I’m Reuben Stanton. This is an intermittent blog of relatively random things: thoughts about technology, reflections on my life and work, and some historical stuff.

My ‘real’ website is here, and I tweet intermittently @absent

Monthly Archives: February 2014

Pattern recognition

I’m at that funny starting stage of my PhD where I’m trying to write a well defined research question, but in order to know what it is that I need to define, I need to read as widely as possible. I’m following all sorts of tangents at the moment: new media theory, interaction design, phenomenology, anthropology, media convergence, digital memory, performing arts practice, creative practice – to name a few, and I do mean a few. 1

I am starting to see patterns popping up, particularly as I begin to circle around a bit of a theme: something to do with prototyping process, and how video can be used as a rapid prototyping tool in the performing arts.

But I still feel like I’m flailing a bit, so as a break from reading and note-taking I invented a pattern recognition exercise. 2 From the top of my head (no looking back out my notes), I wrote down terms that I though were important, had come up regularly, or needed definition. As far as I can see, these are all terms that I’ll need to use in my research proposal.

Next, I put the words in a random order (so as not to make any direct associations), and for each word,  wrote a sentence or two about what it meant in terms of the literature, any contentious issues around the term, how I thought it related to my research, and how I thought it related to the overall project.

What this helped me do was identify any terms that need more definition, terms that were present in my writing but not in the literature, terms that were related to or defined by other terms in my list.

It also helped me in finding my ‘location’: I could identify as soon as I started writing which terms I considered the most important. The exercise was also an extremely useful idea generation tool – as I was writing each term, I would frequently find myself going back and forth, adding and removing from my other descriptions as ideas coalesced and interacted with each other.

Research at this early stage is particularly hard for me, because I constantly have to fight the urge to follow up everything in depth. Everything that I read sends me off on a new tangent, and everything that I read, see, hear, or experience seems relevant in some way – but it’s important that I define how it is relevant.

  1. I guess you want some names? (Academics love names): Liu, McLuhan, Dourish, Boehner, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, Geertz, Lanier, Jenkins, van Dijck, Brockmeier, Kozel, Birringer, Vaughan… 
  2. At least, I think I might have invented it. I haven’t seen or read about this technique before in any case. 

New rule

I’ve been going on and on about “practice” recently, and it’s time for me to do some – this time it’s writing practice. As worked so well with my App a Week project, I’m going to impose some rules on myself: 500 words per day (weekdays), minimum. Academic writing, reflective writing, creative writing – it doesn’t matter. Notes don’t count, nor does rewriting. 500 new words.

I won’t publish them all here, I’m sure a lot will be rubbish, but I’m going to make myself write. I need to get at least as practiced at writing as I am at designing and programming if I’m going to get through this whole “academic program” thing…

Video as performance prototype

There is quite an established community and commercial practice of using video as a prototyping method, especially in software design. I made video prototypes the central artefact of my App a Week project, and in my prototyping work with Jeremy we used video to test interactions before building working iOS prototypes. Why does video work so well for exploration in interaction design? Interactions happen in sequence and over time – it is can be hard to properly understand interactions when seen as discrete elements, it is better to experience them as they will behave over time – video simulations allow you to play with sequence and timing easily. Video is cheap and quick to produce – programming a complex interaction can be time consuming and often exceedingly difficult – it’s much easier to knock-up a quick video that simulates the process rather than building it only to find it doesn’t work as expected, or needs to happen in a different order or though a different process. You know what else happens over time, involves discrete steps to form a coherent sequence, and is time consuming and often exceedingly difficult to produce and test? Physical performance. Because the act of performance is frequently very physically demanding, experimenting with repertoire is both time consuming and exhausting. Repeating an act in a different order is very hard and sometimes dangerous, cutting a video in to a new order is fast and cheap. This seems to be the overriding attitude of Mike Finch, Circus Oz’s artistic director. When working through the development of an act he will shoot multiple rough performances, cut them up in to sequences and sets of skills, edit them rapid-fire (with the performers watching), try new sequences, new music – mostly using a Flip camera and iMovie, but sometimes just with whatever he can get his hands on. I’ve been called upon several times to shoot video – any free hands in the room at the time get co-opted in to the process. To me, this process seems somewhat like creating a sketch or an animatic (I have heard Mike call the process “sketching” in fact) – it is not the performance, but it is a way to test the performance, quickly and cheaply. A prototype of performance, from the perspective of the audience. There is some difficulty getting performers to understand and engage with this. I watched time and time again as Mike would shoot an act and set about experimenting with sequence using iMovie, while talking the performer though the changes. Meanwhile the performer would attempt to ignore the video and try something on the stage instead, while Mike focussed on the screen. So what exactly is going on here? David Carlin says this is part of the “don’t look at the screen, look at me” – the narcissism of the performer. I think it is more than that – I’m guessing that circus performers engage with their performance on a physical and performative level (which makes logical sense), so the act of watching themselves on a small screen actively disembodies themselves from their understanding of what they are trying to do. I think that the video process is too abstract and intellectual for a lot of performers. To the performer, their understanding isn’t in “seeing” their performance – their knowledge is the knowledge of the act itself – physical knowledge, doing knowledge, being knowledge.