Thursday, February 26, 2009

Thoughts about feelies

"Feelies" from Deadline, Infocom, 01982 | Images via Infocom Gallery

Here's a rather wonderful example of creating in-story artifacts to help augment immersion in a narrative. Worldbuilders, take note.

In the 01980s, computer software publisher Infocom produced works of interactive fiction, avoiding the primitive graphics of the day in favour of a text-based interface with a relatively sophisticated parser (grammar interpretation engine), enabling users to type in more complex, speechlike instructions. Says Wikipedia, an authority on such geeky arcana, "Whereas most game developers sold their games mainly in software stores, Infocom also distributed their games via bookstores." We also learn that "Three components proved key to Infocom's success: marketing strategy, rich storytelling and feelies."

Wait a minute -- feelies?

It seems that one of the most distinctive and clever elements of Infocom's narrative strategy was to include fragments of the game world -- that is, props from within the story's universe -- inside the box with each game. A presentation by USC GamePipe Labs instructor Victor LaCour on the history of early videogames gives some examples (slide #25): these "feelies" included such objects as the protagonist's diary (Planetfall), the menu of an in-game restaurant (Ballyhoo), and a scratch-n-sniff card (Leather Goddesses of Phobos). In addition to upping the tangibility ante for the narrative world, they would also serve as an elegant form of copy protection (a disincentive for software pirates) since certain puzzles in the game could not be solved without those items.

A detailed history of the rise and fall of Infocom was produced in 02000 by some MIT students (appropriately enough, since the company was an MIT spinoff to begin with), and although it doesn't mention feelies by that name, the paper captures a sense of the games' successful storytelling strategy in this era of early computer-based entertainment (p. 21):

The attraction of Infocom games was multi-faceted. At times, the games could bring the simple pleasure of reading a light, fast-paced novel, whose course could be affected by the reader. Other times, the games provided the intellectual satisfaction of solving a complicated logic puzzle. Without an image of the protagonist, players could identify with the main character and even imagining [sic] themselves in the role. A typical Infocom game allowed the user to feel as though he or she were living the life of a police detective, medieval hero, or space ranger.
Infocom’s games were extremely well written, and they provided uses [sic] with hours of enjoyment. But to claim this was the only reason for the success of their games is to tell only half of the story. The other half of the story lies in just how Infocom got people to buy their games in the first place: Infocom’s unique publishing and marketing strategies were crucial factors in the success of their games.

According to the company's marketing director, Mike Dornbrook (quoted in an Infocom FAQ -- thanks, Internet Archive -- cited by the MIT paper, pp. 23-24, FN 32-33), the story behind the feelies runs as follows:

The first exotic package was for Deadline (the third game, after Zork I and II). It was created because Marc Blank couldn't fit all the information he wanted to include into the 80K game size. Marc and the ad agency, Giardini/Russel (G/R), co-created the police dossier which included photos, interrogation reports, lab reports and pills found near the body. [See images at the top of this post.] The result was phenomenally successful, and Infocom decided to make all subsequent packages truly special (a big benefit was the reduction in piracy, which was rampant at the time).

The first 16 packages were done in collaboration with G/R.
We were spending a fortune on package design ($60,000 each on average in 1984 - just for design!), so we eventually decided to bring it in-house. I hired an Art Director, Carl Genatossio, a writer, a typesetting/layout person, and someone to manage all () "feelies" in the packages.
An unsung heroine of Infocom was our Production Manager, Angela Crews. She was responsible for acquiring the scratch-n-sniff cards, ancient Zorkmid coins, glow-in-the-dark stones, etc. which made the packages so distinctive. It was often an incredibly difficult task.

As for who oversaw all of this, again, there were many responsible.
I would estimate that each Infocom package had 1.5 man-years of effort invested in its creation.

