April in Amsterdam (at IETM!)

May 5, 2016 by

We were lucky enough to be invited to speak about how we work with technology in our theatre practice at the IETM Meeting in Amsterdam in April.

As long-time members of the IETM (an international network of performing arts organisations), we’ve attended many of their Plenary meetings in cities around Europe, but its always especially good to be contributing, as it helps with meeting people who share your interests from the 600+ attendees.

Is the use of digital technology by the theatre and cultural sector really declining? A (ranty) response to the 2015 Digital Culture 2015 Report

December 18, 2015 by

Nesta, AHRC & Arts Council England have just released the findings from this year’s survey into Digital Culture.

Download it here:
http://artsdigitalrnd.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/Digital-Culture-2015-Final.pdf

The Stage (https://www.thestage.co.uk/news/2015/digital-technology-in-decline-in-theatre-sector-claims-report/) have jumped straight in the claim that digital technology is in decline in the theatre sector. But what does this actually mean?

I’ve completed the previous two years of surveys on behalf of The Other Way Works, but this year the request languished in my inbox unopened. So much of the content is focused on ‘digital’ systems and marketing, with narrow and oddly specific questions on particular areas. I didn’t feel that the data I would be contributing would be reflecting our work and relationship with technology in the way I think is important or interesting.

The summary suggests that “digital technology has become seemingly less important to certain aspects of arts and cultural organisations’ work”. They may well have a point, but I wonder how much this is just a case of much of today’s administration and marketing work just being ‘digital’ by default and not considered to be in a special category anymore worthy of particular note?

Surely its no longer news to talk about the fact that your arts organisation has a Twitter account, a Facebook page, a Website, sends eflyers, e-newsletters, emails, uses Skype or Hangouts, cloud-based databases, uploads content to video & audio streaming sites. Isn’t that just the way that individuals and organisations operate these days? This isn’t ‘digital’ anymore, its just work. And its definitely not ‘digital innovation’. When there’s a free, consumer service, that as individuals we use on a daily basis for communication and leisure, just using it to help you run your arts organisation isn’t really worthy of note.

The Stage’s claim that Digital Technology is in decline in the theatre sector specifically highlights the stat that ‘only’ 8% of theatres live-stream their performances. So what? That’s just one (albeit one overly focused on by the funders, see The Space & Nesta R&D fund) use of digital technology. And a pretty dull one at that. I think its disappointing or maybe even embarrassing to judge a live artform’s engagement with digital technology with so much focus on this metric.

The report quotes representatives from some of the funders pointing fingers at the sector for ‘stepping back’ from investing in digital technologies. This seems a bit rich to me. The focus of investment in specific areas by organisations is surely heavily influenced by the funders own priorities and the funding streams they create. And it is these that are perhaps exacerbating the problem.

Nesta/AHRC/ACE’s Digital R&D fund decided to make large grants to a few to act as ‘examples’ for the rest of the sector to follow. The responsibility to succeed and the fact that larger more ‘reliable’ organisations were selected meant that the levels of possible ‘innovation’ within these restrictions were questionable. The money flowed to the few rather than the many. And to buildings more than to independent producing theatre companies, making the future even more unevenly distributed. And don’t get me started on The Space (in fact you can hear me making my points to the panel on the video of the 2nd Q&A session at their recent information seminar – https://www.youtube.com/watch?list=PLrRq4FeMUe-fYjtA7we1rI9ms-3ymR1EP&v=Pe1sCXHEGj0 at 11:50 in).

Their own metrics paint a picture of their pet funds’ failures to seed digital innovation in the wider cultural sector.
And on the bright side? Well maybe there is one…

The potential positive outcome of this report could be that it makes the case for the funders to be able to make more money available for digital experimentation, ideally with a focus on the independent sector and to creative exploration within the artform itself rather than in the marketing of it. And to make more, smaller grants to allow a much larger number of organisations to get involved, try things out, make more things, make better things, to engage experimentally with digital technologies as new tools with which to create their work – essentially to innovate in this area.

Play your cards: time for the tech

March 19, 2015 by

With the basic game mechanic selected for the re-worked scene, we were able to move onto how to technically realise this.

The task is to build a system that will sense the placement of a playing card onto the table at one of the points of the clock face, and trigger the playing of an appropriate sound file.
To tie in with the game mechanic, we only want the sounds to play when the numbered playing cards are placed in their correct position on the clock face (so a 3 of diamonds at 3 o’clock, for example), rather than just anywhere.

For the playback part of the system we are using QLab, a piece of commercial software used widely by theatre lighting designers for programming and running lighting cues for conventional theatre productions. David Haylock has found this to be a reliable off-the-shelf solution when he’s used it on other projects.

David is writing a bespoke programme to process the inputs from the sensing system and communicate them to QLab.

We haven’t yet finalised what kind of technology we will build the sensing part of the system with, but here are the two options we have explored so far.

