Fort Vancouver Mobile - A video overview

Courtesy of: Research Assistant Aaron May of Washington State University Vancouver's Creative Media and Digital Culture program. Produced in 2011.

Video highlights from the apps (36-minute version)

This montage provides a sampling of some of the video media in the Fort Vancouver Mobile apps. This app is much more than just a video distribution system, but these videos show the variety of content, from expositional segments to new journalism to those intended to prompt the development of interactive narratives.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Getting Internet access to The Village

The first obstacle for Fort Vancouver Mobile to overcome: Getting strong Internet access to the area in which we plan to embed content (The Village). The Village is in an urban setting, adjacent to I-5 and state Highway 14,  but surprisingly not covered by any source of WiFi. There is a weak open signal that intermittently appears in The Village, but there is no way we could rely on that for content delivery. So one of our first tasks is to set up the infrastructure with the goal in mind of being able to deliver high-quality video to anywhere in that area. Forrest Burger of RiverBend Productions has been leading that effort and has identified ClearWire, a WiMax-like carrier service, as a possible solution. We'll meet with them soon while exploring other options. This is not an optional step. So the sooner we can get this resolved, the better.

Resource needs for 2010?

After many months of planning and groundwork, the Fort Vancouver Mobile project I'm coordinating at the Fort Vancouver National Historic Site is starting to emerge into public view. That's because the first of what I hope to be many financial backers, the Clark County Historical Promotions committee and Clark County Commissioners, recently awarded the project a $8,900 grant. This in turn triggered the project's official sponsor, Washington State University Vancouver, to link a fall 2010 class in the Digital Technology and Culture program to this project. I also have been surprised at the volume of interest generated just from the grant announcement in the local newspaper and various WSU publications. It's clear that people are highly intrigued by the idea of offering engaging mobile content at the site to share historical information and stories through devices, such as the iPhone or Android phones. What other resources do we need to gather in 2010? Definitely more grant money to support the project team. We need a few more pieces of equipment, too. But at this point, I think, we're ready to at least make the proof of concept.

The Research Question

It's time to get serious about not just a research question, but the research question, the one that will shape my work on the Fort Vancouver Mobile project and be the engine of my dissertation. Since I like to work transparently, I thought I might as well post the drafts and progression of that question here, for feedback (and in case it might help someone else develop ideas of their own).

I have to start somewhere, so here are my initial thoughts on the question.

This project, at least at this point, is expected to be an experimental study intended to validate the hypothesis that mobile devices offer unprecedented potential for delivering immersive and interactive narratives. That, of course, is too broad, even for a dissertation, and it doesn't really say anything. "Potential" takes me nowhere, and what I really want to study is the creation and audience response to mobile content, compared to other kinds of media.

Just producing mobile content right now, in a form that is usable and coherent and accessible, could be a complex and exasperating undertaking. There is no industry-standard platform to deliver mobile interactive narratives. There aren't even many good options in that regard.

And then the questions start emerging about a genre of place, where setting takes on a level of importance potentially equivalent to character and plot, or maybe even more important than those pillars of storytelling, because place / space is what distinguishes mobile as new and different than any other medium. It seems like the most important questions about the field will be focused on place / space in a mixed-reality environment, with one foot in the real world and one in the digital universe. These devices now allow awareness of location but also of spatial relationships to other things and context of all sorts, from user profiles to environmental conditions. How is that different than anything else humans have experienced before? The potential paths of discovery appear endless.

To create a descriptive and analytical study of this sort invariably will mean also leaving a lot of work for later. That is a liberating perspective, I think, in that I don't have to answer every question I can imagine. I just need to start by answering one good one.

I originally was inspired by this field not because I love talking on my cellular telephone. In fact, that is my least favorite ability of the mobile communication device. Instead, I find it endlessly fascinating that virtually all of the information of the world can be delivered to me wherever I am, illuminating whatever intrigues me at that second, especially in relation to something I am experiencing first hand in real space. From my extensive study of narrative, and belief that it is the core perspective through which humans view the world (or as each person sees the next event as the next chapter in a life story), I also am curious about what the combination of that information delivery style with such omnipresent data could lead to, in terms of immersion in knowledge and generation of wisdom. Delving into such territory alone, though, like sitting in the back of the library reading book after book from the shelves, doesn't seem nearly as interesting as an interactive environment could be. Each additional person brought into the story could dramatically affect the dynamic of the content, the interplay, the experience itself. How could collective intelligence in such a situation accomplish amazing feats that we could never even approach individually?

