collectively via self-organized online interactions.

To date, the peculiar affordances of the ARG have been exploited primarily by media corporations such as Microsoft, Dreamworks and Sony Pictures in order to launch viral marketing campaigns for other products. For example, one of the most successful ARGs in recent memory began with a mysterious bee-keeping website that came to the attention of participants via a brief flash of text at the end of a movie trailer. A great deal of Internet buzz ensued as interested parties began to investigate the website and its provenance, revealing a strange series of what initially appeared to be distress signals from some kind of trapped or kidnapped individual. Increasingly large groups of players began working collectively online to solve the mystery, and as things got weirder and weirder, word-of-mouth drew more and more participants into the world of the story. In the end, this project, known as “ilovebees”, turned out to be a promotional initiative for the launch of Microsoft’s Halo 2.

While the origins and historical applications of the ARG are rooted in viral marketing, more recent iterations employing the TINAG aesthetic have sought to create so-called “self-monetizing” ARGs. For example, 42 Entertainment, the studio that produced ilovebees and several other seminal ARGs, recently partnered with a small press to publish Cathy’s Book, a book for young adults purporting to be the private diary of a missing teenage girl. By framing this publication with an invitation to readers to help locate the missing teenager, the designers were able to simultaneously steer their audience toward multiple story assets exterior to the book itself (e.g. websites mentioned in the book, phone lines accessible via numbers scrawled in the “diary’s” margins, and so on), offset the production costs of writing and producing the project as a whole, and draw new readers to discover (and purchase) the book itself via the creation of an online following. The book sold well, debuting at #7 on the New York Times Best Seller list for Children’s Books, and the online community continues to be active.

In addition to revealing more about the potential uses of the ARG for both viral marketing and self-monetization, a significant goal of the project proposed herein is to explore the capacity of ambient story and game play to create and shape communities of player-participants within the constraints of institutional space. Questions to be addressed include: can ARGs and other kinds of layered or ambient story/game systems help to foster a sense of community and camaraderie in work and study environments? Does the presence of a continuously-unfolding mystery “accelerate serendipity” by bringing like-minded individuals into physical and virtual association in order to solve the mysteries with which they have been confronted? How can an ARG stimulate the production and sharing of media by its participants? More broadly, can highly-mediated approaches to play and narrative that involve the deep and tangled integration of story-telling, story-consuming, and even story-producing, into the fabric of everyday life produce emotional and social effects of similar character to those produced by the novel or the narrative cinema? Addressing these questions through the deployment of a small-scale ARG in the SCA will provide key practical insights into the creation and management of such projects, while also revealing new data regarding the intersection between structured social play and networked computational systems. It is my belief that an inquiry into the nature of this intersection is essential as we enter an age of ubiquitous information technology wherein the respective agencies of authors, crowds and machines promise to collide in productive and unpredictable ways.

Approach

Time is of the essence in the successful development and deployment of an ARG, and this project is no exception. The opening ceremonies for the new SCA Building are scheduled for mid-March, 2009, meaning careful coordination of resources and a strict adherence to a workflow timeline will be essential. To this end, work has already begun in concert with Scott Fisher’s “The Future of the Story” (TFOTS) research group (comprised of Professor Fisher, Will Carter, Marientina Gotsis, Jen Stein and Hidefumi Yasuda) to determine the specific technological, budgetary and personnel requirements and availabilities of the project. By continuing to liaise with this group and its derivatives (such as Will Carter’s “Design and Technologies for Mobile Experiences” class, CTIN 405), I expect to develop a precise set of practical parameters within which the story and game mechanics can operate by mid-January 2009. Once these parameters have been defined, I will begin the process of structuring the story/game experience and creating the necessary narrative content.

To act as a force-multiplier for these efforts, I have assembled a small team (“The Story Group”)  of writers, designers and programmers from the ranks of the Graduate Program of the IMD. This team will work under my direction to develop and deploy the creative and technical assets  required of the project. Four of these team members will be assigned primary roles and will be paid as interns for their work; an additional cadre of four to six collaborators will work in association with this core group to develop and execute the ARG. Further, as the timeline progresses, “pre-game” elements – small mini-games and story segments deployed in and around the SCA – will act as “rabbit holes,” enticing early participants who themselves will shape the development of the final experience, which will “go live” during the opening ceremonies of the new SCA Building.

UPDATE (15 July 2009): A portion of this project was demonstrated to a small test group in mid-May; observations and comments from the demonstration are forthcoming (as components of a larger paper on Location-Based Ambient Storytelling); their appearance will be noted here.