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The Future of Work — Everyone is a Performance Artist, a brief Interview with Natasha Tsakos

 


“It’s the 21st Century, and everyone is a performance artist” ~ Anonymous

As we approach the Singularity, more and more of our mundane tasks will be offloaded to robots, AIs, and various types of hybrid man/machine crowdsourcing systems. Or so some of us hope. But if it happens, what will be left for humans to do?

We’ll spend more of our work time studying, inventing, and creating. We’ll also be collaborating and communicating, as well as organizing and running projects together. And that means making presentations.

Managers already spend a good deal of their time crafting things like PowerPoint presentations. Business presentations generally fall into two categories:

  1. Informational Presentations — the goal of the presentation is transmit relevant information to the audience and have them understand and retain it.
  2. Persuasive Presentations — the goal of the presentation is to persuade the audience or members of the audience about a specific decision or course of action.

And of course many presentations combine both elements.

Back in the early days of my career as an engineer I was often called upon to give technical presentations. The tools were crude; we used the earliest versions of PowerPoint and CorelDraw to create presentations. And yet this was still better than what our predecessors had used:  transparencies and permanent markers. Some people had of course mastered the art; using multiple colors and six or more transparency layers. But even the earliest versions of PowerPoint enabled  naive users to create layered designs, compelling graphics, animations, and more.

As always, with new powers comes also the potential for abuse of those powers. And PowerPoint was no exception. It was abused to the point where people now write blog postings about bad PowerPoint presentations and designs.

PowerPoint devolved to become a parody of itself. Instead of being an improved method of communication beyond the transparency and pens approach, we saw entire presentations consisting of little more than hundreds of bullet points which the presenter would merely read off the screen like some sort of text to speech program zombie. PowerPoint made it trivially easy to create boring and emotionless presentations. And bulletizing everything reduced complex topics into apparently visually organized little lists, but these lists promoted little or no understanding by the presenter or the audience.

Famously the New York Times covered the impacts of the Department of Defense use of PowerPoint in an article entitled, We Have Met the Enemy and He Is PowerPoint. Ouch.

The antidote according to some was an entirely different sort of presentation in which the bullet point was banished, and evocative or emotional images were used instead. This idea was known as Presentation Zen and it is part of what makes TED talks so compelling and evocative. New methods of display, for example zoomable presentation engine Prezi, also emerged. Prezi turns the presentation into a smoothly flowing video like experience, with pans, zooms, etc. This is a well known technique used in documentary film production to turn a single still image (i.e of a battle) into a video sequence with narration. But these tools are just the start of what is possible using projection, virtual reality and augmented or mixed reality techniques driven with data and analytics.

The late Steve Jobs famously used theatrical methods to build suspense during what might have otherwise been mundane product launch presentations. His presentations as CEO of Apple Computer became legendary and included the use of stage lighting, theatrical timing and surprise, costumes (his famous black turtleneck) and so on.  While the success of Apple Computer and the iPhone can not be attributed to any single thing, it is clear that Jobs’ early presentations built anticipation for the product. Steve gave “great demo” and building excitement around product launches has become an Apple tradition which continues through the most recent launch of the iPhone 5 by CEO Tim Cook.

Our interviewee today takes this idea a step further.

Natasha Tsakos presents a vision where the mundane business presentation becomes a mixed reality theatrical perfortmance, wherein the presenter can literally enter their presentation as an avatar within a virtual world that they share with an audience. The result is impressively impactful. I imagine future business presenters will be combining Natasha’s ideas with real time data visualizations driven by big data and corporate analytics systems, using projections and mixed reality to communicate, collaborate, and convince.  Let’s see what Natasha thinks.

h+: Natasha, I was initially struck by your TED presentation where you so compellingly use the tools of the theater during what starts off as a dry tech presentation. I was raised in the DoD presentation circuit where “death by powerpoint” and MEGO (mine eyes glazeth over) were our secret weapons. People carefully crafted presentations specifically to bore their audiences into submission. Thankfully I see a move away from these sorts of dry technical presentations with hundreds of bullet points, toward inspirational and image based presentations. You’ve taken it a step further, turning the presentation into a mixed media performance. Is this the future? Will everyone become an actor or actress? Will make up, costumes, and lighting become part of the standard business tool set?

Natasha: As technology and its panoply of applications are becoming more intuitive, we are embracing our multi-media creativity to better communicate. Information should be delivered dynamically and theatrically! There is definitely a new data-tainment movement happening.

h+: How can the practice of theater inform or improve the idea of work? Can we make work more fun, more successful, more collaborative by using the tools of the theater? How?

Natasha:

YES 

YES 

and YES!

Theatre involves flexibility both mental and physical, playfulness, exploration, a martial arts sense of focus and respect, an openness to all possibilities… I think everyone should experience the process and magic of Theatre. Everyone should also learn Sciences, Engineering, Cosmology… We can flourish from all disciplines.

but playfulness is key

h+: Let’s talk tech. How does your show UP WAKE work? You mentioned that 19 people were involved in creating it. What did they do?

