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Punchdrunk / Media Lab update – May 2012

This blog post has been written by Colin Nightingale (Senior Producer, Punchdrunk)

I joined Punchdrunk almost ten years ago and during that time I have been heavily involved in the creation, production management and producing of virtually all the company’s major projects.   Most recently, I consulted closely with the team building Sleep No More in New York to help realise the project within the given time.  Since the shows opening, I have remained resident in the city for extended periods of time advising the executive producers (Emursive) on matters regarding the maintenance of the show and the development of secondary activity at the McKittrick Hotel (home of Sleep No More) without losing the integrity and attention of the main production.  This placed me in an ideal position to consider the challenges that the NESTA funded research project has presented as we work together with MIT Media Lab to realise this ambitious project.  My involvement in the whole process has been a great opportunity for me to learn directly from Media Lab about the capabilities of current technology.  Since the early days of Punchdrunk, there has always been a desire to explore the territory between online environments and the tangible worlds we create and it is hugely exciting to have had the opportunity to delve deeper into this area than ever before and really start to imagine the future.

A major challenge for me personally has been working in isolation over here in New York, whilst the rest of the core Punchdrunk team has been working in London throughout the majority of the development phase.  Punchdrunk’s creative process is naturally organic and constantly evolving but this has been especially true in this instance, given the unknowns that you inevitably face whilst working on a research project of this nature.  However, the wonders of email and Skype (however imperfect it is at times) have been invaluable and have allowed us to stay well connected in between the short trips that the Punchdrunk and Media Lab teams have been able to make to New York.

Over the last two months, as the shape of the project has finally settled down, we have been working hard to solve the challenge of the integration of all the new ideas into the larger Sleep No More production.  One major challenge, and something that I have personally found fascinating, has been considering how we create an experience for the live participants in the ‘show world’ that doesn’t disrupt or prove detrimental to the wider Sleep No More audience. This has involved careful analysis of the character performance loops in order to identify spare windows of time in specific locations in the building to exploit for this project.  Thanks to the incredibly detailed information that has been carefully documented by Carrie Boyd and the Stage Management team, this has been a relatively painless process. The daunting part has been discovering how intricately we had originally filled the building with activity. Therefore we have come to realize that the windows of opportunity have been smaller and fewer than we first envisaged and we will be working hard in the rehearsals to make sure that everything is possible in the pockets of time that do exist.

A Special Ops design team has been formed to work on some new design ideas that will be installed in the space especially for the NESTA project.   Under the guidance of the original Designers Livi Vaughan and Beatrice Minns, new props have been sourced and made, all in keeping with the overall aesthetic of the McKittrick Hotel.

We have also been making steady progress with the installation of the new technical infrastructure that the project requires to make possible all the incredible ideas that MIT Media Lab have developed to allow the online and real world participants to explore their separate environments whilst connected, and at times able to interact and guide each other.  Over 8000 ft of new cable runs have been installed around the building and this weekend Ben Bloomberg from Media Lab has been in New York making final adjustments to ensure that all the cable is working and that the newly installed internet is fully operational ready for the start of some intense testing over the coming weeks.

All of this activity has had to be scheduled around the general day to day maintenance and rehearsals that are required to keep Sleep No More running 8 times a week along with the many one off events that are now being hosted in the 100,000 sq ft of the McKittrick Hotel.   There are around 150 people working in the building on a weekly basis and we greatly appreciate everyone’s help in  accommodating this project, from the producers  (Emursive) with their willingness and flexibility to Wayne and his amazing maintenance team who have even kindly given up part of their workshop to become the control center for the project.   Excitement and intrigue is growing, and everyone in the building is very much looking forward to beginning the testing phase and finally seeing all the abstract ideas that we have been trying to describe become a reality.

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Punchdrunk/Media Lab Update 4

The following post was written by Simone Ovsey from the MIT Media lab. Simone is the project manager for Media lab and is working closely with all of the team in the Opera of The Future group who are collaborating on the project. We thought it was vital to hear about the project from our digital partners, as up to now only Punchdrunk have spoken about the project on this forum.

For our next post we’re hoping to get a blog from one of the team working on the project on site in NYC.

Media Lab Update

Working with Punchdrunk to realize a new vision for audience interaction and participation is proving to be a most worthwhile and rich experience for our team, led by composer Tod Machover, at the MIT Media Lab. We are excited – and it has been great fun – to be partners in pioneering a new type of live performance that highly personalizes the experience for onsite and online participants and explores original ways of fostering meaningful relationships between these audience members through real-time interaction. Entering into uncharted territory within the world of Web technologies, wireless communication, and multimedia has certainly proven to be a fascinating and ambitious venture.
On the Media Lab end, we are at work integrating technologies that have never before been combined and developing entirely new ones. Pushing the current capabilities of Web standards and wireless communications technologies, we are creating the infrastructure to deliver personalized multimedia content sourced in real time from a central location to allow each online participant to receive a completely unique experience co-created by his or her own actions as well as those of an onsite audience member within the context of the existing Sleep No More experience. Whereas each live visitor to Sleep No More constructs an individual experience based on a single multi-stranded presentation, to make the online experience be equally compelling, we have needed to create an entirely different show for each online “player”, definitely not what we imagined when we started the project! Through custom applications of emerging Internet browser capability, video delivery infrastructure, affective sensing, and Cisco wireless equipment that outfits the McKittrick Hotel, we are able to connect online users with counterparts in the live show to push past the boundaries of virtual collaboration and the dynamics of two people interacting through carefully defined/constructed and mediated methods.

