Immersive theatre informing VR experiences

But for as popular as immersive theater has become, it hasn’t solved its scale problem. Productions like Then She Fell offer incredible intimacy between the actor and viewer, but to do so, they only fill 15 seats a night. That means a year of shows can accommodate less people than a single movie theater for half a day.

A few years ago, creator Jennine Willet was having drinks with 14 creatives at Disney who worked on park attractions. They’d come to see how she crafts plays like Then She Fell. “They were like, I loved that scene with [redacted], how could you make that for 600 people?’” she says. “I think I spit my cosmo. I said, ‘I think that’s a paradox. I don’t think you can have intimacy with 600 people.’”In person, that’s probably true. In VR? That rules of intimacy can change

Source: The Sexy, Scary Play That’s Influencing Google, Facebook, And Disney | Co.Design (via Jon Kruithof)

This is basically in line with what I’m thinking about for my PhD research – how can the lessons of theatre and dramaturgy and performance be adapted for other media?

The production of Then She Fell sounds amazing – and also insanely exclusive. An in-club-event for in-club-thought-leaders. But, with tools like VR and AR in the hands of new storytellers, these kinds of immersive alternate reality productions are going to be coming from individuals and indie developers. This is partially what the future of storytelling will involve. And – where I’m hoping to go with this – how can these experiences be used to foster reflection on performance and learning?

Lessons learned: AV systems design in the Taylor Institute

We’ve been in the Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning‘s new building for almost a year now, and it’s time to step back and reflect on what we’ve learned through that first year.

The building itself is a marvel of architecture, design and technology. We’re extremely fortunate to be able to go to work there every day. It’s been a constant source of inspiration – not the building, but the amazing things that instructors, students and staff are doing within it, together, on a regular basis.

Several key design principles were used to guide the design at every stage of the process – most importantly, transparency and flexibility. The main floor of the TI is a wide open space, with lots of glass, high ceilings, and windows. The light is amazing. It feels like a space that matters, and that instructors and students matter because it’s for them.

But, designing the audiovisual systems that power the learning studios in a way to enable that kind of flexibility and transparency was a real challenge. We couldn’t just stick large displays on the walls – because many of the walls are glass – and the ones that aren’t glass are Skyfold retractable walls that get folded up into the ceiling to combine studios.

We also couldn’t install permanent floor-mounted displays, because the spaces needed to be quickly adapted for different uses and layouts – each class can use the spaces differently, and sometimes they even change the layout of the room on the fly during a class. We needed technology that would support that kind of flexibility.

We (the broader team, led by The Sextant Group) came up with “collaboration carts” – 33 standalone units on the first floor, each with a 50″ touch display mounted to a stand with wheels. They can be plugged into floor boxes throughout the learning studios, and can be easily repositioned (or removed) as needed. We’re able to do everything from presentations to active learning sessions to collaborative project work to academic conference digital poster sessions, changing the layout quickly as needed.

Here’s a basic schematic of the bits of kit that power these collaboration carts. The carts themselves are really just the 50″ display, a webcam, and an ethernet connection that sends input data to the computer that controls that cart and sends back the video signal for display on the screen. All of the computers are on another floor in the building, in a dedicated server room.

This design gives a level of flexibility I’ve never seen anywhere. Each of the 33 collaboration carts can be positioned anywhere in the learning studios on the first floor, and the system discovers where they are and routes data accordingly. The instructor (or students) can control what happens to the room from a simple Crestron panel on the podium – switching the room from “presentation mode” where the facilitator can display content from the studio PC or their own laptop, and push it to all displays in the room (including the projector and any collaboration carts that have been deployed in that studio). Participants can see the presented content up close on the nearest collaboration cart display – and this has turned out to be a wonderful benefit in line with Universal Design for Learning.

