Magical experiences

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

Arthur C. Clarke

Digital sleight of hand

Last week I was in the Magic Kingdom. The best thing about my trip? Witnessing my tiny daughter’s reactions to this blissfully overdone universe (‘look, Daddy, looook!’). The second best thing? My experience of one of Disney’s more grown-up magic tricks: the MagicBand. What can I say? I’m a UX geek through and through.

Disney’s MagicBand

If you don’t already know (and shame on you), Disney’s MagicBand is an unassuming piece of wearable tech worn on your wrist. When I heard of it, my innate British cynicism kicked in. ‘Magic?’ I thought – checking that I’d packed a brolly – ‘Ha! I’ll be the judge of that!’.

Fact is, it’s your theme-park pass,  your room key, your way of jumping the queue for rides, your way of paying for things, and, oh, it also lets you grab a copy of your photos and syncs them with Disney’s smartphone app. Neat.

What elevates this piece of tech to magical status is the way that using it makes you feel. It’s like a wrist-worn magic wand that unlocks a fantastical world of customer experience. It won’t bring broomsticks to life, of course, but moving effortlessly from touchpoint to touchpoint makes you feel like a digital VIP.

Like a moth to a digital flame

Each of the places where you can use your MagicBand is beautifully designed. Mickey’s silhouette is the ubiquitous motif that identifies each touchpoint. It acts like a benign HAL reminding us of what he can do for us. From the strokable elegance of the brushed-metal orbs at the entrance gates to the hypnotic, swirling lights of each PhotoPass scanner, this is irresistible design.

One of Disney’s PhotoPass scanners – suitably scuffed to match the ride’s aesthetic

Of course the visual and aural feedback is beautifully simple too. A soft chime and a green glow indicates success, a spinning light says ‘I’m working on it’ and the gentle throb of a blue light suggests that something isn’t quite right. Alarming reds and access-denied klaxons have been thoroughly designed out of this experience.

The people behind the curtain

The thing about magical experiences like the MagicBand is that they highlight those that are less than magical. Digital experiences must (for now, at least) run alongside analogue ones and by analogue I mean those that require us idiosyncratic humans. While the MagicBand delighted me with its seemingly infinite potential, my human experiences were often inconsistent and clunky. As I was reminded when, after a 45-minute wait, we hadn’t been given a table with space for a pram even after turning up with one, unadvanced customer service definitely isn’t magical. When I first started coming to Disney as a child, it was the people who helped to make it magical. Now, it’s the tech and I can’t help but feel a little sad.





The truth of fiction

I went to see Mark Romanek’s Never Let Me Go the other week. It’s a rather fine piece of sci-fi film-making and, yes, I did cry a bit at the end (I’ve never been so thankful for lengthy end credits). In fact, I’d go as far to say that it’s probably the best film I’ve seen this year (don’t you just love it when people proclaim a film to be ‘the film of 2011’ when spring has barely sprung?).

The thing that’s inspired this post isn’t really the film itself but a curious reaction to it that I overheard as I was getting up to leave. One of a group of ladies sitting next to me said something like (and I’m not quoting verbatim) ‘…that was okay but it was too far-fetched for me to get involved in it emotionally’. I find this reaction really interesting, not least as a neatly concise critique of sci-fi’s ability to alienate rather than draw us in but as a commentary on the truth of all fiction.

Pride and Prejudice = real?

I wonder whether the same lady would find it easier to become emotionally involved with something a little less fantastical (such as a period drama) because it seems more real than Never Let Me Go? Why might this be? Both films contain ‘real’ people, ‘real’ settings and their own versions of reality.

Of course, I’m being disingenous here. I know why a film version of Pride and Prejudice might seem more real than Never Let Me Go: it’s because its version of reality is seemingly closer to our own. There are no (obvious) robots or aliens and things play out in a way that is pretty close to how we’d imagine them (people do ‘real’ things in a predictably ‘real’ way). This doesn’t make it any less fictional of course: the realities presented in both films are completely made up.

What’s the point of sci-fi?

The point of science-fiction is about presenting us with ideas that are often so challenging that they need to be presented within an alternative reality. Effective sci-fi, including Never Let Me Go (although, ironically, its setting could be said to be realer than most), recognises that we, as readers or members of an audience, need to be alienated in order to stop us from just being passively drawn in.

George Orwell’s futuristic distopian novel Nineteen Eighty-four is a good example of good sci-fi in action. Orwell’s opening sentence captures precisely how good sci-fi works

It was a cold bright day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.

This jarring sentence is all that Orwell needs to disorientate us and to make us aware that the novel we’re reading is going to present us with an alternative reality in which our conventional understanding of the world around us will be challenged. To me it’s the written equivalent of Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt and is startlingly effective.

So, are science fiction films less real (i.e. more fictional) than other genres? No, they’re just better at making us conscious of their fiction.