Altered Ego

Macabre Designs: Sleep No More, Punchdrunk, and the User Experience


This post marks the first of what I hope will be a multi-part series on one of Manhattan’s most beloved user experiences.

This past Friday the 13th marked my first visit to the McKittrick Hotel to witness the dark despair of Sleep No More. For those who haven’t had the distinct pleasure of this distinct experience, New York’s Sleep No More is the brainchild of Punchdrunk, a British theatre troupe well known for its interactive, genre-bending productions. The company is chiefly responsible for transforming a 100,000-square-foot Chelsea warehouse into the artfully decaying hotel, a multi-floor study in rich jazz-era atmosphere and Hitchcockian menace. The swing bands and dinner jackets of The Heath bar and restaurant and the open air of the Gallow Green rooftop garden are the recent additions of Punchdrunk’s partner company, Emursive, but Sleep No More, 3 years after its Manhattan debut, remains the big draw.

Most New Yorkers know the Time Out summary by now; the show is a macabre chimera of Hitchcock’s Rebecca and Shakespeare’s MacBeth set in 1939. Actors perform a silent combination of dance and contact improv, maneuvering and capering around bewildered spectators, who are clad in white neutral masks reminiscent of a Venetian nightmare. The building itself is like one big dark ride or haunted house to wander through. No phones and no speaking, but plenty of exploration.

Time and setting are bent and broken by Punchdrunk as the company leads the masked audience through five floors of chapels, medical facilities, shops, speakeasies, bedrooms, banquet halls, and horror set pieces. The staff encourages wandering hands and eyes. With no one to stop us, we rifled through drawers, picked the pockets of hanging jackets and dresses, read discarded letters, and got pulled into chance encounters (“one-on-ones”) with the eerie performers. We went where we wanted to when we wanted. I won’t spoil the experience (or this post) with a lengthy account of what I saw, suffice to say that it made me hungry to see every nook and explore every cranny. That said I feel that what I can offer is a quick analysis of the user’s experience.

Had I seen this show prior to beginning my coursework in UX at General Assembly, I don’t think that I could have possibly appreciated the true wonder of the show. What Punchdrunk and Emursive created is not just one of the most compelling off-Broadway shows in New York, but a master class in design for a budding generation of creators, coders, UX/UI architects, and artists.

Sleep No More is a bleeding, thumping howl crying “your experience is what you make of it.” In no other place can I see a show that is different for each fan — of which there are thousands. With five floors to explore and a little less than twenty characters to frantically follow, each show defines possibility. A chance glance with a taxidermist might lead to a private soliloquy. A pull on a rusted handle could allow the discovery of a tear-stained letter. The opening of a locket… well… you get the point. Everything in the hotel is designed on purpose, and yet every spectator’s experience is by accident.

Not only that, but the experience is transformative. The spectator protected by a mask assumes an alter-ego, one that thinks nothing of standing by and watching as death, agony, and the unreal unfold. My companion remarked that you should be “an exhibitionist and a voyeur to enjoy Sleep No More.” Those that love the show do indeed become both. We lie down in ruined beds, drink liquor offered to us by madmen, and put an ear to dead receivers, hoping to hear an incantation — or a cry for help.

As a UX designer-in-training, I have many hopes for my career and work. But what I truly hope for more than anything else after that stormy Friday the 13th is that Punchdrunk is leading a vanguard of haunting interactive experiences. Already PC gamers have seen such potential in titles like Gone Home, which lets users experience the homecoming of Katie Greenbriar to a house occupied only by dread. Similarly, The Stanley Parable is a black comic analysis of meta-narrative and interactive design as it relates to a tormented office drone. And with the imminent arrival of virtual reality content platforms like Sony’s Project Morpheus and the Oculus Rift even more of these interactive exhibits may become commonplace. I would love all the time in the world to explore a VR McKittrick Hotel in the near future.

Of course, nothing can compare to the experience of Sleep No More in the flesh. I only ask for the virtual facsimile because tickets are only on sale through September 28th. Sleep No More has been threatening to close for years now, despite the continuous stream of sold out shows. As a new and happy user, I can only hope that the threat remains empty and that the show dances on.


General Assembly UXDI and Project No. 1

So this is this is the first chance that I finally have to showcase some of the work that I’ve been doing as a User Experience Design Immersive student at General Assembly. 

For the first of five projects, our instructors asked us to create a personalized application or service for a project partner. My partner was Val P., a fresh college graduate who was having a hard time tracking and visualizing all of the tasks that she accomplished in existing To Do apps.

This is where I created Mission, an app designed with the purpose of tracking all-time productivity with a beautiful graph interface and providing positive, customizable feedback using encouraging quotes and health literature.