For those curious not only to read about, but also to see, some marvellous feelies (actually feeling them online is however, technologically, still a bit of a stretch), the miraculously still-kicking Infocom Gallery (last updated in 02004) comes to the rescue with an archive of the company's releases that contains game descriptions and images of the artifacts included with each. It jumps out at me that two of Infocom's games were worked on by the brilliant British humorist Douglas Adams; the first being an adaptation of his famous Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, feelies for which include a microscopic space fleet: order for the demolition of Arthur Dent's house:

...and a parallel order for the demolition of planet Earth:

The other Adams game is the intriguing Bureaucracy, which sounds like Kafka meets Monty Python:

When the bank refuses to acknowledge your change-of-address form, you'll find yourself entangled in a series of bureaucratic mishaps that take you from the feeding trough of a greedy llama to the lofty branches of a tree deep in the Zalagasan jungle.

This could be the most fun anyone will ever have with a tale of bureaucratic hell (outside of Gilliam's Brazil, perhaps). Accompanying feelies included a letter from your new employer, Happitec:

...and a copy of Popular Paranoia magazine:

Now, while the purposes may be different, I trust the creative parallels between feelies on the one hand, and "evidencing", reality prototyping, and future artifact creation on the other, are obvious. All are about concretely manifesting the paraphernalia of an otherwise imaginary, absent world, the better to inhabit it -- or at least to meet it on its own terms -- for a while.

There's much more in the Infocom back catalogue that we could explore here, but already it becomes clear how these games might have garnered a loyal following, and there's something inescapably sad that they seem to have died such a sudden death. As the Douglas Adams website puts it:

[G]raphics games came along and the computer using portion of the human race forgot all about 500,000 years of language evolution and went straight back to the electronic equivalent of banging rocks together - the point'n'click game. Infocom and most of its competitors went to the wall - signaling the arrival of the post-literate society.

(It makes me pleased to have been able to attend the Long Now's Funeral for Analog Television last week in Berkeley -- the passing of our once-cherished media should not simply go unnoticed.)

However, the Adams site goes on to note that with the Internet, "People have learned to type again and are taking an interest in interacting, via their computers, with other people and with content." Moreover, a dead genre turns out not to be entirely dead, but rather to have retired to remote corners of the Web like this (Infocom games still playable online include the Hitchhiker's Guide).

Even if the golden age of "interactive fiction" has passed, and its feelies are now the glorious preserve of only the most committed boffins, I can't shake the feeling that feelies have a future, too. It's curious that seeking antecedents to the future artifacts meme takes us down an overgrown path into the not-too-distant past, there to find that feelies -- tangible auxiliaries to a cutting-edge storytelling technology, concessions to meatspace -- may have a transreality staying power that as a practice, seems timeless, compared to the wonderfully quaint electronic games they were created merely to supplement.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Experience and medium

While in San Francisco recently I had a fascinating conversation with Jesse James Garrett, President of Adaptive Path, about the terms or framing concepts for their operation.

Jesse explained that when AP was founded eight years ago, its key people came from a web design background, although they were working with the beginnings of something "higher", as in more aspirational (or "deeper", as in more fundamental) that at the time was called "user experience", although it was still rooted specifically in the online medium. For several years, they were careful not to overemphasise the verb "design", preferring the noun "user experience", to avoid importing inappropriate expectations on the part of their clients about the nitty-gritty of engineering code. About two years ago, however, the notion of "design" having come to connote a broader, less minutely technical process, the company's stated bailiwick became "experience design" and "experience strategy".

As the above story illustrates, the terms in this field are rapidly evolving. Part of the evolutionary process is found in a current tension between two distinct camps among designers, and their corresponding interpretations of "experience design". On the one hand, says Jesse, the Mediumists are convinced that experience design is simply a newfangled term for what they believe designers have always sought to do -- good design, in whatever medium they happen to be using. The Anti-Mediumists, on the other hand, regard experience design as enabling discussion, and pursuit, of good design of a different order. The former, trained in and committed to a particular medium of design (whether websites, or chairs), tend to focus on the characteristics and qualities of the artifact; while the latter, looking past the medium to the experiential substrate, ask what the thing is like to use, look at, or be around.

Through the lens of a particular medium, specialised language enables certain specific features to be apprehended and readily discussed, while through the encompassing, medium-agnostic language of experience, its net effect is opened up for conversation. For example, the formalism implicit in a medium-focus may lead to the conclusion that a technically accomplished piece of work is entirely admirable: the chair is distinctive, elegant, well constructed, sustainably produced, and appropriately priced. But an experience focus will always keep the user's bottom line (so to speak) in plain view: is it comfortable to sit in?