From some preliminary research David suggested using RFID tags and readers to build the system. RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) is commonly used in the retail sector for theft prevention, and so the components are cheap and easily available. You’ll also be familiar with RFID if you use an Oyster Card on London’s transport system. Our plan is to put tags inside the playing cards, and mount small readers under the surface of our card table.

techblog1

We bought a few tags and readers, and David built a small test system. In its favour, RFID is quite stable and reliable. This is an important consideration if you’re relying on it to work, because it would spoil the immersive fiction if a technician had to come and help fix something during the scene. There is one major drawback though, in terms of it working with card games. Most card games (including our collaborative solitaire) involve stacking or creating piles of playing cards as part of the game play. RFID can’t really understand stacking (there are some complex workarounds, but basically stacking is out for our purposes). The RFID reader can only read the tag that is placed immediately on top of it. All tags piled on top of the first tag are blocked from being read, and so have no effect.
We think that this is a deal-breaker, so have looked around for other solutions.

David’s current avenue of investigation is image recognition, using a camera. David has recent experience of developing this kind of system from his work on the Playable City winning project ‘Shadowing’. He proposes using a PlayStation3 camera, which we will need to mount above the table looking down (with a birds-eye view of the card table). This part is relatively easy, we will just need to design our bespoke card table with a suitable structure above it to hold the camera. It is the recognition and processing of the images where the real work comes in.

A google search turned up several Open Source projects exploring this area, but after some investigation David has begun to write his own recognition programme. The recognition is a 2-stage process: 1 – the computer needs to recognise that it is seeing a playing card (markerless object detection); 2 – once it knows its a playing card, it needs to work out what number and suit the card is, by comparing the image it can see with the ones it has in its library and finding a match (Template Matching).

BlackTonicCameraTest

BlackTonicv2Camera

The potential down-sides of image recognition is that the system is very sensitive to differing light levels, but we propose to create a reliable lighting state by mounting a downward pointing lamp next to the camera above the card table to eliminate this issue.
The positives for our purposes are that the camera and system together behave more like the human eye – the camera sees the card on the top of the pile, and will be programmed to respond to that by triggering a sound. We will also be able to use a standard cheap card deck, rather than having to make or have manufactured a special card deck with RFID tags inserted.

There’s a lot more still to discover and test before we build the final system. Then there will be lots more testing! We’ll then build all of this into a specially constructed card table, which will conceal all the technology hardware, keeping the interface as close to the experience of a ‘normal’ card game as possible.

Agent in a Box R&D

April 18, 2014 by

We were lucky enough to be awarded a ‘CATH’ grant last year, and have been working in collaboration with some excellent people to create a new concept using our 2008 production Black Tonic as its inspiration.

Agent in a Box is a collaboration between:

Katie Day – http://www.theotherwayworks.co.uk/

Alyson Fielding – http://www.pyuda.com/

John Sear – http://www.birmingham.ac.uk/facilities/digitalhumanitieshub/staff/sear-john.aspx  /  http://wallfour.co.uk/

Inspired by The Other Way Works’ 2008 immersive theatre production ‘Black Tonic’

This pilot project has been delivered through the Collaborative Arts Triple Helix, a research project by the University of Birmingham in partnership with University of Leicester, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council as part of their Creative Economy Knowledge Exchange programme.

Agent in a Box will eventually be an hour-long spy thriller, theatre game experience, to be played alone in an anonymous hotel bedroom.
Agent in a box is an exciting creative content offer for those boring evenings you spend in chain business hotels when travelling for work with only CNN for company.

The experience is delivered in the form of a portable box (the size of a box of chocolates), which can be purchased for yourself or as a gift. An interactive story of espionage told through paper fragments, phone and text messages, provoking the player to accept the invitation of the anonymous hotel room to become someone new if only for one night.

We are now seeking partnerships to help us develop the project.

Technology Feasibility Study Brief

April 17, 2014 by

Technology Feasibility Study – ‘Protagonist’

Task:

Deliver a technical specification and development plan for a prototype of an online app that automatically generates a short film memoir about a user from their social media content.

Fee:

£1,000 to deliver the Feasibility Study. We would estimate this to be 2 days work.

Background:

‘Protagonist’ is a practical attempt to make sense of our vast stashes of online personal data in a human, emotional and narrative way.

This is an early stage research project funded by REACT (http://www.react-hub.org.uk/protagonist/) and is collaboration between Katie Day, Artistic Director of The Other Way Works, a theatre company based in Birmingham, and Dr John Troyer, Deputy Director of the Centre for Death and Society at the University of Bath.

Requirements for the Prototype:

1.  Gathers social media content from user’s accounts (e.g. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, Google+);
2.  Produces a video from user’s social media content;
3.  Content of video aims to be of significance to the user (it is anticipated that this would be achieved by automated classification and clustering of content);
4.  Video looks attractive and professionally produced;
5.  Video is 1-3 minutes in length;
6.  It should be cost effective and seek to use pre-existing assets, services and tools;
7.  Cost of Prototype development does not exceed £40,000.

Requirements for the Feasibility Study:

1.  It will include a proposed technical solution;
2.  The development plan will include effort estimates and suggested delivery timescale;
3.  The technical specification and development plan should be clearly and realistically costed;
4.  A list of the technologies required;
5.  Person specifications for developing and integrating these technologies, and leading the project;
6.  A Skype meeting with Katie Day after the study is complete to discuss the proposal.

