Dear Wellington, let’s make some babies

Ah, Wellington, where a barista serves coffee to a cashless newcomer with “just pay us later”, op shops have natural-fibre clothes to fit women of long length, and an annual conference exemplifies and amplifies goodness.

I was there primarily to attend the National Digital Forum 2012 and – thrill! – to present on Sembl. It was a wonderful new experience to be on stage early in a conference program – and in a plenary session – because in the breaks, conversations had already started. I didn’t need to perform repeated, monologic self-introductions – and nor did my interlocutors; there was space among the already-started conversation to explore where they were coming from too.

I can’t tell you how much I appreciated that. For me, sustaining social openness for the duration of a multi-day event – which is critical, because that interpersonal flow is the source of the magic – feels strenuous. Anything that makes the flow flow more easily is like a full lung of fresh air.

Wonderfully, NDF is in general very conducive to such flow. The organisers do a brilliant job of creating a space in which good things can happen. There’s a lovely collegial vibe, and plenty of social events for folks that don’t know folks. And if you don’t know the way to a venue, Courtney will draw you a map:

directions to Hooch bar, Wellington, New Zealand

From the Comfort Hotel via the bucket fountain to the Hooch bar

So many interesting conversations… fuelled by such passionate and thoughtful presentations:

Chris McDowall presenting on a large screen his clusters of algorithmically-cropped faces of WWI soldiers

Chris McDowall zooming in on his clusters of algorithmically-cropped faces of WWI soldiers

Sarah Barns presenting Italo Calvino's description of the

Sarah Barns’ augmented city projects are great. I liked her quote of Italo Calvino on the city’s “relationships between the measurements of space and the events of its past”.

Nate Solas presenting a large-screen image of the long tail of cat videos

Nate Solas visualising the long tail of cats: the enduring value of cat videos for web visitors to the Walker Art Center

NDF was beautiful and thrilling; so much care, absolutely cynicism-free.

Despite being fairly spent, I trundled myself off the following day to join in the heady fun of THATCamp Wellington. Which was also awesome – thanks, Donelle and Sydney & co. Tim’s workshop was ‘smashing’ ;) Also very useful was the session on linked open data; it gave me more clarity about the authority, provenance and reciprocity of said links:

notes on the authority, provenance and reciprocity of linked data

Notes from the discussion of linked data: on authority, provenance and reciprocity

(For those that don’t know, I have a special interest in reciprocal linked data.)

In the breaks, there were plenty more compelling conversations to be enjoyed, including a very useful pointer from musicologist, Francis Yapp, to Bach’s Little Fugue in G minor. I can now appreciate the fugue musically as well as mentally!

But I failed, actually, to put as much energy into THATCamp as I’d have liked. I devoted most of my energy to NDF and then limped through the day that was meant to be all about action.

So as a homage to both NDF and THATCamp, and in lieu of completing a THATCamp evaluation form, I wrote a fantasy for a more integrated and even more flow-y NDF-meets-THATCamp experience, where more of the threads dangling tantalisingly at both forums could be tugged, if you so chose, and twisted and woven into a few amazing new things. I offer these thoughts without expectation, and with hope that whether NDF maintains its current, beautiful form or evolves, we can sustain it as it sustains us.

And dear reader, please know that I have co-opted real people into this fantasy without their knowledge or consent. They may not actually want to do these things. You are all, of course, are welcome to respond with your own ideas, adaptations, augmentations, even refutations.

§

Imagine.

The two-day National Digital Forum is extended to a three-day digital festival culminating in a THATCampy makerspace, with an optional extra post-festival morning of relaxation and celebration. NDF has some practical outcomes, and THATCamp has an inspiring lead-in and opportunity to develop some collective vision.

Day 1 is the plenary, and comprises a couple of keynotes, several short plenary presentations and a bunch of ignite talks. So there’s a whole day where everyone can see everything on offer.

