by Nat Muller

Great Yarmouth, Hippodrome Circus , November – December 2002

1. Short Overview of Research Methodology

For full overview and rationale refer to: Project txoom User Research

1.1 Main Methodological and Research Aims txOom User Research) was aimed at finding a methodology, rooted within an applied and contextual research, that would examine – on a qualitative basis – the interaction of players within the txOom responsive environment. It was mainly interested in looking at various levels of interaction of the players: HCI (Human Computer Interface), HCHI (Human Computer Human Interface), and HHI (Human Human Interface). Focal research points were:

  • How do participants behave/play when in mixed reality/responsive environment?
  • How does interaction occur with the media, with physical objects of the space, and the architectural constructions?
  • Which parameters allow for a maximum degree of playfulness?
  • How do people interact together on a social/play level? How does the environment facilitate this?
  • Which conditions allow tactile experiences and mediatised experiences to reinforce and enrich each other?
  • What is the grasping of the user of the responsive environment on a conceptual, technological level?
  • Which issues of (informal) learning, acquirement of skills/embodied knowledge are implicated with the experience in a responsive environment?
  • How should briefing be designed prior to environment experience, and how does briefing affect reactivity ?

During the development and the implementation of txOom in Great Yarmouth, UK (10.11.02 – 10.12.02), at several levels of the design stage, 3 professional focus groups scouted from the East- Anglia area (movement artists, textile artists/architectural designers, and digital media artists) and 3 community focus groups from the Great Yarmouth vicinity (young single mothers, adolescents with communication disabilities, and young offenders) were brought in to provide feed-back on the development of the environment. During the public presentation of the experiment, continuous interviewing was undertaken of the general audience. Similar to the professional and community groups, they were asked a set of questions, which would assess:

1. personal response, rationalisation of experience and fulfilment of initial expectations 2. perception and behaviour, initial grasping of the system, creative involvement and active role in environment, transparency of interaction, issue of one-to-one relationship to triggered media 3. player’s confidence, pressure to perform or ease to play, social interaction, surplus value of collective or solitary experience, nature of play and play environment 4. personal preference, pleasure/frustration with the environment

This research was conducted through short interviews with the respondents and observation through multi-angle recording, visualization of sensor data correlated with recordings of the playSpace, and real-time expert observation.

1.2. Research Conditions: Review

1.2.1. Issue of Consistency and Reactivity: multi-tasking of researchers, briefing, lack of privacy for interview session, use of camera, and audience heterogeneity

Maintaining stable research conditions in a mutable, alive, and experimental setting as the txOom environment in the Hippodrome is close to impossible. Priority for the txOom public experiment was to provide visitors a meaningful experience; the Creative User Research had to be done, on site and in the field, so to speak. Staff shortage did not allow for researchers to solely focus on accumulating feed-back from the visitors. By corollary, researchers were burdened with other tasks, which influenced the consistency of the research: researchers were also welcoming visitors, socialising with them, asking them about their preference for playing on the ground or in the air, and generally trying to make the public feel at ease in the txOom context. Though measures were taken NOT to give the visitors details about the design and technical background of the environment in order to influence their response least, circumstances did not always allow us to maintain this stance. For example, visitors would feel reluctant or insecure about going in the txOom aerial contraptions. Researchers with a double role as hosts, would talk to the visitors, make them feel at ease and describe the environment and its workings in greater detail.

Briefing of visitors was an important issue for the researchers. As abovementioned, caution was taken not to disclose too much information about the environment. However, since txOom was a public event, PR material and reviews in print and online media had already described the environment in a certain language, and hence had already raised a certain set of expectations with the visitors. Especially visitors who were more technologically savvy could become quite fixated on – for example - the sensor technology only, and hence neglect the other elements of the environment. As a result, their experience and their responses were mainly addressing a specific part of the environment. In order to conduct proper research, it is imperative for respondents to be exposed to the same level of prior information.

Ideally a separate interview space should have been set up for the interview sessions. This worked fine during the design stages of txOom, where the professional and community groups came in to share their comments with us (in group sessions), yet during the public presentations, when the bulk of interviews were conducted this was impossible. Eventually most interviews took place in the foyer where new visitors would have already entered, or people would have their fortunes read by performance artists Sia Kyriakakos (see report by Pam Harling-Challis for overview). The setting was noisy and distracting, which might have influenced people’s responses: they might have felt self-conscious about sharing their experience (unintended) in front of other people. What was noticeable, was the degree to which people would be influenced by previous interviewees. They would start using the same language and descriptions. This was especially the case with younger children and adolescents.

Due to lack of space and proper interview facilities, researchers interviewed visitors with a small DVcam, either in the foyer or in the corridor. Some visitors felt self-conscious in front of a camera or even simply refuse to share their thought on camera. Ideally the research situation should be so, that technology and recording gear would not appear to be obtrusive for the respondents. I had many informal discussions with visitors, who gave many insightful comments, however once the camera was recording this feed-back couldn’t be reiterated or the urge to ‘perform on camera’ would take over.

