App Enhanced, Data Visualized, Socially Optimized, and Soon to be Open Sourced, Theatre

Pepys Inc debuted a mobile app called e-geaux (pr: ego) at the Capital Fringe Festival last month. Advertising for the show promised, “the only Cap Fringe show where you turn your phone ON!” and “Audiences will opt-in to the e-Geaux application with their real Facebook data!” Much confusion ensued: did the Festival sell out an empty Fringe slot to a tech company? Were there privacy concerns around how the app would use your data, in the show, and later? Was this even theatre?

As a self proclaimed data nerd, I’ve been curious about the quantified self community for awhile & apps like foursquare, fitbit, jawbone, and daytum, continue to fascinate me for their ability to passively record, analyze, and shape our every day behavior. The E-geaux app, in theory at least, falls under this same category: with five features driven by the audiences social media profiles:

  • OK-egeaux: discover your perfect match
  • E-breaux: automate your Facebook comments
  • E-Geaux-vention: personalized advice based on your most recent Facebook wall posts
  • E-Geaux Amigo: recommendations for who you should friend in the house tonight
  • E-Geaux Trip: spice up your Facebook photo albums

The reality of e-geaux falls somewhere between performance art and powerpoint karaoke; infomercial and the (possible) future of theatre. Fortunately, I now work with the amazing folks who built the app and the show, and they all recently sat down with our colleagues to talk about how the whole project developed. Co-creators Joe Price and Amy Couchoud started thinking about the concept nearly a year ago, but all they knew was they wanted some way to combine data and storytelling, and they were interested in exploring the differences between our online and offline personalities. The idea of E-geaux went through a few iterations, until the team landed on it’s final format to begin rehearsals in May:

  • Joe, as the Jobs-esque product demo guy would demonstrate the app’s features
  • Jason & Kat, as the hapless i-Pad wielding assistants
  • Hannah & Chuck, as the data analysts/mixologists
  • Allen, the man behind the curtain who actually built the app
  • Amy kept the trains running & the team focused on making good art, not just cool tech

Since the show has run its course, and this post isn’t intended as a review, I’ll just walk you through the experience of attending e-geaux (or at least what I remember, it was a month ago) and not worry about all the spoiler alerts: walk into the theatre, and you’re asked to “opt-in” to sync your Facebook data with the e-geaux mobile website. The ask happens verbally, but also via an on screen QR code where the house curtain would have been. The psychology behind formally agreeing to participate in a production is interesting: both effort justification (I had to work a little harder than average for this show, so my perception of its value increases) and foot-in-the-door technique (I’ve said yes once already to an easy request, so I’m more likely to say yes to the more difficult task of audience participation) are at work. Audience members without smart phones were invited to sync their Facebook data via laptops in the lobby. House lights were left at somewhere around half-dim, which had the unintended benefit of making live tweeting not at all distracting. The AT&T lack of service however, that was a major bummer.

Next up the data analysts did some fancy footwork to give us pretty pie charts of the gender, age, political affiliation & marital status of the audience, based on our collective Facebook data. And I began to wonder: what would/could we change about the theatrical experience if we (as the art-makers/marketers) if we knew this kind of data in advance of each night’s performance? Technically speaking, these graphs were pretty cool. The backend technology that Allen built meant the data analysts could simply drag & drop these automated Google Charts from a URL directly into a powerpoint.

The remainder of the show revealed the five (aforementioned) features of E-Geaux. Each audience member got “personalized” recommendations, though the literal algorithm is effectively randomly. Achiever badges were handed out. A King (or Queen) of Klout was crowned (based on whomever in the audience was live tweeting with the #egeaux hashtag). And a few Facebook fanatics were outed (those with friend counts in the 4-digits).

When the show concludes, E-Geaux purges your data from their system (privacy FTW!), and directs you to post comments about the show to your Facebook wall (viral messaging FTW!).

The marketing of the production was a bit more…involved…than your traditional Fringe show: a stellar postcard, a Twitter profile, a Facebook page, and TONS of press coverage. A lesson learned: e-geaux is good for puns, terrible for SEO. For those of you more technically inclined, the app was built in Rails3, this show would have been (nearly) impossible pre-Dropbox (to sync the backstage laptop-wielding data analysts, with the onstage iPad wielding performers), and Facebook has the best (among the social media usuals) API for structured data. One last totally rad technical detail is that Chuck built the Pepys Inc website using responsive design techniques. To those of us (like me!) less technically inclined, it seems like magic:

  1. Go to the Pepys Inc website on a laptop/desktop computer & make sure your browser window is expanded to full screen
  2. Begin to collapse the screen vertically (make it skinnier) & notice how the “Buy Tickets” right hand corner banner disappears
  3. Keep going and you’ll see the main image disappear & the remaining text transform to 2 columns
  4. Go all the way, and you’ll watch the page transform into a mobile optimized site with one long column of text

I seriously played with this for hours (maybe minutes). It still blows my mind.

The future of Pepys Inc & E-geaux remains to be seen. The team is looking for limited run opportunities at other fringe shows, colleges, etc (interested?), but first they want to expand the feature set of the app & live data viz opportunities, and then open source the script, technology, and slides. Open source theatre, you say?