The following pictures represent my entire design and work process for the week that spanned this first project:

On Set Top Boxes, Walled Gardens, and Tech Ecosystems

It just came out, but already the tech press is going to bat for Amazon’s answer to the Google Chromecast and Apple TV, the FireTV. Just like the company’s Fire tablet, this new black box represents a move more akin to gravity, as its development and release was as inevitable as an apple’s fall to earth.

With the release of the new Roku 3, the Chromecast, and the Apple TV, (and the Xbox One and Sony Playstation 4, if you’re counting gaming consoles as all-in-one devices), all of the major players in consumer technology now have a means of introducing their content ecosystems to your TV. This is a big win not just for those companies, but for all of the people cutting cords to save on their cable bills; now there are options for anyone who’s more interested in buying their TV shows one by one rather than bundled with 6,000 other channels.

However, what really makes this interesting is the fact that Amazon’s doohickey also comes with a gaming component. This is the first major incursion from an outside player into a world previously dominated by Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo. In essence, we may be looking at the Fort Sumter of the next console war.

Not only that, but almost all of the major tech players are developing exclusive content for their devices: Apple TV has the iTunes Festival, Xbox will have the Halo TV series, Sony has Powers, and Amazon has a whole programming slate.

What we’re seeing here is the next logical evolution of tech’s walled garden approach to content and computing ecosystems. Just like Apple knew that playing handing over the keys to the RIAA would cost them billions in content revenue (approximately 30% of every iTunes purchase ever is a big chunk of change), these new moves reflect the end strategies of tech companies wary of collaborating with the establishment (i.e. network television, the MPAA, and cable channels).

While normally I would encourage something like this, these strategies all point to the fact that the typical tech consumer will never be able to enjoy all of the content without buying all of the set top boxes. And that’s a big request to make from a public that is constantly feeling the pinch of a slowly recovering economy. The only platform-agnostic players left in this equation are Netflix, Hulu, and Spotify, but with so many major acquisitions taking place these days, I wonder how long it will be before even these ubiquitous services become a feather in another tech titan’s cap.  

The Promise and the Peril of the Steam Machine Post-CES

The first impressions are in. The baker’s dozen of Steam Machines unveiled at CES are showing a lot of promise, but with a few notable caveats. First off, Ars Technica notes that the left thumb pad of the unorthodox Steam controller suffers from lackluster legacy support for older Linux-compatible games. Such support will prove to be critical as the hardware platform transitions out of a beta environment and into the hands of end users.

As innocuous as that one criticism is, it represents the crux of what will make or break the success of the Steam Machines. As of this writing, Steam has more than 250 Linux-compatible (and therefore Steam OS-compatible) games that will be available with the launch of the first wave of hardware.

First-party titles will most likely be limited (at first) to what Valve is able to release within one year of the 2nd or 3rd quarter 2014. Subsequent success will hinge on what new software titles third-party developers and studios bring to the platform. And while everyone loves classics like Half Life 2 and Portal, Valve will inevitably feel some pressure to release the Steambox equivalent of Call of Duty in very short order.

That said the legacy support of older, pre-Steam OS titles will be the lifeblood that sustains the platform until those major titles are released. Unless that support becomes seamlessly apparent in the new console, Valve may have a tough time finding enough early adopters to justify its foray into gaming hardware.

The What of Doctor Who

The 21st century protagonist is a strange animal. He or she always seem to be able to change according to the needs of the contemporary audience, much like Proteus or Woody Allen’s Zelig. You can’t say the same about an ancient character like Gilgamesh (or maybe you can, depending on how you interpret Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces). Then again, many of the oldest characters passed along by oral tradition, including Coyote, the Native-American trickster, and Anansi, the storytelling spider god of Africa, were shapeshifters by nature, able to change at will for the sake of a compelling plot or a convenient jape.

I think that this is in part why Doctor Who resonates so deeply with both British and American audiences today; the Doctor is everything that we need him to be. In a way, he is one of, if not the most versatile, mythological characters standing in contemporary Anglo culture.

For those of us that are not unabashed Whovians, the Doctor is a madman in a time-and-space traveling box, a 1963 London Police Box to be exact, painted an extraordinary shade of deepest blue. As per the recent BBC special, An Adventure in Space in Time, he is the brainchild of Sydney Newman, C. E. Webber, and Donald Wilson, directed and produced by Waris Hussein and Verity Lambert, and realized by the crotchety, cantankerous, yet sincere performance of William Hartnell. It would be one thing if this serial ended with Hartnell’s tenure in 1966, but through deus ex Newman, the Doctor has managed to weather 50 years of alien encounters, social upheavals, and the performances of 13 different actors (not including the voices who portrayed him on BBC Radio).

