Interaction/immersion/virtuality — “Getting” the audience

March 9, 2012 § 1 Comment

This is interesting:


1/ It’s not the “first” interactive film: Kinoautomat (1967) has that distinction, a Czech experiment from Radúz Činčera that offered some choice to the movie audience in deciding where the plot should go (an experiment, as Alexis Blanchet explains, that was a satire of democracy as fake choices offered to the public, whose decision-making matters very little as the plot always manages to come back to the same points, regardless of voting).

2/ If interaction is about simple, binary choice (go up, go down, go left or go right, move on, help), as is the case with this trailer, then you can have it, thank you, and the study of interaction is not worth the paper its theory is printed on.

3/ It’s not about interaction really, as much as the illusion of intimacy: it’s the (illusion of) immersion, stupid! “I’m talking to the character !” — and the enjoyment of the distance that everyone of this words, in that sentence, requires to be said by a sane person.

4/ As noted by youtube comments, we are usually told to turn off our phones in movie theaters. The novelty here, is asking you to give out your phone number and keep your phone open during the projection. The novelty is not the interaction — it’s the “error of category” that’s striking: what has a phone to do in a movie theater ? The thrill is in juxtaposing two media that usually are separated — and yet strangely work together in a familiar way. Melodrama (Ben Singer!) has played with just such errors, and such thrills, for most of its history…

5/ Recognized it yet? The operating referent here is not the interaction of video games, it’s the web cam — or the 19th century project that cinema partially fulfilled, and that network technologies have finally accomplished (until next technological iteration), the project of seeing a live image of someone and talking to that person at the same time. As Thomas Elsaesser has argued (“Louis Lumière – the Cinema’s First Virtualist ?” Cinema Futures: Cain, Abel or Cable ? Eds. Elsaesser Thomas, and Hoffmann Kay. Amsterdam: Amsterdan University Press, 1998. 45-61.), cinema history should also be contextualized within the history of the telephone, as much as the history of images and screen — and the realistic illusion of cinema has just been one step towards the accomplishment of “virtual presence” that the webcam manages.

“There is evidence that the late nineteenth century did not expect the cinema: rather, the imagination of the 1880s and 1890s was fired by an impatience for devices of simultaneity and instantaneity, which suggests an altogether different ‘history’: one that leads from serial photography via the phonograph to the polaroid, the video image, the VCR and the digital disk, while on the other imposing itself as the incremental history of the telegraph, the wireless, the telephone, satellite-links and the computer” (47)

Punch, Dec. 9, 1878: George Du Maurier’s version of Edison’s Telephonoscope

6/ If one then embarks on a search for “virtual presence” in media, retroactively, one finds it not just in benshi-like film commentators active in silent cinemas in the 1910s-1920s, but also in forking narratives and narrative over-presence in Hollywood silent films, and in the creation of a “virtual” reception space where audiences and fictions come to co-exist — that space that I call the realistic reception space of cinema, constructed, for instance, by ballyhoo like marketing techniques in 1920s America. Hollywood film audiences are sometimes immersed and sometimes distanced in 1920s exhibition film practices — and the key to understanding the variety of film reception contexts and practices, for Hollywood, is thus “illusion”: the virtuality of fiction is only possible through an active engagement of audiences through a playful mode of illusion — making-believe it’s real.

6/ And in that sense, Hollywood audiences have been interactive, and gamers, for a very long time.

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