Friday, March 21, 2014

Looking and Seeing - The World through AV Eyes

Before my AV career I did  a few other things, including telephony and the unparalleled horrors of residential cable installations. One interesting thing about these three fields is each has lead me to a greater focus on parts of our world the rest of us take for granted and fail to notice. If you drive down a residential street with me, for example, I'll notice if services are brought in aerially or below ground, if cable and phone drops are run neatly at right angles or lazy diagonals from the pole, perhaps even if homes are being fed with fiber or copper. A closer look and I'll see if connections are properly grounded. Why? It's simply become part of my world. So to it is with AV. Sometimes as a consultant I can even see things which aren't really there. 

Earlier this year, Molly Stillman asked the following question: Does work in AV "ruin" live events for you? I've never worked in the live-event side of the industry and, for that matter, don't attend all that many live events.  What I do know how to view - and what has become part of my world - is installed AV. What's interesting is the different things that irk or interest me as I've moved from the integration to the consulting side of the world. Over a year ago when I was first seeking work with the SMW team, Tom Shen asked me a very good question: why did I think I was ready to work in consulting? This was part of my answer: a passion I have for the technology, and an eye I develop towards seeing it. If you were to walk through a hotel lobby with me, I'd very likely be able to tell you where they have video monitors, where there are speakers, and what I think they should have done as compared to what they actually did. This game of  asking myself what the designers were thinking, what they should have been thinking, and what I would do differently is one I am constantly playing in my head.

Two recent examples come to mind. One is a digital signage display at my local grocery story (the Douglaston outpost of the New York based chain Fairway). My contractor eyes see a nice Sony display surface-mounted above the deli counter, fed by a signage player of some sort. It matches the similar monitors pole-mounted near the frozen foods. My contractor eyes see that it might be mounted slightly off-true, and that someone left the protective plastic cover on the bezel. These kinds of small installation details are easy to spot anywhere.
Digital Signage in the wild. 

My consultant eyes see something different. They see that if one waits in a natural position a few feet back from the deli counter the display is too high to see without craning ones neck and that if you're actually AT the counter it is directly over your head. Given the pace of the Fairway deli counter, customers standing far enough back to view the content will almost certainly lose their place in line. The content consists of a loop of what appear to be in-house produced cooking and food videos with an overlay including the store's social media address and a few announcements. It's nicely chosen content for a grocery store, but misses an opportunity to highlight anything special in the specific area where it's placed. The consultant in my head wants to push the display back behind the deli counter, adjacent to the pricing board. This is where people will be looking anyway, greatly increasing the attention the sign is getting. As there are more than one of these in the store, content can be adjusted per location; perhaps the deli counter could show sandwich making, the creation of some of their salads and slaws, or give an idea of what we're supposed to do with that hundred dollar a pound Iberico ham I've always been tempted to try but have feared that I lack the sensitivity of palate to appreciate. As things stand, it's a reasonably clean installation with appropriate content. With a tiny bit more thought, it could be something more. And, of course, with a tiny bit more thought and a great deal of extra money the menu board could be replaced with a video wall for something truly spectacular. That's the part where my consultant-eyes see things which don't, in fact, exist. This also might, in all fairness, be a bit of overkill for store signage. 
A good value! 

I'll give you a quick preview of my second example from the wild: interactive kiosks at rail stations here in New York. In addition to form and function, those suggest another theme which I'll be exploring in a future post exclusive to ExpresSHENs, the official blog of SMW (but please remember - whether I post here or there, my opinions are mine alone and do not necessarily reflect those of the SMW team at large).
What do I have to say about this?
Tune in next time!

For the nonce, I'll leave you with a question: with what kind of eyes do you look? And what do you see that isn't there, or that others don't?

