Saturday, October 06, 2007

Augmented Reality

A notable development involves three technologies; a spatially-referenced database, GPS, and position-sensitive head-mounted display to superimpose mediated content over the visual field. Thus, an installer at Boeing follows the prescribed wiring diagram projected over the interior fuselage of a 777, a student at Columbia University sees long-since demolished buildings along with texts for a historically-enriched walk about the campus, and computer games can be projected and played beyond the screen, across the neighborhood. The military is working on AR applications to the battlespace, allowing soldiers to "see" through walls and underground.

In an early post here, we looked at the potential of the computer to let us experience the world as text. We may soon get locationally-driven messages in the form of advertisements that link our interests to the proximity of resources and services. Just as the audio guides we mentioned earlier can enrich our walk through an historic neighborhood, we may be headed to a whole new level of interpreted experience as media tied to space and our view of it changes.

The modern city already is a text. It wears the intentional commentary of its inhabitants; in signs, advertising, and graffiti, just as it wears the unintentional signs of use, wear, and movement. The rise of AR may allow us to become new flaneurs, taking in a world where unlimited annotation is visible in the moment.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

The Engine of Story

What is a story?

We begin with a fact, an event:
1. A woman died.

This is not a story. To have a story we must have at least a second event.
2. A woman died. Her husband died soon after.

This is starting to sound like a story. But we still need a definite link, a causal connection between the two events:

3. A woman died. Her husband died of grief soon after.

That is a story. Something happened, to someone or something, or someone or something took an action as a result. The addition of the explanation “died of grief” is what does the trick. From there on, it’s just embellishment. For example:

4. A beautiful young woman died suddenly of a strange illness. Her lover,mad with grief, took his own life soon after.

That still may fall short of the classical ideal of story. Aristotle would have said that we may have a beginning and an end, but we still need a “middle” for our story. He would have liked to see a bit more struggle-- a third element that charges the causal link with a bit of suspense. In a word: drama. We might amend our simple story this way:

5. A beautiful young woman died suddenly of a strange illness. Her lover collapsed into grief and considered suicide. In a profound dream, the woman appeared to him and begged him to go on living for them both, assuring him that in the hereafter they would be reunited. When he woke, the young man realized his loss and was sad again. Yet, as he went about his day, he was repeatedly reminded of the girl in the dream and of her admonition. He began to see the world in a new light, filled with possibility. He decided to enter medical school, to learn to eradicate the very disease that took his lover from him.

That may seem a bit hokey to some, but in the hands of a good presenter it could make a powerful impression. The middle of the story is any element that throws the outcome, at least for a while, up for grabs. There are endless other possible outcomes to our little story stem, where the initiating event (her death) is responded to with a man possessing a different kind of character and might lead to a different outcome. The middle of any story is a free space for action driven by the first fact, and which lead to a plausible conclusion.

So that is story: a generative event, followed by one or more actions selected by a character, which lead inevitably to a concluding event.

This approach to story is based on structure.

Can a perfectly good story be laid out like a child’s castle of building blocks, later to be decorated and extended over a movie- or novel-length arc? Or is there some mysterious process in which a premise need only be imagined for a given character, and then allowed to spin itself out, almost of its own design, onto the page? Clearly it is easier to explain story analytically, and easier for the novice storyteller to apply it according to a classic pattern. The experienced or more gifted storyteller may rely on his subconscious to follow the same underlying rules.

It may be that both obtain; that a universal structure will always appear under analysis of any good story, whether the process of creation was a deliberate or spontaneous one.

What constitutes drama?

So much for story. Is that synonymous with drama? Drama is a kind of story that has a compelling quality, a story which, once we are engaged in it, it is impossible to not want to learn the outcome. For a story to be dramatic, it most be based, according to Aristotle, on conflict. For Lajos Egri, it must be based on a premise, a fundamental argument that lies behind the story and for which the story is an execution. A premise contains an event or driving fact just as a story does. But depends equally on another component, that of character.

Let's go back to our discussuon of the root story above. In my trite little story line, I implied, but did not fully explicate the character of the man, the lover who became despondent. What might have been premise that lay there in story version 2 ?

A beautiful young woman died suddenly of a strange illness. Her lover,mad with grief, took his own life soon after.

The premise is that the nature of their love was exclusive and that for him anyway, life without her would not be worth living. When she dies, the premise is tested. So too is the young man's character. The dramatic quality comes when we are caused to wonder what the young man will do. A conflict is set up within him; "must I end life or grasp it?". To the extent we can identify with the character, we will sufffer in suspense until he makes his decision.

The little play we began to develop with few linked events here finally enters the realm of drama. In addition to the raw elements of story, there is a moral quality that arises in the actions of characters confronting events. The premise is like an engine, working deep under the story arc. If the premise is a sound one, it can be drawn out for play or film of great length and complexity.

For Egri, as for Aristotle, there is a determinism underneath even the most suspenseful story. The outcome must be implied in the premise established in the beginning. In Aristotle's day, when plays were a religious rite, it was the will of the gods, carried out by the Fates, that determined the ending of ther play. In modern drama, we are most satisfied when the character's vices or virtues play themselves out in the struggle, and yet prevail.

