Hermes is a seven person team developing an experience for the Askwith Kenner Global Language and Culture Room (a.k.a. the Kenner Room) at Carnegie Mellon University. The experience would be added to their collection of experiences about multiculturalism, language, and identity. For technology, it would make use of one or more devices already present in the Kenner room, which currently include Oculus Quests, HTC Vive, Interactive Screen, Alienware PCs and a 3 Wall projection room.
The client for this project was Stephan Caspar, Assistant Teaching Professor in Media Creation and Multicultural Studies. From the project, he wanted an experience that emphasizes human-centric problems occurring in global cultures. Moreover, he also wanted something that raises awareness of underrepresented topics about multiculturalism and individual identity.
Brainstorming and narrowing in on a topic that our team and client was satisfied with took a couple of weeks in the beginning of the semester, only after which our actual design process began. Eventually, the team decided to create an experience that focused on the Amazon Rainforest. In this experience, guests would view visuals depicting deforestation and pollution in the Amazon and learn how it was impacting Indigenous tribes. The ultimate goal of the experience was to educate guests how they could help stand for climate justice in the Amazon.
On the technical side, this project aimed to use both the Kenner Room’s HTC Vive and 3 Wall Projection Room. Through this technology, we could design a cooperative, asymmetric experience that could promote conversation during experience between guests about the issues the Amazon faces.
What Went Right:
- Unique use of Technology
Making an experience with the HTC Vive and 3 Wall projection, while introducing some form of communication between the two, interested both the client and most faculty. One of the major concerns raised by some faculty was the possibility of overcomplicating the design and experience. There were some concerns raised regarding the level of immersion the HTC Vive would offer if external communication was taking place simultaneously. There were also concerns regarding the layout and space of the room to accommodate this. From a technical perspective, we were able to get our project running on both platforms and were able to invite guests to experience it with some communication taking place between the two. The challenges that were faced later on were focused around the complexity of the experience and design interfering with the message that was to be delivered.
- The topic of the experience aligns with the Kenner Room
In terms of the topics covered within the Kenner Room, the story of our experience fits within that framework. While the issues facing the Amazon have an everlasting impact on the world’s climate, there is a humanitarian issue at its core. Many indigenous tribes call the Amazon home. Thus, they have been on the frontlines to save the Amazon and stop the overexploitation of its resources.
What Went Wrong:
- Project Timeline
As a team, the biggest gap we felt in our skill set while working on this project was our lack of experience, which became apparent in several fields of this project. In particular, there is a lack of production experience within the team. This negatively impacted the project timeline. The timeline we had made a plan for was a complete 14 week plan rather than an iterative process with fast prototyping of features early on in the semester. This negatively impacted the quality and nature of the feedback we received for our intermediate builds, and resulted in low number of iterations in multiple fields. Had we produced a relatively technically sound build by Week 10, where the feedback received would have been around the design and message of the experience – rather than the functionality of the features, there was confidence that we could have implemented it. Instead, we were encouraged to completely pivot our design and make big changes to the experiences during the last weekend of the semester.
- Lack of Research and Narrative Experience –
One of the bigger criticisms we received while working on a narrative-heavy project, particularly from our client, was our lack of research and its reflection in our work. We underestimated the depth to which we must study a certain topic in order to build an entire experience around it with a genuine message. Having noticed the gaps in our narrative experience early on, we could have done our research and consulted with experienced faculty in the ETC or our client to assist us in building the narration. Moreover, every individual of the team could have acquainted themselves with the content of the topic and let it reflect in their work/ make suggestions towards the experience in whichever way applicable.
- The communication in the experience
The goal of the experience was to encourage dialogue between guests about the environmental issues within the Amazon and what the guests can do to help stand for climate justice. However, we found in playtests that the communication between the guests was primarily about gameplay mechanics. While we took steps towards rectifying this by building a tutorial, which some felt was helpful, the experience required too much communication about the gameplay in order to finish the experience. This issue was also due to the asymmetry that the technology created, which is why the last minute pivot for the project removed the VR component.
- Team Communication
Another area we struggled in as a team was communication, which became more apparent halfway through the semester. Our client made us realize that we were not doing a good job in keeping him in the loop, or even using him as a resource for the project. This ties back to our lack of an iterative process, especially in the first half of the semester, where consulting with the client and considering his needs/ opinions/ constraints would have refined our direction and experience every week. More conversations with him, regarding the topic and the project, outside weekly meetings would have provided more perspective and depth to the whole experience. Adding to this, the team had a hard time taking feedback, which at times made meetings more defensive than constructive, and there was a general lack of any discussion throughout.
As mentioned previously, the team had to pivot to a design that scrapped some important aspects to the previous design. This came after receiving concerns from multiple faculty and the client. The major concern was the complexity of the design and its lack of smooth functioning, which was a distraction from the intended core message and the clients needs. The pivot included removing VR and introducing an API to give the client more power in changing the narrative. We hope to continue refining any bugs found in the experience for the benefit of our client, through the week of final presentations.
From this project, this team gained a better understanding of expectations of ETC students from semester projects. The majority of the team was first year students, so this was their first ETC project. Coming into this project, there were a lot of misconceptions about the dynamic between our team and the client and faculty advisors. There was an assumption to show decisions and final products for feedback, rather than discuss the hurdles encountered and the process we followed to get there. Particularly, this was noticed with our client and his disappointment in lack of such discussions.
The team also learned the importance of defining roles and responsibilities. Everyone did have a role on the team, but the responsibilities of some roles were poorly defined. As a result, some teammates found themselves picking up new roles in the middle of the project. Others found that they were at ends with other teammates because of mutual confusion about their own project responsibilities.
Finally, the team will be taking away a lot from the experience of designing this project. While the design process was hindered by the first remote weeks of the semester, it was apparent that the design of the project did not necessarily use the team’s talents to their fullest potential. As a result, some team members found themselves exploring roles they had no experience in. Moreover, the team’s progress was impeded several times because there was no team member assigned to a role that the project desperately needed.
Moving forward, we will not miss the trials and tribulations of this project, nor will we miss the emotional or mental stress that came with it. We will look back on this project, however, and appreciate the lessons we learned. We may not appreciate those lessons initially, but they will definitely be lessons we appreciate once we are fully in the industry.