Theatre Jukebox is a jukebox that plays stories instead of records. Created by Stand + Stare during their recent residency at Pervasive Media Studio the Jukebox is intended to be situated in foyers and bars to deliver immersive theatre without the use of performers.
You can find out more about the jukebox itself and the process of creating it in the final project report or Stand + Stare's project journal. There is a video of the Theatre Jukebox available on DShed.
How it works
In Theatre Jukebox the audience picks a postcard and places it in a glowing projected image of a frame on the table in front of them. This triggers a story to be told using a mixture of projected images and binaural audio played over headphones. At any point the postcard can be swapped with another to pick a different short story.
Story vs Technology
A recurring problem in these types of projects is that getting started is difficult. The story is dependant on the choice of technology, whilst the choice technology is dependant on the desired experience. We get around this chicken & egg problem by having an experimentation week where we create quick small prototypes using a selection of technologies that might be relevant. These can be tried in practice to get a feel for the experience and limitations, the materiality of the technology. Writing the story and designing the experience can then continue whilst bearing in mind this toolbox of technologies.
In the process of finding the core experience we discarded most of the technologies we had explored. For example we played with integrating the mobile phone of the participant into the piece in a number of ways. The audience would start the experience by making a phone call to the jukebox and choosing from a menu of possible stories using the keypad. This would allow us to possibly charge for the experience using a premium rate phone call and to capture the callers phone number for later sending them a text message or audio clip as a reminder of the experience.
Each of these small experiments took a few hours to implement using the Tropo platform for making and receiving calls and a small web application built in Ruby & Sinatra, hosted on Heroku, for the user interface. Tropo in particular makes it very easy to quickly build phone systems of this sort.
Which postcard has been chosen is detected using RFID. RFID is a technology that allows a machine to identify an object presented to it. To do so a tiny combination of antenna and microchip called an RFID tag is placed inside the object. When this tag is close (normally a few centimetres) to a RFID reader it can be read, revealing the unique identification number of the tag. This is similar for how reading the barcode on an item in the supermarket works, only it does not require a visible barcode as the tag can be hidden inside the object. Tags vary in size from a card such as the oyster card to a tiny capsule. For Theatre Jukebox we used small circular tags about the size of a penny. For a reader we used the ID-20.
Qlab is a Mac OS X application designed for show control in theatre. It can play back audio & video and control lighting. It is also easy to create and control playlists of video & audio. During previous projects, such as The Unicorn and Magician's Desk, we have used custom written software for playing audio & video based on triggers such as switches, pressure sensors and proximity detectors. A problem with this approach is that to make any changes to the piece then you need a software developer, which can be costly and slow down the speed of iteration. Using QLab fixes this problem as the piece can be authored and edited using the nice interface without having to contract a developer.
Reading RFID in QLab
QLab itself has no support for being triggered by RFID. It can however be triggered by MIDI commands or keyboard shortcuts. We created a small program called RFIDLab to act as a bridge between the RFID reader and QLab itself. In QLab each story is given a keyboard shortcut. When a postcard containing a RFID tag is placed on the reader the unique ID of that tag is sent to RFIDLab. RFIDLab then converts this ID into the keyboard shortcut of the story the postcard is assigned to and pretends to press that key using Applescript. It's not the ideal solution but works reliably. In future it could be changed to use MIDI messages instead of keyboard shortcuts. Similar bridging programs could also be created for other sensors to plug into QLab.
For more about the project see Stand + Stare's project journal, watch the Theatre Jukebox on DShed or if you would like to find out where the Theatre Jukebox will be next then sign up to their mailing list.