From that Crestron panel, the studio can be switched over into “active learning mode”, turning each of the collaboration carts into a standalone unit to support small group collaboration. In this mode, participants can use the carts for Skype for Business calls (although that hasn’t actually been used, aside from demos), or launch Chrome or Firefox browsers to access any web-based content or software (including Office 365, Google Docs, Prezi, Padlet, Top Hat, and various domain-specific tools including chemical molecule viewers).

The carts also have a “present media” option, that activates a Mersive Solstice Pod for wireless presentation of media (or screen sharing) from participants’ own devices. it works on macOS, Windows, iOS and Android devices, and doesn’t require a dongle or cable for people to share their work. It’s been a really powerful tool, used pretty regularly by students.

We’ve also discovered that students love having access to the studios when there aren’t classes in session. Students have colonized every square inch of the TI, and are regularly working together in the learning studios (and occasionally watching Netflix or even dragging in a PS4 to play on the big screens…) – but by and large, they actually come together to use these amazing technologies to work on projects together. I’m really glad we decided to take the risk of leaving the studios unlocked during operating hours for the TI – our initial plan had been to leave them locked when not in use by a class. We took a risk by changing that, and so far it’s been extremely successful by letting students adapt the spaces and technologies to support their own learning.

So, what have we learned about the design of the AV systems in the first year? Mostly, everything has worked as designed. With the sheer number of units in the building, of course there were failures. Thankfully, that was covered under warranty, so we were able to get replacements quickly. But, the warranties all expire at the end of this month. Gulp.

1. Evergreening. We were in the honeymoon period during the first year, with warranty periods covering everything. That’s about to expire, and we need to plan to evergreen – replacing and upgrading portions of the system each year to make sure it keeps working as needed and we’re able to incorporate new technologies.

2. Fragility. The flexibility built into the system has been absolutely incredible – empowering people to do cool things without needing much more than a quick orientation – but, the state of the tech when the building was designed meant that the level of flexibility came with a cost. There are many points of failure – often, if a collaboration cart goes down or acts up, there are literally 15 different things to check, several trips to the mezzanine floor to reboot things and tweak configurations, and eventually the tech comes back online. But which of those 15 things did the trick? When there’s a class in session, we’re not about to methodically go through 15 trips upstairs and back downstairs to verify each step. We have time to make sure cables are seated, and reboot the smallest number of devices without bringing the rest of the studio or first floor offline in the process.

In the 2 years since the systems were designed, there are already new technologies that have the potential to greatly simplify this design, reducing the reliance on interconnected systems from different vendors (and hoping the interconnection keeps working).

3. Support. We’ve come up with what I think is an ideal support model. Instructors who teach in the building have to apply for space on the TI website, and a committee reviews applications to make sure what they’re wanting to do is feasible. Once they’re approved, we assign a staff member to be their designated first contact, who then liases with the rest of the team as needed. It’s meant we can learn much more about the courses and what instructors and students are dong, while still pulling support from the various groups in the TI as needed.

We’ve also launched a “TI Learning Technologies Coaches” program – 2 undergraduate students who are available to work with instructors and students to help brainstorm strategies before or during classes, and then pull in other team members to expand that support as needed. Drawing on the experience of students has been fantastic, helping instructors to think through some of the things they’re wanting to try from the perspective of students before trying them in an actual class.

4. Stewards. Because of the extreme flexibility of the learning studios, they can be kind of a mess at the end of each day. We have 2 student “TI Stewards” who take care of the studios, resetting technologies, clearing whiteboards, moving the tables and chairs into a common default position, and helping students clear the building before it closes. This has been a huge success.

5. Letting go of control. We had initially planned to leave the learning studios locked when there was no class in session. We let go of that, and it was a huge success. We have instructors doing weird things in the building. Our initial reaction was “is that allowed?” but we’ve always wound up responding “sure! that sounds awesome! how can we help!” and as a result, we’ve had life-sized african elephants made of newspaper, or volumetric data visualizations with a raspberry pi-powered fog machine. And lots of other weirdnesses. Let go. Amazing things happen.

