The Lost Cosmonaut project is based on a collaboration between an artist and our research group investigating the application of the interactive paper platform in an artistic setting for interactive narratives and story writing. The work is part of the Artist in Labs programme, a Swiss initiative trying to bring together artists and scientists.
A user sits in a fairly dark room in front of a semicircular desk. The wall in front of the user contains a large round hole which is used as a screen for projecting digital information. On the desk there is a Nokia Digital Pen and three documents forming part of an interactive narrative: a star map, a book, and a collection of love letters. Ambient sound in combination with artificial lighting is applied to generate different moods.
The content of the interactive narrative is based around the idea of a cosmonaut lost in space. The user interacts with the three documents on the table containing information about the lost cosmonaut. While a visitor is interacting with the documents, the content presented on the round screen as well as the ambient sound and the lighting are changing (ambient moods). There is some preauthored content in these documents, but visitors are encouraged to add texts and drawings to the artefacts themselves. While the linearity of the story is already broken by giving a user the freedom to select arbitrary information in the three documents, each user further becomes an author of the story by adding their own content. Thereby, the interactive narrative collaboratively written by different users evolves over time. Note that the information is written into physical space as well as captured and integrated into the narrative in digital form.
There are three documents building the interactive narrative; the love letters, a star map and a book of broken images. The love letters mainly contain parts of handwritten sentences or even single words with gaps in between. The user is encouraged to fill in the missing parts and to continue the love letters. The second document, an ancient star map contains stars labelled with numbers. Visitors can dedicate stars to family and friends by writing names alongside stars. Finally, there is the book of broken images containing torn images of cosmonauts, landscapes etc. where half of each image is missing. Some of the missing half images have been drawn by somebody else and the visitor is encouraged to follow suit.
In the Lost Cosmonaut installation, the ambient mood changes based on the document a visitor is working on. Using simple document tracking, the system detects which document lies at the centre of the desk. The documents have been tagged with RFID identifiers and an antenna has been placed underneath the table. The RFID antenna detects when a new document is placed at the centre of the table and initiates the activation of a new mood. An RFID plug-in has been implemented for the iServer platform to support the necessary document tracking.
An interesting and innovative aspect of the Lost Cosmonaut installation is the fact that information written into the physical space is handled in three different ways to integrate it into the interactive narrative. To illustrate what we mean by the three different ways of content handling, we discuss the interaction with one of the three documents and outline how content from all three documents becomes interweaved to a single story space. The figure below shows an abstract representation of the three different documents. As described earlier, for each of the three documents there exists some preauthored content and new content generated by each user. In the figure this fact is represented by separating each document into existing content and new content.
Let us have a look at the star map document to explain the linking between the digital and physical space and show the three different ways of handling information written on a document. If a user writes a new dedication on the star map, first of all, the information is physically "stored" as new content on the document and forms part of a subsequent user’s experience. By writing a dedication on the star map, a new active area is generated for the handwritten information. As illustrated in the figure the new active area is linked with image and film material. If later, the same or another user touches the dedication, an image or film is shown. Finally, the dedication is captured and stored in a database as an XML document containing single positions together with a timestamp and the pressure of the pen nib. The digitally captured information is dynamically linked from active areas in the love letters and gets activated when the corresponding part of a sentence is selected in one of the love letters. The temporal information that is stored together with the stroke information is used to replay the writing of the text as an animated drawing.
The Lost Cosmonaut installation showed how interactive paper can not only be integrated with digital information, but become part of a whole interactive environment including video screens, ambient sound and light. By cross-linking physical and digital information snippets, iServer has been used to author an interactive narrative where each user experiences their own story in a non-linear way. The Lost Cosmonaut interactive narrative encourages visitors to generate new physical and digital content resulting in an active cross-media story evolving over time. A first prototype of the Lost Cosmonaut was shown in December 2004 in an exhibition at ETH Zurich.
Beat Signer, Fundamental Concepts for Interactive Paper and Cross-Media Information Spaces, ISBN 978-3-8370-2713-6, Hardcover, 276 Pages, May 2008 (first published 2006 as Diss ETH No. 16218)
Axel Vogelsang and Beat Signer, The Lost Cosmonaut: An Interactive Narrative Environment on Basis of Digitally Enhanced Paper, In Proceedings of International Conference on Virtual Storytelling 2005, Strasbourg, France, December 2005
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