It seems likely to me that where or if this dilemma requires resolution, it is for designers to aspire to grasp both perspectives at once, or in any case to be able to alternate between them, as when switching between two Gestalt views of an optical illusion. But, as someone not formally trained in any particular design medium, the Anti-Mediumist perspective makes perfect sense to me, especially at the early stages of a project when the task is designing backwards from a desired outcome. In all our FoundFutures projects, and especially on "Hawaii 2050", we had to work backwards from the hoped-for insights and outcomes. We brought a series of (intially very muddy, gradually clearer) constraints into play, setting the context for producing a desired experience. The constraints are resources (space and budget) and intent (audience and scenario). Medium-expertise may be brought to bear on the job once we've deduced and decided (it's a combination of both) which media will be involved: text, slideshows and video, ambient audio, graphics and printed matter, handcrafted "future-museum" artifacts, performance...

If the medium is the message, then in our work to date, the first question has concerned the experience of the message, including the circumstances of its reception, and we've worked back from there to figure out which medium fits best. Often enough, the best solution requires working not in just one medium, but in several at once.

Related posts:
> Cheap prototypes, valuable insights
> Open source futures and design
> Where futures meets experience design
> Manifesting vision
> Future-jamming 101

(Thanks, Jesse!)

Monday, February 16, 2009

Refugee Run

Invitation to Refugee Run, Davos 02009 | via Aid Watch

Late last month, NYU economics professor William Easterly blogged about an invitation he received for an unusual event in Davos, Switzerland, from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. From the invitation text:

During this year's Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum, we would like to invite you to an experience unlike any other on the agenda: an opportunity to step into the world of conflict and experience life as a refugee.

Just five minutes' walk from the Congress Centre, you can enter a simulated environment that will thrust you into a war zone. You will meet a rebel attack, navigate a mine field and battle life in a refugee camp. (Spoiler alert: No harm will come to you!)

Sounds pretty interesting to me.  But Easterly, a noted foreign aid and development expert, was unequivocal in his disdain:

Can Davos man empathize with refugees when he or she is not in danger and is going back to a luxury banquet and hotel room afterwards? Isn’t this just a tad different from the life of an actual refugee, at risk of all too real rape, murder, hunger, and disease?

Did the words "insensitive," "dehumanizing," or "disrespectful" (not to mention "ludicrous") ever come up in discussing the plans for “Refugee Run”?
Of course, I understand that there were good intentions here, that you really want rich people to have a consciousness of tragedies elsewhere in the world, and mobilize help for the victims. However, I think a Refugee Theme Park crosses a line that should not be crossed. Sensationalizing and dehumanizing and patronizing results in bad aid policy – if you have little respect for the dignity of individuals you are trying to help, you are not going to give THEM much say in what THEY want and need, and how you can help THEM help themselves?

To be fair, it does seem wise to question the bona fides of such an unusual attempt to bridge the world of the high-paid executive to that of the global refugee underclass, 42 million strong. Perhaps portions of the ("VIP event") invitation's wording lent it to misinterpretation as a "dehumanizing" exercise. Certainly, the WEF's annual invitation-only gathering of global business leaders at a Swiss alpine resort is not infrequently accused of complicity in the large-scale problems it purports to address, and indeed one could go further along these lines, taking the "development" paradigm in general to task, for selling to the world's poor a tissue of "used futures" (the memorable term of futures scholar Sohail Inayatullah).

So, no doubt the concerns Easterly voices are sincere, but based on the additional information I've been able to find, such as this description by the event organisers, Refugee Run doesn't seem in any way to deserve such unsparing criticism. Like him, I didn't attend the simulation, but I have done some background research (an approach the critics appear to have eschewed) and it comes off looking quite different on closer inspection.

It was not designed solely for the Davos audience, but is in fact one of several "Life X-perience" role-playing simulations developed by the Crossroads Foundation, a nonprofit organisation based in Hong Kong. Their Crossroads Global Village facility regularly stages a range of activities in this vein -- AIDS X-perience, Blind X-perience, Level Playing Field, and others -- intended to "allow participants to walk in the shoes of those who battle global need". Refugee Run, along with Slum Survivor, is given an Intensity rating of ten out of ten.

