This is part 1 in a 3 part series of posts based on work I presented at Designing Interactive Systems (DIS) this year on analyzing concept videos. Read part 2, part 3, or find out more about the project on the project page or download the full paper.
So What is a Concept Video?
I am defining concept video as a video created by a company, showing a new novel device or product that is not yet available for public purchase, though it might be in a few years. Concept videos depict what the world might be like if that device or product exists, and how people might interact with it or use it. An early example is Apple’s Knowledge Navigator video, while more contemporary examples include Amazon’s Prime Air video, Google’s Glass video, and Microsoft’s HoloLens video. (I’ll take a closer look at the latter two in a following blog post). Concept videos embed a vision about the social and technical future of computing: how computing will be done, for whom, by what means, and what the norms of that world will be.
Concept videos are related to other types of design practices as well. One such practice is design fiction, described by Julian Bleecker as a practice that exists in the space between science fiction and science fact. Bruce Sterling describes design fiction as diegetic prototypes. Importantly, the artifacts created through design fiction exist within a narrative world, story, or fictional reality. This can take on many forms: in text, such as fictional research abstracts or fictional research papers, short films, or the creation of artifacts in a fictional world like steampunk. Generally, these are used to explore alternative possibilities for technology design and social life. Design fiction is related to speculative design – by creating fictional worlds and yet-to-be-realized design concepts, it tries to understand possible alternative futures. Placing corporate concept videos in the realm of design fiction frames the video’s narrative as something that is not predicting the future, but presenting a representation of one possible future out of many. It also allows us to interpret the video and investigate the ideas and values it promotes. Design fictions are also discursive in the sense that their stories have a discourse, and they interact with other social discourses that are occurring.
Yet, we also have to recognize the corporate source of the videos. Unlike other design fictions which invite users to into a narrative world to imagine technologies as if they are real, many corporate concept videos portray technologies that will be real in some form. These videos more directly serve corporate purposes as well. While these videos do not explicitly direct users to purchase a particular product, they do reflect advertising imperatives. The concept videos also share qualities with “vision videos,” or corporate research videos. However these tend to depict further futures than concept videos, and aren’t about specific products, but show broader technological worlds. Concept videos also contain elements of video prototyping, which has a long history in HCI. These often show short use scenarios of a technology, or simulate the use and interaction of a technology. But they’re often either used internally within a company or team, or as part of a user testing process. Concept videos show similar things, but are also public-facing artifacts, in dialog with other types of public conversation.
Why Should We Analyze Concept Videos?
Prior work shows that representations of technology affect broader perceptions, reactions, and debate. For instance, commercials and news articles create sociotechnical narratives about smartphones and smartphone users. The circulation of stories and the discourses that arise frame a debate about what it means to be a smartphone user, and associate moral values with using a smartphone. Representations of technologies influence the way people imagine future technologies, build broader collective narratives about what technologies mean, and influence technological development and use.
Concept videos similarly create a narrative world that takes place in the future, depicting technical artifacts and how humans interact with them. Furthermore, the public release of the videos provides a starting point for public discussion and discourse about the technologies’ social implications – these videos are usually released in advance of the actual products, allowing a broader public audience to engage with and contest the politics and values of the presented futures.
The lens of design fiction lets us analyze the videos’ future-oriented narratives. Analyzing corporate uses of design fictions helps surface aspects of the companies’ narratives that may not be at their central focus, but could have significant implications for people if those narratives come to fruition. Analyzing the creation – and contestation – of narratives by companies and the media response also provides insight into the processes that embed or associate social and political values with new technologies.
Concept videos depict narratives which imply what technical affordances technologies have, but there may be gaps between portrayal and actual capabilities that we do not know about. The videos also do not show the technical mechanisms that enable the design and function of the technology. However, these ambiguities should be viewed as features, not bugs, of concept videos. Concept videos’ usefulness, like design fictions, comes from their narrative features and their ability to elicit multiple interpretations, reflections, and questions. Concept videos’ representations of technology should not be seen as final design solutions, but a work in progress still amenable to change.
How Might We Analyze Concept Videos?
In our approach, we adapted Gillian Dyer’s method for investigating visual signs in advertisements by focusing on five main signals:
- physical appearance of people,
- people’s emotions,
- people’s behavior and activities,
- props and physical objects, and
We identified these elements in each video, watching each video several times. We also looked at additional features, including:
- visual camera techniques such as camera angle and focus, and
- narration or dialogue that takes place in the video
After identifying these elements, we found that asking several questions allowed us to surface further questions and insights, and helped us interpret what types of values the various video elements may signify. This allows us to do a close reading and critical analysis of videos. We note that this is not an exhaustive list, and is likely to expand as more analyses are done on different types of concept videos.
- How are technologies portrayed? This includes looking at the design and form of artifacts, their technical affordances, and possible values they embody.
- How are humans portrayed? Who are users and non-users of the technology? This draws on factors like behaviors, appearance, emotion, and setting to see what types of people are imagined to be interacting with the technology.
- How is the sociotechnical system portrayed? This focuses on how humans and the technology interact together, the settings and contexts in which they interact, and raises questions about who or what has agency over different types of interactions.
- What is not in the video? What populations or needs are unaddressed? What would it look like if certain technical capabilities are taken to the extreme? Can we imagine alternate futures from what the video depicts?
Our goal in analyzing concept videos is not to argue that our interpretation is the only “correct” reading. Rather our goal is to present a method that allows viewers to surface ideas, questions, and reflections while watching concept videos, and to consider how the presentation of technologies relates and responds to public discourse around their introduction into society.
By analyzing and interpreting the corporate concept videos as viewers, we do not know about the process behind the creation of these videos, making the creators’ intent difficult to discern. Unlike design fictions published in other venues or formats, there is no accompanying paratext, essay, or academic paper describing the authors’ intent or process. Regardless of intent, we find that the futures portrayed by the videos are ideological and express cultural values, whether consciously or unconsciously, explicitly or implicitly.
Commercial concept videos help us acknowledge and explore the ways artifacts represent values at a time before the design of a company’s product is finalized. Analysis and critique of these videos can surface potential problems at a time when designs can still be changed. Given that, we call on the HCI and design communities to leverage their expertise and engage in this type of critique. These communities can open a space for the discussion of cultural values embedded in the concept videos, and promote or explore alternative values.