Through a trick of alien physiology, the Doctor is able to “regenerate” and take on the appearance and personality of another human being. His latest iteration comes in the form of actor Peter Capaldi, a Scot well known for his vitriolic turn as director of communications Malcolm Tucker on The Thick of It. The previous actor, a young Matt Smith, ended his performance with a phantasmagoric explosion of amber light after his Doctor stood sentinel over the besieged town of Christmas for hundreds of years.

And make no mistake, it is right to say for every actor that portrays the doctor, the role is his. Each performer makes the character his own. The Ninth Doctor, Christopher Eccleston, was unique in his flashes of anger and his just-as-quick urge to shine a goofy grin. Colin Baker had his clownish Harpo act. John Hurt’s War Doctor the arch of a severe, but weary brow. In a behind-the-scenes look at Matt Smith’s final episode, showrunner Stephen Moffett says that while the Doctor cannot die, every regeneration frightens him because at its core the Doctor “will be alive, but rewritten”. Of course, we really are the ones that are doing the rewriting.

Just as Voltaire said “if God did not exist, we would have to invent him”, so do we need to reinvent the Doctor. An eccentric Canadian executive, a team of British writers, a young female Jewish producer, and a British-Indian director conceived of this strange alien figure just as the mod culture of swinging 1960s London took hold. And at the core of Hartnell’s trojan horse of rigid, aristocratic manners (out of place amidst a youthful tide of counterculture), was a kernel of progressive hope that allowed more whimsical actors like Patrick Troughton and John Pertwee to adopt the role. The First Doctor made his debut on BBC Two the day after the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963; the episodes that followed that unlucky premiere seem to account for it, promising its child audience an escape to worlds only dreamed of in the years of rebuilding following V-E Day in 1945.

My own discovery of the (Ninth) Doctor came during an inauspicious study abroad trip to London in the summer of 2005. I binge-watched the first new series of Doctor Who following the July bombings of the London Underground along with Edgar Wright’s Spaced. I think the madcap adventures of Eccleston’s Doctor did a far better job of calming me than my own professors ever could.

It is said in the new series that the Doctor goes to wherever and whenever in the universe he is needed. For the past 8 years, this could not be more true of the world that the Doctor returned to; our current social landscape is rife with war, government intrusion into private lives, homophobia, xenophobia, and Rob Ford to boot. I could not have imagined a world that more needed the Doctor than the one that has been thrust upon us by corrupt politicians, warmongers, and bigots.

And that’s the beauty of the Doctor; he cares more for us than we do ourselves. He is a beneficent, messianic figure that interferes with dire plots and interjects with dry British wit and a heavy helping of scientific jargon. He wears many faces and it is possible that with each regeneration, he could shift into the shape of the audience that admires him. “Maybe Moffett will cast the first female Doctor,” we say, “or maybe the first African-British actor to play him.” He is something for everyone no matter what form he takes. He eschews bigotry, values knowledge, cleverness, and sincerity, and saves his terrifying anger for the adversaries (and Masters) that would dare to harm the innocent. Is it too much to imagine that a hundred years from now literature, anthropology, and media professors may find as much meaning in series of Doctor Who as they do in the plays of Shakespeare? I hope so.

Kevin Pierce at The Verge just wrote a pretty interesting piece on Bionym’s new biometric bracelet, the Nymi. For those who want a quick summary, basically the Nymi is a wrist-mounted pack of sensors that detects your unique cardiac rhythm and hand motions and uses them to authenticate your identity with a host of other smart appliances. Want to unlock your car door? Flick your wrist and your Civic will know to pop the locks. Walk into a “smart” house and the Nymi will broadcast your identity to the appliances, telling them how bright the lights should be and what episode of “Archer” the DVR should queue up.

This little bit of tech fascinates me more than a lot of other gizmos because it aligns perfectly with a vision of the future that can actually be achieved; it’s a future that more than anything else is perfectly seamless.

A seamless future is a sci-fi vision that’s far more feasible than the ones littered with kitschy designs for flying cars, hover boards, and robotic butlers. It’s essentially a future that is so well-designed by technologists and programmers that it’s completely opaque, yet natural to the people living in it. It’s the equivalent of a skeptic seeing a magic trick performed from every angle while still being unable to see the act’s mechanism.

One day very soon, the Nymi may be something that every single person has, but, instead of being a bracelet, it may just be an electronic grain we embed behind a major artery for convenience. In this same future, smart appliances may come standard in every home and may customize themselves according to the owner of each sensor. Imagine a Brooklyn apartment that blasts the air conditioning for one tenant every time she returns from work, but cranks up the heat when her mother comes to visit from Miami. The future won’t necessarily be a Dickian or Gibsonian wasteland, but it will definitely be one we take for granted (by design).