Check out this news clip (~4 mins) from the Wall Street Journal...

(See also this Bloomberg report via YouTube.)

My own impression is that an experiential taste of refugee life, if combined with a genuine will to compassion -- a key ingredient which cannot be simulated -- could be highly thought provoking in the best sense. It's no substitute, to be sure, for actual lived experience in fear of violence, disease, rape, starvation and pervasive alienation; but by the same token, is bound to be much more effective than any number of speeches, statistics, or videos.

It's interesting to me that some find this bold initiative to be in such poor taste (check out the numerous comments to the original post, which include plenty of readers scandalised on the strength of Easterly's description of the event, as well as some thoughtful replies by folks who have actually taken part in it).

I find myself wondering whether simulation and role play can seem unequal to the task of engaging consideration of serious issues, and thus attract easy scorn, in the minds of those for whom, for adults, at least, they remain peripheral and undervalued forms of learning; especially in some academic settings. For them, perhaps, on hearing about an experiential or immersive scenario, the most readily available analog is what they consider frivolous entertainment; yielding, in this case, the sadly dismissive notion of a "Refugee Theme Park", which, it follows, "crosses a line that should not be crossed".

The net effect is a misunderstood, and so missed, opportunity. As I see it, that opportunity is to address, not just rhetorically but actively, a profoundly important question -- posed by Easterly and quoted at the start of this post -- about the limits of empathy.

Related posts:
> Where every day is career day
> Experiential scenarios on video
Today at Tomorrowland: yesterday's future
> Visit Venice, see Baghdad

(via Perspective 2.0, "Taking experience design too far?")

Tuesday, February 10, 2009


"Evidencing": a 02003 slideshow by service design consultants live|work features a fragment of press coverage about a hypothetical "Timebank" service offered by their client, Orange, in 02014

Some months ago, an old post at Victor Lombardi's blog Noise Between Stations (previously mentioned here) led me to a piece at Worldchanging about "Future-making", in which Alex Steffen started on a kind of catalogue of "available tools for making better futures". One of his headings was "Design and prototyping" and it contained a link to an earlier note, back in May 02005, about "Evidencing".

This is a practice, pioneered by British "service design" firm live|work, whereby the various components of a proposed service design may be rendered in tangible form (unlike in product design, such prototyping is neither obvious nor typical as a stage in creating services). The Worldchanging article pointed to a live|work case study conducted for multinational communications company Orange:

The live|work team developed a range of artefacts -- the touch-points of services, such as magazine articles, packaging, web sites, newspaper advertisements, letters and television news items -- that animated the assumptions and differences in strategic outlook uncovered from within the business.

These artefacts acted as 'tangible evidence' of future service touch-points, and were used as discussion points and provocations for the Innovations team.

Product manufacturers use form models and prototypes to represent concepts and aid the decision-making process. Service companies often lack equivalent tools and processes, as there is no single product to focus on. Although services themselves are intangible they are accessed and experienced through a number of touch-points. By creating 'concept touchpoints' that act as evidence we are able to bring the service experience into the decision making process.

(Although the original link is no longer live, the above quote was accessible through the magic of Internet Archive's Wayback Machine.)

That case study document directed any jargon-puzzled readers to a brief "Service Design Glossary" illuminating the company's terms of art (service design, evidencing, touchpoints, etc): the original is archived here, while a more comprehensive version is now live at

Now, I mention all this, firstly, because the vocabulary used here, albeit with intentions clearly oriented towards the business-consulting (vs artistic-political) end of the design spectrum, is otherwise functionally compatible in every detail, philosophical and processual, with the approach to creating experiential futures that we developed independently. (That is, without ever having heard of each other, they and we arrived at quite similar processes for evoking bits and pieces of future experiences. ) The creation of The Bird Cage intervention, for instance, part of FoundFutures:Chinatown, involved our "evidencing" a moment of future-history; a flu crisis set in 02016-17, from outbreak to aftermath. From the scenario we had created came artifact concepts, then tangible objects produced and distributed in the streets. All this was done with a view to evoking the hypothetical event through the kinds of fragments, traces or "touchpoints" that it could leave in its wake (including "missing persons" posters, official quarantine notices, fly-by-night business brochures, and a memorial plaque cast in bronze).

