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Inter-active: Learnings From The First Digital Writing Residency

Feb 27, 2014

The act of writing is a solitary endeavour. Often, so is reading. Creating Robot University—the first project produced through the Digital Writing Residency—was far from a solo effort. Presented across three projectors and 12 touch screens and using six Microsoft Kinect motion controllers, engaging with this interactive narrative is definitely a public affair.

The Residency, a joint initiative of the Queensland University of Technology and the Australia Council for the Arts, allows a writer to create a site-specific narrative project for The Cube, a digital interactive learning and display interface housed at the QUT Science and Engineering Centre in Brisbane.

‘Creating for this kind of environment is part writing, part digital development,’ explains inaugural residency recipient and project manager of Robot University, Dr Christy Dena, ‘but it requires rethinking both.’ ‘When you are an author, you spend most of your time alone, getting your ideas down. There’s a lot of flexibility,’ Dena explains, ‘You read over what you’ve written; refine some parts, remove others. Then you read over it again. Things change.’

But there are practicalities that come with presenting work on this kind of technology, at this scale, and in a public place. Add to this a six-month turnaround and you have a very different set of working conditions to what most writers are used to.

‘For starters, you are not working alone,’ Dena says, ‘You are directing a team of other creatives—that might include a programmer, sound designer, composer, concept artist, environmental artist, animator and a 3D modeller—to help you realise your project.’ Keeping your project on target becomes as much about managing the people as it is about creating the storyline. ‘One of the biggest challenges I find with digital projects is dividing time between writing and design tasks and organisational and creative directing duties,’ Dena said, ‘This means I never have dedicated writing time.’

Factor in the time that programing and development takes as well, and your writing time is even less. ‘Writing for an interactive experience isn’t as simple as saying, ‘I want it to do this’,’ Dena says, ‘Every movement, gesture, sound, no matter how small the action, takes your team of creators time to program, animate and render.’ This means locking down key aspects of the narrative, such as characters and setting, early in the project lifecycle.

‘There is a lot of risk associated with working this way,’ Dena says, ‘You’ve committed so much of the project before really knowing if anyone cares about what you’re making.’ There are a range of technical considerations: how people will interact with the screens (including their predisposition toward familiar pinch and swipe gestures common to smartdevices) as well as how they might respond to the narrative prompts on screen. Then add spatial considerations such as the natural circulation of people moving through the space and the desire paths they use to navigate, as well as factors such as natural light and ambient noise, and you have to be open to more than just guessing how things will work. While many writers labour over each word painstakingly before showing the finished product to anyone (even their editor!) Dena had to be more open to presenting early iterations.

Dena explains, ‘You can’t really work in an environment like this without being willing to release parts of the project.’ The idea of publishing your rough drafts on a public noticeboard would probably invoke an anxiety attack in many writers, but as Dena notes, ‘Creating on a large-scale environment like this means what we see on our desktop computers doesn’t correlate. So from day one playtesting was scheduled on a frequent basis. We put up the messy and awkward early.’ While Dena had some reservations about sharing work-in-development in other projects, this prototyping-led approach to creative development gave her an opportunity to surveil how people were reacting to the characters, settings, plot devices, and design as the project went on.

The Digital Writing Residency isn’t just a different way of writing. It represents a different way of designing and presenting immersive interactive experiences. ‘Robot University doesn’t follow the current interactivity conventions of The Cube,’ Dena says. But, for The Cube, that is the point.

‘The Cube uses interactive technologies and compelling projects to foster an interest in science, technology, engineering and math,’ says Lubi Thomas, Senior Curator at QUT and custodian of The Cube. ‘What we realised from the Residency was that hooking people into anything beyond surface-level shallow interactions needs narrative and storytelling,’ Thomas says, ‘Narrative allows for a deeper engagement through extending the time spent people spend with the work and facilitating a richer level of interaction. Having Christy here has shown us different approaches to project development and working methodologies that will enrich our own project process for The Cube.’