On the narrative of liminality and remote presence

A case study of prototype “Lucia” with notes on the surprising fictionality of liminal design.

UX Collective
Black and white candid photograph of a dinner with four famous people deeply engaged in conversation around a small kitchen table: Arthur Miller, Marylin Monroe, Simone de Beauvoir, and actor Yves Montand.
Liminality is an attitude that can be designed. It is not about features, but giving users permission and room to have very real emotions in a fictional space.

Friends, leaning in close over the restaurant table, lost in deep conversation: a complete focus on each other — time stands still, food goes cold, and the hustle and noise of the world around them fades away.

I recently worked with one of the big technology companies that has a large share of the video conferencing market: the goal was to deconstruct this deep conversational space, and to recreate it as a remote, mediated experience.

The project was called “Lucia.”

It was not about adding more features to video conferencing tools like Zoom. It was a reinvention of how we approach and build technology for meaningful experiences. The tests worked. And in many cases, Lucia worked better than corporate in-person meetings. Findings from Lucia also provided insights into liminal elements of technology design, and what happens when we build products that offer users a chance to engage in the complex narrative play that makes us human.

I have been working with and writing about narrative liminality, design and user experiences — a long-term push to move the needle with larger technology companies to design experiences that promote and include complex emotions, transformation and the sublime. This is often counter to those companies’ natural instinct: efficient, predictable and scalable transactions. Or put another way, all the opposites of what we need to engage deeply, trigger imagination and create space for transformation.

The author by one of the early prototypes — a box the size of a small car giving us a glimpse of a seat and light inside.
The author with an early presence-module prototype under construction.

Most people don’t need much help to list all that they hate about video conferencing. But the goal was not to fix that. The goal was to create a way for people to have deep and meaningful remote conversations mediated by technology. There are volumes of public research that can help us deconstruct and highlight the quintessential ingredients of a deep conversation, as well as technical solutions for how they can be achieved digitally. Among the most important ones are:

Direct eye-contact: Looking at the eyes of another is a big part of how we build trust. Millions of years of evolution have given us finely tuned skills in choosing whom we have babies with, whom we trust and build community with, and whom we better kill now before they kill us. It is not simply a missed opportunity when this direct eye contact is absent. Research shows that lack of eye contact is often interpreted as deception and thus can have a typical Zoom call erode trust in those we are speaking with.

The issue, of course, is that computer cameras are placed higher than the eyes of the person we are speaking to, and thus have us engage in conversation where direct eye contact is not an option. There are about 10 well known ways to remedy this for video conferencing; I chose a two-way mirror — akin to a teleprompter, or Errol Morris’ “Interrotron”. A camera on the side sees participant 1 in the angled mirror reflection, and shows participant 2 on the screen showing through the mirror glass. All we have to do now is adjust the height of the chairs to line up the gaze between both.

Ability to read body language: Much like eye gaze, most communication is non-verbal, and I found that being able to see how the spine rests on hips (curious pose vs. defensive pose, etc.), and to show hands even if resting (ensuring no threat, fist or weapon) is instrumental. Only showing shoulders and head significantly decreases our ability to communicate deeply, and a “comfy” chair that have us collapse will not be conducive to either active participation or efficient meetings.

Image from the system showing 3/4 body framed surrounded by darkness
Image is taken straight from product, including framing, resolution and color correction. This is how your conversation partner is presented to you on the screen: well lit, life sized and in high resolution. With direct eye contact.

1:1 life-size distance and image size: Several studies confirm what I found in practical tests: that a life-size image on screen placed at a natural conversational distance between two people is needed to “disregard” the technology and allow for enough suspension of disbelief to establish a meaningful level of presence. Sitting closer to a smaller screen is not equivalent: as with direct eye contact, your reptile brain is not guided by logic but by an ingrained instinct to survive.

No distractions: Remember, we are not solving for what we see on a screen. We are creating a fully immersive experience between two people. As a filmmaker I took my cues from cinemas and theaters: a liminal space (the buildings even look different) dedicated to a single fictional experience. We enter ritualistically, take our seats — and as the house-lights dim, we go silent in anticipation: the safety of the darkness descends over us to help us leave the outside world at the door and hand ourselves over fully to the fictional experience on the silver screen before us. Fewer distractions helps immersion. Lucia created something very similar for videoconferencing with cinema as a clear guiding metaphor. There is no visible technology, no icons, lights, timers, incoming messages or other signs on screen to remind us that what we see is not real. And in that sense, the presence is very real indeed.