Natasha: UP WAKE involved 19 artists, from 3D animators, choreographer, to classical and electronic music composers. The entire show had to be mapped out, and precisely choreographed beforehand. Performers where hired to play imaginary parts that would later be substituted with CGI. The math happened back-stage, the magic on-stage. Very much like a making a movie, or a cartoon, I draw and animate storyboards for all my shows, giving my collaborators and I the chance to take our respective disciplines to another level before we even start.


During the production of UP WAKE Natasha uses markeless body tracking similar to technologies developed for virtual reality training simulators by the U.S. Army in the early 1990s.


h+: 
With the advent of social media everyone is a performer of a sort. Facebook and Twitter are our stages. How does your work inform or relate to our day to day performances in social media?

Natasha: Since we still operate with words (till communicating in 0001010100001010100001110000100001010110101010101010101 or other) we may need to define, or redefine the word ‘Performer’. I prefer to think we are all Artists. However, not everyone is a Performer. A Gaga fan can deliver a melodramatic monolgue on Youtube, yet that does not make him a ‘Performer’. Everybody can technically doodle, not very one can Picasso. The openness, transparency, and virality of the web is giving us an immediate platform to expose ourselves, disclose our lives, up close and virtual. It is more of an impulsive exhibitionistic act than it is a Performance…

h+: Yes but it might become much more of a performance art in the future?

Natasha: ………………………………………………………………………………………………………………..… we have just opened an interesting can… to be continued!

h+: Can you tell me a bit about the history of your work with projections and “mixed reality”?

Natasha: I never wanted to accept the rigidity of “things”… especially not conventional Theatre sets. It was then I began creating UP WAKE, which coordinates 3D animation synched to my character “Zero” journey. Projecting on the screen, floor, sides, I found myself immersed in a living, breathing, fully animated fantasy world that was real (http://youtu.be/E5wVN_BwUkY).  I then worked with Arturo Sinclair and Anton Yudin , two engineers at Digital Worlds Institute developing an open source program using markerless motion capture technology, where movements trigger sound, video, lights, cell phone…; Where the performer is in full control of hisvirtually real environment. We were working on this prior to the Xbox Kinect launch. It was very exciting as you can imagine! (http://youtu.be/broBiiEs1MM). Recently, I’ve created OMEN, a show that sprints through 50,000 million years of history in 20:12 minutes, and integrates 3D mapping projection on stage, giving basic set pieces a fully dimensional meta-morphic quality (http://youtu.be/Z7Md4L5coIs) .

h+: I’m imagining a possible future work environment with a virtual reality CAVE as similar to the space explored in your performances. Can you share anything you’ve learned through that process that might be relevant to doing work inside a real virtual reality environment or CAVE system?

Natasha: Yes, our work environment and living environment may very soon become CAVE(s) (and portable ones too with the advent of augmented reality and glasses). The joy of this interface would be the physicality we will gain back; We are currently working and living in an unnatural static state, most often sitting, couch potatoed, somewhat paralyzed. Interacting with technology with the entire body, as Kinect does with video games, may trigger an array of unpredictable creativity.

6 Comments

  1. Ask a Performance Artist to look at the future, and the Performance Artist will see the future through the lens of a Performance Artist.
    Talking and telling stories is a big part of being human, and it’s a part that extroverts especially feel energized to do.
    However, labor is also a part of human nature. Some humans love labor. Working with wood, mud, clay, steel, dirt, concrete, fire, electricity, physics, other people, animals are all extremely satisfying things. Building things, destroying them, transforming things, engineering things. I’m bored with presentations. Even good ones. The depth to which one can explore a subject in a typical presentation is limited compared with something like a book. Most television shows are presentations. A half hour show about how something is made or how a job is done only skims the surface of things. Infotainment: quick, shallow knowledge transfer.
    Presentations are for idea pushers, marketers, sellers. When you cross the line into that realm, you stop engineering and inventing. If you are really inventing, you have little time to explain things to anyone else.

  2. “But if it happens, what will be left for humans to do?

    We’ll spend more of our work time studying, inventing, and creating.”

    Not to mention harassing each other. Wanna bet?

  3. Brava! It think it is increasingly clear we have one choice. Become innovators/creators or perish. Machines are just too good at doing the dull.

  4. “Presentations” to whom? To the ai? They just get the data. They don’t need your “presentation”.

    AI = No jobs for people at all. It’s simple. It could be paradise, or hell. We choose.

    • What happens between here and there?

      Even the most optimistic estimates put the Singularity more than a decade away. In the mean time you still need to work and present your ideas to other human beings.

      But also, after the Singularity, I expect humans will still organize and accomplish complex projects together. It just won’t be mandatory, it won’t be something you need to do to eat or live, it will be done for the pure joy of doing it.