Four by Two: dälek and Jesu

Looking back over the music of the year, it struck me that two of my favorite bands released both proper records and compilations this year, and that all four were among my favorites of the year. With the music industry currently shaped like a big question mark and all of the nay-saying about creative churn, I just thought these two (groups of) creators and their creations deserved an extra mention. Continue reading “Four by Two: dälek and Jesu”

Digital Media Demo Day at Georgia Tech

I ventured to Atlanta again this year for Georgia Tech’s Digital Media department‘s Winter Demo Day, and it definitely re-greased the mental wheels. When you’re stuck while thinking about technology and media, an event like this is sure to shake things loose.

The Digital Media program at Georgia Tech spans the spectrum that runs from Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) to film production. Students and faculty come from all points on the spectrum as well, thereby making the input and the output of the department is as diverse as its people. Their semiannual Demo Days allow them to strut their wares, from fully immersive digital environments and emergent games to interactive TV and experimental film, from completed works to projects-in progress. A loose theme this year could’ve been merging the virtual with the corporeal: There were lots of projects bridging bodies and avatars and several others exhibited new approaches to haptics. It’s very difficult to keep a summary about such an event brief, but here are a few highlights.

Kenny Chow’s Generative Visual Renku project uses Fox Harrell’s GRIOT System to create a digital environment for collaborative, linked-poetry using pictographs. Renku is similar to Haiku except that it is a form of linked poetry. Chow’s project allows groups of people connected via a network (e.g., the internet, an intranet, or a social space such as Facebook) to collaborate on pieces of artwork using icons. In the process, GRIOT and Chow’s Renku system create a visual grammar by which the artworks can be built and interpreted.

Over the past couple of years, Susan Robinson has been quietly remediating her Oscar-nominated film Building Bombs (which is now available on DVD) into an interactive piece, the engine behind which manages the relationships among the various personalities and issues in the film. By dragging pictures and icons around on the screen, the user can see how they react to each other and watch video clips from the film. It’s much more impressive and interesting than I can make it sound here.

Space Vectors by Ari Velazquez, Jimmy Truesdell, and Kurt Stilwell is a tabletop video game for up to four players. Each player has a base to protect and three types of space vessels — controlled by tangible objects placed on the tabletop — with which to protect it and attack the others. As it stands now, players set up initial conditions, press “start,” and watch the game unfold. Eventually, Ari says, the game will be very active over the course of play. The interesting thing about Space Vectors‘ current state is how complex the game play is given its relative simplicity. Set up a few pieces, let the game go, and watch to see if your strategy works.

Notably missing this year — or maybe I just notably missed them — were Brian Shrank and company and their Mashboard Games (one of my favorites from last year, which explores haptics by mining affordances from the standard QWERTY keyboard). Also M.I.A. were Ian Bogost and Eugene Thacker. Next time, guys…

The EGG's Mermaids: Click to enlargeOther highlights included Second Life/Augmented Reality (which involved combining physical actors with digital avatars), Mermaids (an MMOG that explores the emergent behavior of large groups), Flourishing Future (an interactive children’s tangible-object tabletop video game involving making a city more environmentally friendly), and Machinima Futurista (which uses the Second Life/Augmented Reality project to recreate the 1916 Italian Futurist film Vita Futurista), among many others.

If any of you get a chance to attend GA Tech’s Demo Day and see what they’re up to there, I strongly recommend doing so: good food, good people, and lots of great ideas. Many thanks to the presenters, and Susan Robinson, Jay Bolter, and Janet Murray for making us feel welcome and for making it another brain-sparking good time.

Too Much Information: Four Recent Books

In his 1995 book, Being Digital (Vintage), Nicholas Negroponte drew a sharp and important distinction between bits and atoms, bits being the smallest workable unit of the digital world, and atoms being their closest analog (no pun intended) in the physical world. In the meantime, this distinction has become more and more important as our world becomes increasingly digital or reliant on digital technologies.

The Long TailAs an over-simplified example, shelf space in a regular “bricks and mortar” bookstore is limited, but online it isn’t. In order to pay its rent and stay in business, a physical bookstore has to carry books that sell at a faster pace than an online store, which can afford to carry books that sell less often. The latter is called “the long tail,” and it’s how Amazon was able to stake its claim as “The World’s Largest Bookstore” and eventually to expand into every other product line one can put in a box or an inbox. When it comes to purely digital artifacts and products (e.g., digital file sharing, music downloads, ebooks, etc.), the power law on which the long tail is based isn’t truncated (as it is eventually in the Amazon example, and sooner in the traditional bookstore example).

The Long Tail (from Chris Anderson’s site)

Chris Anderson admittedly didn’t invent the idea (Jeff Bezos for one has been making millions with it for years), but no one else has covered it like he has in his book. The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More (Hyperion, 2006) is the concept shot from every angle, through every available lens. The idea is that blockbusters, hits, best sellers form “the short head” of the graph, and the niche items, cult phenomenon, lesser sellers form “the long tail.” Our culture is moving down the tail (i.e., it has become “niche-driven” as opposed to hit-driven) and off the shelf (online as opposed to in the store). Most retail stores only have room to carry items in the short head, while online “etailers” can carry items further down the tail. And when it comes to digital products, shelves are no longer an obstacle, in more ways than one.

Everything is MiscellaneousWhen products move from shelves to databases, the way they can be organized changes. Everything is Miscellaneous: The Power of the New Digital Disorder (Times Books, 2007) is David Weinberger’s take on Web 2.0’s tags and folksonomies, set in contrast to objects in physical space (bits vs atoms). “Orders of order” he calls them. Items on shelves are limited by the rules of the physical world. Items in a database are not. The former can be filed in one category, on one shelf, in one place (the first order of order). The latter can be searched, browsed, alphabetized, tagged — all at the same time (the third order of order). These orders of order also apply to encyclopedic information — Wikipedia’s bits as opposed to Encyclopedia Britannica’s atoms — and the way it is created.

InfotopiaIn Infotopia: How Many Minds Produce Knowledge (Oxford, 2006), Cass R. Sunstein continues some of the work he did in Why Societies Need Dissent regarding deliberation, group polarization, and emergent knowledge. The most obvious and most successful example is Wikipedia. Whereas mindless mobs wait at the bottom of many collaborative slippery slopes (see a sharp antithesis to Wikipedia at Urban Dictionary), Wikipedia is frighteningly accurate. My friend and colleague Tim Mitchell proposed a great test of Wikipedia’s success: If you doubt the site’s aggregate knowledge, check its information against something you do know, as opposed to something you don’t. Sunstein’s book goes a long way to explaining the ins and outs of why collaborative filtering might provide the best method for knowing things.

Bit LiteracyMark Hurst’s Bit Literacy: Productivity in the Age of Information and E-mail Overload (Good Experience, 2007) approaches the infoglut from more of a self-help angle, proposing an ambitious plan for getting things done and getting things organized in the digital deluge. It’s not quite the panacea it purports to be, but useful ideas abound. Finding signal in the noise — especially in the noise of your own email, photos, files, to-do lists – is what bit literacy is all about.

As bandwidth increases, Negroponte’s observation from over a decade ago is finally showing its impact. The distinction between bits and atoms is an important one, and perhaps more important than we previously realized, whether we’re trying to find something or just find something out.