User Not Found: Social Media Technologies as Immersive Performance

Lead Research Organisation: University of Reading
Department Name: Film Theatre and Television

Abstract

This project is designed to stimulate innovation in immersive theatre performance and in software applications that can form an integral part of a performance. It brings together academics from the Universities of Reading and Bath, the theatre company Dante or Die and the creative technology company Marmelo. It explores how to engage with spectators both collectively and individually to exploit the capabilities of live interactive technology in the context of a public performance event. The project will include the creation of a performance, titled 'User Not Found', for which Marmelo will produce an app for interactive mobile devices that can be exploited in theatre performances and other kinds of public events. The app will be developed to simulate, via remote triggers, the normal operation of a mobile or tablet device but has the potential to be developed for various contexts, including improving access for deaf and disabled audiences, through captioning via smartphone technology, enhancing audience participation and interactivity and contributing to immersive experiences in a range of cultural events

Currently, the lives and memories of most people in developed countries are expressed and accompanied by their history of electronic communications, their social media interactions and their collections of data such as photographs, videos and music. Social media traces are integral to identity, rather than being secondary to it as reflections, distortions or extensions. The relationship between people and their social media lives becomes particular clear and problematic after death and in the process of ageing, people may prepare for death by crafting their digital legacy thus reflecting on their identity and seeking to pass on a version of themselves. In Dante or Die's performance, 'User Not Found', the central character experiences bereavement and mourning via the digital traces of his dead partner and the performance will focus on the relationship between life, death, identity and social media, using the immersive technology developed by Marmelo to explore the topic of internet and website legacies, following the death of a user.

Since the topic of the performance is social media technology and death, the project will draw on the expertise of CI Dr. John Troyer, to explore ways in which industries surrounding death, for example, grief counsellors, funeral directors and lawyers, are addressing the issue of an internet legacy. Research in this area has been carried out in the fields of Human Computer Interaction, Information Science, Ageing and Death Studies, for example, and it has been explored in popular media representations such as the television series Black Mirror.

This research grant application is to develop a project that builds on initial groundwork, including with intended collaborators and experts and winning R&D funding for performance development. It will use immersive theatre performance alongside an online software application, to explore and debate issues of virtual life, death, memory and identity for a range of audience constituencies.

To disseminate the work, the project will draw on the existing networks of venues that regularly support and host DOD performances to stage 'User Not Found' in non-traditional performance spaces, and thus encourage new audience constituencies. The project will create opportunities for 'User Not Found' to form part of participatory workshops with relevant stake-holders: e.g. social media companies, funeral directors, bereavement counsellors.
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Planned Impact

The project will assemble a unique creative collaboration between a theatre company, a creative technology agency and academic experts in theatre and death studies. We aim to create opportunities for impact by developing links between the participants so that they will change each other in ways that are beneficial to them. This project will develop social media technologies that can be exploited in immersive theatre performances and other kinds of immersive public events. It will have impact on professional theatre makers and the venues where performances and events using new social media applications are staged, including on accessibility of performances and engagement with new audiences.

Impact on Dante Or Die Theatre Company will be new opportunities to develop their track-record of site-specific performance and their interest in identity and memory, in a way that would not be possible with their existing resources and contacts. A key impact will be to provide technology that they can use to create the performance User Not Found and further related work. Although DOD, have been working professionally since 2006 the main impact of this project is that it will be a pilot that helps them to develop new kinds of immersive, technologically enhanced performances. Troyer's expertise in Death Studies will impact on DOD, offering a more sophisticated approach to the issues of social media legacy, memory and identity.

Building the software to make this immersive performance happen will be carried out by the technology company Marmelo, and the impact on them will be primarily on their ways of working, their opportunities for engagement with the creative industries and with experts and users beyond their existing range of clients and their fellow IT professionals. Impact on Marmelo will be to offer an opportunity for new product design and testing of a new app that can be used in creative industry events, training days and team building exercises. The added value for Marmelo comes from dialogue in a structured way with the other members of the project team. Marmelo is a small commercial creative technology agency, operating since 2015. This project will impact on them by extending their connections with the creative industries to generate cutting-edge uses of their technology products. The project could also lead to the establishment of a Knowledge Transfer Partnership between University of Reading, and a selected graduate, with Marmelo. The project will provide opportunities for Marmelo to explore how their app might be used as part of accessibility strategies at events where there are deaf or hearing impaired people.

