Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Innovative Interaction Concepts - part 4: Sphaere

This is the fourth post in a series describing student presentations that we were invited to see and comment during the II City project meeting.

The fourth presentation, by Francesca Ditroilo and Sami Keskikallio, reminded us of another very important and fundamental concept in interaction, much like the first presentation. Their idea was called Sphaere, a wordplay on sphere and share, and was especially about the latter. The Sphaere would be a special area, where users can use pressure-sensitive surfaces (in their example, benches and floor) to leave a presence, and to create kind of living art together with others. The surfaces assume colors - for example, sitting on the bench leaves your body's shape colored into it. Users can also use their hands to "paint" onto the surfaces, and finally the idea of playing music that can be altered by painting shapes was added to the Sphaere.

Much like the first presentation, I don't think the actual application or even interface is as interesting here as pointing out something that is really important: communicating emotions, and dealing with alienation. I mean, the interface is also neat, although it's less an interface and more an art platform or medium, but the really important thing that Sphaere does is allow one to leave a presence, and for others to sense that presence - it's about connection. A single user can, by painting colors and shaping music, effectively express how they feel. Communication is not always easy, and especially communicating emotions is often really hard in a normal social context. Maybe we're embarrassed by how we feel, or feel shame about showing it to the rest of the world so directly - I don't know, I can only guess.

People can share their joy by leaving cheerful expressions on the surfaces, so that others who come can also sense it, and maybe their mood is improved. Or like in Francesca and Sami's use scenario, a woman who is feeling sad finds comfort when she sees the presence of another who has also been sitting on the bench next to her. And even if a lonely person doesn't find comfort in seeing the presence left by others, they can express their feelings of loneliness, indirectly by leaving a presence (tragic colors, sad music) and perhaps awaken the rest of the world to the problem. Maybe someone will notice them one day, and realize that this person who has been leaving these kinds of expressions on the Sphaere is really lonely.

But, like promised in the prelude, I should be giving a game design point of view into this concept. The Sphaere, where the idea is that everyone can freely paint with colors, could be used as a game platform as well. To keep true to the purpose given by Francesca and Sami, I think we should be talking about cooperative games that people can just pick up and continue from the state someone else left it. For example, I came up with a scenario that could help the lonely person mentioned in the last paragraph.

Say, I am feeling kind of lonely and sad, and come upon the Sphaere. I start to experiment around with it for a while, shaping the music to suit my desolate state and at the same time painting with dark colors. The Sphaere could then notice this and start a game. Of course, I'm already a bit down, the game really needs to cheer me a bit before I even to play it. But let's suppose it gets me (well, games a way of doing that for me...) and I start playing. Someone else comes around, and they may feel from the atmosphere in the Sphaere that I'm feeling down, but also the platform could modify the game in a way that the other person can join in, and we can work toward the same goal. The game would then act as a kind of mediator that gets us into contact with each other.

There maybe quite a lot of black boxes in the above scenario, but it does raise another good aspect of games. Board and card games, and similar that you have to get together in some physical space to play, are indeed quite excellent social mediators. They work especially well in situations where no one is feeling quite comfortable - the people don't really know each other, and no one seems to assume the conversation leader role. It's an awkward situation, until somebody breaks out a board game, and, lo and behold, now the people suddenly do have something to talk about. Of course that's the optimal scenario, if people aren't interested in gaming at all (although, I do believe it's just a matter of bringing the right game) then it's another thing entirely. With the Sphaere, the platform itself can be the one who breaks out the game if it detects many individual people who are just kind of sitting or standing apart from each other.

So we have once again arrived to the core of my hypothesis, that games have a lot to give in many more contexts that we usually think about. The other way around, bringing this concept into games, is not as important, and indeed, in a way it has already been done in multiplayer games, especially the non-online variety. Of course, one challenge would be to make expressing emotion the central theme of a game's gameplay. Unfortunately, I don't feel ready yet to tackle this challenge, but perhaps at a later point of time I might return to it. Or maybe someone else does.

Finally, to conclude I think Francesca and Sami's presentation asks yet another very important question: can we relieve loneliness and alienation by using technology to get people to communicate and connect with each other? It is a good question, and their idea is a good example of how we might be able to do this. Finally, at least some of the aspects in this project, if not all, could be explored further by the II City project.

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