The L is for Location

Location based entertainment panel speech
(Digital World, Beverly Hills, 1992)

When I was a kid, my idea of "location-based entertainment" was Disneyland. Growing up in Indiana, the chances of my ever getting there seemed pretty remote. Finally, through unpredictable twists and turns of career, I ended up in California and found myself visiting Disneyland one fourth of July in the early eighties. I can remember mercilessly shoving little kids out of the way during the electric-light parade, saying, "your whole life is before you, and I've waited thirty years for this."

When I started working in virtual reality, I went back to Disneyland time and again. I took Howard Rheingold there for his first time - he was working on his VR book at the time and I wanted him to see the granddaddy VR of them all. After a double scotch and half a pound of fudge, I marched him straight to Star Tours. He got it, and I almost got it all over me.

But my, how times change. Looking farther back than the fifties, back a few thousand years, we discover something . . . ironic. The original "location-based entertainment" was a location. A landscape - a real place in which people found certain qualities that enthralled them. Sacred mountains, springs, oases, great rivers - the understanding of such places was universally spiritual. At Delphi, where gases emanated from a crack in the earth, people came to wonder long before the ancient Greeks built a temple for their Oracle. The grotto at Lourdes, with its phosphorescent blue water, was known as a place of healing power at least a millennium before it became a Catholic shrine. Generations of Native Americans danced by the banks of the healing river at Chimayo long before the Spanish entombed its springs in a church and changed the dancing circle to a graveyard. The Grand Canyon was seen as the center of creation by the Anasazi who lived there, and later the Hopi understood it as both the Place of Origins and the Land of the Dead. Unlike the Anasazi, the Hopi would not live there, but made ritual visits. People came to such places to partake of spiritual energy, to be healed, to learn the future, to contemplate time, to worship, to celebrate, to make a necessary journey.

Of course, in earlier times entertainment was not the crisp little category we know it as today. In fact, it was not a category of activity at all, but rather an aspect of many kinds of experiences. Religious ceremonies and pilgrimages were occasions for revelry as well as high drama, all engaging the emotions and the spirit. Sometimes today we think of entertainment and "deep feeling" as mutually exclusive, equating entertainment with artifice and levity and "deep feeling" with high seriousness. This schism, I believe, was an invention of patriarchal religion to suppress certain aspects of its pagan predecessors, but I won't go into that now.

The point is that these locations were seen as places with intrinsic value, and not simply the anonymous, inconsequential, or obliterated sites of man-made environments. Who knows or cares what Anaheim looked like? A relationship with the natural landscape was a principal technique for establishing the kind of emotional engagement that we yearn for in entertainment today. The ancient Greeks sited their theatres on hillsides, not only to facilitate the design of seating, but also to afford a long view of the landscape, based on the premise that regarding a long view elicited a certain essential frame of mind in the beholder. Beyond the Dithyrambic dancers and the acting-out of gods and kings was the land, eternal and large, not to be taken in as a set of details but to be incorporated into a state of being - a kind of magnitude of attention.

The old ones of the American southwest, the Anasazi, built circular spaces that were similar in design and purpose to the Greek theatres. These spaces were called kivas, and they were the sites of the culture's religious activities, which were also the community's mass "entertainment." I visited the remains of a kiva at a site in New Mexico called Tsiping several years ago, where a guide recounted what I would like to think was a faithful version of the creation story of the people who built it. The story had to do with the emergence of the children of Mother Earth through the center of the kiva, the sipapu, which was by the way was the word for both the human navel and the center of the universe. The tale recounted the journey of these children toward their first encounter with Father Sky - the encounter which completed their cycle of becoming. The story branched from there, to tell of the other Spirits who inhabited the world.

As he recounted some of these stories, the guide told us of a rule that some folks believe the Anasazi used in their storytelling: that whenever one mentioned a place - the place where a god lived, or the place where some important event had occurred - it had to be a place that could be seen from the location where it was told. One could not tell sacred stories in Tsiping with the names of places near Mesa Verde, because there would be at least a generation of children who had never seen Mesa Verde. The rationale was that every child needed to be able to connect the stories to landscapes that they could see. The effect was that the center of creation - the center of the universe - was wherever you were. The inescapable conclusion then, was that all of the land was sacred - an idea that the world is sorely in need of reviving today.