Friday, March 7, 2014

Blaming Cerebus - a look at The Order of the Stick

A bit of a departure this week as I sidestep towards an example of serial online storytelling from the world of role-playing game culture. I'll specifically be looking at Rich Burlew's online comic Order of the Stick, now in its tenth year and having just completed the antepenultimate book in its ongoing storyline. The Order of the Stick takes its title from its stick-figure artwork, artwork the characters therein sometimes seem aware in occasional cracks in the fourth wall. So yes, this post is about a stick-figure comic strip about gamers. It's also about more - OoTS has been successful for a long time, and gained a very devoted following (Burlew raised money via Kickstarter to reprint his back-catalog to reach new readers. Out of a goal of just under $60,000 he raised well over a million in what was, at the time, a Kickstarter record).

OOTS began  way back in 2003 as a somewhat one-note satire of role playing games in general and Dungeons and Dragons in particular. This came at a time when I still counted myself among role playing gamers, and the humor somewhat worked for me. Sadly (or not so sadly - I've found much else to enrich my life), I've not thrown dice with a g
Order of the Stick style fan-art
MyNameMattersNot (DeviantArt).
This is that the comic looks like
aming group in years now - likely almost as long as OoTS has been running. Why do I keep coming back for all these years, following the story of an adventure-gaming group which - at least sometimes - seems to know that they're in an adventure game? How has Burlew been so successful for so long with stick-figure artwork? Two factors: first is evolution, and the second is a successful twist of expectations.

Satire can be fun, but very quickly outstays its welcome. OoTS isn't alone in using broad satire to hook an audience into something which eventually grows more serious. Terry Pratchett's early Discworld books, to take another example, were as broad a satire on fantasy literature tropes as OoTS is about role-playing games. Comic book artist David Sims started his series Cerebus as a not too smart or clever satire of various works of fantasy literature, before moving to a not too smart but increasingly serious (and increasingly problematic) philosophical tale. I see it as the opposite of George RR Martin's A Song of Fire and Ice, which started over a decade ago as a grim and gritty take on secondary world epic fantasy and today continues as -- a grim and gritty take on secondary world epic fantasy. Keeping a consistent tone in works such as this runs the risk of creating a thing preserved in amber, unchanging as the world moves on around it. Burlew has successfully avoided that fate.

The very opening of the comic over a decade ago began in media res with a situation very familiar to gamers - a typical "dungeon crawl" in which a group of heroes were exploring an underground maze of rooms and tunnels, fighting various monsters lurking there for no apparent reason. We got jokes about the rules, about how the world subtly changed when the people playing the game switched to an updated version of the rulebook (RPG rules change from time to time; Dungeons and Dragons has gone through various incarnations, now up to the "fourth edition". The four doesn't count various in-between changes [the upgrade on OoTS was from 3rd edition to 3.5 {oh no! Nested brackets! I hope they all close correctly}] , and many groups have their own unique "house rules". Many gamers have very strong opinions on which edition is "best" [with the split usually between traditionalists who want to go one edition backward and futurists who see the latest as shiny and fun]). It's the kind of story that's fun if you're in the middle of that world, but likely wouldn't appeal much to those outside of it. It's also the kind of story which is fun for a fairly short time.

As time went on, a larger story took shape around the initial "joke" strips. There's still a great deal of humor, but the humor has become more of a vehicle for a genuine character-driven stick-figure novel. A recent story arc, for example, dealt with the party's elvish wizard Varsuvius. Ze (I'll use a non-gendered pronoun for zim; we don't know if Varsuvius is male or female) started off as a stereotype: the "blaster" wizard obsessed with gaining more and more power to smite enemies using magic energies. Somewhat early on in the story, Ze killed a young dragon in a scene which appeared inconsequential at the time. Later, we meet the dragon's parent and, to avoid having zir family slain in revenge, Varsuvius is tempted to sell zis soul to devils for more power. The resulting storyline (which I'll not further spoil) calls into question the core assumptions gaming makes about the nature of evil and the role of violence and develops V's character while remaining true to the core personality left over from the "joke a day" times. It was a surprisingly effective bit of storytelling, and a reminder that in today's increasingly accessible media environment one can find notable or interesting works in surprising places.

The moral of the story? Given passion and dedication, something which at first seems silly can become something something special and interesting as it grows with you and the audience. Do you have a wild idea? If so, stick with it, and look me up again in a decade. We'll see where we're at.