Possibility Post: Will Integrated Media Homes Kick the Holodeck’s Butt?

On January 19, 2008 by christy

In 1997, academic and designer Janet Murray published a book called Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace. It not only gave voice to the dreams of technologists, fans and universe creators, but also inspired more. The thematic thread of Murray’s excellent book is the notion of the holodeck:

First introduced on Star Trek: The Next Generation in 1987, the holodeck consists of an empty black cue covered in white gridlines upon which a computer can project elaborate simulations by combining holography with magnetic “force fields” and energy-to-matter conversions. The result is an illusory world than can be stopped, started, or turned off at will but that looks and behaves like the actual world and includes parlor fires, drinkable tea, and characters, like Lord Burleigh and his household, who can be touched, conversed with, and even kissed. The Star Trek holodeck is a universal fantasy machine, open to individual programming: a vision of the computer as a kind of storytelling genie in a lamp. (Murray, 2000 [1997], 15)

Murray (and others) hold up the holodeck as the ultimate storytelling machine. What can be more exciting than entering an fictional space that is indistinguishable from reality? There are many that are working hard to create technologies and content that will manifest this vision: sensory devices (both sensing us and enabling us to sense it), realistic graphics and artificial intelligence programs smart enough to do anything. All these efforts aim to make a work of fiction seem real, but they do not attempt to bring the fiction into real life. The holodeck is a separate space, in a magic-circle that one enters. What of a work of fiction that operates in your own life?

While this experience of fiction is not everyone’s cup of tea, it is very exciting to others. It is one of the attractions to ”alternate reality games”, as ARG designer Dave Szulborski explains:

In an alternate reality game, the goal is not to immerse the player in the artificial world of the game; instead, a successful game immerses the world of the game into the everyday existence and life of the player. (Szulborski, 2005, 31)

And ARG designer Elan Lee (who has now co-founded Fourth Wall Studios):

An alternate reality game is anything that takes your life and converts it into an entertainment space. (Lee in Ruberg)

ARGs are not the only format this desire towards a real world immersive space has emerged though. Practitioners of many different properties are playing with ”furnishing” their fictional world with creations that look real and exist in your own world. What I’m also interested in is what happens when this urge to have fiction enter your real world and ubiquitous computing takes hold. As a background to the idea, here is a short clip from Robert Zemeckis’s 1997 feature film Contact. I have used this in some of my talks over the last couple of years to illustrate the possibilities:

Get the Flash Player to see this player.

I’m not talking about stalking audiences! No, instead I’m interested in what it would be like to have that film scenario experienced in real life, but with fictional content coming through the various media. Indeed, how this can be experienced within a media integrated home. Well, a short while ago I posted about an an ”Anytime/Anywhere Content Lab” (AACL) being built by the Entertainment Technology Center at the University of Southern California (with big entertainment industry sponsors such as Disney, LucasFilms, NBCUniversal, Fox, Sony, Paramount). It is described as ”a modular, state-of-the-art, research and testing site where the industry can explore how consumers interact with high-quality entertainment in an integrated environment”. Here is their artist’s vision pic:

This lab is a wonderful opportunity for creators to experiment with testing creations that employ ”concurrent” and ”simultaneous” media usage (which I’ve posted about a couple of years ago here, here and here), but also for coming up with (what I think is) exciting media-integrated experiences. Imagine you come home after just getting the latest Alternate Reality Home ModuleTM. You and your partner put the special ”Game in Play” message on your door and then load the special USB drive into your computer or special device. It does a system check to ensure all your household devices are connected either with cables or wireless. It installs any special plugins your toaster or fridge might need, loads all the programs needed, asks if you want to know how long the experience goes for, the verbally-triggered ”STOP” command and whether you’re ready to commence. You look at each other with eyes wide and giggle. Click.

The lights go out. Your TV starts up and so you wander to the loungeroom. On the screen is a news report on an event that happened just a few minutes ago. You watch it, gathering all the details you can, trying to figure out what the events on screen will mean for you. You hear your kettle boil. The game obviously wants one of you in the kitchen while the other finishes watching the news report. You make two cups of tea while your heart pounds. You hear voices upstairs, freeze, then realise that the radio in your bedroom has turned on. You go upstairs, slowly, and enter your bedroom. The radio is another news report, but this time you’re hearing live calls from people at the event. The phone rings. You answer it and get a government recording telling you that you need to evacute your home immediately and go to this location. You run downstairs to your partner who excitedly says he’s found out something but you tell him you’re got to leave immediately. Your partner looks at you with raised eyebrows. Really? Yes! Cool. Your partner quickly prints out what he found while you grab blankets, your mobile and a torch. You both jump into your GPS-enabled car and….

Now, there are a whole lot of other things one can do in the home, and it doesn’t have to be scary-style. Design issues would include working out how much time people would need to figure something out; leaving cues in the peices as to when a player can leave them (so they don’t feel stuck), indeed: encouraging agency; also balancing the joy of discovering against the game revealing everything for you; using devices to create a setting and tone and for narrative information above mere suspense or house-navigation; a system that can discern the spatial location of your devices to ensure the position of participants is utilised to the greatest degree and so on. But I like the possibilities…Do you have any ideas how the media-integrated home can be used for entertainment?

Murray, J. (2000 [1997]) Hamlet on the Holodeck: the Future of Narrative in Cyberspace, MIT Press: Cambridge, Massachusetts

Ruberg, B. (2006) ”Elan Lee’s Alternate Reality” 6 December Gamasutra.com, URL: http://www.gamasutra.com/features/20061206/ruberg_01.shtml

Szulborski, D. (2005) This Is Not A Game: A Guide to Alternate Reality Gaming, New Fiction Publishing.