LONDON — Thinking about a life coach but not ready to commit to the real thing? App stores offer lots of electronic alternatives that can be downloaded to your iPhone or Android device. There’s Success Wizard, which promises to “help you plan, focus and achieve real and lasting results.”
LiveHappy, brim-full of exercises from the California psychologist who wrote “The How of Happiness.”
And soon, from the British art group Blast Theory, an entirely different approach: Karen, a mock life-coach app that develops boundary issues and leaves its users feeling distinctly uncomfortable. Karen is a fictional coach in a software-driven experiential art piece. Part story, part game, designed to be played over a period of days, it offers a deliberately unsettling experience that’s intended to make us question the way we bare ourselves to a digital device.
Unlike most real life-coaching apps, this one displays video rather than text, a tactic that makes it easy to forget the distinction between what’s digital and what’s human.
When you open the app, Karen (played by Claire Cage, an actress who has appeared on the British TV series “Coronation Street” and “Being Human”) starts speaking to you directly, asking a series of questions.
She seems winsome and friendly, a little too friendly, perhaps. “She’s only recently out of a long-term relationship,” explained Matt Adams, one of the three members of Blast Theory, “and she has a hunger for a new social alternative.”
“She develops a kind of friend crush,” Adams said. “And over the next 10 days or so, she feeds back to you things she’s learning about you, including some things you’re not quite sure how she knows or why.”
One other thing that’s different about Karen: It’s not a movie. It’s a personalized experience that plays out on a smartphone or tablet. There is no fourth wall.
It morphs to fit the user, based on information the user supplies, choices the user makes and inferences the app itself begins to make. And just as you reveal yourself to Karen, she reveals herself to you, in ways that veer further and further from a legitimate life-coach experience.
Beginning April 16, shortly after it’s scheduled to be available for free download on Apple’s app store, Karen will be featured in the Tribeca Film Festival’s Storyscapes competition, which showcases innovative, interactive approaches to storytelling.
Blast Theory, based 50 miles outside London in the seaside resort town of Brighton, has a reputation for edgy, tech-infused work combining games, video and performance.
To give Karen a sense of verisimilitude, Blast Theory turned to Kelly Page, a Chicago-based consultant who brought together elements from a variety of standard psychological evaluation systems, including mood repair questionnaires and tests to measure the “big five” personality traits: openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness and neuroticism.
Like actual life-coach apps, Karen starts off by asking about your emotional state. Other apps, however, are unlikely to drop in a mention of their recent divorce, or let you peep through a partly open door at a guy named Dave, who is stark naked.
Later, as you learn more about Dave and Karen and their emotionally complicated relationship, you’ll be invited to join one or the other of them in some rather unseemly escapades. How far will you go? The answer can be as revealing as anything you tell Karen directly.
Early on, Karen looks into the camera and says, “If you share with me, I can help you find out things about yourself you might not even realize.”
That, of course, is the promise of life-coaching apps, and in this case at least, it turns out to be true. Users won’t know how much Karen has learned about them until they reach the end of the experience, at which point they’ll be invited to purchase (for $3.99) an extensive, not to say invasive, psychological profile compiled by the app itself.
Karen can be played strictly for fun. But if you wish to engage on a deeper level, the question it aims to provoke is somewhat subtler: Where do we draw the line between our devices and ourselves?