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14. Improvisation Workshop

On the 26th and 27th May I carried out two workshops designed to compare improvisation and performative engagement between the two intermedial stages of PopUpPlay and iMorphia. The performers had previously participated in the last two workshops so were familiar with iMorphia, but had not worked with PopUpPlay before.

My sense that PopUpPlay would provoke improvisation as outlined in the previous post, proved correct, and that iMorphia in its current form is a constrained environment with little scope for improvisation.

The last workshop tested out whether having two performers transformed at the same time might encourage improvisation. We found this was not the case and that a third element or some sort of improvisational structure was required. The latest version of iMorphia features a backdrop and a virtual ball embodied with physics which interacts with the feet and hands of the two projected characters. This resulted in some game playing between the performers, but facilitated a limited and constrained form of improvisation centred around a game. The  difference between game and play and the implications for the future development of iMorphia are outlined at the end of this post.

In contrast, PopUpPlay, though requiring myself as operator of the system, resulted in a great deal of improvisation and play as exemplified in the video below.

OBSERVATIONS

1. Mirroring
The first workshop highlighted the confusion between left and right arms and feet when a performer attempted to either kick a virtual ball or reach out to a virtual object. This confusion had been noted in previous studies and is due to the unfamiliar third person perspective relayed to the video glasses from the video camera located in the position of an audience member.

Generally the only time we see ourselves is in a mirror and as a result have become trained to accepting seeing ourselves horizontally reversed in the mirror. In the second workshop I positioned a mirror in front of the camera at 45 degrees so as to produce a mirror image of the stage in the video glasses.

cammirror

I tested the effect using the iMorphia system and was surprised how comfortable and familiar the mirrored video feedback felt and had no problems working out left from right and interacting with the virtual objects on the intermedial stage. This effectiveness of the mirrored feedback was also confirmed by the two participants in the second workshop.

 2. Gaming and playing
The video highlights how PopUpPlay  successfully facilitated improvisation and play, whilst iMorphia, despite the adding of responsive seagulls to the ball playing beach scene, resulted in a constrained game-like environment, where performers simply played a ball passing game with each other. Another factor to be recognised is the role of the operator in PopUpPlay, where I acted as a ‘Wizard of Oz’ behind the scenes director, controlling and influencing the improvisation through the choice of the virtual objects and their on-screen manipulation. My ideal would be to make such events automatic and embody these interaction within iMorphia.

We discussed the differences between iMorphia and PopUpPlay and also the role of the audience, how might improvisation on the intermedial stage work from the perspective of an audience? How might iMorphia or PopUp Play be extended so as to engage both performer and audience?

All the performers felt that there were times when they wanted to be able to move into the virtual scenery, to walk down the path of the projected forest and to be able to navigate the space more fully. We felt that the performer should become more like a shamanistic guide, able to break through the invisible walls of the virtual space, to open doors, to choose where they go, to perform the role of an improvisational storyteller, and to act as a guide for the watching audience.

The vision was that of a free open interactive space, the type of spaces present in modern gaming worlds, where players are free to explore where they go in large open environments. Rather than a gaming trope, the worlds would be designed to encourage performative play rather than follow typical gaming motifs of winning, battling, scoring and so on. The computer game “Myst” (1993) was mentioned as an example of the type of game that embodied a more gentle, narrative, evocative  and exploratory form of gaming.

3. Depth and Interaction
The above ideas though rich with creative possibilities highlight some of the technical and interactive challenges when combining real bodies on a three dimensional stage with a virtual two dimensional projection. PopUpPlay utilises two dimensional backdrops and the movements of the virtual objects are constrained to two dimensions – although the illusion of distance can be evoked by changing the size of  the objects. IMorphia on the other hand is a simulated three dimensional space. The interactive ball highlighted interaction and feedback issues associated with the z or depth dimension. For a participant to kick the ball their foot had to be co-located near to the ball in all three dimensions. As the ball rested on the ground the y dimension was not problematic, the x dimension, left and right, was easy to find, however depth within the virtual z dimension proved very difficult to ascertain, with performers having to physically move forwards and backwards in order to try and move the virtual body in line with the ball. The video glasses do not provide any depth cues of the performer in real or virtual space, and if performers are to be able to move three dimensionally in both the real and the virtual spaces in such a way that co-location and thereby real/virtual body/object interactions can occur, then a method for delivering both virtual and real world depth information will be required.