The creation of the app and its presentation as part of User Not Found will offer venues and arts organisations new ways of engaging younger audiences accustomed to social media on everyday mobile devices. The app provides the potential for producing organisations to host immersive events in spaces (interior or exterior) with little technological infrastructure; availability of a wi-fi signal will be all that is required.

We will create opportunities for User Not Found to form part of participatory workshops with interest groups who deal with social media legacy after death, including stakeholders in digital legacy, and professional and commercial workers in this field such as counsellors, funeral directors, lawyers and hospice workers. The location of the project team in the Thames Valley facilitates impact on technology companies based there who can be alerted to their responsibilities with regard to social media legacies.

Publications

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Goode Chris (2018) User Not Found

 
Title User Not Found 
Description User Not Found is a new performance by Dante or Die (DoD). It is a site-responsive play, performed in cafés, exploring digital legacies following death. Audiences experience the narrative through a new text by Chris Goode, spoken by a single performer and conveyed almost entirely through headphones, a bespoke app created by Marmelo Digital that syncs smartphones, held by each member of the audience, a new music score by Yaniv Fridel and immersive lighting and set design by Zia Bergin-Holly. It is presented in an intimate style of location-based storytelling. It is directed and performed by Dante or Die's Co-Artistic Directors Daphna Attias and Terry O'Donovan, respectively. A story of contemporary grief unfolds through this intimate, funny performance that gently interrogates our need for connection. The production previewed in June and July 2018, before receiving its world premiere as part of the Traverse Festival at the Edinburgh Fringe in August 2018. It then embarked on a twelve date UK tour. A film of the performance has been produced and will be in the public domain once the final User Not Found performances have been completed. It is currently available on request. 
Type Of Art Performance (Music, Dance, Drama, etc) 
Year Produced 2018 
Impact Preview performances of User Not Found in June 2018 were held at the Pulse Festival (Ipswich), at South Street Arts Centre (Reading), the Roundhouse (London), and Derby Theatre. The show previewed at 9 performances to 298 audience members. The Edinburgh run of User Not Found was seen by 785 people over 23 shows at the Jeelie Piece Café, as part of The Traverse programme. It ran from the 3rd to the 26th of August 2018. The show sold out 21 performances before it reached opening night; 2 extra performances were added due to popular demand and quickly sold out. The production received four & five star reviews from newspapers such as The Stage, The Guardian and The Sunday Times, and was awarded Favourite Theatre Show in Broadway World's Edinburgh Fringe Festival Awards. The UK Tour of User Not Found ran from the 26th September to 27th October 2018. It visited 12 cafés in Limerick, Harlow, Reading, Brighton, Lincoln, Oxford, Bath, Cambridge, Mansfield, Leicester, Manchester and Portsmouth. There were 25 performances of the show to 843 audience members. During the tour Dante or Die ran 4 workshops, introducing groups to creating site-specific work and to the idea of digital legacy. These were in Cambridge, Brighton, Bath and Mansfield. In audience response questionnaires, 48% of the audience indicated that they would in future consider their digital legacy. 63% of the audience felt that the site specificity of the performance was important to the performance. 64% pf the audience indicate that they would consider attending new theatre after seeing the performance. Audience questionnaires demonstrate a broad audience demographic with between 47-50% in the 18-35 age range and 10% of the Edinburgh audience under-30s or student band. 
URL https://danteordie.com/user-not-found
 
