At Webwise 2012 Robert Stein gave a presentation on TourML & Tap. When completed the toolkit will help museums build mobile tours that contain semi-adaptive narratives. The thought driving this tool as far as I can tell, is that visitors, or users if you like, typically do not adhere to the often linear narrative prescribed by the curator of a tour. Observations of visitor interaction with exhibits indicate that there are multiple entry points to content often mediated by factors such as individual aesthetic interest or thematic interest, rather than a dogged appreciation of the relationship between time and a notion of development within an artistic movement. On the design side, TourML breaks down visitor experience into Assets(things), Stops(sets of things), and Connections(relationships between sets of things)- the tour schematic takes the form of a directed graph.
At one point Robert posed the question, “What if museums knew where we were from?” He didn’t elaborate on the question much, but it got me thinking about the connections between oral history and technologies that adapt delivery of content based upon user traits. A museum tour could potentially sync with our mobile devices and make connections between exhibits and the origin of the visitor. What could result is a tour that tailors the sequence in which you experience exhibits based on some factors indicated by your origin. It strikes me that the potential to create a feature of this kind would represent something akin to an electronic manifestation of the performative aspect that oral history and memory can take on- the tour might “observe” characteristics of the audience and this observation in turn would alter sequence and emphasis in the tour- an effect similar to that of the audience upon a narrator or individual “performing the past”.
TourML and Tap was in some ways inspired by Mark Riedl’s The Fabulist – an experiment in generative storytelling. The Fabulist is an architecture, running on a computational system, that automates story generation and presentation dynamically. As envisioned by the designer, The Fabulist can adapt to (1) user preference and abilities (2) has expanded replay value and is (3) capable of interacting with the user in ways that were not initially envisioned by system designers.
In the process of selecting, ordering, and presenting narrative content The Fabulist goes through a series of actions:
- Fabula Generation
- Discourse Generation
- Media Representation
For me the most interesting part of this process occurs during “Fabula Generation”, when a narrative plan is generated that, “Meets the outcome objective and also meets the requirements for character intentionality with the Intent-Driven Partial Order Causal Link (IPOCL) narrative generation algorithm.” The algorithm attempts to satisfy human conditions for narrative believability by presenting logical causal progression and character actions that do not rupture an individual’s suspension of disbelief. The image below from Riedl’s website illustrates a story that The Fabulist generated. To read the text of the story visit his website.
Whenever I find myself getting super enthused about the advances of the digital I usually try to contextualize the advance relative to the closest analog equivalent. Maybe this love of context and grounding owes itself to my historical training and to the healthy sense of skepticism that it has fostered. The closest equivalent to The Fabulist that I can find in the analog realm- and its a tenuous equivalency- is Sven Lindqvist’s A History of Bombing.
Abandoning the linear structure that characterizes the majority of social science inquiry, Lindqvist drops chapters in favor of interwoven narrative “pathways”. As the reader flips pages back and forth in pursuit of Lindqvist’s arguments they participate in weaving together the narrative strands of A History of Bombing. What results is a loss of distinction between the narrative pathways. The loss of distinction between the pathways is intentional as it serves to support Lindqvist’s cyclical conception of historical development. The cyclical nature of development is communicated by virtue of repetition. Every pathway within A History of Bombing repeats an argument in which race and technology interact to authorize and enhance the use of violence in history. From the first pathway to the last pathway, from one century to the next, the relationship between the themes remains constant. The last pathway redirects the reader to the very first pathway, thus the text begins and ends with the statement- “Bang, youre dead!”.
Readers can choose to follow the pathways that Lindqvist charts but they are also encouraged to chart their own way through the text. Lindqvist represents the themes in such a way throughout the text that it remains open and flexible to this level of user interaction.
The key commonality the two projects share then is a design that allows varied levels of adaption to the interests of a user without sacrificing the narrative goal- in a sense they provide a bespoke experience. How fancy.
I obviously enjoyed Lindqvist’s book despite charges that the structure is gimmikcy and may or may not share some similarities to a “choose your own adventure”. Admittedly, limitation of form doesnt give it the dynamic potential of The Fabulist but Lindqvist sure stretches that paper, ink, and glue. I obviously think the semi-adaptive characteristics of TourML and the adaptive characteristics of The Fabulist are very cool. I dont think Im the only who feels this way about the adaptive potential of technology.
Like a narrator delivering an oral history, or an individual reciting memory, technology increasingly gains the capacity to perform to us.
Photo Credit: Library of Congress