You are here. You will be there.

Completion Date: 

The first project assigned to us as incoming 1st year MFA design students at Mass Art was to create an interactive experience that addressed the meaning of "you are here." It was an open-ended assignment intended to reveal our potential thesis interests. The goal for my project was to give users a unique interactive experience based on the process of running a marathon by considering the many meanings of the phrase "you are here."

The phrase "you are here" is most often used to describe physical location. Frequently, a designer must show a viewer the current location within a larger space. This requires them to represent the three-dimensional physical world on a two-dimensional page or screen. The most common solution has been to present an overhead view of the area with an icon representing the viewer's location.

Adding interactive capabilities and simulating three-dimensional space has helped to create more informative diagrams, giving the user a better grasp of "you are here." For example, Edward Tufte, in his book Visual Explanations proposed a screen-based solution for a museum kiosk that "put the viewer into the space" by combining a 3-D diagram and real-time video. (Tufte, 1997)

The phrase "you are here" can have meanings other than describing physical location. When these are considered, richer content is found. However, to convey this content in a meaningful way, a designer can not just provide information, she must create an experience.

At the time, (September 2002), I was training to run a marathon. I was often thinking about running or running while I was thinking, so I naturally applied the phrase "you are here" to the process of running a marathon.

Running a marathon is a rich, life-altering experience where the phrase "you are here" can have multiple meanings. In a marathon, the runner is moving through the physical world, constantly changing locations. It is an experience that has a distinct beginning and end. Therefore, "you are here" can refer to the runner's physical location. During the race, the runner also experiences dramatic fluctuations in her physical state, so "you are here" can also refer to status of energy depletion, or the amount of pain the runner feels. Emotional state is also a component of "you are here." Throughout the race, a runner experiences a wide array of emotions such as boredom, doubt, and elation.

When considering these other meanings of the phrase "you are here" within the context of running a marathon, it is difficult to represent its essence on a two dimensional screen. Even if the runner's emotional state were plot in a well designed "Tufte-esqe" chart, would it really mean anything to the viewer? In order to give a viewer an understanding of the meaning of "you are here," traditional methods of information design must be abandoned and experience design embraced.

So, is the virtual reality the solution? Current virtual reality technology allows us to simulate almost every aspect of the running experience. A system could be built in which the user runs on a treadmill for 26.2 miles wearing wires and sensors that would simulate some dimensions of the experience. However, what, then is the difference between running a real marathon and doing one with the assistance of virtual reality?

Virtual reality is not best method for creating a truly immersive experience, believes Nathan Shedroff. In his book Experience Design, Shedroff explains that "our sense of reality is so sensorially stimulating that it's nearly impossible to design an experience that could even approach the immersiveness of reality."He recommends building "experiences that cannot exist in reality and, therefore, sidetrack our senses with novelty and originality rather than simulating reality." (Shedroff, 2001)

Because a virtual reality experience is designed to mimic the real experience, it will not provide the user with insight into the essence of the experience. Therefore, a more appropriate type of experience for this purpose is a perceptual one. This would be a game based on the interrelated variables that define "you are here" within the context of running a marathon.

"It's often a better strategy to build
experiences that cannot exist in reality
and, therefore, sidetrack our senses
with novelty and originality rather than
simulating reality as we have beomce
accustomed to experiencing it." Nathan Shedroff

how it works
In this game, the factors that contribute to a runner's emotional and physical state affect the player's ability to progress through the course. The fluctuating factors contributing to the runner's emotional state are physical environment, mental toughness and the behavior of the spectators, the ones contributing to the runner's physical state are: physical environment, fluid consumption, pace, and weather. Some of these variables the player can control and some are random, or based on the course they choose to "run."

The experience of playing the game is similar to running a race in that the player "moves" through a course. But in order to make progress, the player has to "click away" squares that appear on the screen. Sometimes removing the squares is easy, that is when the player's emotional and physical states are at their highest. Other times it can be quite challenging. If the player is unsuccessful at making progress in the race for a given period of time, he does not finish.

What makes the squares easy or difficult to "click away" is their behaviors which correlate directly to the factors contributing to the runners physical and emotional state (physical environment, mental toughness, the behavior of the spectators, fluid consumption, pace, and weather). The emotional variables make the squares more or less visible, thus harder to click away, and physical variables make the squares more numerous, farther apart, or more sticky, which too makes them harder to click away. For example, if there are few cheering spectators on the course, (a factor contributing to emotional state), the squares become quite transparent and hard to see. If the runner gets dehydrated (a factor contributing to physical state), the squares become more numerous.

I did not enjoy working on the Marathon Game. For a long time, the idea remained theoretical and hard to wrap my head around. But once I decided to call it a game, it became more tangible and easier to comprehend. Defining a context for a project helps to clarify design decisions and move it forward. While I thought the marathon game was an interesting idea, not being able to build it and test it was frustrating. I would never know whether or not it was successful. Nevertheless, the merit in this project was that it got me thinking about designing experiences.

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