The heterogeneity of the audience (in age, gender, professional and social background,…) makes it extremely difficult to draw any (preliminary) conclusions. There seemed to be a big difference in approach and experience between the local audience (to whom responsive environments and media art were a completely new thing) and the specialised audience (WEAR ME! Crowd, media artists and theorists, etc…who were familiar with responsive environments). It would have made sense to conduct a user profiling attached to each interview. However, this requires more human resources, time, and infrastructure.

1.2.2 Issue of Context

When analysing the responses of interviewees, the context of Great Yarmouth and the Hippodrome circus should be taken into account. The Hippodrome Circus functions as a cultural hub for young and old in a town where there doesn’t seem to be a lively arts and cultural scene (at least not on the surface). This means that many local visitors were well acquainted with the circus and had been visiting it since they were children. TxOom however, was the first occasion where visitors could enter the ring and be the centre of attention themselves: a very unusual and exciting situation to many. This is obviously a factor to consider during data analysis. The “affordances” of the Hippodrome circus cannot be taken lightly either: a circus connotes a whole range of subsets of expressivity and performativity. It is certainly not a neutral space, but a very highly charged locus of play, ritual and performance. Choosing to work within such a context has an influence on visitors’ actions and activity, ranging from encouraging and challenging to inhibition and insecurity.

1.2.3 Special Research Focus

Apart from the general txOom usability research, my specialist research focus was to examine social interaction amongst players in the txOom environment. This would be carried out primarily through observation of txOom players. However, this specialist focus could only (partly) be carried out during the sessions with the focus groups. It has to be noted that during that stage the environment was still being designed, so observations are based on an incomplete and partially functioning environment. During the public presentation analytical observation could not be executed properly due to staff shortage and due to the fact that observing players from the circus seats would have impaired their experience. Players felt very self-conscious to the fact that people might be ‘watching’ them. Nevertheless, I will succinctly outline below what my major interests were: - strategies for collaboration: how does the interaction amongst players augment the immersive experience; do they teach each other about the environment or is it a more solitary experience? Does the collaboration evolve? What’s the breaking-point? Is there a transfer of knowledge happening? Who collaborates with whom, if at all? Identification of actions. - Strategies for play: how do players play with each other? Do they devise a competitive game or is it more free-play? Are there players left out? What are the power dynamics like? Which strategies are utilised to enhance pleasure, or cause frustration? Identification of actions. - Roles: Are players able to shed their worldy skins; can they assume a new role, can the social set-up of the group/the contextual sensitivity of the playspace accommodate this? Analysis of behaviour. - Evolvement of group dynamics of players: How are the power dynamics distributed? Is there a question of players being dominant and affecting the play experience? How is this co-related to the costumes they wear; the physical objects they pick? The media they generate?

These questions were implicitly answered in the interviews conducted with the general public during the presentation week. For more information please refer to user research transcripts and user research section on txOom [tks’u.m] DVD.

2. Main Observations Derived from User Feedback

In this section I will elaborate on 3 general observations derived from the user research. These observations address issues around ‘play’, ‘navigation in the space’, and ‘ interaction and control of media’. For specific comments of interviewees please refer to user transcripts and txOom DVD.

2.1. The Ambiguity of Play: Free Play and Rule-based Play.

The sub-title is a ‘play’ (pun intended) on Brian Sutton-Smith’s book The Ambiguity of Play (Harvard UP, 1997). In the publication Sutton-Smith attempts to define the characteristics of play by providing the reader with an overview of current theories on play. From play as (educational) progress (Piaget) and play as contest (Huizinga), to play as the suspension of disbelief (Bakhtin) and play as a marker for identity (Freud). His overview covers disciplines ranging from behavioural psychology to sociology and cultural theory and anthropology. My observations do not wish to make any inherent comments on the nature of play, but does want to establish a difference in playful behaviour between ‘free play’ and ‘rule-based play’. One could distinguish players who entered the environment, and might be at first confused due to its unfamiliarity, yet then venturing towards exploration, and a group who found the environment unsettling because its workings (rules) were not immediately fathomable. The latter conveyed a desire for prior knowledge of the “rules” before play. The sense of not knowing how to act immediately proved to be disconcerting for the last group, since it required a shift in their habitual experiential framework. The former group expressed and enjoyment in gaining progressive knowledge about the environment, and experimenting with its capacities. The visitors who indulged in free play, which is often associated with childish behaviour, probed and explored the space and allowed all the elements of the environment to enter their experience: the played with the sensored and unsensored objects, experimented with different movements on the ground and on the aerial contraptions, and also observed what was going on with other players in the space. Though in interviews players often stated they were not sure what was going on or what changes they were triggering, they still enjoyed the environment and its immersiveness. The visitors who needed the rules before being able to start to play behaved quite differently. Their attitude was more one of uneasy anticipation: they waited for something to happen, hence their movements through the space were more limited than those of the free players. They also seemed to give up easier on exploring the space: if something didn’t respond immediately to their gestures, they would leave it and proceed to something else. A large amount of people in the rule-based play group were visitors who had affinities with media art and technology. In interviews many comments were made that documentation and a manual should be provided before entering the space. They were also very keen to know how the technology worked, which – since they were aware of the wireless sensors - caused some players to fixate solely on the sensors and discard the rest of the environment. I am aware that this categorisation in 2 groups is highly artificial and biased, however in a performative and behaviourist sense these 2 observations are of interest for further understanding of players initial reaction to these kinds of responsive environments. In addition if txOom wants to be scaleable, developers should make choices whether they want to accommodate all groups in their design, or whether the latter is possible at all.

