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The buzz around “location” within social media applications has become deafening.  And I thought this short piece from the founder of a geolocation provider adds some interesting perspective (obnoxious reference to a “gold rush” notwithstanding.)

Location capability shouldn’t be considered the “feature,” but rather simply a means to deliver a new kind of experience/value.  That’s common sense to be sure, but still useful to bear in mind as developers consider what to do with this powerful new tool.  
 
What we need to move to is a third wave of location apps… where location is integral to advancing a basic human need.  That’s qualitatively different than the first-wave location apps like Google maps where location IS the feature, and the second wave, like Foursquare, where location serves as the focal point for why the app exists.  I concur with a commenter to that post that “checkins” and “trophies” just aren’t the foundation of a sustainable business model.

I believe that the more location “disappears” into the substance of the user experience, the more powerful it can become.  It’s the means to an end, not the end in and of itself.

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(originally published December 19, 2009)

Why do we go to the movies? 

This may be the fundamental question – and dilemma – behind “Avatar.” Visually the film continuously delights, beginning with its three-dimensional opening shot of Jake Sully emerging from cryosleep in a vast space filled with such depth and detail that I heard impromptu murmurs of “oh, my God” around me in the theatre.  It’s a bravura moment, which announces to the audience that we are about to see something never seen before; filmmaking, redefined.

Images like this become so frequent within Avatar that we’re soon unaware of them — they become part of the film’s landscape.  I’m reminded of the time I went on an African safari.  On the morning of the first day, I craned my neck to see a speck of a giraffe in the far-off distance.  By the end of the second day, herds of gazelles were galloping around the jeep we were in, and I couldn’t be bothered to take my eyes off the magazine I was reading.  Humans have a remarkable ability to move from a sense of wonder to a sense of the ordinary at lightning speed, as we process the world around us.

However, I think we would be doing James Cameron a huge disservice to blithely accept what he has delivered on the screen.  The technical and visual achievement he has produced was not a natural evolution of the medium.  He forced change through the sheer power of his vision (not to mention his essentially unlimited financial resources,) and now it will be up to others to respond.  I’ve no doubt that Avatar will be considered a cinematic milestone, as disruptive and revolutionary for this time as “Gone With the Wind,” “Lawrence of Arabia” and “Star Wars” were in their own.   

But Avatar does fall short — unnecessarily, in my view — in its inability to fully explore the most provocative elements of its story.  The movie is content to follow a linear plot, and following Sully’s landing on Pandora even the most casual moviegoer should be able to accurately predict most of the story beats all the way through the final, obvious shot.  The focus is squarely on Sully’s introduction, embracing by, then embrace of the Na’avi, in a sequence of events that strongly echoes “Dancing With Wolves,” “Pocahontas” and other films of the genre. 

Cameron seems content to let slide the immense possibilities behind the idea that a man who cannot walk can instead spend his days transported into the body of a god-like creature, with superhuman strength and capabilities.  One throwaway line that Sully delivers – directly questioning who is his real self and who is his “dream” self — is all that’s given to this concept.  I don’t buy that the “real” Sully would emerge from the linking chamber and blithely sit again in his wheelchair, record his videologs, banter with colleagues, and successfully lead two lives.  Indeed, Cameron delivers a scene when Sully is joking around with the other scientists before uplinking again, while his avatar body is threatened by the onrushing technology of the Company.  It’s a patently transparent attempt to create a “ticking clock” drama that truly wasn’t earned, and cheapens the story even further.

And, of course, the biggest missed opportunity of all. We learn near the end that Pandora holds a giant secret: that all its people, plants and animals are interconnected as a giant nervous system.  As a result the planet itself is capable of self-defense when called upon.  That moment — when all of Pandora arises — should have been Avatar’s crowning glory, when Cameron could have used his awesome skills and technology to create a sequence that would have broken new ground in visual storytelling.  Instead, the moment is communicated in a linear (again) sequence where the tide of battle is turned by the arrival of Pandora’s beasts, a here-comes-the-cavalry moment that we’ve seen time and again – even if we haven’t seen it in such brilliant form. 

Screenwriters and story fetishists can pick away at Avatar’s structure and inconsistencies.  Questions like, why do the Na’avi seem so unconcerned with the fact that at night, the Jakesully avatar is an utterly unconscious sack of flesh?  How come so many Na’avi speak English?  Early on, there was a reference to a Missionary-style school that was closed – another provocative story idea that was discarded. 

But that may be beside the point.

I would see Avatar again simply to discover anew the wonders of Pandora, to ride its beasts, to hear the voices of its dead through the tendrils of its trees.  It many ways, it becomes almost churlish to complain about “story” when these delights are available to the human senses.  We have all seen wonderful stories at the movies before.  We have never seen anything remotely like this — which also means I would hesitate before seeing it on a conventional 2D screen.  

So, I return to my opening question: Why do we go to the movies?  Perhaps it is simply to sit in the dark for two (or in this case, nearly three) hours to lose our own selves in the story and vision of another.  And if that vision is well-executed we emerge believing our time was well spent. 

Come to think of it, perhaps Cameron has played an elaborate trick on us all.  In Avatar, moviegoers are Jake Sully, floating in a dark space, unaware of our own limited selves, wandering instead amid a world that is not of our own creation or comprehension.  We see this world through the eyes of its creator.  James Cameron is our avatar.

On My Mind..

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