For the past decade of so I’ve been thinking hard and experimenting with digital technologies that reinforce community and personal interactions—applications that only work if we are present, together. I’m looking for things where you have to “be here, now” for the app to work, and where the app improves here and now. Last spring I contributed to a classic case, augmenting a public graduation ritual at Illinois.
One area of interest is performing arts, because music and dance really only work right if you are in the same space together. A few years ago I enjoyed working with a number of technically savvy performing artists, and learned a lot about the state of the art, what is possible, and how to do it.
As I posted earlier, this week some of my friends put on a new, technologically enhanced, dance performance at the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts at the University of Illinois in Urbana, Illinois. I attended the Saturday performance, and here are some comments. Not being a gifted or trained performer, I’ll focus on the sociotechnical aspects, specifically the “be-here-now”-ness.
The program included 5 pieces created and performed by University faculty, students, and guest artists.
The program was quite varied, and I liked some works better than others. (The costumes were excellent thougout)
The third piece was called Kama Begata Nihilum, was particularly interesting in its incorporation of contemporary IT, and because I know two of the technical artists, Tony Reimer and Professor John Toenjes, and quite a bit about the technical details
Each dancer was equipped with an iPad, with a custom app that connected the movements of the tablet into the audio and video stage effects. In this way, the dancers were able to “play” the stage space (at least some of the time), which formed a “dance-computer interface” for the computer software. This was a super example of the principles of place specific, immersive interfaces. Let’s see an Internet bot replace these dancers!
Not content with this cool application, the team added a special effect for the audience. Members of the audience could load an app into their Apple or Android handheld, and during the intervals the audience could point their device at the stage and encounter an augmented reality effect leaping out toward the seats. If you haven’t seen real AR, it’s certain an “ooh, aah” experience.
I note that this is a creative way to deal with the never ending game of “please turn off your cell phone”, which every passing day makes less and less supportable.
The crucial thing, though, is that the audience is invited to participate, in a very specific and demanding way. The special effects were not only local to the performance space, they were visible only through a very personal interface, and only if the individual acts out their own part by loading and operating the app. We were drawn into the performance, and, because we had to help each other, were drawn together in that place and time. Nice.
Finally, in an element of circus-like wonder, the performance feature ‘iPad Man’. Never mind whether this effect was necessary or even made sense–it was an awesome spectacle. You had to be there, then.
Well done all.
Looking critically, I can say that this piece illustrated two important issues I see in a lot of works.
First, it was not at all obvious to the audience what was going on with the computers. I suspect that the dancers were interacting with the music and graphics, with gestures triggering events or tones, but it was impossible to tell. I know what these guys are capable of. In this case, the artists did not really intend the audience to know about any interactions. But sometimes they do, as in Astral Convertible.
Partly, this is a matter of familiarity. As audiences become familiar with gestural interfaces, they will easily perceive what the performers are doing. On the other hand, sometimes the goal is “magic”, and you want to hide the technique from the audience. As everyone gets familiar with these interactions, artists will need to conceal and misdirect the audience to preserve a magical experience.
A second issue was the Augmented Reality. The AR in this piece was very basic, we can do so, so much more! But it also didn’t really fit with the rest of the piece, and was pretty distracting. With so much else going on, the AR wasn’t really a plus.
I’d say there is much to learn here. How can the AR be better used? How about the dancers and audience sharing the same AR experience (all dancig together?) How about making the audience move in particular ways to see the AR? How about making two or more phones together trigger something special in the AR.