Tinseltown 2.0

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in The Feature on 23 February 2005

University of Southern California’s Interactive Media Division takes on mobile technology

The parking lot known as present-day Los Angeles may prove to be the ideal Petri dish for the development of new mobile technologies and experiences. The city is central to the production of everything from music and film to television, videogames and just about any other twentieth-century media one can name. Even the branded-entertainment powerhouses live there.

And, best of all, its misdirected approach to city planning (see Roger Rabbit for details) has created an enormous de facto market for mobile technologies: all these media people need to be in touch even while stuck in traffic. Is it any surprise, then, that a Los Angeles university wants to become the leading innovator in mobile entertainment and experience design?

The Interactive Media Division (IMD), part of the University of Southern California’s School of Cinema and Television, is admittedly new to mobile. Frankly, it’s new to everything. Founded in 2002 by NASA virtual reality pioneer Scott Fisher, the MFA program has already made quite a reputation for itself.

Sure, most news stories about the school so far seem to care most about a whopping multi-million dollar grant the department received from the Electronic Arts corporation. But that’s just an LA-style distraction from the all-star faculty Fisher and Co. have pulled together. Indeed, early concerns that the program might become some sort of glorified trade school have most certainly subsided given the creativity and diversity of the student work.

And even though Electronic Arts has moved slowly into the mobile market – it only plans to release four phone-based games during the first half of 2005 – this hasn’t stopped USC’s Interactive Media Division from encouraging its students to jump head-first into exploring applications for mobile technologies. Oddly enough, given the proximity and funding of the mainstream entertainment industry, no one’s even working on mobile video games.

Meet a couple of the instigators: Drs. Julian Bleecker and Mizuko “Mimi” Ito. Julian, whose name you may recognize from his WiFi.Bedouin or Mobile SCOUT projects, is an authority on mobile technology design who tempers his enthusiasm for wild invention with an equally intense interest in the social ramifications of these technologies. Mimi is a highly sought-after cultural anthropologist whose wisdom may have first come to your attention on the pages of Howard Rheingold’s book, Smart Mobs. Her research is at the forefront of our understanding of media technologies’ effects on individuals and communities. Though Mimi officially roams the halls of USC’s School of Anthropology and the Annenberg Center for Communication, her emphasis on investigating our fledgling wireless culture frequently leads her to collaborate with IMD students and faculty.

With the debut last Fall of Julian Bleecker’s graduate seminar entitled Design and Technology for Mobile Experiences as well as the introduction of a five-week module on mobile technologies within the required “Design For Interactivity” course, IMD has articulated its intent to bring mobile into its core curriculum. As Julian notes, “we’ll be bolstering the curriculum to address the desires of our grad students for more opportunities in mobile topics.” From current indications, that desire is strong. Several students have already embarked on mobile-related projects for their theses. The program’s faculty is adapting as rapidly as they can to the demand they’ve stoked.

“I’m trying to develop guidelines for exuberant innovation,” says Bleecker, emphasizing his effort to balance his students’ passion with their greater promise. He wants to instigate “the kind of innovation that will contribute to the rapidly flourishing mobile scholarship and R&D activities at USC and elsewhere.”

Ito shares Bleecker’s hope that the work at USC will be readily applicable to the real mobile industry, but still form a basis for higher order research. “My goal in working with students is to give them hands-on training on what it means to do user-side research that is both basic and applied. I try to design projects that result in findings that are immediately useful in the design and deployment of emergent technologies but also speak to enduring issues in social science and cultural studies about society, technology and culture.”

An interdisciplinary scholar herself, Ito hopes that the wide interest in mobile from all corners might help spur a new spirit of cooperation across different fields. “Another goal of mine in working with students is to expose them to interdisciplinary collaboration. … Often the existing ways we have carved up our areas of intellectual expertise are not the best for addressing new technologies and social patterns.”

For Bleecker, this means marrying technological innovation with social change. “The innovations I’m obsessed with are the cultural ones. … I mean to make my teaching and research contribute to helping my students and all the other academic and industry stakeholders understand what kinds of experiences are fun, compelling, make sense and create a heightened measure of social engagement, empowerment and participation.”

Student work so far has focused on the relationship of location, mobility and narrative. For example, Will Carter’s “Location33” leads its participants on various paths through the Culver City neighborhood, where “nodes scattered around the area contain musical fragments that when linked together, form a song.” The interdepartmental effort, “Pathalog,” employs GPS and centralized information storage to offer users relevant data based on their recorded paths through the city. In my favorite so far, a collaborative effort called Tracking Agama an urban ethnographer ‘bot’ takes users on a mystery tour through the city, as he gradually slips into lunacy.

Unlike the other projects, Tracking Agama takes Los Angeles itself into account, and marries local reality with universal principles in the way Bleecker and Ito’s mobile philosophies would suggest. If it’s an indication of where the program is headed, Los Angeles may just establish itself as the nexus of yet another entertainment industry – and give its many denizens something to do while sitting motionless in their mobiles.