Their current glossary's definition of "evidence" says, in part:

Evidence can represent the effects of possible designs as much as the design of the service itself. Therefore evidence are [sic] not only core service touch-points, but often third parties’ response to an service such as newspaper articles describing the results of the service.

Evidencing, or the making of evidence from the future, can be used as a rapid way to prototype future service experiences. You can use the evidence as a stimulus with users or in Roleplay to test the ideas. This type of "archaeology of the future" enables service providers to make early qualitative judgments about the implications of a design. Ultimately it allows customers and collaborators to "play back" their own assumptions as concrete experiences rather then abstract evaluations.

The notion of playing back assumptions in concrete form, in order to engage participants more deeply than abstract, or superficial, ideology-based conceptions of the future would allow was precisely the idea behind the "Hawaii 2050" experiential scenarios (although we had the added goal of doing so for several deliberately divergent scenarios at once, emphasising alternative possibilities). Also, the above term "archaeology of the future" is extremely similar to "reverse archaeology", a concept we've been using to describe the process of generating such evidence -- "whereas the archaeologist must deduce the 'world' from the 'fragment', we as multimedia futurists deduce the 'fragment' (or fragments) from the 'world' expressed in the scenario".

However, the proximate reason for noting these connections here, lo these many months later, is that in the past week I've become aware of San Francisco-based service designer Jeff Howard's blog, Design for Service, where he recently used the term "evidencing" to describe the wonderful New York Times Special Edition, alongside another, much less wonderful, anonymously mocked-up image of a "future" USA Today front page. The latter was fore-dated 1 February 02009, and circulated via email prior to the 31 January election of the Republican National Committee chair. I have no idea how big a part it played, but the candidate implicitly criticised in the fake news story didn't win.

Parody USA Today front page
Image via The Plum Line blog, 26 January 02009

(Some interesting recent comparators for the above bit of politically-pointed nearcasting can be found here and here.)

A nice earlier post from Howard's blog tries to excavate the origins of the term "touchpoints", and two others address service evidencing; the latter linking to what he called "the only really clear, public example I’ve found" -- which was by none other than Lavrans Løvlie and colleagues at live|work; a presentation in 02003 at Doors of Perception East of the project they did for Orange! (The source of the image at the top of this post.)

And finally, to close the loop, I've just this evening found a post called "How design evolves", blogged by Doors organiser John Thackara (on the same day as Steffen's post at Worldchanging), which noted that Interaction Design Institute Ivrea alumnus Jason Tester was then introducing "artifacts from the future" into the mix at Institute for the Future. (As an aside, I want to acknowledge a very helpful conversation with Jason around the time that Jake Dunagan and I were working out our ideas for "Hawaii 2050", back in summer 02006.) Anyway, Thackara goes on:

At Ivrea, the design of enticing representations of imagined futures was regarded as a core process, and a technique was introduced there by the English service designers Live|Work. Live|Work called their technique evidencing. One of the roots of evidencing, in turn, was the development by Tony Dunne [bingo] and Bill Gaver of "cultural probes" at the Royal College of Art during the late 1990s (where the Live|Work guys studied interaction design). [Aha!] I don't suggest that a linear history is playing out here - but every now and again in the chaotic blizzard of life one briefly glimpses tracks in the snow.

Footprints. Evidence of the journey so far.

Related posts:
> Manifesting vision
> Tangible futures
> Guerrilla futurists combat war on terror

Friday, February 06, 2009

The mosquito incident

Bill Gates opens a jar of mosquitoes at TED2009
Image: James Duncan Davidson / TED via MSNBC

At the prestigious annual TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) conference held this week, billionaire software mogul-turned-philanthropist Bill Gates presented at a session called "Reboot". His topic wasn't tech, however, but instead the efforts currently being made through his charitable foundation to "reboot" social problems including malaria, a fatal but preventable disease spread by parasite-carrying mosquitoes. Malaria is the scourge of poor countries in warm areas, and according to Gates has 200 million sufferers, with one million lives lost per year.

