Category Archives: Design of the Unfamiliar

Not a Film and Not an Empathy Machine

How necessary failures will help VR designers invent new storyforms

Source: Not a Film and Not an Empathy Machine


My slides from the MIT Virtually There Conference

MIT Virtually There Murray

Video from the conference: my talk is at 6:40

VR as Empathy or Novelty – continued

In a previous post I identified some of the unsolved design issues that make VR a less than engaging storytelling platform, and questioned whether the global elite wearing headsets to look at refugees in a UN-sponsored virtual reality documentary,  were experiencing an expansion of empathy, as claimed by one of the filmmakers,  or simply a sense of excitement at the novelty of a new technological gadget.  This interview with Gabo Arora, who c0-produced the project provides some useful context: that the VR experience was positioned as a  high profile replacement  for a cancelled appearance by Bono. It also offers  a key detail about an important design intervention that Arora made in staging one part of the film. The glamour of VR may not last, but the design intervention — creating action that encircles the viewer — is a useful convention that is likely to become a staple of the evolving medium.

It is works better in the  refugee camp (see 6:20 in), than in the Disney VR of the intro to the Lion King which disrupts the immersive effect of a meticulously  choreographed, costumed,  and lighted stage picture by allowing us to move around chaotically, revealing the strained and tawdry artifice behind the illusion. Perhaps this is a new convention in the making as well — unintentional here, but potentially quite powerful: to take a composed image, like the pseudo-African primitivist landscape of a Broadway musical,  and expose its constructed and distorting character  nature  by turning into an explorable 3D space.

My TED Talk 1998

The folks at TED have kindly dug up for me my 1998 talk which I still stand behind and which predicts the future well, but is also still timely. It is longer than the current crop, and more spontaneous. It falls into 4 segments  and it references other talks, some of which are on the TED website but most of which are not.


Here is a summary:

1.PREAMBLE: WE NEED EVERY MEDIUM TO EXPRESS OUR HUMANITY (first 5 minutes) I take issue with Julie Taymor who spoke disparagingly of screen-based experiences, and offered the rituals of Bali dancers ( invoked again in her 20** TED Talk) as the superior paradigm for art that addresses the human condition.  I also take issue with John Warnock, founder of Adobe and a rare book collector who described his meticulously prepared facsimile book series as purposely avoiding interactivity, such as searching by text, which makes it much less useful. I would still consider both positions examples of a fetishism for legacy forms of representation. (first 5 minutes).

2. ELIZA IS OUR CREATION MYTH (5:00 – 17:00) I compare the amazement at the birth of film (the legend of the Ciotat Train showing) to the  amazement at the birth of procedural storytelling (the legend of Eliza at MIT), as I do in Chapter 3 ofHamlet on the Holodeck, and as I have done with my students pretty much every semester for the past 20 years.

3. PROTOTYPE OF A  MULTISEQUENTIAL STORY WORLD STILL AHEAD OF ITS TIME 17:00- 2500)  show an MIT project I created with Freedom Baird, sponsored by IBM and based on Alan Ayckbourn’s trilogy, The Norman Conquest. The TV dramas are also now on YouTube.  They were meant to be seen on three successive nights in any order, and each one is complete in itself but an exit in one play is an entrance in another play. This makes a nice comparison with Mitch Horowitz’s recent work on the Netflix version of Arrested Development, as I discussed in another post.   (timecode: )

4. WHY IS THIS IMPORTANT? (last 30 seconds) I sum up as I do in Hamlet on the Holodeck, by comparing the development of conventions of interaction with the invention of the soliloquy in Shakespeare’s time.

Other references: John Warnock is the founder of Adobe and a rare book collector. At 1998 TED he presented a facsimile book series that purposely avoids interactivity, such as searching by text, which makes it much less useful. This is a good example of what I would now call legacy media fetishism.

Brenda Laurel, feminist game designer and pioneer of interactive storytelling, whose talk on her wonderful but short-lived series Purple Moon, is on the TED site.

Marvin Minsky, one of the seminal theorists of the field of Artificial Intelligence, who has a notorious blind spot for humanistic discourse. In the corridor between sessions Ben Shneiderman and argued with him. Minsky took the position that fictional stories were a waste of time because they were not true. Ben and I were appropriately outraged.


Design Exercise: Legacy Conventions

Good or Bad Use of Legacy Conventions

For any digital artifact (e.g. a website, a digital camera, a digital cell phone), chose a particularly good or bad example of the use of one or more media conventions  (e.g. headlines, screen overlays, video control icons, keyboard layout) adapted from a legacy media form (e.g. print, movies, an analog camera, a hard-wired
analog phone). Make an image that focuses on the adapted legacy conventions and justify your choice as a particularly good or bad design example. What function does the convention serve that is common across media? How does its use change when it is moved from the legacy format to the digital medium?

Active Creation of Belief

Television producers are increasingly turning to interactive applications to encourage fans to become more immersed in a series’ storyworld through activities that provoke the active creation of belief.

HBO GO Game of Thrones Application

Active Creation of Belief is a  design term I first used in Hamlet on the Holodeck, to contrast with Coleridge’s classic term of “suspension of disbelief”  and to refute the notion that narrative pleasures are incompatible with interactivity.

Continue reading

Interaction Design as a Cultural Practice

A popular and very useful textbook in Interaction Design defines the field with this diagram: 

As I explain in the Introduction and especially in Chapter 2, Inventing the Medium is not meant to substitute for the body of knowledge mapped above but to complement and recontextualize it, by drawing on disciplinary methods and craft practices that are absent  from the HCI/Interaction Design map of the design process.
Here is how I would express it, using the same diagram: Continue reading