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GRAND ideas

I’m writing this post from the Vancouver Convention Centre, where I am at the 2011 GRAND conference. I’m here for the PLAYPR project, which focuses on the future of play and performance in gaming. This means I’ve been spending my weekend with Kinect hackers, game developers, haptic coders — the kind of people whose brains are veritable Swiss Army knives.

It’s been a fantastic weekend so far.

Until recently, my education was primarily in the humanities. This means I never saw what pure research and prototyping could look like up close. Now that I’m pursuing a Master’s of design, that’s all changed. Not only do I watch artists at work in the studios at OCAD U, but I can visit any of the graduate labs and look at what’s on the slab. What excites me about this is not just each new prototype’s cool factor, but also the excitement that each designer brings to his or her project. These are smart, opinionated people who know they’ll never be finished making the best widget they can. Their enthusiasm is contagious. It’s great.

Here are a few projects that really sang to me:

  • The Reading Glove. Josh & Karen Tanenbaum’s project is a tangible narrative installation that allows users to pick their way through a story by touching and examining objects and listening to them speak. Arduinos embedded in the objects responds to technologies in a glove the user wears, so the user chooses her own adventure based on her own personal curiosity. The end result is a hypertext-style story reminiscent of The Patchwork Girl in form if not content.What really excited me about this device was the story behind the story: Josh and Karen went through a systematic but still deeply meaningful writing process in creating the final story by first collecting objects, then doing narrative passes over them to think up plot elements and backstories. They actually wrote several narratives, but chose only one for their project. At the end, they had their own objets du narrative, a private museum exhibit of fiction. This is a technology I would love to bring to my writer’s workshop for exercises in creative collaboration. Not because we could sell the end results (though we could do that), but because it would be awesome.
  • BELIEVE: This is a whole package of smaller projects having to do with creating believable characters in video games. More human than human, that’s their motto. I spied on their lunch meeting yesterday, and what really struck me was Chris Eaket & co’s work with BioWare to figure out how videogame writers do their job. It’s a different job than being a novelist or a screenwriter, and the industry is lacking a tool that fosters collaboration and tracks things like worldbuilding reveals. I’m happy to hear that somebody (actually, a huge team of people) is working on issues like this.

My own project involves writing foresight scenarios for a wearable computer. I’m imagining games, and writing about the experiences players might have. This seems pretty simple to me, but so far the GRAND crowd (pun intended) have been intrigued to hear about it, and about my choice to write science fiction. There have been a lot of questions like “Why sci-fi?” and “What kind of sci-fi is it?” The first question I have no problem answering (that’s another post), but the second one I’m still figuring out. I imagine I’ll spend the rest of my career figuring it out. But in the meantime, I find that even trying to answer that question leads to interesting, energizing conversations, often with very clever people. Nice work if you can get it!