Day 2 is for parallel sessions. There are two streams: one is for preplanned, interactive show-and-tell. The other is for action-planning workshops driven by the wishes of the participants and facilitated by the likes of:

  • Chris McDowall, Mitchell Whitelaw and Tim Wray – beautiful visual browsing
  • Tim Sherratt and Michael Lascarides – really simple RDF, aka beautiful data storytelling
  • Sarah Barns – augmented Te Papa?
  • Aaron Straup Cope – some strangely but simply useful tool or other
  • maybe even Walter Logeman – a Semblified, Jungian, group dream analysis

By the end of Day 2, we have some plans for action the following day.

Day 3 is a makerspace, for making as per the plans from the two days prior, and for documenting the making. Huzzah! And/or you can do one or more preplanned workshops with the likes of:

  • Ponoko
  • someone who can make artisinal QR codes
  • a website-builder
  • someone with social media smarts

The final session is the morning of Day 4. It’s for unwinding and reflecting, and awarding *prizes* for the most effective work.

In amongst it all, there are other options for engaging, such as:

  • a kind of digital maker faire or pop-up museum – an assemblage of digital or digitally-augmented or digitally-designed displays showing everything from Tim’s experiment in richly contextualised HTML to Emily’s Little Slide Dress to an array of Ponoko-printed or lasercut physical objects.
  • as a conversation kickstarter, an array of named faces of all the delegates, where each face is a link to a short video of that person introducing themselves and their particular passions for digital work. (The point here is to give any delegate that wants it a voice, including those not on the program to speak. For speakers it could be a channel for an alternative abstract, and for everyone it’s an aide mémoire, a way to name-check those who you really should remember but can’t because your brain is so full right now.)
  • some spare screens anyone can use to load up a site as it emerges in conversation
  • an excursion to a nearby art museum likely to be ‘doing good shit’
  • a game of Sembl – either using Te Papa exhibits or the faces of delegates as nodes

And there is yoga or Shiva dancing or cartwheeling – Jiu-jitsu or otherwise. We need to involve our bodies in our thinking!

As a whole, the experience would be expansive – as it is – but also active, directed by a collective vision, resolute, convergent. Our collective energy could manifest in physical–digital form.

Another way of saying all this might be: let’s make some *babies* with all this love :)

Modelling digital work

As patron for the Go Girl expo for girls in Years 8 to 11, Tammy Butow is compiling a video to present at the event. Her plan is to open girls’ minds to the field of possibility of technology-related careers. To that end, she has invited Australian women working in technology to send in a photo of themselves holding a sign with their name and job title.

I had a go at making an off-the-cuff photo at home but the result was underwhelming and contextually wrong. Off-the-cuff is just not my MO. Then I recalled a 10-second video I made recently at the entrance to the National Museum of Australia (my workplace).

Woman at the entrance to the National Museum of Australia

Rather than return to the Museum at the end of the day when the lighting is nice like this, and stand there like a dill holding a sign…

I turned to Photoshop :)

Cath Styles at the entrance to the National Museum of Australia, with a sign Photoshopped into her hand

I love how even if you don’t notice that the paper looks weird, you can see from the shadow that the sign is not really there. So there you go, girls – I am modelling digital work in more ways than one :)

Augmented reality for teaching and learning

I brought home a few thought-thread treasures from today’s ARcamp on augmented reality and education. So, I’m sharing. But first, a photo of the AR frenzy that marked the beginning of the event.

Group of people with phones and tablets poised to access AR content from printed images

Each image on the wall has a micro video story attached to it

1. Magic / technology
From the ever-compelling Rob Manson, I learned that this idea can be attributed to Arthur C. Clarke, and is in fact known as his third law:

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

2. Unconventional unease
In various discussions with campers, it became clear that one of the things currently hampering the creation of and access to augmented reality media is that as yet we lack a lexicon and conventions for user interfaces. Channels, auras, triggers, markers – the words are intelligible but what they mean in this context is far less so. And the interfaces… let’s just say that they demand much persistence and forgiveness on the part of the user.