The most surprising aspect of the project so far is how much of an intriguing and creative challenge this work has posed for us on the conceptual level. We’ve discovered that many of the technologies we require to create an experience that successfully integrates an immersive multisensory experience across distance simply do not exist, so we have the exciting opportunity to create them. We are re-imagining the current application of protocols in the realms of video streaming, interactive fiction, and virtual collaboration while building new infrastructures to house our innovative developments. Our team of software and hardware engineers, sound designers, interface specialists, game narrative specialists, and “affective computing” experts has been involved in the entire process of constructing entirely new narratives to add to the current Sleep No More show that can enhance and “explode” meaning for both the onsite and online participants.

Since the start of our collaboration with Punchdrunk at the end of 2011, we have maintained a successful, working relationship with the visionary immersive theater company. Conquering the transatlantic divide, we have found an optimal balance of idea sharing and iteration to ultimately realize our project goals. After months of successful communication via e-mail and video conferencing, our synergy was exemplified in a recent trip to NYC for an intensive day of brainstorming and problem solving with all of the members of the Media Lab and Punchdrunk teams. Once together, we were able to make decisions about the scope and quality of the experience that marked the transition from ideation and development to the production phase of the project. The fluid exchange of creative ideas between both sides has leveraged our broad range of expertise to the fullest in order to co-develop an experience that is completely original in both the technical and theatrical realms. It has also allowed us to proceed through the less-optimal communication channels of e-mail and Skype with renewed vigor and deeper collaborative understanding.

Author: Simone Ovsey

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Punchdrunk/Media Lab Project Update 3

February 24, 2012 Leave a comment

Over the past month we have been concentrating on the online element of the project, which has involved coming out of our comfort zone and has been both challenging and exciting. We have also been allocating portals to spaces in the real world within a newly filled out narrative, and as a team have honed in on the portals which will be most useful, practical and stimulating.

We have been looking at different models of communicating with an audience on screen, and what the online experience can be. Knowing that 3D rendering is not the direction we want to take, as it is expensive, derivative and limits the work of one’s imagination, has led to discussing other ways in which we can stimulate an audience whilst they are using their computer. We have realised that binaural sound is hugely important, and can be used to navigate space, tell a story and evoke a mood.

The MIT team have been doing amazing work (they have already pulled an all-nighter!), and have given us ten practical examples of how the experience could be played out online. Their ideas have been extremely inspirational and of course, sadly, we cannot reveal what they are, as that would spoil it for you!

Although our attentions have been focused on the online aspect, we have, of course, not forgotten about developing the on site experience. Surprisingly, for a show that has no text, language and the written word are an increasingly exciting way to give an audience member free reign to roam the space, and the ability to interact with performers. The next step is to try and apply the right discipline and method of communication to each element of the story, which is what we are currently working on.

Following Livi Vaughan’s (one of our lead designers) seven-day visit to New York, our designs for the new spaces are almost complete. We have also pretty much completed the full narrative of the show. This has led to the realisation that we are going to need at least one new live performer and quite a few online!

The final step is to work out where the portals of communication sit, before we all head to New York on the 5th March to begin the process of casting and building the show.


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Punchdrunk Media lab Project Update 2

January 25, 2012 2 comments

How do I write this update without revealing too much?

Since our last blog we’ve been working hard to develop the narrative of the piece and the spaces within the piece. We have treated the creation of this very much like the creation of a Punchdrunk production. Developing character and a through-line libretto style narrative.  This has begun to frame the nature of the relationship between the online and the real world participant.

We have been trying to develop something that will complement the real world experience and also create something compelling for the online participant and viewers. The key is to develop something that feels exciting for an online participant and draws them into the experience. This has been the real nut to crack, both PD creatives and Media Lab team have very much been leaning towards creating the real world aspects. The real challenge is of course not this at all, but in creating an exciting online experience. Felix our artistic director has just returned from a trip to the production in NYC (Sleep No More and after meeting with Akito, a student from the Media Lab, has seemingly made a break through on this front.  We are learning that face to face communication is key and relish the moments when we can get in the room with Media Lab.

Things we’ve been exploring and are interested in:

Portals- How do the online and the real world communicate?

Aesthetic- How do we capture the set and the action, is it live, rendered, filmed or photographed?

Navigation- Related closely to the above, what does it feel and look to explore the online space?

Contact- Is this constant or fragmented. Is their freedom for both particpant’s or are they unified?

Interest- Can we maintain a level of interest for an online player over a long period of time? Do they need extra activity to hold them?

Feedback- how can the actions of both participants impact on one another’s environment or experience?

In other news, our research team completed their first trips to the production. It has been interesting to hear their findings and their interpretation of our work.  Their insights will prove invaluable to the development of the piece, and also give us a unique understanding of audience’s response to our work.

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Punchdrunk/Media Lab update

December 12, 2011 Leave a comment

Here’s our first monthly update. The Punchdrunk team went out to visit our New York production Sleep No More at Halloween. Needless to say this was much fun, the production hosted 4 nights of Halloween themed parties (dress; red, black, white and of course All Hallows Eve scary). It was brilliant to see the space come to life as a party venue and also excellent to wander around and begin imagining how the R&D project will work across the space.

Following this we took a bus ride to Boston and spent a day planning with our partners at the Media Lab. Our contact Tod Machover arranged an inspiring day, brainstorming the project with his immediate team and also visiting other areas of research that could feed into the project. We had lunch with some prospective technology partners, again imagining what the project could be. Needless to say there is no end of willing and talented collaborators. These meetings left us incredibly exhilarated if not a little brain dead (in a good way), we’re now in the mdist of developing the narrative and journey of the project. From this everything else will follow.

Half of our research team is currently completing a trip to NYC and Media Lab and the other half will complete an initial trip in early January. We’re excited about how these findings might feed into the project.