Over the last few years my own idea of location-based entertainment has been changing. On the one hand, I've been involved in virtual reality, and so the possibility of creating my own personal Disneylands has become real enough to be seductive. Through my work in VR I've also become aware of technology that enables people to achieve "remote presence" - the sense of being in real places where one's physical body is not.

In a different way, I've also become aware of the power of relationships we can have with landscapes. My encounters with the Australian desert and the American Southwest have awakened a thirst for magnitude that I, like many contemporary Americans, didn't know I had. As Barry Lopez reports so eloquently in his writings, vast and monumental landscapes - wild places of all kinds - can teach us a kind of relaxed attention that can lead to extraordinary clarity. This is a state, not unlike Joy, that seems to access the lower reaches of the brain, back through the more recent sediments of consciousness to some kind of emotional bedrock.

I visited such places with my family on the well-intentioned Drive-By Vacations of my childhood; the 50s and 60s were dotted with trips through the Rockies and Smokies and Alleghenies, past the red dirt of Oklahoma that made me think of cherry pies. But magnitude can't penetrate the windows of a car. My own back yard was bigger than all of Colorado. So it was, I suspect, for most of the children of the 50s, and so it remains for many millions of Americans today. At the Grand Canyon, lanky Italians with euphoric faces stride past a few adventuresome Americans riding donkeys on the Bright Angel trail. While an endless bumper-to-bumper stream of RVs with Midwestern license plates shimmers on the superheated highway, one hears German more often than English in the back country at Zion or Bryce.

I've been spending a lot of time in Zion over the last few years and I've gotten to know some of the people who live in Springdale, Utah, the little town at the mouth of the great canyon. Last year there was a major upheaval in the community about a plan by a company called World Odyssey to build an Imax-like Theatre on the border of the park. There were wounded cries from long-time residents and shouts of approval from shop-owners. This year, the city council narrowly voted to approve the theatre, and construction will begin soon. The World Odyssey parking lot will abut the National Park campgrounds. The road into Springdale is being widened to accommodate the anticipated increase in traffic, re-routing the Virgin River in five places, reducing the rushing water that made the canyon to an inconvenient marsh next to bulldozed bluffs. The cars and RVs will come in greater numbers, pulling off at the World Odyssey theatre to have a cinematic look at the canyon, buy souvenirs, and use the restrooms. Then they will drive on through the park, most of them without stopping.

As Tom Robbins might say, surely the dead are laughing at us.

Well, what does all of this have to do with location-based entertainment?

I can't stand up here and tell those of you in the LBE business that environmental awareness will make you more money tomorrow. At least, I don't think I could get you to believe me. But I want you to entertain a proposal.

First I want to describe a kind of technological application called surrogate travel. Michael Naimark, probably the world's master of the art of moviemapping, defines surrogate travel as "a cinematic record of a place that provides multiple possibilities for getting from here to there." The earliest example of surrogate travel, the Aspen Moviemap, was a videodisc produced at MIT in 1980 that allowed people to navigate via prerecorded pathways through the town of Aspen, Colorado. Today, surrogate travel can be enhanced, if we wish, with everything from three-dimensional, viewpoint-dependent imaging to scientific visualizations of the geologic history and future of a place.

But surrogate travel is different from actual travel. This is a distinction that things like automobiles and electronic media tend to make us forget. Surrogate travel is for people who can't, or who don't want to, actually be there. Actual travel, at least in the context of wild places, is for people who want to and can go out among it - people who will not mind a fly in their pancake batter and who are willing to pack out their orange peels and dig a proper latrine.

There's an Imax Theatre near the Grand Canyon, located about 50 miles away from the park - a stone's throw on the Western scale of distance. Still, some traffic actually goes no closer to the Canyon than the theatre. There's an Omnimax Theatre in Las Vegas, and for a lot of the vacation crowd, that's close enough. And it's certainly close enough for the health of wild places, and for the visitor who wants to invest some serious time and energy actually encountering the landscape without dodging hoardes of drive-by shooters.

Imax, Iwerks, and other special-format theatres are showing breathtaking films of landscapes in amusement parks and populated areas across the country. People like Naimark have installed compelling interactive surrogate travel pieces in museums around the world. When you think about it, a Drive-By Vacation is an impoverished form of surrogate travel compared to large-format movies and some of the better interactive exhibits. RVs offer a relatively narrow field of view; you spend an extravagant amount of time in cramped quarters "getting there;" and if Dad's trying to make Albuquerque by sunset, there's no time to get out and actually experience the place. With a little work, I bet you could make some serious inroads into the RV market by providing alternatives that are cheaper and more satisfying.