3. How can AR be dialogic?
One recurring theme throughout the whole-group discussion was the idea that the greatest challenge for educators is figuring out how to make AR media that is not monologic or reductive but which is open-ended, dialogic, generative. Yes!

I got to thinking about this challenge in terms of a continuum from broadcast to generative media – and then put that idea with the real–virtual continuum (also shared by Rob) and came up with this map-thing:

map of augmented reality media on a twelve-part grid

A map of media with ideas about what’s in each sector

It deploys the two continua (what a great word that is!) as perpendicular axes to form a twelve-part grid. In each of the spaces they create, I’ve put some initial ideas about what happens there. They are subject to evolution. Ideas welcome :)

Augmented reality is the two horizontal strips in the middle. Currently, most AR media would fit in the two central sectors. To the right of that are where good educators want their teaching materials to be.

4. Things we could do!
In discussion with Stephen Barrass, two cracker ideas for AR projects at or with the Museum emerged. The first one is even generative.

  • sound augmentation to pages of Oscar’s sketchbook. We have some replicas of the sketchbook for using in programs for visiting students, and they are wonderful. Stephen’s sound design students could create some creative responses in association with the Ngunnawal Centre. Given that Queensland state government bought a few copies of the replica as well – for their work with young Indigenous students – this idea holds much collaborative promise.
  • an AR trail of the highest-rated resemblances created as part of the Museum’s iPad game, Sembl. In the game, players take photographs of objects on display in order to create a resemblance to another object (or objects) already on the gameboard. It would be simple to create a trail to display the game-generated resemblance to visitors as they approached one of the resembled objects. It would be an interesting way to browse the Museum and / or to kickstart some Sembl thinking.

Thanks so much to the INSPIRE gang for hosting the event and may the morrow be productive and fun.

Create[d] World

A few thoughts from the recent Create World conference of clever, creative people.

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Panel on place and creativity – how does digital alter the way we think?

Architect Richard Kirk made the point that perspective drawing as a tool is only a few hundred years old, so we are yet to reap the full benefits of new additions to our creative lexicon, such as virtual worlds. Performance designer Anna Tregloan commented that some people can quite naturally translate a 2D image to imagine it in 3D space, but for others that will always be more difficult, so the theatre tradition of building a little model of the set may endure. Continuing the theme of how we translate human experiences into digital form, and whether we can learn to think in a hybrid way between digital and physical, creative innovator (?!) Hael Kobayashi described the process of making penguins dance for Happy Feet. Humans danced in a warehouse, each one wired for motion capture. A set of screens displayed the merger of their movements with the digital penguins, so the director and key creatives could see, in real-time, penguins dancing on an iceberg.

Keynotes on photography, animation and the active audience

Tom Ang‘s keynote was an entertaining blend of a romp through the history of photography, some behind-the-lens information about particular shots, and some philosophical observations about value and power in photography’s new world:

  • Photoshop has programmed us!
  • Boundaries of what is shareable have shifted.
  • The concept of the ‘still image’ is now a misnomer: they fade, zoom, slide – and fast. And the more abundant they become, the less we attend to each.
  • Because images are so abundant, there are no longer iconic images of world events. (I’m not convinced of this point. The process by which images become iconic has changed, but I reckon crowd wisdom will choose images over time. Note, for example, the twitter #ows discussion of iconic imagery, and the meme of the cop casually pepper-spraying seated protesters.)

Ian Taylor’s story of the success of Animation Research Ltd – and his team’s down-home methods – was awe-inspiring. But my strongest takeaway from his talk was the importance of taking your time to learn – ergo the immense value of free education. Which we no longer have.

