Immersive Dickens was a prototype of a theatrical experience and an immersive audio tour bringing Charles Dickens to life for 14-17 year olds. It was created by the V&A, Punchdrunk and the Workers and performed at the V&A in October 2018.
I interviewed the Workers, the creative technologists who created and delivered the technological solution for Immersive Dickens.
Tell us a little bit about your work – what kind of projects do you enjoy working on and what’s The Workers’ approach to these projects?
We are a creative studio focusing on an innovative use of technology. We work with a lot of museums and cultural institutions who want to find new ways to communicate with and engage their visitors.
We do love a challenge and push the boundaries of what people expect to find in an exhibition or a museum, be it a robot roaming at night in Tate Britain, exploring the role of VR in performing art or inviting the public to have a conversation with a driverless car in the year 2035.
How would you describe your work/studio to a five-year old?
We create magical experiences with technology!
Let’s talk about Immersive Dickens… What was it like to work on a research project with a set aim (NB: to bring a Charles Dickens manuscript to life for 14-17 year olds) and without any pre-defined deliverables?
One appealing aspect of this project was precisely its focus on intent. There’s no obvious way to bring a Charles Dickens manuscript to life and so exploring potential experiences in terms of technology and narration was a big part of this collaboration.
Can you describe the result? What were the tech elements?
We like to think of the result as “augmented reality for your ears”. Imagine putting headphones on and listening to a parallel world: Charles Dickens whispering into your ear, footsteps coming closer, Big Ben chiming in the background…
Very early on in the project, we all agreed that the technology should be as invisible as possible. Focusing on sound came later in the process but is – in hindsight – an obvious solution.
From this simple idea – stepping into a Victorian world as you walk around – we started exploring different types of technology that could make this happen. Technically speaking, the two main parts of this project are the tracking technology and the virtual sound environment.
How did you decide to hone down on the hardware and software solution? What led you to create an immersive audio tour?
As with many research projects we were not even sure that what we had in mind was completely feasible! The ambition was to do a very precise tracking of visitors in real-time in a room and transport them into a virtual world through sound. When the decision was made to focus on sound, the audio guide was an obvious way to explain why visitors had to put the headphones on and carry the mobile devices that enabled the tracking with them. From a narrative perspective, it also allowed us to start with a familiar technological experience of the audio guide to then subvert the experience and transport the listener to another world.
How did the tech solution mesh with the rest of the experience?
It was important to justify the technology in the overall narrative. The choice of the audio tour helped to blend the theatrical performance with the interactive sound experience. This modified audio tour started in a traditional linear fashion before becoming interactive, which helped to direct visitors into the right areas at the right time and control the pace of the performance.
What was the ‘immersive technology’ angle? What’s different about what you’ve done, compared to other immersive audio solutions?
The typical experience of interactive sound in a museum context is usually limited to the idea of ‘triggers’ and beacons where a particular soundtrack is played back when you are close enough to an object. In a sense, the only interactive aspect of that kind of experience is pressing the right button when you’re close to the relevant location.
Our vision was to have a truly localised soundscape – by moving away from a source the sound fades or if the sound is located on your left you will only hear it from your left ear. You experience the sound as if you had truly stepped into that environment.
What do you think a ‘next generation’ immersive experience is?
Instead of looking at the latest technology on the market, we think a ‘next generation’ immersive experience might be defined by a unique and clever mix of narrative, technology and interactions. By exploiting multiple storytelling devices, you’ll be able to shift the focus away from one particular narrative form and create unexpected moments for the audience.
We think we touched upon this idea in this project by blending live performance, physical props, visitor tracking, headphones and soundscapes.
Do you usually take a user-centred approach to your work? What was it like working with teenagers?
The user is very much at the centre of our work. We put a lot of effort in creating installations that the public can interact with and feel a part of. However it was the first time we had to create an experience for this type of age group. Spending time with teenagers from different schools all over the country was incredibly valuable. Designers sometimes think they know best but having the chance to interact and ask your audience questions before actually creating the experience is obviously very useful.
What were the biggest challenges of working with two partners with different ways of working? How did you work through the differences?
There were many creative minds involved in this project which was really exciting!
To make the most out of each respective talent we needed to learn from each other and the best way to do that was by spending time together. Each partner invited the others to their studio, talked about their past projects as well as their ambitions for the future. Once we understood each other’s strengths and ways of working, we were able to move forward and make the best out of each talent.
Where there any similarities?
We do work along the lines of storyboarding and creating user journeys – these are concepts that are close to storytelling and overlap quite a bit with the world of theatre.
What would you recommend to fellow technologists interested in working on immersive experiences? What are the things they should do, or definitely not do?
It is not about the latest technology! Start with the concept and the story, then think about the user and what you are trying to communicate. The right technology will follow naturally from there.