2.2. Motion and Movement

The Hippodrome Circus provided the first time players could navigate the aerial axis of the environment. In previous iterations of txOom only ground play was possible. This time, txOom developers had designed aerial costumes strapped to swings, and paragliding and mountaineering harnesses. It became apparent that interaction between ground players and air players was quite difficult, though there was a desire from the players to interact. Obviously this relationship needs further design and technical development. Dialogic interaction was also hampered due to the mundane fact that watching someone ‘fly’ 6 meters up in the air is far more exciting that watching someone prowl on the ground. It is a if a micro spectacle had emerged within the txOom play space. It was during the design stages with the various focus groups, that many suggestions of respondents were take into account for the public presentation week. These comments mostly were concerned with matters of safety and comfort. For example, txOom developers decided not to use wooden swings they had initially planned to use; different harnesses with greater comfort were ordered and used in the end, ropes with knots were attached from the roof for players to pull themselves up and swing by themselves. Also, the bungee cord was doubled (to great disappointment of some) instead of using a single bungee cord: this decreased the elasticity and momentum of the bungee. For many respondents the sensation of flying, and aerial navigation proved to be most thrilling; yet comments on the restriction of the aerial movements (due to safety) were also expressed.

2.3. Control of Media and Responsivity

txOom is a responsive environment where the central idea was to recycle players’ behaviour in media. TxOom visitors came with a set of expectations (and some even with preconceived ideas) that their actions would in some way or other have an impact on the environment. This was also told to the players during the briefing and in the dressing rooms. During the user research in the design stages, when more detailed and lengthier explanations were given, respondents indicated that they desired instant responsivity, i.e. they wanted to identify who was triggering what when. In a similar vein to my previous observations on free and rule-based play, one can once again roughly distinguish 2 general groups. I want to stress – yet again – that this division is purely artificial, inadequate and biased. Nonetheless, at these early stages of experimental responsive environments and usability testing, a few generalisations for the sake of argument can be permitted. Players – especially those who had prior knowledge to the detailed working of the environment - required an immediate one-to-one relation with the impact of their gesture on the environment, i.e. if you do ‘this’ than ‘that’ happens. Other players on the other hand, were not so much bothered on how their direct impact on the media occurred and allowed for more immersive experiences, focusing less on the issue of control and personal influence on media. In terms of design, an expectation was expressed by a significant number of respondents for a co-relation between type of gesture and type of audio-visual feedback, and for a certain amount of recognizable patterning within the media. For example on an audio-level there was a recurring expectation for a correlation between type of gesture and the pitch, duration, volume of the sounds. This is something which certainly deserves further research. In addition, responses on the matter of congruence between the architectural space and the media also offered valuable comments deserving further development

3. The Question of Aesthetics and Usability

I would like close with a few comments sailing the murky waters where aesthetics meet usability. If we agree that responsive environments do not necessarily follow the modernist credo of ‘form follows function’ than surely there is a more to responsive environments than their usability (functionality) only. TxOom is an artistic project, and thus imbued with a particular artistic/aesthetic practice. It would be a large flaw not to consider the latter when evaluating the project: functionality is not enough. And form need not always follow function. Coming up with a meaningful methodology or an experiential model for projects like txOom, would mean articulating a position that ecompasses both usability and aesthetics. Nonetheless, even if such methodology is formulated, then the question remains to which extent to implement user feed-back into the project? How far can a participatory design go, or is it desired at all? Glancing back at our questionnaires, I noticed that we didn’t pose any questions explicitly dealing with aesthetics, so our approach might have been a priory incomplete. We asked people to describe their experiences, about issues of diverse interaction, about the media. And certainly within these questions aesthetical issues were indirectly implicated, yet it is telling that people made very distinct comments about aesthetics coupled to issues of interaction, and play. The latter offers an interesting and challenging avenue for future research.

© nat muller

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