As a longtime advocate for participatory approaches to cultural representations, I was very interested in Ernest Edmonds‘ talk on art and the active audience. My favourite parts:

  • Some early research found that babies less than one week old can learn – by controlling the turn of their head on the pillow – to switch a light on and off, and that once mastered, they become bored with it.
  • Our vocabulary for interaction is developing. For example, there are many different kinds of play: danger, competition, camaraderie, subversion, fantasy, sensation, captivation, difficulty, simulation. And so on!
  • Don’t assume that more is better. Performance and communication might be better with lower bandwidth. This is an intriguing point, and I wanted more from him on this. I wonder if he means, for example, that in some cases audio works better than video,   because it gets inside your head but doesn’t restrict your visual attention. Or that pixelated imagery like in Minecraft, works in part because it’s low-res, so the player can more actively/imaginatively inhabit the scene and the characters. In short, I suspect this point relates to the value of leaving space within a representation, for the audience to fill from their personal creative sources.

An audiovisual meditation on gold

Not your average academic conference, Create World includes a range of clever, creative performances. Of the four, this was my favourite – it’s an audiovisual meditation on the mineral gold, and it made my heart hum. (I recommend: go full-screen and use headphones or big speakers.)

The Solar Angel from abre ojos on Vimeo.

Other prezos

The quality of stream-session presentations was consistently good. I attended those on:

  • a multi-disciplinary creative technologies degree (Judit Klein, Auckland Uni of Technology)
  • iPads for music-making (Jamie Gabriel, Macquarie Uni)
  • an iPad app for assessing teachers of music, art and drama (Julia Wren & Alistair Campbell, Edith Cowan Uni)
  • EEG-mapping of artistic consumption and as artistic work (Jason Zagami, Griffith Uni)
  • a weather-data-generated sonic sculpture in Sydney (Kirsty Beilharz, Uni of Technology, Sydney)
  • kinaesthetic potential of educational gaming (Helen Farley & Adrian Stagg, Uni of Southern Queensland)
  • serious games (Tim Marsh, James Cook Uni)
  • digital research methods, including Wikipedia article-writing (Kerry Kilner, Uni of Queensland)
  • Playtime, an animated movie (Thomas Verbeek, Uni of Otago)
  • Ishq, an audiovisual work commissioned by the Art Gallery of New South Wales as part of its exhibition on Islamic art (Kim Cunio and Louise Harvey, Griffith Uni)

I presented – and have shared on the Museum’s Education blog – Gamifying relatedness: an iPad app-in-progress. Hearty thanks to Paris for his guest appearance.

Dialogic learning in museum space

Ten years ago, some museums began to articulate their mission in terms of a dialogue with communities. In practice, that dialogue occurred mostly in the context of education and public programs; exhibitions tended to maintain a detached, authoritative voice.

As a significant site of informal and social learning, how can museum exhibitions also be dialogic?

poster for the exhibition 'Captive lives: Looking for Tambo and his companions'

This question was central to my PhD research, and I’m revisiting it since an article I wrote in 2001 was recently republished in Ethos, the journal of the Social Education Victoria. In it, I explore the possibility of self-reflexive museum exhibitions – approaches and techniques by which curators and designers can engage visitors in history but also in its making. Specifically, I describe a model exhibition (‘Captive lives: Looking for Tambo and his companions’), and offer suggestions for how the Australian War Memorial could engage visitors more actively in the process of making that site meaningful.

Since it is now much more common for museums to deploy technologies for co-creation, or indeed, to use high- or low-tech means to be participatory – in the parlance popularised by Nina Simon, I am surprised that this article remains so relevant. Is it that exhibition curators and designers – those at the heart of museum representational practice – yet resist the dialogic tum?

If you fancy a slightly longer-than-bloggable read, here’s the a scan of the printed article (PDF 2mb).

Stone head at the Australian War Memorial

Stone head at the Australian War Memorial

Sembl praxis: identify sameness, explore difference

As part of his ‘Mining the museum’ installation at Maryland Historical Society in 1992–93, artist Fred Wilson placed a set of shackles in a display case with fine silverware and titled it Metalwork. Pow. United by the metal of their fabrication, the racially-divided, hierarchical histories of these objects dramatically distances them:

Who served the silver? And who could have made the silver objects in apprenticeship situations? And [...] whose labour could produce the wealth that produced the silver?