2017 week 9 in review

Work

We moved our team meeting into the TFDL VR Suite to explore some applications on the HTC Vive. We wound up only having time for Tilt Brush and Slingshot in Valve’s VR demo The Lab. We’ll definitely be going back to spend some time with a few other applications…

Saw a demo of a new product from Sony that would have been super-handy 2 years ago. It basically combines two of the complicated-and-therefore-fragile bits of tech we use in our Collaboration Carts in the TI. May need to look at a pilot to evaluate…

Adjudication for the 2017 University of Calgary Teaching Awards wrapped up on Friday – I was on the final committee. It’s an amazing experience, but super-difficult because every single nominee is inspiring in their own ways. The conversations of the committee then have to focus on strengths and gaps of evidence in the nomination package. So many great teachers (and emerging teachers through the TA awards) on campus!

PhD

I gave a presentation of my theme study to the lab. The topic was “performance of emotion by robots in theatre”, and I looked at 5 papers that described a bunch of projects. Obviously, robots don’t have emotions. But robots in theatre give a unique/weird opportunity to explore explicitly describing (recording, programming, playing back) motions and gestures as part of a performance. Interesting work, looking at when a thing shifts from being a static “prop” to becoming perceived as a dynamic “character.”

HRI theme study

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Other

I’m trying to work on maintaining a sense of balance. And, maybe more importantly, not feeling like I have to be responsible for everything, everywhere on campus. (which is clearly impossible – but, figuring out where I can pull back to allow others to take the lead is important).

Also – I’m working on prioritizing what I focus on, so I don’t get caught up in URGENT work that really isn’t important (and if it is important, likely others can do it better and faster than I can), and not getting to the actually important stuff.

I’m also trying to keep active – still recovering from the Back Issue of ’17 – riding the trainer in my basement every morning, and getting out to COP every saturday afternoon for the next bit while The Boy™ is in snowboarding lessons.

another COP afternoon

on persisting in the age of trump

I’ve been struggling with this, as I’m sure most people are. It hit me last night (again), when I was essentially numb as I tried to tune out the insanity from Trump’s speech to Congress.

I try to assume everyone is trying to do the right thing, in their own way, from their own perspective. Even Trump. He’s a scared little man, used to entitlement and getting his way. From that perspective, he’s just trying to use his awesomeness to save the world from lesser men. Yikes.

I can’t buy into the whole fear-everything-at-all-costs rhetoric. I can’t understand the xenophobia and hate that builds from that. I can’t do anything to change this – I’m not American, so I can’t even vote against it.

All I can do is persist. To keep going. To show there is another way.

But – with the toxic and corrosive sludge pouring out of Trump and his team (go team!) – there is a tax imposed on all of us.

I sat there, numb, again, unable to do anything. I didn’t write. I didn’t read (aside from constant opinions and snark online). I didn’t make art, dammit. What a waste of my time and energy. Of all of our time and energy.

So, I’m going to try harder to just persist. To tune out what I can’t have any effect on. To try to make a difference in my local context rather than stressing about global systems that I can’t understand never mind change.

2017 week 8 in review

Work

We figured out a good solution to provide students with a “terms and conditions” reminder at the beginning of the semester. I wish this kind of thing wasn’t necessary, but the only policy documents available are long, dense and unread. We need to provide a clear, useful, brief overview of what students and instructors have agreed to when activating their accounts. Better to do that with an education campaign than with a hammer.

I gave a presentation to the Graduate Students Association’s Symposium, on “advanced learning technologies”. I decided to not talk about shiny bits per se, but to take a step back and look at how the learning environment (space + design + technologies) shapes the learning experience for students. We had some good McLuhan-inspired discussion about how an environment (physical, blended, or online) tells people what is expected of them. And, how that can be shifted through thoughtful design. Then I showed some of the shiny stuff people are using to do interesting things on campus.

PhD

It was Reading Week, but I was able to spend some time thinking and talking about my research plan. I’m letting go of some of the ideas that I had because they are distractions from the core, and have started laying out a series of projects to explore various aspects of the thing. Man, is it hard letting go of stuff that I want to work on. But, focus is important.

