The world’s first documentary developed and experienced around iBeacon technology asks a profound question: in an age of connected devices, Google maps and a fully catalogued human genome, what’s left to explore? When it’s becoming impossible to get lost, what value are we losing from the experience of wandering into uncharted territory?
Anagram’s Door in the Dark explores these questions, presenting a documentary in a large warehouse space in Bristol UK as part of the i-Docs festival.
iBeacon technology is driving new kinds of interactions: from coupons being offered at a shoe store to loyalty points earned at the grocer. Already, there’s an awareness that all those coupons and special offers will only work if consumers perceive value in the experience.
And value, as defined by technologists, often focuses on smarter data, more personalized experiences, and predictive algorithms – a kind of Amazon Recommends for the physical world.
But value isn’t always defined by what we can know. Often, it’s equally important to recognize that value can come from serendipity, silence and discovery.
Door Into the Dark: First iBeacon Documentary
Anagram is launching its iBeacon documentary at the Watershed in Bristol, UK this weekend. It uses iBeacons to send Bluetooth LE signals to participants…who are blindfolded for the duration of the experience.
Award-winning documentary director duo Amy Rose and May Abdalla (ANAGRAM) have built a vast sensory set in a disused warehouse on the waterfront. Here, participants experience the architecture of their surroundings using sound, smell and touch.
Through this they are invited into the world of documentary characters that each have an intimate relationship with disorientation. The stories range from an Alpine climber’s encounter with death, an ornithologist’s desire to deceive a flock of starlings, and the irrational routes through London taken by an architect at the peak of mental illness.
iBeacons are used to give users choices in their experience of the story. Following a rope line (while blind to their surroundings), participants are warned of obstacles and hidden paths and are offered choices as they navigate the environment – the audio interactions that are triggered by beacons and a secret twist at the end of the story promises to ‘turn the entire experience on its head’.
Artistic Challenges and Discovery
Amy Rose, one half of the duo behind the documentary, explains that “Putting a participant as close as possible to a documentary story, and exploring how that story intersects with their own experience, is what this work is all about. That has only been made possible with iBeacons, as they are so precisely responsive to where a participant is within the set. This means we can throw away the distracting interface of a mobile phone, and leave people to navigate through a story at their own speed simply by moving their body.”
The project was conceived in partnership with UK design consultancy Calvium.
Tom Melamed, Mobile Strategy Director of the company commented that as a result of their work with ANAGRAM they were able to “develop a flexible process for helping creatives design and develop app installations that respond to iBeacons. Its an exciting new capability.”
Tabitha Pope, who designed the sets, didn’t just see it as a challenge of technology but as one of non-visual experience. She says that “so much of our perception of architecture is dependant on non visual stimuli, but these sensorial qualities are often overlooked. The freedom to focus on what a space feels, smells and sounds like has allowed us to take design into new realms. No one who has been through the experience has any sense of the shape or scale of the space they have just been through.”
A Narrative Architecture for the Internet of Everything
The work by Amy and May isn’t just a documentary that explores what we lose by not being able to ‘get lost’.
On a personal level, it reminds me of my own experience of (quite unintentionally) getting lost in the marketplace in Cairo. This was back in the days before GPS.
The experience of being lost in the labyrinth of the Cairo market, not knowing the language, and being thousands of miles from home triggered a profound sense of dislocation, the vastness of the world, and how insignificant we can feel when we have no sense of “placeness”.
Today, I’d yank my phone out and boot up Google Maps and find my way out. But by being able to do so, I’d miss the deep human insight that comes from being lost.
May Abdalla, the second half of the ANAGRAM team echoes that feeling:
“We are constantly designing against being lost. People are rarely separated from GPS positioning on their smart phones. Neuroscience tells us that the act of setting out in uncharted territory has a unique impact on the brain, sensorial sensitivity is heightened and we have the possibility of creating new pathways, which we come to again and again. The characters in the narrative have all in their own way stepped into completely new realms and, amidst severe difficulties, experienced moments of euphoria.”
Being lost in Cairo may have been somewhat scary, but it was also, as May describes, euphoric.
Narratives for the Internet of Everything
But their piece also reminds us that the narrative conventions of an Internet of Everything are at the very fist stages of being developed and explored. I recently wrote that:
The struggle to create new conventions for narrative and storytelling are the struggles of every new media: whether TV shaking off the conventions of the theatre stage, or video games throwing off the conventions of ‘click and kill’ in order to add emotional resonance and depth to the play experience.
I’d propose that the true revolutions of IoT will come at the intersection of the hardware and hard data and the software and user experiences: where emotion meets functionality and where we suddenly find delight and awe in something as granular as brushing our teeth.
But to get there, IoT and M2M needs to continue the dialogue between the different engineers: the hardware engineers and the experience IMAGINEERS, the data specialists and the storytellers.
Disneyworld might be powered by a ruthlessly intelligent information system, but it’s also powered by what we know about narrative agency, wayfinding, treasure hunting, exploring, socializing, serendipity and surprise.
Door Into the Dark is an example of this exploration – a merger of technology with storytelling, and an opportunity to…well, open our eyes to new narrative conventions made possible by proximity technology.
Where Will Technology Take Us?
But outside of beacons, the piece reminds us not to take for granted that smart technology always leads to smart experiences. The ability to predict what a shopper might want for dinner might seem like a good idea – but as Eli Pariser reminds us, the filters that “smart” technology are placing on the Internet are also making us blind to information and content that the machine doesn’t predict:
In the filter bubble there’s less room for the chance encounter that brings insight and learning. Creativity is often sparked by the collision of ideas from different disciplines and cultures. Combine an understanding of cooking and physics and you get the nonstick pan and the induction stovetop. But if Amazon thinks I’m interested in cookbooks, it’s not very likely to show me books about metallurgy. It’s not just serendipity that’s at risk. By definition, a world constructed from the familiar is a world in which there’s nothing to learn.
And in the Ambient Commons, Malcolm McCullough reminds us that a superabundance of information is changing how we perceive public spaces, and asks us to consider the nature of attention itself:
The intrinsic structure of space—the layout of a studio, for example, or a plaza—becomes part of any mental engagement with it. McCullough describes what he calls the Ambient: an increasing tendency to perceive information superabundance whole, where individual signals matter less and at least some mediation assumes inhabitable form. He explores how the fixed forms of architecture and the city play a cognitive role in the flow of ambient information. As a persistently inhabited world, can the Ambient be understood as a shared cultural resource, to be socially curated, voluntarily limited, and self-governed as if a commons? Ambient Commons invites you to look past current obsessions with smart phones to rethink attention itself, to care for more situated, often inescapable forms of information.
In design thinking we strive to create artefacts that can’t be predicted solely by looking at and extrapolating from past trends.
Thus, we might imagine that the through line of smarter and smarter devices is smarter and smarter recommendations, coupons or place-based experiences. But design thinking asks us to also imagine a future in which we integrate serendipity, calm technology, silences and getting lost.
The world’s first iBeacon-driven documentary might show off that a Bluetooth LE beacon can help us see in the dark, but it also reminds us that the stories we tell (whether in art, exposition or in your local grocer) should also recognize the virtue of silence, intentional wandering, and the rich human virtues of getting lost – and in getting ‘unlost’ being able to reconnect to how we perceive the world, mediated through our devices or not.
Share Your Thoughts
The documentary runs March 20-23 in Bristol, UK. We’re hopeful, of course, that we’ll see it come to a city near you soon.