Pervasive Media has to be intimately rooted in new understandings of context. Entertainment media have usually had control of their audiences context; theatre, cinema, television assumed certain things about their audience; you will be sitting in a seat, more or less silently, quite probably in the dark, attending to the experience as it unfolds.
In Computer Science, context has a very specific technical meaning referring to the way a device knows where it is, its GPS location and orientation. It is a feature that can be predicted and programmed for. Pervasive media may use this data but then deploy it in a human context that is often unpredictable and can’t be totally controlled. The user is not in the theatre or the sitting room. The user is out in the world, moving in and out of buildings, following a route, making a journey; their sensorium open to a whole range of stimuli competing for their attention. To successfully create a meaningful experience combining the Computer Science meanings of context and the human experience of context requires a new set of creative skills. The designer is required to make work that can respond fluidly to a constantly shifting context, a work that is defined by people’s actions. It becomes necessary to design for ‘magic moments’, to create work that offers the user that sense of serendipity and discovery. To create a meaningful experience a designer needs to understand the user’s context. To understand the art of context the Pervasive media designer has to work with the affordances of the space where the piece will be experienced. Where will your user be? What time of day or night might it be? What will the immediate context offer, what can be seen, what can be heard (smelt, touched) ?
How the designer works with context will also be subject to the level of immersion you want to produce in your user. Do you want the user to have a deep immersive experience, taken into themselves, in which the real world becomes background or do you want the user to be ‘attending to the world’, learning anew about their surroundings ? Content that relates directly to what we can see or hear produces a level of concentration, content that is more abstract or poetic might produce a deeper level of immersion. But the designer needs to consider what else is going in the environment – we only have so much ‘input bandwidth’. Asking the audience to attend to a soundtrack and also attend to a real word performance or game will produce distraction not immersion.
The other audience members or users are also a crucial part of the context. Pervasive Media happens in the daylight; the audience are not anonymised in the dark. Do you want to produce interaction between your users ? Is this a solitary or a shared experience? There will be other people in your experience space. How does your user relate to them ? The Tweeture was an object designed specifically to create sociality and connection between its users.
Many Pervasive Media design processes involve making a map of some sort – a document that connects data to context, to space and place. But maps come in many forms and shapes. A map can strive for a kind of topographical accuracy or it can be an imaginative overlay. So the experience might deliver specific media related to particular places, ‘this particular dungeon in the Tower of London’, (Escape from the Tower) or it might offer a story that could unfold in any number of shopping malls (Our Broken Voice).
The backdrop for Pervasive Media is the world- our shared contexts. It is uncontrolled, already a mise-en-scène populated by the demands of every day life. The design challenge is to work with the flow of the environment understanding that augmentation is not the same as control.