December 9, 2003

The Whoa Effect

by Andrew Stern · , 8:49 am

Last Saturday, from the bedroom window of our third story apartment, as we were admiring the results of the previous night’s snowstorm, the doorbell rang. Our new couch was due to be delivered that morning, but we thought, surely they would cancel. It seems we underestimated Boston furniture delivery truck drivers; minutes later I was relaxing in the living room on the new sofa with the December 1 issue of The New Yorker. After a brief nap to recover from my interrupted sleep earlier that morning — I always wake up before sunrise when I have lots of new events to process — I came across two articles, different but connected, that made me sit up and think.

The first one was predictably interesting — a John Seabrook article profiling Stan Winston, whose Hollywood special effects studio created numerous animatronic characters over the last few decades for movies such as Aliens, Terminator and Jurassic Park. His studio also built Teddy, the talking and walking “supertoy” in the recent movie A.I., which at times required five or six puppeteers. (Funny, just like with the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, I had assumed all of the shots of Teddy were computer-generated.) The article goes on to describe how M.I.T. researcher Cynthia Breazeal, creator of the autonomous robotic face Kismet (who we briefly talked about in our recent interactive drama discussion), was called in during the movie’s production to consult on robotic technology, which led her to propose a collaboration with Stan Winston to build “a real Teddy, a Teddy with a brain”. Now they’re currently building a Gremlins / Ewok-like animatronic robot named Leonardo, that according to Seabrook is to be “the most life-like mechanical creature ever built, a state-of-the-art emotional machine.” Breazeal’s long term goal is to build “a sociable robot, something that lives with you and that you can have a meaningful emotional interaction with.”

No surprise, I’m fascinated by this project, and have similar goals myself, although I’m more interested in virtual on-screen characters, versus robotic characters. As impressed as I am by the ambition of Leonardo, and if forced to predict would guess that physical characters, in the long run, will create stronger bonds with people than screen-based ones, I have to wonder about the short run… It just seems so much easier to create screen-based virtual characters than robots. And as a product, software is far less expensive and more distributable than hardware. … But maybe I’m overestimating how compelling of an experience on-screen characters can offer, and underestimating physical ones? It’s true that physical characters such as Tamagotchi, Furby and AIBO often outperform (either in sales figures or press attention) virtual characters of equal or greater sophistication, such as Petz, Babyz, Creatures and Seaman.

(An aside — I briefly met Cynthia a year ago this month when I gave an invited talk at Sherry Turkle’s Technology and Self group, who do research on “relational objects”, such as virtual pets and the like. My informal presentation, “The Significant Other”, was about the idea of virtual friends as products. After seeing the early Facade demo video, Cynthia was surprised and disapproving that we were allowing our on-screen characters to get angry and upset with the Player.)

Towards the end of the Winston / Breazeal article, Marvin Minsky is quoted as saying, “My objection to Leonardo is, it’s just a trick. It doesn’t really have emotions. It just knows how to fool you into thinking it does. Cynthia’s an excellent engineer, but her work doesn’t explain how emotions work. Leonardo is just an improved version of that software wizard, F1, that Microsoft tried to get people to buy a few years ago. People went, ‘Oh, gee, that’s neat,’ for a couple of days, and then they got tired of it.” When Winston heard Minsky’s views he cried, “Shame on Marvin Minsky!” Breazeal was surprised too, saying, “Well, I don’t see Leonardo’s emotions as being a trick. … We’re not trying to capture the human-feeling side of emotions, but we are trying to capture the pragmatic side — communicating with others and behaving more intelligently.”

(Another aside, hopefully Michael won’t mind me telling it — when Michael was a grad student, at a group lunch he briefly chatted with Daniel Dennett, explaining to him the concept of believable agents, about applying AI techniques not for rational problem-solving but for creating compelling emotional and personality-rich characters, and Dennett’s only reply was, “Well, that Microsoft Bob sure sucked.”) (About Minsky, the funny thing is in recent years he gave at least one presentation to the game development community, so I thought he was more on-board with applications of AI for interactive entertainment; or maybe he is, just not too close to home.)

Paging to the end of the New Yorker issue, I read an article by Louis Menand, subtitled “The art of short fiction”, which reviewed of a new collection of John Updike’s first 103 or so short stories. Menand, relating Poe, describes the “effect” that short stories in general try to achieve: with as much efficiency as possible, to create “an outcome that is both startling and anticipated … what you might call (if you were a college student) a general sense of ‘Whoa’ … James Joyce called the effect an ‘epiphany’ … ‘the revelation of the whatness of a thing’ — a sudden apprehension of the way the world unmediatedly is.”