The audience's satisfaction with a story can be attributed to many factors; performance, detail, atmosphere, even "effects". But without the fundamentals of story (linked events) stacked upon the driving element of premise (character in conflict) you won't raise the emotional response required to bring them inside the story, making it their own.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

A Different Kind of Road Movie

I know one man filled with stories. He's my cab driver, the same guy we've called now for years to pick us up and take us to the airport for business trips and vacations. We use him exclusively (let's call him Cyrus) because he's reliable, polite, and a great conversationalist. Cyrus is from Iran, or "Persia" as he prefers to call his homeland. He's Azeri, a proud northerner, and takes a secularist point of view in describing his old home. He's well-informed in political affairs in general and we have a great time smashing the current administration's dreadful campaign in Cyrus' part of the world.

I may go for months without seeing him, but whenever I find myself back in his cab, we return to our discussion, picking up much the same subject matter, adding what's new or just re-entering his past for another story. Over time, I have acquired a layered, nuanced experience of this man's life. The cab rides become not so much a series of discrete events as a room to be entered, a study for thought and reflection: "We're back in the cab now, time to go to Persia."

Cyrus, like any of the many foreign born cabbies in our town, would be a great subject for a documentary. I'd break away from the conceit of HBO's Taxi Stories, that focus on the eccentric passengers, and find a way to string together a series of stories told by the driver. The cabbies' tale might be a new take on the "road movie", one where a continuity of narrative replaces a physical destination. The line of retelling, the recalled event, is laid out across the driver's perpetual looping through the city. Real time would be cut up and rearranged to suit the story line.

How could this develop from here? How would one make it artful and entertaining? How much can we get from the cab-as-camera obscura? Would we focus on one or more of Cyrus's tales, or string a series of cabbie philosophers together, flying in some kind of parallel formation? Do we have any hope of a dramatic structure? Or will this be more like Calvino's Invisible Cities, a spiralling and open-ended series of riffs on a theme?

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Personal Storytelling as Therapy

Narrative may be an art form (as I've approached it here so far) , but it is very deeply wired into our human nature. It appears now that our self-told stories reveal a lot about us and may predict how well we will deal with what life brings. An item in the NYT today recounts research done by Dan P. McAdams (" The Redemptive Self"-2006) proves that indeed, stories matter.

As people tell their life stories, they may include universal forms: accidental beginnings, turning points, epiphanies, climaxes, defeats, and victories. As Americans we may include more culturally specific themes: atonement, conversion, emancipation, advancement, second chances, salvation and so forth. This is the stuff of Joseph Campbell ("Hero of A Thousand Faces") and the story-structuralists. It lies beneath the surface in dramatic structure and is exploited in the art of story-telling. What's new here is that story telling is not just a means to constructing our past, but how we interpret the present and shape our futures.

McAdams studied people who were in talking therapy, working through emotional trauma striving to effect some behavioral change. What he found was that those who were able to cast and replay their histories in the third-person were more likely to move ahead than those who continued to view past experiences only in a first-person. In a sense, the more succssful strategy is to make a movie of your life, and describe it as if from the outside. One one level this makes sense; getting some distance from the pain and trauma often does help us see things in perspective. That's why telling someone else (especially a relative stranger) about a difficult subject can feel so liberating. On another, it seems to veer toward a kind of dissociative state--the ultimate escape from pain being creation of an entirely new persona with no conscious awareness of the preceeding one.

This new research supports the work of Robert Fisher, whose "narrative paradigm" maintains that people are essentially storytellers and that history, biography, culture, and character determine what stories we take for truth. This model of the world is mediated by "narrative rationality"; the truth is known via the coherence and fidelity of our stories, which in turn, we are constantly re-adjusting to fit experience.

Wanna change? Re-write your back story.

Monday, March 26, 2007

The Communications Audit

I wrote up this piece for in-house use some years ago and reprised it here for WIW. Audits are a potentially powerful tool we corporate communciators too often overlook, perhaps because they are so often used polemically, or to get business. I drew heavily (though not I trust plagaristically) on PRSA white papers, as well as other online sources.

1. What is a communications audit?
Essentially, it’s a strategic estimate of any organization’s communications function. Audits look at structures (people, how they are linked, and what they do) as well as content. They look at how an organization spends money and profits(or loses) as a result of communication activity. According to a white paper from PRSA: “…..It is a complete analysis of an organization's communications, and effort to "take a picture" of communication needs, policies, practices and capabilities, and to uncover necessary data to allow management to make informed, rational decisions about future communications programs and resources. An audit should also lead to a series of recommendations.”

2. What is the scope of an audit?
The audit is distinguished from a project’s “creative” or “development” phase in that it is more comprehensive and refrains from defining executional questions. Instead, audits help define communications priorities and assign resources to address them. Audits can be very focused or very broad. “The scope can range from very specific attention to a single topic to a comprehensive review of an entire organization’s communications operations. Audits can measure the effectiveness of programs throughout an entire organization, in a single division or department, or within a specific employee group. It can examine communications on a particular subject or communications via individual media; it can uncover misunderstandings, information barriers and bottlenecks, as well as opportunities. It can help measure cost effectiveness, evaluate ongoing programs, confirm hunches, clarify questions, and, in some instances, reorient concepts among senior management”.

