Thursday, July 12, 2012

PATHS TO WISDOM: Reflections on Why I Chose Interactive Video for a Recent Project

Paths to Wisdom is an interactive video exploration that uses some of the features available in YouTube for navigation.  For the past few years, especially in refining and teaching my course Digital Narrative Theory and Practice, I've been experimenting with making different kinds of interactive media--interactive fiction, interactive comics, and slowly delving into Mozilla's Popcorn for interactive video--but YouTube afforded the quickest way to connect the different video segments together for the UWA MachinimUWA V: Seek Wisdom Challenge.

I had a version of the movie that was the first segment, "Paths to Wisdom" and the "last," "Conclusions?" but I had always had the idea of making this entry interactive because I so firmly believe that the path to wisdom is a participatory, interactive one.  That is the bedrock of my educational philosophy as a teacher and a life-long learner.  So I wanted the experience of my "Seek Wisdom" entry to mirror the ideas I expressed explicitly and implicitly in the video.  Most of the footage is of movement through the art installations I chose as companions to the concepts, with repeated motifs of paths in those installations and Hannah Hannya's terrific Ear Labyrinth.  Looking for and filming different paths made me realize once again the spectacular diversity of aesthetic and technical approaches in virtual art.  Having only a laptop and not my usual more powerful desktop machine made me more aware of the limitations faced by my students when they film machinima for assignments, an example of wisdom gained from the experience of being on a path different from the usual, and not completely of one's own choosing.

The labyrinth is the central visual and thematic metaphor.  A labyrinth that people walk for meditation and contemplation is not a maze, where one is lost, or a puzzle that you try to solve.  In a labyrinth, you can see where the end is, but that is not the point.  The point is the winding journey, the reversals, taking the time, taking the indirect route to the center.  My experience in Second Life and virtual worlds really coalesced when I participated in a research study by the Massachusetts General Hospital Neurology Department to see whether people could be taught the Relaxation Response in a virtual environment.  (They conclude yes, and I agree.)   I no longer have access to the 3D virtual labyrinth that was built there, so I searched for other labyrinths and looked around until I found Hannah Hannya's Ear Labyrinth.

The idea for Paths to Wisdom is that you watch the first part (below) and then use the links to click on your next path in any order you want.  At one point I had a branching structure, where you could only choose between two options, but then I opened it up to all the options in keeping with the overall concept of participation and agency.   At the very least, I hope people will watch the first, perhaps one more, and then "Conclusions?"

Click on the links at the end to choose your path -- The Past, Nature, Science, The Future, The Oracle, Art -- in any order you want.  You may want to end with "Conclusions?" -- or not! 

Can't see use the interactive features because you are on a mobile device?  Use the playlist:

The paths to wisdom intersect and circle back; it is the exploration, the journey that is most important, and this interactive video piece uses YouTube annotations to offer you choices about which path to explore next.  Form and interface reflect and shape the paths to wisdom.

Written, filmed in Second Life, narrated, and edited by Lori Landay.  Music by Moby.  Featuring selected art at LEA (Linden Endowment for the Arts) regions and Treasures of University of Western Australia in Second Life.  Full credits at the end of the last video, "Conclusions?"

Is Paths of Wisdom interactive?

When “interactive” refers to human-machine communication, we get into the idea of a communication loop.  Interactive architecture systems designer Usman Haque explains, “At its fundamental, interaction concerns transactions of information between two systems (for example between two people, between two machines, or between a person and a machine). The key however is that these transactions should be in some sense circular otherwise it is merely ‘reaction’ “ ("Architecture, Interaction, Systems," by Usman Haque, 2006 , p. 1).  However, and perhaps more applicable to art experiences, motion-tracking and biosensor performer and researcher Robert Wechsler elucidates, “we must think of interaction primarily as a psychological phenomenon, rather than a technical one” ("Artistic Considerations in the Use of Motion Tracking with Live Performers: A Practical Guide," in
Performance and Technology: Practices of Virtual Embodiment and Interactivity, Susan Broadhurst & Josephine Machon, eds. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006, p.62), and adds, “interaction in a feeling you an achieve in a performance setting.  It relates to spontaneity, openness and communication” (64). 

New media theorist Lev Manovich distinguishes between "open" and "closed" interactivity:

In the case of branching interactivity, the user plays an active role in determining the order in which the already generated elements are accessed. This is the simplest kind of interactivity; more complex kinds are also possible where both the elements and the structure of the whole object are either modified or generated on the fly in response to user's interaction with a program. We can refer to such implementations as open interactivity to distinguish them from the closed interactivity which uses fixed elements arranged in a fixed branching structure. Open interactivity can be implemented using a variety of approaches, including procedural and object- oriented computer programming, AI, AL, and neural networks. (Manovich, The Language of New Media, (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2002, p. 59).

Although there is not the loop that Haque describes (the videos do not change based on the order, or your input), Paths to Wisdom might fulfill Wechsler's emphasis on interaction as a feeling, and definitely is an example of branching interactivity, a curiously and deliberately open instance of "closed" interactivity.  Either way, it employs "interactive video" how it is used and understood right now, with popularly available tools like YouTube.  I am working on a more extensive interactive video project, part of which is web-based and uses a branching structure with changing outcomes depending on your choices.  The issue with interactive video, like interactive fiction, is creating a satisfying narrative experience that is also interactive, without disrupting the pleasures of reading and watching with unnecessary doing, or rather by augmenting the pleasures of reading or watching with meaningful choices that do not burst the "suspension of disbelief" but create an engagement of belief and co-creation in the text.   As interactive media develops with more sophisticated circular information transactions and, simultaneously, easier interfaces through which to experience the loops, or the feeling of a loop, it should be interesting to see what kind of content suits the emerging forms.  The only thing I know for sure is that the path to discovering it will be winding, challenging, and fun.

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