Director // Computer Scientist
Live Performance Technology

About my Work

Since I started studying the intersection of computer science, technology and live performance at Carnegie Mellon University in 2012, I have received many confused looks and questions about what I’m researching. Most of these interactions have either ended with a bad joke about how I’m going to make computers dance around on stage like Mickey Mouse in Fantasia, or a 30 minute description of the intricacies of my current projects. As a result, I’ve decided it’s time to write up some of the topics I’ve been researching in a setting that is less formal than a paper, but more formal than a conversation at a social event. I hope you enjoy!

An image The Sorcer's Apprentice from Fantasia

Which is not to say I won’t try to do this at some point…

Technology: It's about systems

My reserach focuses on designing interaction systems for live performances. Specifically: responsive, synchronized, distributed human/computer systems for live performance. Breaking that down a little bit, systems which are:

-Responsive: Interactivity, with a focus on ensuring that when an audience member does something, the show responds to it in a meaningful way (the tricky part).

-Synchronized: There are discrete components to the system, and they infulence each other in a temporal way.

-Distributed human/computer: The discrete components are both pieces of technology and human beings. This is important because it makes methods of getting information to and from the performers and audience members about the physical environment and how to continue the performance (in a manner which doesn’t detract from the experience of the show) centeral to the system design.

Initial system diagram for Isn’t it Pretty to Think So

I explore and develop the design principles behind these systems by creating theater pieces that involve audience interaction. Each theater piece is a distnict attempt to answer questions like…

-How can the audience provide input into the show they’re watching without breaking the theatrical illusion and atmosphere?

-How can you create an engrossing interactive environment that can be easily transported (unlike, say, a Disney Theme park ride which the audience has to travel to)?

…through a responsive, synchronized, distributed human/computer system.

Aesthetics: It's also about systems

Of course, designing a technical system requires that there be a goal for how the data they collect is going to be used. It’s easy to simply gather information, it’s hard to design systems of converging data streams and performance that are meaningful. As a result, although new technologies frequently inspire lots of one off projects, working these ideas into a narrative structure which gives an audience a deeper engagment with a piece is a much greater challenge.

In order to begin coalescing technologies, moments and ideas for peces into a larger structure, I frequently have to step back to larger questions:

  • What new forms of story structure lend themselves to large scale audience interaction without resulting in exponential explosions of content creation?

  • What advantage does generating synchronized content in real time have over well rehearsed pre-recorded content?

Of course sometimes the answers to this question will indicate that a responsive, synchronized, distributed system is not the best way to use a technology or tell a certain story. In that case, it’s important to avoid a compulsion to force elements together - it just takes too much time and too many people to mount a theater piece. As Darius Kazemi writes:

“Try not to frame the problem you’re trying to solve as “I need to innovate in this medium” – that is a poisonous way of thinking. You should say, “I’m trying to do X, now what can I do to make it happen?”

I work primarily as a problem solver. But as a problem solver in the arts I have an obligation to the questions I’m trying to answer and the way those answers are presented. If a piece of technology will not create a meaningful impact, it’s my responsibility to put the Aesthetic of the expreience before a desire to “be innovative” with technology and theater.

Assorted Writings and Technology

Due to the length of time it takes to generate and iterate on these interactive pieces, and the challenge of capturing the resultant live interactive experience in a meaningful way online, I hope that the writings, discoveries and technical components that I post here will allow for a greater engagment with the artistic and technical community at large, which will in turn improve the work. One of my favorite parts of designing technology for the stage is how you are able to transform technologies that users interact with daily from something banal into something magical. Simple technical tricks like using web sockets to turn an array of computer screens black as the house lights dim can have a tremendously powerful theatrical effect.

A scene from The Consultants. Photo Credit Joshua Gigantino.

My ultimate hope is that for the theater practitioner, these writings will provide insight into some of the ways technology is and will soon be able to transform what we think of as theater in the hopes that it will inspire new creative output. For the technically inclined, I hope they can provide some new use cases and thought patterns for what technology can do when it is transformed from a business and user centered endeavour, to one of creating experiences that bring people together and deepen our experience of the world around us.

Enjoy,

Kevin M. Karol