Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Stories in Urban Spaces

"Walking around I sometimes become aware of men in straw boaters and women in crinoline with parasols walking down the same street as the girl with a pierced navel. A man in knee breeches yells out to man in a fedora carrying a trumpet case."

A lovely little fragment of writing from Paul Ford at Ftrain.com. His is a blog that rarely pops into my RSS reader, but when it does his work is choice and delicate.

The concept of the temporal permeability of space in a city is something I've been thinking about recently. Strangely enough, this comes from hanging about on the backstage.bbc.co.uk mailing list.

Now, as this is a mailing list mostly concerned with APIs and feed hacking, that's quite an unlikely source of inspiration.

The conversations that go on there, though, are primarily about 'Look - here's a cool thing I've done! I've made a prototype that does this cool thing' - at which we all look at the prototype, and agree that it is indeed cool, and full of geek-fu, and give constructive suggestions.

However, the prototypes - because, after all, they are just proofs of concept - tend to be... well, not pointless. But they're things made for the sake of making them - to expose a bit of data, to scratch that tiny geek itch. They're useful for news, and factual services, but few of them have the user-focused thinking that would make them useful to the average joe in the street. A couple even have slightly sinister implications.

One in particular is an absolutely brilliant idea, but doesn't bear thinking about in an editorial way; it's a filter that automatically classifies news as 'Good', 'Bad' or 'Neutral'. cool, smart, neatly done. But... a user option that lets you turn off all 'Bad' news? That's deeply sinister.

The problem being, that - as with all interactive ideas - it's much easier to make interactive products based around objective facts. Making entertainment products seems to be harder; the element of play or fiction is much more elusive, and the entertainment urge is much more difficult to satisfy than the need to seek out (or browse for) information.

The point, I think, where there may be some cross-over lies in real space.

One of the most distinctive advances in special effects over the last few years has been 'Bullet Time' - the frozen moments used in the Matrix. This wasn't originally invented by the Wachowskis, believe it or not; it originated with an english artist, Tim Macmillan, who developed it in the early eighties.

Now, his breakthrough was to realise that film is basically a series of still photographs, arranged sequentially through time, giving the illusion of movement in space. All he did was change that to keep the time aspect constant: take a sequence of photographs at the same time, but with space as a variable. When composited back together, lo and behold you have a 'moving' image of a single moment in time.

So... I have been thinking about entertainment, and specifically interactive narrative. Conventional narrative is (roughly speaking) a series of fictional events occuring in a temporal sequence. In traditional stories you start at time point A, and the plot moves you to time point B in a linear fashion. Some clever types realised that the reader doesn't need to move from point A to point B in the same sequence that the events happen to characters - film picked up on this one too.

Then games came along. Suddenly, the 'reader' was uncovering the plot both by moving from point A to point B in game-time, but also by 'triggering' events in game space. So narrative exposition C would only occur once player had moved to point D, no matter if they'd already uncovered narrative expositions E and F by moving spatially through their trigger locations first. Some really good games - Knights of the Old Republic springs to mind - manage this brilliantly, with alternate storythreads uncovered depending on your virtual movement, and 'narrative zones' (planets) allowing a little more control over the consumption order of the narrative.

What happens, then, if you take the subtle paradigm shift of Time Slicing, and apply it to storytelling in the real world? How can you expose the stories of a city, and tell them throughout the fabric of that city? What happens when you hold up your PDA/Mobile/Tiny exciting video widget on a streetcorner, and it becomes a window into a Victorian melodrama? Or Chaucer's pilgrims suddenly walk across your screen? Or you get a phonecall from a paniced WWII spy? Or a text message from a dystopian future?

How can you follow those threads around the space of a city?

How can you string together temporal cuts of space to tell a story?

What happens when you overlay the works of Dickens on to London?

What might happen if you overlaid the fictional London of Neverwhere on to a tube map?

How are you alerted to the presence of a story in your physical location?

A few tiny glimmers of these located stories are begginning to appear on the web; today's Los Angeles from an Auto historical pictures/map mashup offers a start, as does the Grafeidia project, or the Hand Held History blue plaques project

Anyway. This is the stuff I'm thinking about. And hopefully, my new job will give me the space to be able to develop these in to some kind of practical ideas... Or perhaps I can just rely on Gavin Bell to get there first with the project he's thinking about, and wave that in front of management here...

1 comment:

Matt said...

We need to talk.