Bonding Experiences
Issue: Volume: 26 Issue: 7 (July 2003)

Bonding Experiences

Theme parks, video games, books, movies, the Web, toys, theater, concerts, CDs, DVDs, personal video recorders, wireless phones—we are surrounded by an endless range of entertainment experiences and technologies. Yet these forms and formats have remained almost entirely separate from one another. Why hasn't the entertainment industry been able to bring about content convergence—given the expanding technology divergence—and combine the strengths of each platform to create something that is greater than the sum of its parts? What will it take for them to meet this challenge?

We need to link forms of entertainment the way atoms of a molecule connect to other elements"--One of the first hybrid forms of digital entertainment was interactive digital cinema. Unfortunately, commercial implementations of interactive cinema have thus far left much to be desired. For example, the 1995 film Mr. Paypack, a 20-minute interactive movie, came up short because even though the audience could steer the plot—by voting with joysticks—the story itself wasn't compelling, which left participants unsatisfied.
Joshua Strickon is a senior R&D engineer at Apple Computer and the chair of the Emerging Technologies venue at SIGGRAPH 2003. "

Other attempts from the entertainment community, such as Loren Carpenter's Cinematrix Interactive Entertainment System, which uses a paddle-voting system, demonstrate that audience members can successfully collaborate on solving complex tasks. But approaches like these have yet to be adopted by current content producers, largely because of previous failures with less-capable systems.

Another recent example was introduced by the video game industry. Electronic Arts came close to something truly amazing when it released Majestic, a game that was played in real time over cell phones, fax machines, email, instant messaging, and the Web. It successfully integrated these existing technologies, creating a game that had no distinct physical entity. Alas, the game play was less than desirable, and the interaction was minimal, resulting in an experience that was more a mixed-media narrative than a game.

Perhaps the most successful attempt to integrate a variety of media into a coordinated set of experiences has been with The Matrix. In fact, an entire franchise has been built around the film, including The Animatrix—a series of nine short animations (ed. note: see "The Matrix: Anime-ted," June, pg. 18), as well as a video game, and two new films, all with intertwined plot lines. The content of these stories weave in and out of each other, while each remains a self-contained body.

We don't fully understand what it will take to craft truly engaging interactive experiences. We don't know what the killer app will be. However, we do know many of the problems hindering us from reaching that goal. Indeed, many of the previous attempts have been more gimmicks than exploitations of the merits of new technology. To move past previous shortcomings, we must better understand how to create appropriate interactive content. For example, Mr. Payback and the Cinematrix system have shown that you can gather information from an audience, but we need to integrate that with content that lends itself to being driven in that manner. Likewise, Majestic showed that a range of technologies can be harnessed to successfully engross participants, but we need to combine that with equally engaging game play.

Progress toward these goals would start by finding more powerful ways of drawing the user into the experience. For instance, entry into the story could begin from any medium—a book, game, or movie—and then be followed by the integration of new content from other sources. Rather than replicating existing content, each element could draw on prior experiences and then balance that with new information. Along the way, each medium could create an experience that would be appropriate to its physical form.

Future entertainment experiences could also incorporate content that changes over time. Massive online worlds such as Everquest and The Sims already allow users to create their own characters and elements as a means of achieving lasting appeal. Cross-media experiences would not only allow that, but they could also, themselves, adapt to each user.

One of the shortcomings of the theme park and location-based entertainment industries has been getting people to return. The "been-there, done-that" attitude among visitors needs to be overcome by experiences that evolve. Consider a ride that recognizes and adapts to users and is truly different each time you come back. Or imagine the theme park itself as a physical embodiment of a video game, linking to experiences you have had at home on a game console.

If we can design content that can be collectively exploited by individual physical media, entertainment genres will blur boundaries and provide truly remarkable experiences. As Marshal McLuhan stated, "The hybrid or the meeting of two media is a moment of truth and revelation from which new form is born." It's time to create a new form.