The proposal is simply this: that instead of attracting even more surrogate travelers to natural environments with LBE installations, the LBE industry should focus on providing surrogate travel installations in areas that are already developed.

There are three reasons for this. The first is that surrogate travel is a compelling and as-yet largely under-exploited application. People yearn to see and hear wild places, but many people don't have the time or inclination to visit them in satisfying ways. RVs are a compromise - a concession to time and convenience. Surrogate travel can do a better job on both counts. Now, you might just buy an old drive-in movie and install lots of RVs on motion platforms with Evans and Sutherland displays and rent them out for a week at a time. You got the restrooms and the snack bar right there, all you'd have to build is a souvenir shop.

Perhaps a better idea is to provide remote presence in installations populated with individual stereo viewers, rented by the minute or the hour, that let people move their viewpoints around distant landscapes. Today, stereo viewing devices that are linked to remote cameras can provide realtime 3D video and audio. A tracker on the viewer captures information about a person's head movements that is used to drive a stereo camera at the remote location. Want to have a look at Mount Rushmore from Indianapolis? No problem - and for an extra treat, you can check out the view from Lincoln's nose. (I know that one would be a hit in Hoosierland.) If the camera is mounted on a mobile robot, a person can "walk" as well as "look" around the place. But this conjures up disturbing images of hoardes of robots and spinning cameras littering the landscape.

Luckily, there's a solution. With improved data compression, high-capacity storage devices, and increased resolution of viewing devices, people will soon be able to look around cinematically recorded environments with the same degrees of freedom as they can look around an actual place. As recording technology is developed to capture information about the distance and size of objects, we will be able to texture-map camera-originated imagery onto three-dimensional models that are generated from the same data. People will be able to move through intensely realistic virtual landscapes, speeding up or slowing down time, experiencing a place from the viewpoint of a human, a bird, or a bug. In fact, finding yourself on the food chain on a hungry morning in the Amazon jungle is a group activity that's bound to be scarier than Battletech.

These examples point up the second reason for getting serious about surrogate travel - technology is making it possible to design increasingly interesting activities. Special effects, dynamic elements, computer-generated critters, can appear in such environments. You can have an Arizona sunrise all to yourself, or you can choose to see and interact with other tele-visitors - people who are "there" at the same time you are. And you can do what you can do in any natural environment: explore, learn, meet people, meditate, tell stories, play games - and also things you can't or shouldn't do, like jump off a cliff, speed up time, rearrange mountains, play golf in Death Valley, or dive without a snorkel.

The third reason for pursuing surrogate travel is a simple, if rather idealistic one. If we get good enough at it, we may be able to reduce the congestion, development, and pollution in environments that we wish to preserve. Social responsibility is something we do for its own sake, but it's also pretty good PR. As many of the people who make products from recycled materials have discovered, if you can get on the right side of a visible issue, people will pay more to do the right thing.

And finally, if you're with me on any of this, there's one more thing you can do. Besides refraining from killing the goose that lays the golden eggs, you can actually nurture the goose. Entertainment companies are extremely well qualified to develop facilities within natural environments that enhance rather than degrade them. Right now, there's no way to get into many of our National Parks without a private motorized vehicle. An energy-efficient, low-pollution means of public transportation would be an enormous boon. Our environmental president ought to hire the folks at Disney to replace the access roads with monorails, and Congress ought to make private motorized vehicles inside our Parks illegal.

Financially and politically, the entertainment industry can directly support the protection and reclamation of wild lands. These unscarred mountains, this clean river, this blooming meadow is brought to you by Paramount or Warner or MCA. It's not such a crazy idea. After all, what's Imax going to make movies of when the air over the Grand Canyon is the color of pancake syrup?

Well, I said it was a "modest proposal," in the extremist sense of the term. RV-bashing is fun, though, isn't it? I hope that through these ravings you can glimpse a way that we might be able to have our cake and eat it too: a way to encounter landscapes when we can't be there that is potentially richer and more entertaining than any means we're familiar with today, including the American Drive-By Vacation - and also a way to preserve our landscapes for our actual travels through them, when we are ready and willing to approach them with the necessary commitment and respect.

Next time you see a little kid's wistful face plastered against the backseat window, I hope you will consider the alternatives - what they might mean to your business and to the world.

Severed Heads table of contents Brenda Laurel Tau Zero