At the risk of comparing digital interactive forms to non-digital non-interactive ones, I wonder what kind of effect, if any, will end up being common among short interactive experiences. By short I mean an experience that lasts anywhere from say, five to twenty minutes, i.e. not your typical epic computer game or console game. Tetris or any other “small” game counts, and of course many works of ht lit and IF.

Would the “whoa”-epiphany effect described by Menand belong to those interactive works with a greater sense of closure? Some interactive forms, such as hypertext literature, as well as open-ended simulations, often do not offer the player closure. Do the proponents of hypertext literature think about this “whoa” effect, or perhaps even explicitly reject it? Or some other powerful but different effect? Of course with ht lit one can achieve those effects if one wants, but can it be done without closure?

In the format of interactive experience that I focus on — real-time interactive characters, whether as virtual pets, friends, or co-protagonists in short dramatic scenarios — a primary, fundamental effect I’ve been trying to achieve to date could be boiled down to a sense of presence, of aliveness. Whether or not the quality of Facade’s narrative succeeds or fails, I hope players come to feel that the characters have a mind and will of their own, are aware, and interact robustly. Note, just as Breazeal and Winston state, this does not necessarily mean truly intelligent.

When a real sense of presence is achieved, I believe it can create its own particular effect of “whoa” in the player. That said, at this point in the evolution of such works, I think we need to go beyond mere aliveness, and create experiences of this sort that offer players some real, meaningful agency. (And as I suggested the other day, some degree of true intelligence will probably be required to do so.) Delivering on that would really take that “whoa” feeling to the next level. I’m interested to think of ways to do that in shorter formats, versus the longer formats of today’s games. Perhaps if the effect is strong enough, even if only short in duration, people will pay money for it (say, $20). Or even better, they’ll pay money for it because it delivers such an effect in a short experience; after all, who has the time to play long games?

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8 Responses to “The Whoa Effect”

  1. scott Says:

    I think I’m in a way frustrated with the “Whoa” effect, or rather that it seems like much digital art is aimed precisely at delivering that effect in as short a time as possible. While I appreciate concision, I guess I share some of the worries that detractors of electronic literature have levelled on the new media in general — that we’re all becoming consumers of short attention span theater — and that some of the “immersive” qualities of activities like reading an engrossing novel or sitting through a Shakespeare play are being lost in translation. I recently commented over at Jill/txt that I wasn’t convinced that a Scott Snibbe work, “Compliant,” actually qualified as art in the way that I usually understand it — it’s a cool interface idea that offers its users about 20 seconds of “Whoa” and then onto the next thing. I don’t know, you can’t expect all art to be “Guernica,” but I’m afraid that the “Whoa” factor is taking the place of more contemplative reading and art-appreciation in new media. The difference between a lot of digital “Whoa” moments and Joyce’s epiphanies is that you had to follow the characters in Dubliners for a quite a while and get immersed in the quotidian minutae of their lives before you got to the epiphany. You didn’t just hit a button, get your fix, and move on.

    Just back from Brown and my third Cave experience, one of the things I really appreciate about “Screen,” the short Cavefiction work that Noah, Coover, Josh Miller and others developed, is that you actually have to stand inside a box and *read and listen* for a few minutes before you get to the “Whoa” moment when the words start flying off the walls. Orgasms are a lot less enjoyable without a bit of foreplay. There’s something to be said for anticipation, suspense, and art that takes more than a minute or two to make you think before delivering you the “Whoa.”

    Having said that, I don’t think that contemplation, or for that matter immersion, necessitates closure. I think that closure is a different pleasure. You can have plenty of petty epiphanies, and can spend plenty of time thinking, without ever reaching a consciously constructed ending.

  2. William Says:

    I’m not clear on what Minsky’s objections are. Just what are real emotions anyway, if not just another form of system state that shifts a bunch of network weights around? Is he worried about qualia? Is Minsky turning into John Searle, claiming that you can’t have effective emotional systems without some substance equivalence with the brain? That would be an unusual turn of event for Minsky.

  3. andrew Says:

    Whoa, whoa, whoa, Scott. Whoa. Hold on there. I wonder if you’re actually talking about the “Whoa” effect’s somewhat obnoxious cousin, the “Gee Whiz” effect? The “Whoa” effect, as described by Menand in the article, which is what I am wondering about, is a richer, less-superficial effect than mere “Gee Whiz”. i.e., an effect in the same order of magnitude as what a good short story gives you. You wouldn’t call short stories the “short attention span theater” of literature, would you? (That would be blog posts, I guess.)