More on the plan later, when I’ve been able to think it through some more. But, it feels pretty good knowing that I’ll be working on some really interesting projects that will hopefully lead to novel contributions to a couple of fields.

Also, I rode one of the new Segway self-balancing scooter things. A little embarrassing, but it’s kind of fun. Until campus security swarmed us because of rules etc. The thing can also be put into autonomous mode, or driven using an app. Stick a box on it, and it can make deliveries…

dork on a segway

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Other

Still recovering from wrecking my back at the beginning of February. Walking mostly upright now, but still have some more healing to do. I did manage a couple of hours of easy runs at Canada Olympic Park, while The Boy™ was taking snowboarding lessons. And I’m walking like an old man again. Oops.

COP Afternoon

2017 week 7 in review

Work

I was in Houston for the EDUCAUSE ELI annual meeting1. It was my first time ever attending ELI (or any EDUCAUSE event in person). It’s a really good community, with a nice mix of teaching-types and tech-types.

I presented a poster about our model for communities of practice at the Taylor Institute – I was given a 45 minute poster session, but talked for an hour and a half straight, as people stayed after the session to ask questions. We’re on the right track. Also, lots of similar initiatives happening, with many offering more mature and robust programs (such as the folks at Penn State, the University of Arizona, among others).

PhD

Working on a theme study for my HRI course. I’ve never written one, so it’s been an exploration. Next, prepping a presentation to the research lab.

Also, working with The Boy™ to get a Rapiro robot set up to use as part of a research project. We’ve almost got it running, and then I can try some code to see how it can move, and how the camera could be used.

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Other

Spending a few days in the Convention District of downtown Houston was… interesting. Next to the hotel was Discovery Park, which had an amazing family vibe even late at night. Lots of people just hanging out in the park. Very cool. Also, public art installations, and a skating rink (which was closed, probably because it was like +20˚C). The Tuesday conference keynote was briefly interrupted by 500 cell phones simultaneously blasting out emergency SMS warning, as 6 tornadoes worked through the Houston area. Crazy. Missed.

  1. I always feel like I’m shouting when I type that out []

2017 week 6 in review

Work

The team met with Nancy to talk about what we do, and how that supports the scholarship of teaching and learning mandate of the TI. It turned into a really deep discussion, with lots of good questions.

And, we had a mini retreat with the Learning and Instructional Design group and Learning Technologies Group, to work though how we collaborate and communicate, and to start working on our shared roadmap for the year. Again, lots of deep discussion and great questions. Best. Team(s). Ever.

I’m heading to Houston for the EDUCAUSE ELI Annual Meeting thing next week. I’ll be presenting a poster about communities of practice at the Taylor Institute. I’m looking forward to seeing what ELI is like – it’s my first time attending – but definitely not looking forward to the current cross-border experience.

PhD

Yet another deep discussion with my co-supervisor, winding up with the realization that I’ve been holding myself back in both my student and professional roles – trying to compartmentalize the roles to avoid things crossing over. Which is crazy, because that’s the whole point of the thing. So, I’m working on not holding myself back, and on owning my roles. It looks like I’m essentially developing a new field of study. That’s kind of awesome.

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Other

Lots of snow early in the week. Combined with “lift with your back, not your legs” and I wound up with Old Man Norman Syndrome™ for the rest of the week. Pulled a muscle in my back pretty severely Monday morning before work. And stayed hunched over and in pain for the rest of the week. Awesome. But it’s melting now. The snow, not the back.

piles

2017 week 5 in review

Work

Met with a bunch of folks in IT to start planning how we will turn UCalgaryBlogs into an Official Service™, with all that entails. It’s going to take some time, but it’s a good move. Everyone is on board, so now we just need to figure out what that looks like.

Back in HQ, we had a really good team discussion, trying to start figuring out how to shift from emergency/reaction mode to more R&D projects. It’s going to take some time, but we’ve basically been told we need to be the learning technologies innovation hub for the university, and that’s going to be a pretty major shift.

