Prototypes vs. ‘Demonstrators’

Before starting research at BT, I’d never heard the term ‘demonstrators’ used to describe the deliverables of a research project. Getting to grips with the idea has given me a valuable insight into the differences between ‘intrapreneurial’ innovation in corporate contexts, and the gung-ho prototyping I’ve been involved with in many arts/technology/entrepreneurial ventures.

I got a chance to see a variety of demonstrators at a recent BT Innovate and Design ‘Deep Dive’ event, where all the geeks put on suits, polish up their wares, and come and present them to a mix of management/strategy types and other geeks.


For the hardware/infrastructure demonstrators, there were some big green BT link cabinets (such as you sometimes see hanging open, with vast spaghetti tangles of copper twisted pair bulging out) – updated with the latest in fibre coupling systems. Then there were cross-sectional fibreglass models of brick walls, showing how domestic fibre channels could be installed. Those kinds of demonstrators felt a bit like playing in the launchpad at the Science Museum.

For Software demonstrators, the killer apps seemed to be Flash and powerpoint, because they seem to be the most effective ways to illustrate the concepts and proposed functionality of consumer technologies to a broad base of management/strategy people, with varied levels of technical knowledge. {{1}}

The product our team demonstrated in this context was built in Adobe Air/Flash, with a Processing back-end server – which was effective at demonstrating the possibilities of a second screen application for playing, pausing, text chatting and audio-messaging between users of a SocialTV system.

When I had first seen it, and read user test reports, I hadn’t immediately understood what could be learned from the results. The demonstrator literally only did four things: pause, play, send text message and send audio message. I was interested in how users behaved, how they misused or adapted the technology, which wasn’t really possible with such a limited device and such a proscribed mode of use.

Then yesterday I saw this:

GOAB. A TV Experience Concept from Syzygy on Vimeo.

Which basically compiles all the Social TV functionalities and features I’ve seen built or speculated about so far. It’s really very slick, and (as far as I can tell) entirely vaporware-enabled, which is a very good way of communicating to lots of people and testing a market without the complicated and horrible job of actually building any software.

So what I was missing is that ‘demonstrators’ should be seen as mostly non-functional props, designed to make it easier to communicate the possibilities and marketability of certain technologies. Whether they *actually* work or not is immaterial.

Another gem (or mine full of gems) from recent research was the Notube project, which involves my much admired semweb veteran friends Dan and Libby, which has involved building all kinds of prototypes – but not, explicitly, any products. Libby wrote about that very interestingly, after being badgered by product-hungry trade-fair attendees. Her post, which brings up lots of very useful user-centric patterns for Social TV from her previous work at Joost, helped me to understand the different applications of prototypes and ‘demonstrators’.

Dan also pointed me to this  beautiful demonstration of one of notube’s prototypes, using the new Universal Controller for Mythtv built by Steven Jolly, James Barrett and Matt Hammond at BBC R&D. This is the kind of stick-figure prototype I really enjoy: plain and uncomplicated on the outside, but actually rather elegant and complex on the inside.

So, before diving into making, I’m glad I clarified this for myself:

You build a protytpe to learn something about how users and systems behave. You build a demonstrator to learn about how people and organisations react to your product.

In terms of my research, I’m more interested in finding out how users and systems behave, so I’ll be building some prototypes, and not worrying too much about making them look slick.

[[1]] This wasn’t the case for some internally-focused applications, which were basically fully functional systems intended for use by BT and it’s partners for cost-saving/efficiency systems, or the Saturn Project aggregator/classifier for threat detection and analysis from fuzzy data.[[1]]

Mystery Science Research Lab 2011

It’s my second day at BT’s Future Applications research lab, and I’m sat at my cool 1990’s style ovoid lozenge office desk, doing a broad web-survey of Social TV applications. I’ve just been given my hall pass that allows me in and out of the automatic security doors, each one bearing a sign (in the italic variety of the ubiquitous BT font) saying:

“Please keep noise to a minimum as you walk through this office”.

I’m snorting, wheezing and squeaking with supressed laughter. The researcher sitting opposite me is giving me worried glances, and I can sense heads, peripherally visible over partitions and banks of computer screens, turning and peering in my direction.

While looking at some prototypes of ‘Avatar Party Mode’, a kind of ‘Virtual Sofa’ service available on the Sky Player foR Xbox Live, I had made the mistake of putting on my headphones and calling up some episodes of one of my favourite late 20th Century TV late-night TV shows, Mystery Science Theatre 3000.

