A human kaleidoscope: developing the Nth Screen app

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Since our first workshop a year ago as part of the REACT-funded Nth Screen project, the development of Nth Screen has come a long way.

Nth Screen was initially conceived by Tim Kindberg of Matter 2 Media Ltd, as an app to play out multiscreen, synchronised video. Tim and Charlotte Crofts of UWE’s Digital Cultures Research Centre then used their REACT feasibility funding to investigate its use further with filmmakers. They discovered the fun sociable aspect of recording together, as well as watching synchronised videos together, and decided it was worth developing.

With a second round of REACT funding, the Nth Camera project was born. Tim and Charlotte have been working with fellow researchers Mandy Rose and me (Jess Linington), as well as developer Josh Burr and designers Play Nicely to fully explore its potential. Tim has developed the app so that it is now capable of shooting, editing and playing synchronised sound and vision together on any number of mobile phones, tablets and other devices. In addition, he developed a way of viewing collections of synchronised videos as a montage inside a single web page, as a complement to viewing them on mobiles.

As a team we have carried out a series of workshops with teenagers and young adults aged between 13 – 28 to get a sense of how they would use the app, what they would want to film and what capabilities they were after.

Alongside this as researchers, we were also examining questions of ethics, ownership, participation and accessibility. The potential for this app could extend beyond a social use with teens and through to capturing events like demonstrations or as part of a participatory documentary project for example.

The issues that were raised in the workshops overlapped with these other uses; if a group uploads a selection of videos, who then owns the content?

Assumptions

We gained a lot of feedback from the groups we ran workshops with, which gave a useful insight into how young people perceive new digital technologies and their awareness of the pros and cons. Most groups raised the issue of ownership, questioning who had control of the content once it was uploaded. When it came to them creating content on the app, there was also a unilateral feeling that they had to create something ‘worthy’ – with one participant stating that although she made videos in her own time, she didn’t share them on social networks as she didn’t think they were good enough.

Another key part of the workshop experience was dispelling some of the assumptions about access and use of technology amongst young people. The digital divide is certainly there and on a very local level. Some participants hadn’t ever really used smart phones or made any sort of video content previously, so the concept of producing something like this was a considerable leap for their digital comprehension. Compare this experience with our workshop at Clevedon school, where the majority of the students own iPads (through a scheme run by the school) and were adept with digital technologies and their affordances.

I think this can be one of the dangers of homogenising 21st century Western youth into one group of ‘digital natives’, without considering how, where and whether they are even consuming these new digital technologies.

However, despite this uneven starting point, one of the most interesting parts of this process has been observing the creativity play out with the different groups. All those involved were unanimously excited about the possibilities and often teams went through the same process of experimentation, working through the apps features before realising what sort of content worked best.

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Participants during a workshop

The human kaleidoscope

From watching this process of experimentation it was clear to see the predominant take-away from the sessions was: filming together is fun. Seeing group dynamics playout and ideas evolve is a process that certainly happens when creating single camera films, however having each group member in control of producing their own part of the production in a synchronised way, added a whole new element to this.

There was also a definite visual pleasure in watching the films back as a group. Although the groups often quickly reviewed the films on the separate devices, coming together to watch the films on the Nth Screen webpage was definitely the preferred form of consumption. Again, the emphasis is on the group, not the self.

This focus on co-creation redefines the whole process; group work and group vision are vital elements for creating a successful Nth film. The pleasure derived from this though was certainly not lost on the participants, with an average rating of 3.9/5 when asked ‘would you play again?’ on our workshop surveys.

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Screen shot of the Nth Screen playback online

Perspective

As the project is REACT funded, it incorporates academics within the design process, to observe and reflect on the findings. From this, some perspective is gained around the history and possible futures of multi-screen synchronised video. Mandy Rose discussed this during her presentation alongside Tim Kindberg during Sheffield Doc/Fest.

Mandy suggested that, ”we might think about the app in relation to cinema’s ability to capture and reflect multiple points of view. We might think of Vertov’s seminal Man with a Movie Camera (1929) as an early exploration of precisely this affordance. In this celebration of a day in the life of the Soviet city, Vertov coupled the camera’s ability to see from many vantage points with a kinetic use of montage to suggest the multiple experiences and events of city life. 

In editing Vertov wonderfully resolved these separate shots and differing vantage points into a single linear stream – a kinetic experience created through the vision of a single author. The Nth camera breaks with this paradigm – with multiple viewpoints and authors reflected in both the recording and the replay. 

Throughout the twentieth century other approaches have re-emerged – multi-screen work has recurred within galleries and exhibitions for instance.One example – In the Labyrinth – was a multi-screen experimental documentary created by Roman Kroitor and associates at the NFB for Expo 67 in Montreal.  Inspired by the project Kroitor went on to create the IMAX format.

In the contemporary context we see paradigms of 20th century cinema challenged on a number of fronts. With low cost, accessible, and mobile video filming itself has been democratised, and self-publishing platforms like YouTube and Vimeo etc allow vernacular exhibition and distribution. These experiences and services are however structured through single person accounts to reproduce  the single author paradigm.

Apps including Vine and Llight offer playful approaches to micro-video – reflecting this wider shift towards accessible filming for individuals. Nth Camera offers a popular many-to-many mode, breaking at the same time with the single author and single stream playback

An exception from this contemporary outlook is Rashomon,  an open-source online toolkit designed for synchronizing and displaying videos and photos..Developed by UC Berkeley, this has been designed to provide a means of combining different video sources on the web, with issues of witness and human rights in mind. The service synchronises videos onto a timeline.” 

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Tim at Sheffield Doc/Fest

#Groupiesnotselfies

As previously mentioned, Tim and Mandy presented the project during Sheffield Doc/Fest to a predominantly industry-led crowd, garnering some interest, including some positive feedback on Twitter from Tribeca’s Director of Digital Initiatives, Ingrid Kopp.

Following this, Tim then went on to the ACM International Conference on Interactive Experiences for TV and Online Video (TVX2014), which was held in Newcastle last week. As well as presenting the project for an industry talk, he also took part in a 15 second pitch to get delegates along to his demonstration at the conference reception. Again, this was well received, prompting tweets from a BBC representative and the conference itself:

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Introducing the app to Watershed’s Rife Magazine young journalists

Moving forward in terms of research, there’s still a number of areas left to explore, including; getting groups making Nth films of an event of their choice, attempting simultaneous filming in different places, exploring the possibilities with sound and look into documentary potential – could we produce longer form Nth films? Is there space for an interactive framework?

On a wider level, Tim is looking for investment to continue to push the development of the app, now officially called Nth Screen, looking for potential new uses for it along the way.

Here at i-Docs we are thinking about how to utilise the Nth framework within participatory documentary. (If you have any thoughts on that please do get in touch.)

Wherever the NthScreen project ends up, exploring its potential use socially, as well as within events, filmmaking, art practice, performance and more is an exciting and constantly surprising project to be involved in.


If you would like to find out more about the Nth Screen app, visit the Nth Screen site or contact Tim directly tim@nthscreen.tv if you think you may have a project that could work with it.

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