3. What does the communications audit provide?
An audit should be grounded in some objective material and be delivered from a detached point-of-view. Audits may use opinion surveys, statistical data, web traffic, independent observations or journal entries for empirical input. They should interpret data with rigorous analytical methods, such as those commonly accepted among professional management, finance, or the social sciences. An audit should… “provide meaningful information to members of management concerned with efficiency, credibility, and economy of their communications policies, practices, and programs. It also provides valuable data for developing or restructuring communications functions, guidelines, and budgets, as well as recommendations for action tailored to an organization's particular situation as uncovered by an analysis of the collected data.”

5. What subjects are covered in an audit?

• Communications philosophy
• Objectives and goals
• Current organization, tasking and staffing
• Existing communication programs and techniques
• Existing media used
• Personal communications
• Attitudes toward existing communications
• Needs and expectations
• Specific areas of concern

An Audit Method
1. Hold a planning meeting.
Determine the audit's scope and objectives. Identify question areas, plan an approach, and develop a schedule. Determine research questions and methodology (interviews, surveys, focus groups, statistical reports and analyses). Develop a budget and submit it for management approval.

2. Look for impact data.
What objective evidence for the effectiveness of current communications exists? Do we know how well current efforts are working? If not, we may need to design research to find out.

3. Talk to management.
Broad audits should first determine management's attitudes and beliefs about communications in general, as well as to pinpoint their particular views on the program, campaign or operations under study. More focused audits should find and tap key players’ background knowledge and experiences on the specific topic being audited. Management beliefs about communications’ relative effectiveness, value, cost and ROI are crucial to gathering resources for new communications initiatives.

4. Inventory and analyze existing communication material.
Gather samples of all existing communication vehicles and programs. Review them in light of the needs identified in the interviews and questionnaires. Map out the material against the desired communications objectives to identify strengths and weaknesses and gaps in the organization's current communications.

5. Conduct employee or end-user interviews.
Interviews are held with focus groups of employees (in the case of internal communications audits) or users (for external) who discuss the organization’s communications under the guidance of a consultant trained as a group facilitator. These sessions may probe issues and weaknesses identified in existing communications analyses or other impact data. They create soft data auditors can sift in order to find nuances, themes, attitudes and language that can be applied in later communications.

6. Gather additional impact data as required.
Survey data, among internal or external audiences may still be required. Auditors would draft and administer a questionnaire deriving items identified in earlier steps of the process.

7. Prepare a Final Report
Auditors gather all the data and write to the initial questions of the audit. They should make some determination of weaknesses and or gaps in current communications operations/campaigns/topics and arrive at a suggested strategy for correcting them in light of overall corporate objectives. The report should also make allocative recommendations, suggesting the appropriate staffing, tasking and media mix reflected in future communications pieces.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Walking Tour Guides

There are several outfits out there now doing audio narratives that have leapt from the museum-gallery trope into walking guides for actual neighborhoods and historic locations. I've found some interesting ideas at work in this evolving part of the audio creative spectrum. More will surely come, as iPods abound, production costs are low (you just need a digital recorder and some decent walking shoes) and one does not need to get releases to enter and talk about a location.

The firms iJourneys, Soundwalk, and Audissey seem prominent at this writing. iJouneys producer Elyse Weiner, who got a nice little write-up in the NYT last month, has created some concise and simply produced walking tours of the major tourist locations in Europe (the Forum in Rome, The west bank neighborhood in Paris, etc.) The .mp3 files done by AudisseyGuides are more "produced", even to the point of adding background music and the sounds of footsteps as you walk about the location. They've covered the touristy parts of six or so American cities. Titles by Soundwalk (also marketed on the web by are also highly produced, like movie soundtracks. They have covered 14 neighborhoods in NYC alone, and even have a Louvre-based talk using extensive clips from the DaVinci Code movie. As the user walks from one "station" to the next, they get the narration spoon-fed to them. Objects, views and stories are strung along the walk. I find the latter two product lines to be way over-produced, to my taste anyway. After all, if you are "there", you ought to be able to hear what's really going on around you, not some dopey music score.

These guides are typically downloaded right off the internet and retail for 14 to 20 dollars. Given the low production & distribution cost, this may be a decent way for well-traveled producers to make a buck. There are a zillion locations that could be aided by this technology; think of all the state parks and minor historic locations out there that could be opened up by informative or even dramatic narratives. Of course .mp3 players are inherently individual--at least for now.

The medium is well suited to the flaneur, but what about the touring couple or the small group? Later, we may see some way of cueing local .mp3 players to synch up from station to station on a tour, so a group of walkers could take it in together. In an earlier posting, I mused about place-sensitive media, triggered by GPS cues that could pace the narrative to the walker's random moves. Could get interesting.

This meme could find its way to industrial producers. Why not do an audio tour of the company's headquarters facility for new employees, or a more detailed tour of the production line to orient the workers to specifics of their new jobs?