Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Cross-Platform Experiences: Searching for Symbiosis

I had a surprisingly good label-reading experience at the de Young museum recently. I was looking at a large sculpture in the Africa section. I glanced at the sculpture, then looked to the label. The first sentence said, "This figure, which has two bodies and seven heads..." and I looked back up to confirm. "A bird on the top of the head," and again, I looked up. I was having one of those rare experiences where literally every sentence of the label sent me back to the object, to examine and explore further.

I bring up this story as a window into the field of cross-platform experience design. As the name suggests, cross-platform experiences provide a variety of playing fields for engagement.

At the simplest level, cross-platform can mean a single action in one environment inducing action in another. For example, some TV shows like American Idol allow you to vote on the performers (and thus affect the "game") via a dial-in phone number or text message. A computer kiosk in a museum might allow you to send a link home to yourself related to a physical exhibit experienced at the museum.

The intent is for these cross-platform experiences to engage you more persistently and completely with the content; the TV show is not only occupying your viewing experience with your television, but also engaging your communication experience via the phone. Instead of associating content, for example, museum exhibition content, with one location (the museum) alone, you take the content with you and engage with it in other parts of your life.

Most cross-platform experimentation, however, is too simple and infrequent to truly generate pervasive engagement. There's a quick feedback loop--watch this clip, dial this number, keep watching the show--and you're done. Most examples are stunts that don't create an environment of cross-platform play. People don't watch shows clutching their phones in hand, and few people ever access the "personal" websites generated in museum experiences.

Great cross-platform experiences, on the other hand, are like the label at the de Young. The platforms complement each other, and the player ping pongs from one to the other and back again.

One of the best examples of a complex, multi-faceted cross-platform game was I Love Bees, a creation of Jane McGonigal and 42 Entertainment. I Love Bees was created as part of the marketing campaign for Halo 2, a video game released in 2004. Technically an ARG (alternate reality game), I Love Bees combined online and real-world activities to reveal the Halo 2 narrative. The game ran for three months, counting down to the release of Halo 2. The core idea was brilliant: a list of GPS coordinates throughout the US and western Europe was released on the web, along with dates and times. Those GPS coordinates pointed to real-world payphones. When people went to the right payphone at the right time with the right puzzle message, they received a call from an actor portraying one of the fictitious characters in the game. Players banded together to get to the pay phones at the right time with the right messages, and they shared their findings online afterwards. The play was intense and the players described themselves as hardcore. You can read more about the game on Wikipedia, and some commentary on it from Wired.

Of course, the same thing that made I Love Bees intense and wonderful for some made it inaccessible to others. I Love Bees was described as "elaborate and convoluted," and even its basic tools--dedicated websites and payphones--are outside the sphere of most people's day to day actions. I Love Bees raises some interesting questions about what makes a cross-platform experience successful. It's not just about meeting people "where they are"--by putting applications on Facebook, videos on YouTube, etc. That's a good start, It's about creating a surprising and necessary relationship between one platform and another.

What unexpected platforms have symbiotic relationships with one another? What are the metaphors and connections that can be exploited to push people in new directions? My experience at the de Young stood out because frequently these two basic platforms--text labels and art--are not well-connected. How can we do a better job connecting the dots both inside and beyond museum walls?

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