 

13. PopUpPlay

On Thursday 26th February 2015 I attended the launch of Pop Up Play at De Montford University, a free “Open Source” mixed reality toolkit for schools.

The experience of PopUpPlay was described as a hybrid mix of theatre, film, game and playground.

It was extremely refreshing and inspiring to witness the presentation of the project and experience a live hands-on demonstration of the toolkit.

The presentation included case studies with videos showing how children used the system and feedback from teachers and workshop leaders on its power and effectiveness.

Feedback from the trials indicated how  easily and rapidly children took to the technology, mastering the controls and creating content for the system.

What was especially interesting in the light of iMorphia was the open framework and inherent intermedial capabilities presented by the system. A simple interface  enabled the control of background images, webcam image input and kinect 3D body sensing, as well as control of DMX lights and the inclusion of audio and special effects .

The system also supported a wireless iPad tablet presenting a simplified and robust control interface designed for children, rather than the more feature rich computer interface. The touchable interface also enabled modification of images through familiar touch screen gestures such as pinch, expand rotate and slide.

Research Aims (from the PopUpPlay website)

“The overarching aims of this research project were to understand how Arts and cultural organisations can access digital technology for creative play and learning, and how we can enable children and young people to access meaningful digital realm engagement.

In response to this our specific objectives were to create a mixed reality play system and support package that could:

  • Immerse participants in projected images and worlds
  • Enable children to invest in the imaginary dimensions and possibilities of digital play
  • provide a creative learning framework, tools, guides and manuals and an online community
  • Offer open source software, easy to use for artists, learning officers, teachers, librarians, children and young people”

Two interesting observations drawn by the research team from the case studies were the role playing of the participants and the design of a set of ideation cards to help stimulate creative play.

Participants tended to adopt the roles of Technologist, Director, Player, Constructor and Observer. Though they might also swap or take on multiple roles throughout the experience.

DSC_7774

The ideation cards supplied suggestions for activities or actions based on four categories

Change, Connect, Create and Challenge.

Change – change a parameter in the system.

Connect – carry out an action that makes connections in the scene.

Create – create something to be used in the scene.

Challenge – a new task to be carried out.

DSC_7773

An interesting observation was that scenes generally did not last more than 3 minutes before the children became bored and something was required to change the scene in some way, hence the use of the ideation cards.

The use of ideation cards as a means of shaping or catalysing performative practise echoes one of the problems Jo Scott mentioned when a system is too open, that there would be nowhere to go and some shaping or steering mechanism was required.

A number of audience members commented on the lack of narrative structure, though the team felt that children were quite happy to make it up as they went along and the system embodied a new ontology, an iterative process moving between moment to moment which represented a new practise within creative play.

Through the Looking Glass

One of the weaknesses of the system I felt was the television screen aspect where participants watched the mixed reality on a screen in front of themselves, as if looking upon a digital mirror, which tended to cause a breakdown of the immersive effect when participants looked at each other. I felt there were problems with this approach and one of the interesting aspects of iMorphia was the removal of the watched screen, instead one watched oneself from the perspective of the audience. It would be interesting to combine Pop Up Play with the third person viewing technique utilised in iMorphia.

The lack of support for improvisation within iMorphia could be potentially addressed by the Pop Up Play interface. Though the system enables individual elements to be loaded at any time it does not currently support a structure that would enable scenes or narrative structures to be created or recalled, nor transitions between scenes to be created in the form of a trajectory. Though advertised as OpenSource, the actual system is implemented in MaxMSP which would require a license to be able to modify or add to the software.

Though very inspiring, I was viewing the system from the perspective of questioning how it might be used in live performance. Apart from the need for a hyper structure to enable the recall of scenes another problematic aspect was the need for the subject to be brightly illuminated by a very bright white LED lamp. This is a problem I also encountered when testing out face tracking, it would only work when the face was sufficiently illuminated. The Kinect webcam requires sufficient illumination to be able to “see”, unlike its inbuilt infra-red 3D tracking capability. This need for lighting then clashes with the projectors requirement of a near dark environment. Perhaps infra-red illumination or a “nightvision” low lux webcam might solve this problem.