Description The research developed a significant research collaboration between a technology agency, Marmelo Digital, a theatre company, Dante or Die, and two University units, the Department of Film, Theatre & Television at the University of Reading and The Centre for Death and Society at the University of Bath. The collaboration resulted in a performance, 'User Not Found', which demonstrated how the use of an app, developed specifically for the performance, enabled an immersive audience experience in a non-theatrical space using familiar, everyday, hand held technological devices. Prior to the beginning of the project, Dante or Die already had a reputation for mounting site-sensitive theatre but this performance enhanced their reputation by enabling them to develop immersivity through the incorporation of simple digital solutions easily deployed within a touring programme of performance. The performance focuses on the issue of a digital legacy and our internet assets following death and the research revealed a lack of engagement and knowledge around this issue. Despite the ubiquity of smart, digital devices and computers, very little consideration is given to managing the enormous amount of personal information, memories and collections stored on this equipment following death. Increasingly solicitors are encouraging the appointment of digital executors and some internet platforms, such as facebook, are addressing this issue, but there remains a high degree of unawareness. The research began to raise awareness of this issue via the performance and associated discussions and workshops.
Exploitation Route The project partners can build upon their established collaboration to develop the User Not Found performance to engage a new and younger audience. Adapting the performance to a podcast, but one which incorporates images facilitated by an app located on personal devices, would extend the life and the objectives of the performance, making it accessible to a larger and more diverse audience constituency. Thereby, the performance would introduce new audiences to innovative forms of theatre. Furthermore, issues around a digital legacy would be more broadly disseminated. There are opportunities for the app to be used in public engagement events, such as in museums and art galleries, as well as by other theatre companies. Building on the experience of this research, Marmelo Digital will be able to develop new partnerships within the creative industries and generate technological solutions for performance and other cultural institutions. The research findings can be put to use by others as they have demonstrated that a simple app can provide theatre companies with opportunities to develop complex, intermedial innovation through easily available digital solutions, including embedding accessibility support for hearing impaired audiences within the technology.
Sectors Creative Economy,Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software),Healthcare,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

URL https://research.reading.ac.uk/usernotfound
 
Description The performance User Not Found has raised awareness of the issue of a digital legacy for many audience members. Post show discussion in Reading revealed a significant number of audience members had not previously considered their digital legacy as a significant asset or as part of their personal effects. Workshops led by Dante or Die in Cambridge, Brighton, Bath and Mansfield engaged with the significance of traces of a digital presence post-death and the value of appointing a digital executor as part of a will. Discussion with end of life practitioners indicated that an internet legacy was rarely discussed by patients or their relatives, while material possessions caused concern for those nearing the end of their life. End of life carers expressed an inadequacy in dealing with internet and social media issues.
First Year Of Impact 2018
Sector Creative Economy,Healthcare,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections
Impact Types Cultural,Societal

 
Description Capital award
Amount £43,500 (GBP)
Funding ID GFTA-00033215 
Organisation Arts Council England 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 03/2018 
End 12/2018
 
Description Public Engagement Fund
Amount £34,000 (GBP)
Organisation Wellcome Trust 
Sector Charity/Non Profit
Country United Kingdom
Start 03/2018 
End 03/2019
 
Title App-based audience questionnaires 
Description Most arts events require the analysis of audience demographics and audience response. Questionnaires have become a significant tool in the arts and culture research infrastructure. The User Not Found app, used in the performance, incorporated an audience questionnaire. Once the performance itself had finished, the app invited audience members to complete the questionnaire on the phones they were allocated when they entered the audience space. Thereby, the questionnaire was integrated into the mechanism of the performance itself. 
Type Of Material Improvements to research infrastructure 
Year Produced 2018 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact The incorporation of the questionnaire into the app resulted in a considerable higher than average response to the questionnaires. Given audience members had responded to the performance on the phones and developed a relationship to the characters in the performance, filling in the questionnaire became an extension of their engagement with the event. The collection of data via the phones was made simple which will support an advancement in the statistical analysis of audiences. 
 