To help underline his point about the disease being largely ignored by medical researchers because it affects mainly impoverished populations, the man who founded Microsoft took an unusual step to engage the attention of TED's high profile, invitation-only audience. Yahoo! News reported:

"Malaria is spread by mosquitoes," Gates said while opening a jar onstage at a gathering known to attract technology kings, politicians, and Hollywood stars.

"I brought some. Here I'll let them roam around. There is no reason only poor people should be infected."

Gates waited a minute or so before assuring the audience the liberated insects were malaria-free.

The stunt has generated some controversy, reports Wired blog Epicenter. While some want to accuse him of terrorism, others praise his showmanship, but since the difference between the two is more ideological than intrinsic, either way we may conclude that Gates found a powerful way to make his point.

Still, the misquotation given above, which can easily be read as thoughtless and irresponsible, has added fuel to the fire. Watch the video (embedded at the bottom of this post); five minutes in, here's what Gates actually says:

Now malaria is, of course, transmitted by mosquitoes. I brought some here [opening jar] so you could experience this; we'll let those roam around the, uh, auditorium a little bit [audience laughs]. There's no reason only poor people should have the experience [more laughter, applause]. Those mosquitoes are not infected, but, uh...

I would suggest that some of his critics are either wilfully missing the point, or spoke up before they had seen the clip.

In any case, why -- you may well ask -- is this appearing here at t.s.f.?

Well, the question posed in Gates's presentation is, "How do you stop a deadly disease that's spread by mosquitoes?" An important part of the answer to that question lies in drawing active attention to the problem. His talk was calculated to do that. As far as I can tell, it worked.

To generate experiential, immersive and affective (as opposed to purely verbal, propositional, or cognitive) vectors for opening alternative futures up to exploration is right at the heart of my current work as a futurist. Gates's stunt is one of the simplest, most ingenious, low-tech ways to spice up a conference talk that I've ever heard of, and it instantly elevates to prominence a cluster of pertinent questions about the relationships between disease, socioeconomic class, and the medical establishment. Naysayers nothwithstanding, the "scare" factor here was minor or non-existent, while the gesture was sufficiently bold, and symbolically potent, to have been newsworthy (although whether it would have been quite as widely reported if instigated by someone other than a former "World's Richest Man" titleholder remains uncertain). In an age of increasingly ubiquitous video recording and web-access, not only TED, but many other events have both a primary audience (those present at the time) and a secondary audience (those who hear about it later and watch online, etc). An effective experiential intervention will actually reach many more people in anecdotal or secondary form (via accompanying metacommentary and distortions), and that's the case here. I (and probably you too) became aware of this speech, and devoted some portion of my attention to as part of the secondary diffusion of a novel primary performance. That's the sense in which it "worked".

Now, just to be clear; this is not to say that I think people should release bugs left, right and centre whenever disease is the topic du jour. Anything that might be (mis)taken, even momentarily, for a hoax, must be handled very carefully indeed. But in any event, novelty is part of the design context, and future duplication of this intervention would almost certainly be a worse idea, not a better one.

The experience must always be tailored to the specific circumstances: topic, audience, location, resources, etc.

Here's another great example, shared on the WFSF listserv last year by a futurist colleague from the Netherlands, Andreas Ligtvoet:

[There] was an exhibition during the Floriade (World Horticulture Fair) 2002 by Hogeschool Larenstein (a higher education institution in the NL). They not only showed a multimedia presentation about the potential flooding of parts of the NL (due to climate change and ice melting), but actually flooded (!) the floor that the viewers were standing on. On the floor was a map of the Netherlands, and the flooding only took place in the western (lower) part. Of course the visitors had to crowd together on the smaller surface of the exhibition hall or get wet feet.

I have tried, so far unsuccessfully, to locate photos or video of this event; but the concept is splendid, and directly confronts the psychological difficulties we face when engaging long-term change processes.

It would be great to hear from anyone else with cases where a future (or otherwise absent, remote, or hard-to-imagine) scenario has been rendered available here-and-now, whether the setting be a conference, theme park, or classroom. But the cheaper, simpler and more ingenious the approach, the better. To my mind, whether the issue is malaria, climate change, or any other significant threat -- or, for that matter, opportunity -- in need of our sympathetic attention and concerted realignment of collective priorities, these techniques themselves are also ideas worth spreading.

(Thanks Jake!)