A cross section of Lucia showing the components as described in the text.
Each booth would be identical in design and the remote sites connected with low latency network solutions.
A prototype of Lucia showing the casing being collpased to 1/3 size for transportation or when not in use.
This version of Lucia built as a Russian doll, collapsable for transportation or to make space when not in use.

Surrounding both participants in darkness inside the booth also helped create a shared space: to feel together in space in lieu of place. This is key to deeper connection and can be studied by monitoring synchronized brainwaves, coordinated body movements, heart rates etc. Because I see myself suspended in a darkness with only my body lit, and have the other participant appear identically with nothing to indicate that we are separated, my brain will take the necessary leap and imagine us in a “shared space.”

Lastly, then, darkness played a part in Lucia to create the narrative room and abstraction that liminality requires. A liminal experience cannot be prescriptive. It needs to be marked as separate from our ordinary world: a voluntary and suggestive space filled with metaphors and abstractions instead of reality so that we have room to participate through imagination. And because the experience is about making a narrative real, and not about reality itself, we are no longer bound only by what is possible in the real world. This is the underlying promise of liminal design: intentionally creating that undefinable space between the established and the possible.

The model I use for Liminal Design has three sequential steps, not dissimilar to how I write and direct feature films (details of theoretical framework and model can be found in “Liminal Design,” Liedgren, Desmet and Gaggioli 2022). The first step is Narrative Desire: to set an intention for the experience that we can share with the user and to help guide users through the journey of abstractions. For Lucia, the promise would be to offer an alternative to all the distracted and messy video meetings and cluttered conferencing tools: to provide a dedicated space for the deep conversations needed to create and maintain deep and authentic personal connections across remote locations.

The second step is creating liminality. Where most corporate designers, in stark contrast to artists, focus on reducing friction, Liminal Design moves to build intentional friction and to make the space separate from the ordinary world. How do we know we have passed the threshold, what do we have to leave behind, how do we ensure committed and undistracted participation for the imagination to play out not just what is established, but what is possible?

The third step is concerned with maintaining and deepening participation throughout the experience. Much like a film or a book, the initial desire to participate needs to be upheld and deepened throughout. This cannot be heavy handed or the user will feel manipulated and shift attention to the construct. For Lucia, we can use what we know about a good conversation getting deeper and more intimate as it progresses and matures. In the fully controllable and contained environment Lucia we can in realtime adjust image framing, warmth of the light and sound tone. We can also make sure that we start and end conversations with rituals that mark and seal the interconnectedness created and help build the right attitude for future use.

Based on hundreds of sessions and exit interviews, I feel safe in stating that the prototype worked. For a vast majority of users it provided exactly what we set out to create: a space for deep remote conversations. First-time users would marvel at how the other person looked real, how it was like they were sitting right in front of them, and how three dimensional and good we all looked (thanks to good studio lighting). Returning users reported a high level of intimacy, better discussions and more focused meetings that were often done in half the normal time. I attribute the latter to users’ adjusted attitudes and preparation in order to better match the focused and more intense nature of the meeting. Much of liminal design is about creating the right attitude.

It is important to point out that should we put, say, a pumpkin in one booth and a real live user in the other, no interconnectedness is established. The user would simply see a well lit, high resolution 2D image of a fruit. It is not the technology that creates presence, it is the users who build a meaningful connection together. And that takes trust and when it is successful, builds trust. From what I can see, in almost all use-cases, trust was not assumed. It was instead earned, one step at a time: participants would offer a bit of vulnerability or added suspension of disbelief, and then made sure it was accepted by the other fully before going further.

In addition, it often took a few moments for participants to build a common language for how to navigate the new and more intimate environment of Lucia. The earned trust, and the joint work on a shared language, was an important part in forging stronger bonds and deeper connection. Again, friction can be a designer’s best friend, if the goal is set right.