    I am wondering about “short” interactive experiences, but not instant-gratification ones — again, something that takes at least 5 minutes of the user’s time, but no more than, say, 20. Screen would definitely fall under that definition.

    Actually in my little list of “short” interactive experiences, I purposefully left gallery art, net art, etc. off the list at first, to see if it would come up in the discussion. Regarding Compliant, I definitely consider that piece more than a “Gee Whiz” experience, possibly a “Whoa” experience. Like the commenter “real icon” wrote over at jill/txt, Compliant has substance to it because it plays with one’s (low) expectations of what video projections are. It has the feel to me of early video art, except of course this is early interactive video art. I bet it would capture at least 5 minutes of my attention, between interacting with it and watching others interact with it. (Okay, maybe it’s more analagous to a poem than a short story, but it’s no joke… Note that if Compliant were implemented only on a screen, interacted with only by a mouse pointer, that would be uninteresting.)

    More comments to follow later…

  4. scott Says:

    I didn’t mean to knock Snibbe too hard — it is a cool idea, working against the given constraints of the medium and is probably worth 5 minutes — come to think of it, I’ve already dedicated more than 5 minutes thinking about it and I haven’t even seen the thing. And I have nothing against a simple well-executed piece of conceptual art. I guess what I’m generally irritated with is the idea that the “Gee Whiz” effect is taking the place of its meatier cousin, our friend “Whoa” and his grand-dad “Meaningful.” After three semesters of teaching New Media Studies, I can definitely say that the majority of my students prefer a gleeful “Gee Whiz” to a substantive “Whoa.” I think that what we’re after in most kinds of literary (and artistic) experiences is an effect that takes a while to get to (say 20 minutes to hours, days, or weeks) and then also lingers on the other end, after you’re done reading/viewing/interacting/playing. Maybe I’m setting myself up to feel frustrated — I’m interested in network *novels* after all. I just hate the idea that that fully realized, contemplative reading experience should be left to print alone. I guess I acknowledge that online experience in some ways needs to be more oriented to short attention spans, and I’ve seen a lot of really interesting work that fits into the 2-5 minute consumption zone, but I’d like to see more works that both challenge us to spend more than 20 minutes with them, and that “pay us off” for putting in the time.

  5. andrew Says:

    Scott, and William, I’ll write some more comments when I have some free time this weekend, but I just wanted to say I’m glad to hear I’m not the only one around here frustrated with the state of the art.

  6. Jeremy Bushnell Says:

    When I read this post I racked my brain to think of the most memorable “whoa” moment given to me by interactive fiction.

    At the risk of dating myself, I have to admit that the *best* example I can recall is the moment when I figured out the overarching meta-puzzle in Zork III.

    I do have to say that that part of the gratification of that moment came from having spent a very long time up against the problem, although I’m waffling about whether the duration of that puzzling-out experience was necessary to get me to that “whoa” moment. Certainly masterful literature can elicit that moment quickly—Raymond Carver’s short story “Fat” is about the speediest successful example I can think of in fiction, but some of Basho’s haiku manage to get me there in three lines.

    What would a “haiku-like” interactive experience look like?

  7. andrew Says:

    William wrote: I’m not clear on what Minsky’s objections are. Just what are real emotions anyway, if not just another form of system state that shifts a bunch of network weights around? Is he worried about qualia?

    Strictly speaking, you’re probably right, but I suppose Minsky wants to see systems that choose an implementation style closer to real brains. At work I was water-cooler chatting with Joe Bates about the article, and he pointed out that Minsky was never that happy with Rodney Brooks’ approach, and Breazeal was a grad student in Brooks’ lab…

    Scott wrote: but I’d like to see more works that both challenge us to spend more than 20 minutes with them, and that “pay us off” for putting in the time

    Sure, me too, which would be an interesting discussion to have… my point in this post was to ask, I wonder what common qualities we’ll find in successful but meaningful short (5-20 minute) interactive experiences, akin to what short stories are. Jeremy seems to suggest that it will be challenging to deliver a “whoa” effect in that short of an amount of time. (However I’m guessing the effect Jeremy described was more of a “mega-Whoa”, versus a single “Whoa” as defined by Menand in the New Yorker article. As if what I just said made any sense.)

    So what might work? It seems to me that this presence quality I mention, similar to what Breazeal is after, could be one way to give affecting, perhaps meaningful qualities to a shorter rather than longer experience.

    The “haiku” question is interesting…

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