Application Process:

Please get in touch with Katie Day via email to info@theotherwayworks.co.uk by 6pm on Friday 25th April 2014 to express your interest in delivering this brief.

Please provide a brief overview of your relevant experience. Include any links to your CV, portfolio or existing apps.

We have more detailed requirements and use cases for the prototype that we will supply to the selected applicant.

React Future Documentary Sandbox Ideas Lab – A review

March 12, 2013 by

React Future Documentary Sandbox Ideas Lab, Bristol 4th March 2013

Last week I made the trip down to Bristol for the Future Docs Sandbox event at Watershed. It was nice to be on the other side of the fence for a change as a participant, having organised several of these events myself when I worked at Watershed in 2010 producing Theatre Sandbox, and helping to facilitate for one of the Heritage Sandbox events.

It was a mentally stimulating day, gave me lots of food for thought, and started me on my journey to applying to be part of the Sandbox if that’s what I want my next step to be.

But I mostly came to this conclusion in retrospect. During the day it felt at times like quite a struggle, sometimes a bit lacking in focus and energy, and a little frustrating. All of this was interspersed with the pleasure of catching up with old colleagues and friends though, which rather took the edge off it. Having run similar sessions myself, it made me wonder if there was much more that React could do to improve the Ideas Labs, or whether the structure was good and it was really down to us the participants to make it a great day.

Is this event for me?

I felt on the periphery of the subject, as a theatre maker with no experience or training in Documentary. I fell within the ‘creative economy partner’ camp (the other being the ‘academic partner’), but as neither a documentary film maker or a technologist whizz kid what did I have to offer?

But then I wondered if other people felt like they weren’t quite the target audience either, not tech savvy enough, or too ‘old school’ in their documentary making perhaps. The exceptions being those people who talk long and loud about how they were doing all this stuff 10 years ago anyway, but then if they already know it all then perhaps they’re not the target audience either.

From my experience of Theatre Sandbox, there are a lot of people at the events who don’t ‘get it’, or are just there to hear about what’s going on but with no intention of being involved, but there are always a handful that have a real passion for the subject, a curiosity to learn more and who gain a lot from hearing other peoples ideas and perspectives. These are the people who write the best applications and who get selected in the end.

How can all participants be empowered to feel that they could be the right people to make a ‘Future Documentary’?

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What’s the focus and where’s the energy?

Whilst there are things that organisers can do about this, I do also think that if you get a group who are low in energy, defensive or don’t engage for whatever reason then its going to be quite an uphill struggle to maintain focus and energy over a 5 hour session. Sometimes it only seems to take one or two vocal people to set the tone for a whole group, putting everyone on the defensive.

I did feel the lack of ‘Inspiring Examples’ during the day’s session. There was a session called this on the plan, but the way that bit happened (3 x one minute chats with someone you hadn’t met before) didn’t really provide me with any inspiration. I could have improved the situation for myself by doing more preparation before the event, using the well-put-together list of suggested viewing that the React team had provided. But on the day itself, there wasn’t much to help us get our creative juices flowing, and I think this may have contributed to a lack of focus for the day’s conversations. Again, I wonder if some of the other attendees hadn’t done much prep either, and perhaps working on the basis that most people hadn’t done any prep would be a better starting point for what to include during the day’s sessions.

I would also have welcomed more provocation or contribution of ideas from members of the React team during the conversation sessions (but maybe I was just unlucky that they weren’t in any of the groups I spent time in).

There were 3 sessions of around 30 minutes each for Open Space-style concurrent discussion groups. I felt that these were a little too short to really get into anything, and with people moving between groups it made it harder to get beyond initial thoughts. Energy and focus had begun to wane by the 3rd session, where only 2 or 3 (rather than an anticipated 8-10) sessions were proposed by the group. There was no feeding back to the larger group, and the lack of knowledge of what conversations had been going on in other spaces meant that I didn’t get a sense of what ideas the event had generated as a whole. I know that reporting back sessions can be truly dire, but I missed the feeling that the day was more than what I had directly participated in myself.

How can the facilitators inspire and provoke the participants, maintaining energy and focus throughout the day?

How can participants be encouraged to trust that the day will eventually deliver what they want from it if they participate fully in it?

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As I said at the start, I only realised myself on the way home in the car how much the day had given me food for thought. I talked all the way home about ideas, ways into the ideas, problems, questions.

So, thanks to everyone at React and Watershed for a lovely day.

 

Talking it up

November 2, 2011 by

Katie will be popping up at a couple of different events in the next few weeks.

We’ve been selected to present our Bandstand project as part of the Ideas Summit at the ISAN Biennial Conference in Glasgow on 16th November. Its a chance to let national outdoor programmers know about our plans for the project, and opportunities for them to get involved in co-commissioning new content for the platform.

She’ll also be at the Hello Culture Conference in Birmingham on 17th November on the Mobile, Location and Games panel.  The one day event will explore how the cultural sector can exploit digital technology.