PhD

Doris Kosminsky gave a presentation to the iLab, about her work on visualizing complex energy datasets in Brazil.

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Other

I moved my web stuff back onto Canadian soil. It hurt, leaving Reclaim Hosting. A lot. Tim and Jim (and the rest of the crew) are awesome. Best web hosting, and best support community, I’ve ever been a part of. But it’s a US company (hosted through another US company’s infrastructure), which means I can’t leave my stuff there.

Friday was a PD day at The Boy™’s school, so I took a personal day and we headed out to Sunshine. His first time snowboarding on a Big Mountain. My third. We took it easy and had a blast.

Sunshine - Wawa Tin Can Alley wide open

on academic travel

The muslim ban executive order was a wakeup call. It’s now a different world, and we need to take the time to think through what the implications are.

Personally, I’d probably be largely unaffected. I’m a middle-aged white male with no visible signs of dissent. Well. I have a beard. But I could probably continue travelling to the US without much trouble.

But. I work with people who would be directly challenged by this. And there are students in the computer science lab I’m part of who would be forbidden from entering the US. Which is ridiculous. But it’s a serious problem – academia is strongly based on the conference model – travel to a place, present your research and make connections with other people doing similar research. It’s how things are done.

And now we’re faced with the new reality that the US is openly hostile to a significant proportion of the academic community. Either they wouldn’t be able to participate in a conference in the US, or they’d be unable to return to their families in the US if they participated in a conference elsewhere. That is insane. Absolutely insane.

But – this may be the time to rethink what participation in international conferences means. The whole carbon-spewing travel thing didn’t do it, but maybe the fear of Trump will. How can we change what it means to participate? How can these conferences be recast as blended and inclusive, allowing people to join from wherever they are safely able to do so?

The technology is basically there. We could Skype or Connect or Hangout. Or use telepresence robots. Or do a conference as a playlist of videos with supporting online community. Trump may be the kick in the pants we need to finally and meaningfully rethink what academic conferences should be, rather than saying they need to be bursts of face-to-face international travel with cosmetic lip service of online sessions thrown in. What if online participation was the primary means of being involved with an academic conference?

I’m going to be travelling to Houston for EDUCAUSE ELI in a couple of weeks. It’s too late to cancel. But I have a feeling it will be the last time I’ll plan to cross the border to the US for some time. I’m already trying to focus more on local communities – this is a good reminder to also focus on inclusive online ones as well.

Repatriating my websites

I’ve been thinking about doing this since the last US election. And now, with the words and actions of the Trump administration, I’m just not comfortable leaving my web presence on US servers.

The decision to move my stuff back onto Canadian servers was easy – just a simple exercise in logic. The hard part is leaving what has been the best web hosting company – the best online community supporter – I’ve ever had the pleasure of being a member of. ReclaimHosting (nee Hippie Hosting Co-op) is the best web hosting provider I’ve ever come into contact with. Great company. Even better people. A pleasure to work with on any level.

And, they’ve been working on plans to set up non-US servers. Which is interesting, but it doesn’t solve the problem – any US company is beholden to respond to the whims of the current administration’s policies, no matter where their servers are physically located. So, the only way to mitigate that risk is to move my content and data onto servers in Canada, managed by a Canadian company. I really, REALLY wish I didn’t have to do that.

My stuff is now running out of CanadianWebHosting.com‘s Vancouver datacentre – where I used to run my stuff back in 2008, after leaving DreamHost, and before Hippie Hosting was a thing.

Over the next few days, I’ll be finalizing the move, adding the various databases and subdomains I use daily. The server was under somewhat heavy load as I rsynced my stuff over. It’s showing signs of behaving better, but may need some tweaking to get things running smoothly. I’m not sure if I’ll have to switch plans yet – the shared hosting should do the trick, if it lives up to the marketing info. If not, I may need to move to a higher tier plan.

So. An easy decision that sucked to have to make, thanks to insanity south of the border.