The premise of Joel Hodgson’s MST3K, for the uninitiated, is that as part of an evil scientific experiment, ‘Joel Robinson’ and his robot sidekicks are trapped on a deep-space asteroid and forced to watch B-movies, where, represented as cinema-seated silhouettes at the bottom of the screen, they heckle and wisecrack their way through the film.

I am certainly not the first to make this association. Social TV researchers have turned to MST3K’s presentation style as a model for an acceptable user interface to indicate the co-presence remote viewers and even enable chat-partner selection on the bottom third of a TV screen (Ducheneaut, Moore, Oehlberg, Thornton & Nickell, 2008){{1}}, or as an example of potential applications/services that invite viewers to overlay user generated content and republish personalised video streams over IP (Banerjee et. al., 2002){{2}}. In cultural critique, film and television studies, MST3K has also been invoked as a perfect example of a ‘meta-show’, and used to illustrate how ironic re-appropriation of pop-cultural artefacts can express aesthetic dissent (King, 2007) {{3}}.

The CollaboraTV project implemented this kind of interface as the premise for their ground-breaking Social TV application. They even did some viewer expeience research contrasting this kind of ‘virtual audience’ interface with traditional text-chat underneath video playback, and found that the virtual audience increased audience engagement and enjoyment{{4}}.

In terms of interface, ‘user experience’, and it’s choice of B-movie ‘sociable’ media{{5}}, MST3K seems to offer a useful set of guidelines for Social TV design and research, primarily because the acceptance of it’s visual design and irreverant tone was established when it became a popular cult TV programme. But on a more abstract level, MST3K offers inspirational design patterns for Social TV because of how it constantly shifts focus between the viewer and the viewed, opening up endless imaginative, performative and conversational opportunities.

This shifting of focus foregrounds an aspect of television viewing that is often passed over by cultural critique of the ‘dumbing down’ of TV audiences (Bourdieu & Ferguson, 1998){{6}}. Ien Ang wrote about this in her often-cited book ‘Watching Dallas'{{7}}, where she argues that part of the enjoyment of watching the show for global (in her case Dutch) audiences, far from aspirational identification with the camped-up millionaire Texans, is a smug awareness that ‘other people’ are watching the show in earnest, but that for ‘us’, the show’s tastes and values are an object of collective ridicule. Bad TV, in this way, can be seen as a possible object of counter-identification, forming social groups of collective dislike.

Perhaps a successful deisgn for SocialTV could start with a ‘dislike’ button, and build it’s sociality on the collective activites of booing, heckling and throwing things at the screen.

[[1]]Ducheneaut, N., Moore, R., Oehlberg, L., Thornton, J., & Nickell, E. (2008). Social TV: Designing for Distributed, Sociable Television Viewing. International Journal of Human-Computer Interaction, 24(2), 136-154. doi: 10.1080/10447310701821426. [[1]] [[2]]Banerjee, S., Brassil, J., Dalal, A., & Lee, S.-ju, others. (2002). CDNs for personal broadcasting and individualized reception. In Proceedings of WCW. Citeseer. Retrieved March 29, 2011, from [[2]] [[3]]King, J. (2011). Mystery Science Theater 3000 , Media Consciousness , and the Postmodern Allegory of the Captive Audience Source : Journal of Film and Video , Vol . 59 , No . 4 ( WINTER 2007 ), pp . 37-53 Published by : University of Illinois Press on behalf of the Univer. Film, 59(4), 37-53. [[3]] [[4]] Harrison, C., & Amento, B. (2007). CollaboraTV: Using asynchronous communication to make TV social again. Adjunct Proceedings of EuroITV2007, 218–222.
[[4]] [[5]] In their paper cited above, Ducheneaut, Moore et al. also point to MST3K as a reference point for their observation that some types of content (such as a B-movie) tends to free up people’s attention for more discussion and interaction. [[5]] [[6]]Bourdieu, P., & Ferguson, P. P. (1998). On television and journalism. Pluto Press. [[6]] [[7]] Ang, I. (1985). Watching Dallas: Soap opera and the melodramatic imagination (p. 148). Routledge Kegan & Paul. [[7]]

What will Youview mean for the arts?

Youview - a new unified IPTV offering from BT, the BBC and the major UK broadcasters.

I went to the Art of the Digital London’s IPTV meetup last night, organised by Simon Worthington and Caroline Heron at Mute Publishing, intended to bring together arts organisations to discuss IPTV in general, and the big silence around how Youview is going to impact on London’s arts organisations, if at all.