Title Distributed Immersive Performance app 
Description The app comprises a mobile phone (Android) app and a central web platform on a bespoke private wifi network. The app receives signals from the central platform, which is controlled manually during the performance. These signals tell the app which graphics, text and videos to display, which audio to play and what transitions to apply, as well as allowing for certain user interactions (e.g. increasing / decreasing brightness when you tap the screen). The app was carefully designed using websockets to reduce lag so that everyone receives updates at the same time. As they enter the performance space, each audience member is given an Android phone loaded with the app which has a pre-determined set of screens which mirror social media, photo and music apps on mobile devices. These screens are triggered as required throughout the performance to enable the audience to experience the identical digital information as the central character in the performance. The app can also provide captioning to support accessibility for the hearing impaired audience members. Furthermore, it can enable performance feedback via questionnaires which comprise part of the app system. A film made by Marmelo explains the development and functioning of the app and is available at the URL below. 
Type Of Technology Webtool/Application 
Year Produced 2018 
Impact The app facilitated the development and realisation of the User Not Found performance. It was integral to the theatre event both in terms of subject of the performance, digital legacies, memory and identity, and its performance aesthetic and form. It enabled a technologically enhanced, immersive and participatory performance to be toured to non-theatrical spaces, thereby supporting important elements of Dante or Die's mission to create accessible theatre for new audiences performed in site sensitive spaces. The app enables a small-scale theatre company, such as Dante or Die, to present a technologically advanced performance via the use of a simple, everyday device, which is familiar to an audience. The production get in/out is achieved quickly and effectively in non-theatre spaces with a small technical team. The app, as part of the User Not Found performance has already offered venues and arts organisations new ways of engaging with younger audiences accustomed to social media on everyday mobile phones (see the analysis of audiences in the section on the performance as an output). It also provides the potential for use by non-theatrical producing organisations and venues such as Museums, Art Galleries and Event Management. Dante or Die tested out the use of the captioning capability and found this to be an effective accessibility facility in performance. The app's incorporation of a questionnaire resulted in an increase in feedback, as the feedback system was integral to the performance. 
URL https://research.reading.ac.uk/usernotfound/app-showcase
 
Description Symposium. User Not Found: social media technologies in immersive performance 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact The symposium was on social media technologies staged in theatre performances but included discussion of other technologies present in contemporary theatre performances, including headphones, binaural sound video and smart devices. The purpose of the event was to bring together theatre practitioners, festival organisers and venue manages who engage in small and medium-scale technology-enhanced theatre making, with academics whose research focuses on intermedial performance. Practitioner speakers and panel members included Terry O'Donovan of Dante or Die, Dan Barnard, of fanSHEN, Jack Lowe of Curious Directive, Janet Vaughan of Talking Birds, Laurence Hill of Brighton Digital Festival and John Luther of South Street Arts Centre, Reading. Academic speakers included Lib Taylor of University of Reading, Jo Scott of Salford University, Eirini Nedelkopoulou of York St John University and Rosie Klich of the University of Essex. Discussion focused on issues around active spectatorship, aurality and embodiment, felt experience, simplicity and technology and curating digital festivals. The symposium ended with a closed, preview performance of User Not Found at South Street Arts Centre in Reading, for symposium delegates and to which the members of the earlier workshop were invited (see Engagement Activity 1). The performance was followed by a post-show discussion which identified the performance's strengths and raised some questions for Dante or Die, Marmelo and the research team to consider in finalising the performance. The preview also enabled an early try-out for the technology and revealed any glitches in the system.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description Workshop with practitioners who work in organisations associated with death 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact The workshop was set up to discuss issues around digital legacies and their significance for end of life care. The purpose of the workshop was to elicit knowledge and experience from professional practitioners of the significance of internet engagement and social media legacies for the dying. The discussions influenced the shaping of the User Not Found performance. The workshop also raised questions around digital legacies for those whose work concerns the end of life. The project team ran the day including an introduction to issues around death and the internet by Dr John Troyer who runs the Centre for Death and Society at the University of Bath and an introduction to the plans for a User Not Found performance from Dante or Die.
10 professional practitioners in end of life care attended the workshop including end of life carers from the Sue Ryder Duchess of Kent Hospice, Reading; Solicitors from Blandy and Blandy and from Barrett and Co, Reading; Psychologist and Bereavement Counsellors; a Secular minister and Humanist celebrant. The workshop also included 4 academics; 3 from the project, including Dr John Troyer, and two members of Dante or Die.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018