There were of course a few gripes with the experience, mostly from mid-level managers who felt threatened by the transparent nature of the connection. There was little room to mark authority by avoiding eye-gaze, multitasking or “phubbing.” The few instances of someone trying to use their phone during a conversation in Lucia were described as “just as disruptive as someone texting during intercourse.” Intimacy demands focus.

The fact that our solution to eye-gaze has all sizes and heights and job titles be leveled physically in the space also took some adjusting to by managers traditionally relying on manifesting their place in the hierarchy by dominant behavior.

The separate, dark and void space of Lucia is filled with whatever meaningful narrative we are allowed to bring to it. Liminality requires a narrative to separate it from the ordinary world (cinema, theater, nightclub, church, tea house etc) but always needs to leave room for one’s own interpretation. This is akin to fictional experiences such as a film, play or book: we know it is not real, yet we allow very real emotions to take place by making the story our own. It’s the fictionality, not the reality, that makes it useful. I think of Lucia the same way.

Lucia, as one example of Liminal Design, highlights that this design is not bound by a transactional reality but how we might imagine it. Inviting, holding and encouraging this imagination is a core tenant of liminal design. And it is only through our imaginative participation in the combination of an abstracted space and its suggested narrative, that we it can serve as transformational .

Through the hands-on work with Lucia, hundreds of monitored sessions and exit interviews offered plenty of confirmation that presence was not only established but often elevated. For example, HR-related discussion using Lucia — especially difficult conversations — had participants reduce defensive behaviors. In part this was functional: both participants were now able to read body language properly and could therefore avoid preemptively putting up defenses due to threatening ambiguity. In addition, the up-close intimate quality of sitting 4 feet away was coupled with an opportunistic notion of Lucia as also “providing safe geographical distance (often thousands of miles) to the other remote participant,” reportedly making difficult meetings less awkward. If we allow for it, motivated users take what they need from the design, and — at the same time — use the ambiguity of a dark mediated space to create the space they need. Again, liminality is attitude.

The latter effect of a user holding two completely contradictory notions simultaneously as part of the liminal narrative became even more apparent when testing the experience on shy and then claustrophobic users. A “dark small closed box offering undistracted closeness to a stranger” was the ultimate fear. However, after only a few minutes, many shy people were able to make the distance and the mediated nature of the meeting part of their internal narrative while still ignoring the technology to create a deep presence and a shared space with the other.

The claustrophobic person interpreted the surrounding darkness as vast space, despite the obvious footprint of the booth that they walked into. Narrative room, the void and abstraction offered by Lucia, like in art and other liminal experiences, invites imagination and creativity to fill the untold space with one’s own story and consequently make for a more personal engagement.

I also tested Lucia with autistic users. The abstract nature of the experience seemed to ease most of the awkwardness of holding eye-contact, akin to “watching TV.” What was experienced as presence with most users, was adjusted by the autistic participant to see the other as “screen image”. Immersion and presence could be maintained far more than with any in-person experience for those same spectrum users.

Yes, all in all, the work with Lucia shows it is possible to deliver solutions for remote work and distributed teams, if we want. But the real takeaway hints at a bigger promise of liminal design: transcendence, transformation and interconnectedness. The cinematic darkness of the space, the full body presentation and its lack of distractions was perhaps the most significant feature of Lucia in the end. It showed how strongly narrative friction and personal projections held all the different technology pieces of the narrative experience in coherence. The sublime works, because we want it to. And in that context, liminality is the attitude we design for, not a feature.

Had we asked someone 20 years ago what they hoped computers and the internet would bring humanity by the time of this article, a survey of today’s technological landscape would be sure to disappoint. Approaching technology through the lens of Liminal Design pries open more doors for development and innovation. It also fundamentally challenges today’s transactional and commercial nature through the very questions it asks.

The beautiful complexity that comes with Liminal Design delivers not only experiences that we have lost, but also aspirations for what we have never seen. Like all changes in behavior, it is not about bending small parts of a narrative, but rather providing new ones that speak of hope more directly to our imagination. There is no one single way to apply Liminal Design. And in its wider acceptance as part of product development, I hope that the multitude of solutions it offers will also lead to the unlimited inclusiveness of just as many new and profound experiences.

Johan Liedgren
Award-winning film-director, writer and story consultant working with media and technology companies on narrative strategy and product development. http://www.liedgren.com / https://medium.com/@johan_liedgren

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