User Not Found: Social Media Technologies as Immersive Performance

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


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.

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.


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Goode Chris (2018) User Not Found