Drew Davidson on the Future on Interactive Media

Drew Davidson is a professor, producer, and player of interactive media. His background spans academia, industry and professional worlds, and his work is concerned with stories and transformational experiences across texts, comics, games and other media. He is currently the Director of the Entertainment Technology Center at Carnegie Mellon University. As a passionate advocate for games, arts, and technology, professor Davidson recently shared his experiences and insights with Arts Management and Technology lab. 

Yingchong Wang: Your background is in interactive media, which is an incredibly broad field. Could you give an overview of interactive media and its many parts?

Drew Davidson: It’s broad. There’s a nice range of possibilities in interactive media. There are certainly games, which is a very specific category, even though within that bubble there’s a lot of variety—particularly now, with digital distribution and mobile platforms. It used to be that people wanted to go and work at big companies, like Electronic Arts or Activision, and now Tencent, which is huge. But there are other opportunities as well. You can make a living doing smaller games at smaller companies now, where it’s just a hundred people or so, just designing mobile games, or releasing games on Steam. And these small companies always need people who understand management. Because you have artists, programmers, musicians and a huge team working on a game, and somebody has to care about keeping things on time and on budget. Managers also help teams communicate with each other. 

Interactive media also includes digital components at places like museums, which allow kids to interact in new ways. What’s crazy right now is how hot virtual reality is. Five years ago, who knew it would come back? And now it’s everywhere, along with augmented reality. It’s become much more mainstream; now you can buy the first generation of the headsets which has created a whole group of early adopters. But how do you make those experiences better? It could just be, “you put on a headset and whisk me away to some virtual world,” or another application might be in a museum in which physical objects are augmented with something like the HoloLens. 

So these are opportunities that are burgeoning now, since everyone is predicting it’s going to be big. The technology is good enough now, and the price point is low enough. Eventually it won’t be wearing a big, hunky headset, but instead wearing a nice pair of glasses. There are lots of applications of interactive media in theme parks, with immersive arts experiences at places like Disney’s Imagineering. People are thinking about ways to incorporate all kinds of technology, not just the physical. A new thing in theme parks are virtual rides where visitors are put into a black box and either put on a headset or everything around them are screens and they’re sitting a machine that has hydraulics. It’s more cost effective, and it’s easier to update.

And of course, the web isn’t going anywhere. So online interactive media is still very important, ranging from entertainment to just clean, clear, website design. Advertising is heating up too, with transmedia campaigns popping up everywhere. 

My background comes out of that intersection of using technology to help with storytelling, enabling us (as players, or guests, or users) to feel like we have an immersive and engaging experience.

YW: Since you mentioned virtual reality and augmented reality how do you perceive the future VR or AR in arts organization? 

DD: It will certainly be interesting. I know right now, with some of the terrorism in the Middle East, there are a lot of people trying to document spaces before they get destroyed. There are a lot of passionate art historians using technology like virtual reality to quickly scan a space and capture it. So that’s one opportunity: providing people with experiences of places where they can’t go.

There are also more commercial opportunities. For example, we have an alum who started a company called Modsy. Her idea is to use virtual reality to help consumers do interior design. So people can sit down and get a sense of a room, and then rearrange furniture and other design elements to see how it fits before you buy it.

And some people are wondering what if you could do that for a honeymoon? What if I could put on a headset and get a sense of the views from my room? So you can see something before you purchase.

And of course there’s straight up entertainment. Which is only new-ish. Back in the eighties they were definitely exploring virtual reality, but the technology was so limited at the time, and only the most dedicated technologists thought “this is awesome!” Everyone else was like “I feel nauseous!” The newer headsets have a good enough frame rate and track motion well enough to not make you nauseous.

As virtual reality becomes less expensive, now people are starting to create unique experiences. People are starting to wonder what makes VR special and different from watching a movie on a screen. I think part of that will start with the intersection of interactivity and storytelling. I think the future of VR includes a lot of entertainment which will be adjacent to games, but also some more traditional commercial applications.


YW: I know some arts organizations recently are really passionate about new technologies, but for most of the arts organizations, their ambition may be restricted by their financial conditions. So do you have some suggestions for these arts managers?

DD: Financially what’s tricky is that you can easily get the technology for less than $1,000, but it’s more expensive to get the expertise. Some places might be lucky enough to have a university nearby, and might be able to forge a partnership.

As organizations grow, they might be able to afford a full IT department that can help out. But that’s also part of the biggest hurdle: maintaining technology. We partner with a non-profit theme park in Florida called “Give Kids the World” which is affiliated wit Make-a-Wish. It's an organization for children that are really sick, and might not be able to go to normal theme parks. Give Kids has medical facilities, so parents can bring their ill kids. It’s the most fun place in the world, because the kids are thrilled to be there. But that organization’s biggest challenge is maintaining the technology, because it’s all volunteers. Same thing with theatre; on top of all the complexities of putting on a show, integrating technology can really overwhelm people with logistics, across time.

Organizations need to plan for these complexities, and realize that they will need to continue to invest across time. 

YW: From your description, it seems that interactive technology is a “fast-changing” sector. Do you have any advice for arts managers in terms of “keeping up-to-date technology information”?

DD: The web is your friend. There are great websites, like Museum 2.0, which provides a lot of great opinions on the future of museums. But it also aggregates information as to what the technology sector is up to. There are tons of discussion lists, newsletter lists, and institutions that collect newest information for users. Somewhere, someone can help you with your technology problems, and someone is curating very good information. 

It’s important for leaders of all kinds to keep being curious, keep adapting, and keep searching for information.