All documentary filmmakers are familiar with the debate over the meaning of objectivity in documentary. What about just the meaning of objects?
One of the big themes at the Mozilla Festival 2012 was physical computing, turning the objects around us into digitally integrated machines, or pulling the world of the web into the physical world.
Another was the move to web-native media-rich storytelling, with tools to push video into the mashable, layered, feature-heavy realm of the internet.
Zooming in and out of sessions, demos, and hack-spaces at MozFest, I wondered: why are we doc makers hurrying to migrate our art form onto the web, when technologists are clamoring to move their art off of it and back into the physical world?
What can documentary learn from physical computing?
The sheer creativity surrounding these projects is stunning. Here are just a few of the object-driven tools and projects I encountered at the festival:
The Mozilla team’s own web browsing cocktail maker. This home-bar-gone-kinetic-sculpture let people “taste the web.” As users browse the web on the connected laptop, the database structures, feeds and other features of the website activate particular bottles. This sets off a slow drip of the user’s unique browsing experiences, translating their time online into a personal browsed beverage.
I also bumped into two members of the London “haberdashery for technology,” Technology Will Save Us. Their group mission is to put buildable, hackable technology in everyone’s hands, empowering people to make and not just consume technology. They’ve created project kits to help fledgling hackers get a feel for constructing and programming digitally functioning everyday objects. Their latest kit, “Bright Eyes” glasses, can be fitted out with a full LED display that’s programmable to react to and show off all kinds of data. The ambient light in the room too bright? No problem, program your Bright Eyes to turn themselves down. Want to make them flash each time your Twitter feed gets a hit? That’ll work. The wearable data concept has been made fun – and moreover, easy to do – with this project.
Festival-goers even got a chance for a little DIY physical computing at a session hosted by MaKey MaKey co-founder Eric Rosenbaum of the MIT Media Lab‘s Lifelong Kindergarten group. Created by Rosenbaum and Jay Silver, the MaKey MaKey looks simple – a pre-programmed circuit board and a whole lot of alligator clipped wires. The magic happens when you clip a wire to almost anything in the physical world – an apple, a lump of Play-Doh, even you’re friend’s finger. The high sensitivity of the circuitboard sends electrical charges through the physical object, allowing it to act as a control for your computer. The MaKey Makey is even simpler than the similarly intentioned Arduino, which involves a bit of programming knowledge to employ. MaKey MaKey’s circuitboard is already set with inputs programmed to control your computer’s mouse and keyboard keys, meaning it’s not only easy to use but will integrate with any software or website you can think of – all of which rely on mouse-clicks and keyboard inputs.
The MaKey MaKey is a great way to get kids (and adults with little programming know-how) engaged with learning to think through the design of circuits and simple machines. It’s also an entry-level tool for thinking about the potential for migrating computing off the screen and into the world around us.
There’s something about these tools that hold a nascent storytelling potential, too. They’re emotionally gripping. It’s exciting when the banana you’ve just plugged into your laptop is suddenly ringing with sound when you tap it as a part of your fully operational banana piano. Once you try these projects, every aspect of everyday life explodes with new potential, each slice of the world around you cries out to be put together in creative new ways to make something meaningful – and isn’t that what documentary is all about?
The challenge is going beyond physical integration for physical integration’s sake. While the value of a banana piano is undeniable (not just for the whimsy, but as a technological teaching tool), what does it mean? And maybe that’s where physical computing can be helped along by storytellers. Moving toward projects in which physical objects and digital function are seamless requires the ability to think in rich metaphor. The need for objects to go beyond the wow-factor and sustain a continual emotional response, the way films and games do, seems key to taking these projects to the next level and into widespread use. In a way, it seems like we need to tell stories about these objects. The question for documentary filmmakers eager to make real world objects a part of their real-world stories is how to physicalize the telling of a good story.
We’re moving toward this from two directions. One is the exciting arrival of web documentary and storytelling tools like Mozilla Popcorn Maker and Zeega, both out in full force at MozFest. These tools are much more than editing software migrated online: not only can you easily combine elements in the tradition of the edit suite, you can drop them into videos with full functionality. A Google map, a Twitter feed, or a Wikipedia entry can be artfully integrated into your project and stays linked to its live properties – reload your video project and the Google Map can be manipulated in a different way, the Twitter feed updates with the latest tweets. In the most tentative of ways, these layers are more like independent objects than any traditional film edit could ever incorporate. Creating stories with these platforms means considering how each dynamic item in your project shapes your story while also existing as a separate whole. It’s easy to imagine the next step: how physical objects can be applied to make meaning in a story world when they also have a life of their own.
Another interesting angle came from the BBC’s Research & Development crew. Much like the browser-based cocktail mixer, which translated elements of users’ digital experience into an additional sensory experience, the BBC team is experimenting with haptic interfaces that could add touch and feel to your television. One of their prototypes was a simple handheld box that added jitters and bumps to car chases on-screen by vibrating in sync to the action. The goal is to develop a whole range of multisensory feedback that can draw the rest of our senses into the televised world of sight and sound.
From the floor at MozFest, it seems like two strands could be coming together. The physical computing crowd is getting wider, and generating user projects that are a hair’s breadth from narratives rather than experiences (especially via the game-makers in the crowd). Documentarians and filmmakers are pushing to construct stories online that embrace a built feel, a narrative emerging from many digital objects. Maybe as documentary filmmakers we have to go into the web before we start connecting those digital stories back out into digitalized physical objects. But as web documentaries become more and more enticing to doc makers, we should take a moment to consider all the possibilities for our future in light of this lesson from physical computing: the world of the computer screen is just a rest stop, not a final destination.