Watershed

pervasive media studio

Lunchtime Talk: Lukus Robbins and Mason Robinson - Integrating Pervasive Technologies with Cinematic and Immersive Theatre

Lukus Robbins and Mason Robinson are Theatre and Digital Arts students from Dartington College of Arts/University College Falmouth who joined the Studio last year to work on a contextual enquiry project exploring the ways that pervasive technologies can be used to create immersive theatre experiences.

Last Friday they came in to tell us about the progress they have made on their project, the technologies that they have been researching and how these have shaped the production of their latest work. 

Mason told us that the pair have been collaborating on projects for the past two years, with three key performances standing out as stepping stones on their progression towards the piece they are currently developing: a performance entitled "Fishermen" that allowed them to realize a shared interest in storytelling, a "mediated journey" project that saw them recording their walks between Dartington and Falmouth on camera and using the footage to inspire their practice and a piece based around mazes and guiding the audience through spaces.

Taking audiences on journeys, both indoors and outside, through the use of technology was the main area that Lukus and Mason wanted to investigate when they contacted the Studio looking to join on the New Talent / Graduate residency scheme. Unsure of the kinds of technology that were available to them, they met with our Director Clare Reddington, who put them in touch with Studio residents Calvium, a team of software developers whose online app development platform AppFurnace allows for the easy creation of location-based media experiences and will form part of the technological basis for the project.

For the contextual enquiry module of their degree course, the pair will be graded on their achievements in independently setting up a project for themselves and they told us that they really appreciated how the Studio has helped them with this by introducing them to a community of people who have influenced them to refine their ideas, keeping them fresh and relevant.

Rather than implementing their usual method of starting with ideas for plots and characters and then developing ways to represent them, the pair decided to backwards-engineer their current production, starting instead by selecting the technological mediums that they will be utilizing. By considering this aspect of the piece first, they hope that the use of technology will be more seamlessly integrated into their work and will not feel like it has been forced into the piece as an afterthought.

In line with this approach, each of the three characters in the story is inspired by a different device which will help to guide the audience member through the experience. Drawing upon the obscured use of technology in The Magician's Desk project by Studio residents Mercurial Wrestler, Lukus and Mason want the devices to have the feel of quotidian objects that the characters might encounter. The characters and devices are: The Leader, who will be given an AppFurnace-based appliance; The Detective, who will be given a pair of binoculars attached to an iPhone running software developed using Aurasma that embeds content (i.e. hidden messages) into real-world locations and The Navigator, who will use a Global Positioning System interface that will guide the users between locations. Performers at these key locations will act as game masters, providing assistance with the technology and keeping the momentum of the story going.

The players' involvement in the piece begins at a warehouse, where the users are introduced to the devices, characters and world of the story by entering into specially designed rooms. The warehouse setting was selected not only for the cinematic atmosphere and the feeling of trespassing that it evokes, but also so that the piece would not be too site-specific, with analogous spaces available in most towns and cities into which it could be relocated. They are also aiming to work this kind of adaptability into the character designs, employing cold-reading techniques to make the roles easy to relate to for as wide a variety of people as possible.

Putting together an overarching narrative for the piece presented a challenge due to the unorthodox, backwards way that the characters had been created, so the pair set about thinking of scenarios that the characters might find themselves in and linked these together to produce situations in which the three users would have to work together. They mapped exactly what the technology would be doing throughout the piece, then added the actions of supporting, non-player characters, followed by the narrative trajectories that would be followed by each character. From this map, they managed to collate an overall story that is shaped around transitional events that the characters all experience.

The pair are currently looking to produce animations that will act as clues for players, helping to guide them through the story, as well as finding a "Front of House" location at which the audience can sign up for the experience and be given a questionnaire, the results of which will help them to select which roles the users will be given. The car journey from this Front of House to the warehouse will also be used to set up the story for the audience, with a pre-recorded expository radio broadcast building the sense of a crisis taking place in the world outside of the performance and providing some information about the characters.

From the car the audience members are taken into the warehouse by an agent and led to the immersive rooms where they will find their devices and be led through a "test run", which will train them to work together. The story then unfolds in a mission-based structure, with the players sent from the warehouse to save a character called the Safe-keeper, which in turn requires the discovery of a key. Further objectives that progress the narrative are built up from this point in the manner of video games such as Grand Theft Auto.

The pair recognise that it is important that the technologies used should work simply and reliably in tandem with one another, so as to avoid breaking the sense of immersion in the story for the user and thus nullifying the building sense that a crisis is taking place in the world outside of the performance, which is central to the plot.

At this point, Lukus and Mason have created the framework for their story and are ready to begin developing the piece in greater depth. This will be done through a rigorous process of testing and play-throughs to see how the elements of the project will interact, during which they will also be considering the way that audience members will be feeling throughout the story and the degree of agency that participants will be given in shaping the narrative's outcome. For now, Lukus and Mason have returned to Falmouth to begin this phase of development and they are planning to have a finished piece ready for performance later this year.

Lunchtime Talks are an ongoing series of presentations and discussions by Studio residents and associates. They take place at 13:00 on Fridays and are free and open to everybody who’s interested in what we do. For the full programme of talks, please visit: http://www.pmstudio.co.uk/events.

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