Fall Semester 2020
CloudWorks is a pitch team composed of one artist, Cara Chen, one UI/UX designer, Annie Hsiao-Ching Huang, one experience designer, Beck Wolfinger, one producer, Jack McClain, and two programmers, Jim Liu and Alan Zhang.
Our project began as a student pitch project back before we switched to fully remote work, and the project we pitched was very different from the one we ended up creating. The initial pitch that we were proposing was for an installation designed for the PTC’s main lobby space, but as the world turned on its head, and the logic of a physical installation at the time of a global pandemic rapidly melted away beneath us, we had to pivot. Over the summer we met and pivoted our project to instead focus on reimagining and redesigning the ETC’s typical in-person fall festival to a remote presentation format. The deliverables for this project are three primary pieces: a public-facing festival website that hosts information about the students, their work, the ETC, and access to the virtual festival; a public viewable live stream on Youtube of the festival that showcases work from BVW, Visual Storytelling, and semester-long projects; and finally the MMO-style virtual festival experience that allows guests to move around a 2.5D space, chat with one another through voice and text, download and launch BVW projects, view videos, leave comments for teams, and jump into Zoom calls to learn more about and experience the work.
Because of the very real deliverables and hard deliverable date at the end of this project and the integration of many guests external to the immediate ETC family, we spent a great deal of time focused on playtesting our virtual festival experience to ensure that it was easy to navigate for guests and would accurately capture the atmosphere of the traditional festival despite its new format. Starting around week 6 we began to hold external playtests every week to week and a half. These playtests, alternating between stress and experience testing helped to push our project into new places and make decisions about what to do. Aside from helping to streamline our experience for naive guests, these playtests also illuminated critical points in our networking design that helped us to realize how to lay out the space in a more stable and reliable manner.
One of the early goals of our project was not to directly recreate the festival as it used to be, but to accurately capture the atmosphere of the original experience. We loved the sense of controlled chaos and guest agency in choosing what to see when. Another thing we heard frequently in our research was the desire for ‘stairwell encounters’–unplanned conversations with old friends and colleagues.
The core features of the virtual festival are meant to support these fantasies, and we’ve seen a lot of success in our playtests in capturing that feeling of running into a friend by populating the virtual spaces with chat booths to allow groups of guests to hop in and have an unexpected conversation. Additionally we added in a private calling feature to allow guests to talk to one another while walking around the space, which gives them the ability to make a plan of what to see and make their way there together. By giving each BVW project represented in the festival a ‘room’ to decorate and guests the option to choose what they see and when, we’ve accommodated for the freedom of movement that we’ve come to prefer over a more regimented conference style presentation with a specified schedule. The experience of the festival will change organically in real time as guests move around the space.
When we set our global vision of what we wanted the festival to be this year, we knew that we were setting our sights high. We had a lot that we wanted to accomplish and while the basic format of the festival stayed roughly consistent, it took us some time to find the appropriate schedule for the event that would ride the line between asking too much and not giving enough. Consistent with this trouble with the festival schedule was our own internal schedule. We were prepared this semester to be working remotely after the shake up from the previous semester. Typically as a team we tried to minimize the amount of necessary hours spent on video calls as much as possible, considering how much of our project was focused on designing to avoid ‘Zoom fatigue’. While this helped to prevent burnout early on, it worked to our detriment at times to not have consistent, very short meetings just to touch base with one another to keep up to date with what everyone was working on and what decisions were being made. From a production standpoint, we did not have the global organization in place to keep track of all of our necessary tasks to help us prioritize early enough. Once that was ready the project and our tasks became much clearer, but establishing that system earlier would have been far more effective. It would have helped to make clear to us what was and wasn’t getting the love that it needed. For example, while the livestream is an important part of the festival deliverables, it was never able to get the same attention that the virtual festival received. While both were must haves for the experience, the number of things that seemed of highest priority in the day to day moments through the semester were in relation to the virtual festival, so the stream continued to sit on the back burner.
Throughout the course of this project we learned so much about how to design for remote experiences, a skill set that is important now more than ever. We made small steps to figuring out ways in which to overcome the hurdle that all suddenly remote events are now having to face as they are adapting on incredibly short timelines. We’re living in a time when people are more disconnected from each other physically than ever, and we learned how to recapture some of the magic associated with in-person gatherings. We also learned about the importance and powerful impact of delegation. This festival would not be possible in the form it has now without the help of over a dozen ambitious first and second year students who volunteered their time to help create sound and art assets, and manage and produce the event itself. CloudWorks was limited by having only six individuals officially working on the festival, but we learned how we could best improve the quality of the experience by relying on people external to the team who wanted to help out, and how to organize and run those subcommittees that submitted extra work to us.
Ultimately we are all incredibly proud of the experience that we have created and so enthusiastic with the results we’ve seen from early playtesting. Pulling this festival together was a massive effort and wasn’t without its challenges and pitfalls throughout, but through those difficulties, the six of us have learned so much that we will carry forward into our future projects, co-ops, or careers. And on one personal, emotional note, while any team could have been tasked with putting together a replacement festival, only the individuals I’ve worked with through this semester could put the amount of love, dedication, and fun into the process as I’ve experienced, and I’m so thankful for all of them.
Finally, we’d like to thank the ETC for approving this pitch project, way back when it was something completely different, and allowing us to have control over an event that is core to the ETC experience. We’ve connected more with the extended ETC family than ever through this project, and we’re grateful for the opportunity.