More pragmatically, I wonder what this environment will look like, be like. A game? That thought keeps coming back to me. If it's not a game, at least in the broad sense, with familial relations to other games, as Wittgenstein envisioned that term, then what motivates users?

It seems to me that the concept of edutainment starts to enter the picture here. Before I continue this thought, a bit of background. The Fort Vancouver Mobile project does have certain parameters in place to make it attractive to a variety of partners, including the Fort Vancouver National Historic Site. In that regard, the content to be created and studied needs to be based on either the historical importance of the site, which was the end of the Oregon Trail in the early days, or the regional and national significance of the area related to the reign of the Hudson's Bay Company and the initial U.S. Army presence in the Northwest. So while some people in this field are looking purely at fiction within mobile games, and creating interesting projects like that, my intent is to work as much as possible in the realm of nonfiction, with some creative flexibility inherent in historical reconstructions. Back to the edutainment concept, I envision people coming to the Fort Vancouver site wanting to learn more about the place. That information can be delivered in many ways, from brochures to ranger lectures to living history presentations. A mobile content experience could be another option, and, in that respect, I want to find out how such material can be delivered most effectively and powerfully while also learning about how it is received, hopefully identifying best practices for increasing motivational interests. In other words, how can interactive mobile content be developed best, enriching the visitor experience in unique ways, while encouraging further involvement in this type of content, compelling deeper and deeper exploration of the material?

Those are some of my initial thoughts. That covers a lot of ground, not all of which I will be able to study. And here is a first draft of the research question, a starting point in such an investigation:

Does the intersection of place and space, as accessed through mobile interactive narrative, increase a user's interest, engagement and motivation toward related knowledge about a subject?

Fort Vancouver Mobile: Mission Statement

As part of organizing the Fort Vancouver Mobile project and turning it into a highly successful grant magnet, I need to develop a strong mission statement that presents a clear purpose but also illustrates how this project manages the change in the world generated by mobile technology.

In brainstorming this thought, I started by simply playing around with mission as an acronym (lame, yes, but a starting point nonetheless):

M – Mobility and movement, users are moving around the space; what makes this project so fascinating and new is that elaborate digital content now can be delivered to users on demand, or by the author's command, based on an awareness of location, spatial factors and context as those evolve in real time as people move around in a mixed environment that simultaneously blends virtual and real spaces.
I – Interactive, users respond to the machine, the author, the content and each other and participate in creating the experience, including collaboration that could develop into classifiable collective intelligence ... generated on the fly.
S – Storytelling, all of this really happens as part of a larger story. Purely informational content, the signposts of the digital world, are not nearly as interesting as the ways in which mobile content can be packaged as interactive stories and games. Focus needs to remain on the story, the characters, the plot and the setting; maybe the setting in this new genre takes on more importance than in any other form before.
S – Simplicity, this should be simple to use and simple to get started and simple to engage with; usability has to remain at the forefront of a user-centered design to get people to even try this out. I don't want to challenge people with the technology. I want to challenge them with the content, and how and when they receive the content, and how that affects their experience. I don't want users to be stuck and frustrated just trying to get this thing to work.
I – Immediacy, the goal is media transparency, with the user's space not limited to the screen or reality but a perfect blend of both. Ideally, the mobile device eventually would begin to feel like another tool for navigating and understanding and appreciating the space on a more evolved level of humanity.
O – Occurring simultaneously, a hybrid of real and virtual space interwoven; this content shouldn't encourage the user's eyes to be endlessly locked down on a screen or be so useless that users never think about it. Maybe it should be like a friend along for the journey, one you want to keep chatting with about what you are doing and seeing.
N – Numin-ousity! Inspired by this journal article: Cameron, C. and J. Gatewood (2003), "Seeking Numinous Experiences in the Unremembered Past." The authors state that numinous (new term to me) experiences at historical sites are those that create deep connections with objects and places. That's part of our goal, too!

Now, can I boil those sorts of ideas down to a single statement in support of this project?
How about this for a first draft: "The Fort Vancouver Mobile project serves as a cutting-edge research laboratory for developments in mobile content creation that emphasize location, spatial and contextual awareness in relation to interactive and mixed-reality storytelling experiences, particularly those that take advantage of the new abilities of mobile technology to illuminate important regional and national historical narratives."