Digital media professor discusses research, current projects

Photo Courtesy of Janet Murray

At Tech, everyone knows that computers are the perfect tools for coding a secure database or making a robot do the hokey-pokey; what everyone may not know, however, is that there are people  on campus who are determined to push the computational envelope even further and cannot wait to see what they find. Janet Murray, a professor in the School of Literature, Communication and Culture, is one of those people.

Murray specializes in the many forms and uses of digital media, and her work includes the evolving nature of storytelling in an increasingly digital world. As many entertainment- and information-based media begin to incorporate more digital aspects, Murray considers the possibility of entirely new medium genres that could be formed from this transition. Recently, the Technique had a chance to talk with Professor Murray about her experience with digital storytelling.

What interests you about digital media?

It is not often that human beings come into possession of a new technology of representation. Computation offers us the opportunity to describe the world in new ways, and especially to make objects with programmed behaviors. I have always been interested in storytelling, and computer-based environments offer new possibilities for storytelling.

What are some current projects you are working on?

Every semester, I create one or more prototypes of interactive television with my students. This semester, we are working on second-screen navigation and viewing experiences for [shows] Game of Thrones and Arrested Development.

Has being at Tech influenced you?

I came to Tech from MIT in 1999 because I wanted to help build a new curriculum in digital media that combined theory and practice,  and emphasized the power of digital design to expand human powers of expression. My latest book Inventing the Medium is very much influenced by my experience of teaching graduate students who come to digital media from many different backgrounds and needed clarity about how to look at something in a new genre and decide [whether] it is good or bad.

“I wanted to help build a new curriculum in digital media that combined theory and practice.”

Making new digital applications is different from making new toasters, for example, because the platforms and the genres keep changing. I like the challenge  of teaching students design methods and principles that will last over their careers.

What is the eTV Lab, and what are your responsibilities as director?

The eTV Lab is my research group, focused on exploring new narrative forms that are made possible by the convergence of television and computation. We do projects with real TV content, sometimes in collaboration with the producers, like the Cartoon Network, or with industrial partners, like Intel.

Students often join the lab as part of a studio course or as a framework for a master’s project. The projects from previous years are a resource for us as we approach a new design task, since we always take the complete convergence of TV and computing as our assumed platform, rather than trying to limit ourselves to what is actually possible to deploy in the current environment.

Our projects include news, documentaries and reality competition programs, but we are most interested lately in long-form drama series since they offer the most complex storytelling.

Where do you see digital media going in the future?

The convergence of TV and computation should lead to greater deployment and refinement of software that helps people join complex long-form dramas in progress without confusion, navigate selectively among multiple story-threads,  watch TV with other people who are not physically present and participate in story worlds that combine episodic television drama with multiplayer gaming.

“I am very optimistic about the possibilities for new digital story forms.”

I hope that we will also see the development of news and documentary structures that allow people to follow complex, long-term stories and to see the same situation, such as an international crisis, from multiple points of view, and to entertain multiple versions of the same scenario without becoming hopelessly confused. I am very optimistic about the possibilities for new digital story forms helping us to follow more complex stories, both fiction and non-fiction, making us smarter and more widely empathetic.