McBurney’s Encounter: Real-Time Complicity

simon

You are complicit. Or, you could be. We say this phrase from a stance of pure innocence. You didn’t personally commit an evil act, but some of your actions and attitudes are so resonant with this evil, that you must be complicit. Because I am not complicit, I can say that you are. But complicity is a slippery thing. It jumps the gaps and implicates us when we least expect it.

I like this definition:

Involvement as an accomplice in a questionable act or a crime.

As an “accomplice” your participation may be direct or indirect, but what I particularly like is this idea of a “questionable act.” An act of uncertainty—is it an evil act or not? “The Encounter?” Is it a questionable act?

We all have the opportunity to be complicit, in real time, on Tuesday, March 1, 2016, at 7:30pm GMT (11:30am PT). That’s when Simon McBurney’s extraordinary theater company, “Complicite” will perform “The Encounter” via live stream.

The cutting-edge technology of the virtual reality headset attempts to give you a virtual world in a bottle. But what McBurney and Complicite offer is more than that, they’re playing with the stuff of reality itself. The audience is required to wear a headset, but in this case, it’s a pair of headphones.

“…my hand, groping around the universe, has torn a corner open… why did I tear the corner open, if I’m not prepared for the encounter?”

Twenty years ago Simon McBurney was given a book.

Written by a Romanian who escaped the Ceaușescu regime to reinvent himself as a Los Angeles screenwriter, the book, Amazon Beaming, tells the story of photographer Loren McIntyre, who, in 1969, found himself lost amongst the remote people of the Javari Valley, on the border between Brazil and Peru. It was an encounter that changed his life: bringing the limits of human consciousness into startling focus.

Complicite’s technical team has wired the performance space with 600 pairs of headphones. Simon McBurney performs to a microphone that looks like your head. He whispers in this ear, then he moves around the space, and whispers in the other ear. (If you tune in to the live stream, be sure to wear headphones. That way you can experience “spooky action at a distance.”)

Here is a clip from The Guardian to give you an idea of what it’s like:

Judged purely as a sonic experiment, the show is an astonishing technical feat. Amiably chatting to the audience and asking us to put ourselves in the mind of McIntyre, McBurney asks us to don headphones that relay information from a binaural microphone. This results in a complex aural mix of live and recorded sound. At one point, we hear the whirr of the Cessna aircraft that deposits McIntyre in the jungle. At another, McBurney simulates the sound of walking through the forest by trampling on a mass of recording tape. But the heart of the story concerns McIntyre’s encounter with the nomadic Mayoruna tribe, and his dependence on his close relationship with the head shaman, known as Barnacle, with whom he communicates in a way that transcends language.

This is what real-time technology has the capability to create. But technology only gives what we ask of it. McBurney and the Complicite team ask for the moon, the stars, and the jungle. A work of this magnitude begs the question, who should be asking technology for the next new thing? Should it really be the technologists themselves?

Monetizing the Backchannel

One of the best uses for enterprise instant messaging apps is to engage in a backchannel conversation while engaged in a tedious conference call. It's an excellent stage for comedy. Talking back to the screen has a long and entertaining history.

Social media, when it's not just a curated newsfeed, is a backchannel. It's a hallway conversation that comments about what's going on. Slipping advertisements into a newsfeed is what television and radio have been doing all along. It's what newspapers do. No one has really successfully monetized the backchannel.

The various social media provide backchannel tools. When a presidential election debate is on television, the backchannel is sometimes the most amusing way to watch it. The jokes are quick, in real time, and sometimes really provide the best insights into what's going on. The regular news media generally waits until the event is over before weighing in with their official analysis. But during the show, they've got their own backchannel going.

We're not really meant to see the backchannel. It's a private joke, just between us. When an attempt is made to foreground the backchannel and monetize it through advertising or some other data sale, the backchannel creates another backchannel to comment on what just happened.

The backchannel must constantly step out of the light in order to provide the proper cover for the kind of conversations it hosts. The best hope of those trying to monetize the backchannel is to create a front channel and call it a backchannel.

Of course, the best place to learn about those kind of efforts is on the backchannel–that's where you'll hear the best jokes about them…

 

Networked Door Knocker

There's a television commercial making the rounds about a new type of home security. It's a new door bell that sports a video camera and ties into your home WiFi network. This allows you to answer your door from anywhere.

In the commercial, a bad guy rings the doorbell. He's surprised to find that someone answers. Confused, he stammers, “I'm giving free home painting estimates.” The homeowner, a woman, is out and about, but she's able to respond, “I'm bathing the children right now.” Foiled, the bad guy leaves.

It's a good thing bad guys don't watch television. If they did, they might learn to recognize this new networked door bell, and the kind of things people say to give the impression they're at home. Bad guys might also start listening to the background noise to check whether it's consistent with “being at home.”

“You say you're bathing the children, but it sounds like you're at a cafe. You really shouldn't keep your front door key under the flower pot. Have a nice day!”

I can see the value in a product like this. You could remotely respond to delivery services about whether it's okay to leave a package on the doorstep. Or when you're running a little late, it could be used to tell people you've agreed to meet that you'll be home in a few minutes. You could even give out Halloween candy to trick-or-treaters from a remote location.

A networked door bell has many uses, but home security isn't one of them. Especially if you give away the game in your sales pitch. Even though the Network has thoroughly woven itself into the fabric of daily life, we seem to have no idea how it works and what it's good for. The reality is, we barely understand the real impact of the telephone yet.

 

Talk UI: Pushing Your Buttons

Now that there are always-on audio interfaces to networked applications, we begin the conversation about “Talk UI.” In some number of houses there are devices listening and ready to execute commands. These commands and their acknowledgement have the form of a conversation between humans.

An optimistic vision of this interaction might be the computer on the television series “Star Trek.” A dystopian vision would be HAL in the Stanley Kubrick film “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

At this moment in audio interfaces, we're closer to the bad handwriting translations of the Apple Newton, or the unintended word transformations of “auto-complete” in texting applications. We ask the audio interface a question and we get back a non-sequitur. We sigh, and type in a specific query.

I can get my Apple TV to show subtitles to a Danish television series by saying: “subtitles (pause) on.” But I can't say, “Siri, please turn the subtitles on.” That's because this isn't a conversational user interface. Words aren't words as they are generally used by humans. Words are buttons, they have specific meanings. The spoken sounds must mean just what the interaction designer chose them to mean, neither more nor less.

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean–neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master–that's all.”

The Talk UI is “like” a conversation. It has some of the form of a conversation, while not actually being a conversation. We call it a “Conversational UI” to sell it to the masses. They will be disappointed unless they understand that this new thing is just pushing buttons with sound.

The surface area of today's sound buttons is too small. They're hard to press. Creating a larger surface area is the usability challenge for this new interface.

 

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