A general principle can be distilled from this. Perhaps: In the very moment we identify a similarity between two objects, we recognise their difference. In other words, the process of drawing two things together creates an equal opposite force that draws attention to their natural distance. So the act of seeking resemblance – consistency, or patterns – simultaneously renders visible the inconsistencies, the structures and textures of our social world. And the greater the conceptual distance between the two likened objects, the more interesting the likening – and the greater the understanding to be found.

This simultaneous pulling together and springing apart of the sociophysical world interests me, and I’ve been thinking about it in relation to Sembl, where the challenge of the game is to identify a way in which a given object is related – surprisingly or humorously or otherwise interestingly – to another object.

What constitutes ‘interesting’ is of course difficult to define and depends to a large degree on the particular players playing. But if the natural conceptual distance between the two related objects is great, the relationship is more likely to be interesting – perhaps because it enables you to think about something in a new way. That’s what made Wilson’s juxtaposition of shackles with silver tableware interesting, and powerful.

Composite image of a branding iron and a breastplate given to an Aboriginal man

In the same vein, the Sembl players who linked the above branding iron to the breastplate – because both are tools for labeling bodies – cast new light on the colonial practice of giving metal breastplates to Aboriginal people.

My (big!) point here is: Hipbone games and Sembl alike can create a safe space for people to explore differences. When identified, similarities form bridges across and clarify difference. Attending to relatedness in this way inspires understanding; and opens a channel toward reconciliation.

A grand design for active digital learning

This week I wangled a visit to the digital learning facility work-in-progress that is UC‘s InSPIRE centre, directed by Prof Rob Fitzgerald and site-managed by Jonno – thanks for the tour, people.

InSPIRE will be “a focus for research into innovative good practice pedagogy that utilises ICT to enhance student learning outcomes”. So it’s a technology-enhanced space for teaching and learning about technology-enhanced teaching and learning. Deliciously meta! And if, like me, you wonder about the little ‘n’ in amongst all those caps, ‘InSPIRE’ stands for Innovative Sustainable Practical Imaginative Research Education.

Below are images I snapped; see the InSPIRE site gallery for building plans.

It is exciting to preview this embodiment of technology-enhanced active learning; and I like the approach Rob is taking: set it up then see how it’s used; like building the footpaths once you can see how the space is used. That means you build in flexibility – roll-out lecterns, lots of AV points in the floor, digital switching to project one room’s proceedings into another.

InSPIRE has all you need to create and share media (down to kitchenettes :), and it includes some great lo-tech: writeable walls, and a good-quality audio podcast room — with video capability, yes, but – isn’t podcast mobility great?

It has an industrial, resource-conscious aesthetic: projecting onto walls rather than screens, exposed ducts, recycled hardwood timbers, underground 25kl rainwater tank.

And it embodies a DIY ethic: BYO mobile or laptop and data: input plates for USB to project your data or to record proceedings; mobile interactive.

I can’t wait to see it in action. It’d be a wondrous venue for THATCamp Canberra, or any other smallish conference.

Maybe Rob will chime in if I have munged any details. (If he doesn’t comment, let’s just assume it’s all just so :)

Perceptive pixels

Yesterday I met and played a bit with a Perceptive Pixel multitouch screen and software for presenting and/or collaborative compiling and editing of live data. Below is a post-demo elaboration of the notes I took during.

Originally these goods were used in defense and intelligence; now they’re going public.

It’s $55k for the basic hardware that I saw – there are other models – and more for the software.

The Storyboard application is like a meta-Prezi – ie awesome (although I did miss Prezi’s peculiar elegance as I watched the demo). With Storyboard you can:

  • compile data from multiple formats onto a pasteboard, and interact with your sources in their native form;
  • annotate — scribble, take stills from video and hand-carved crops from stills;
  • move and zoom things to your heart’s content;
  • order the flow of your presentation by pointing from one source to another, and instantly show that series;
  • collaborate with or present to a co-located or distributed group.

Note: I might gave munged two different apps in the above account — <excuse> it was a fast-paced demo.

One of the wow factors was how very fast the data flowed – and the demo I saw was apparently using 3G mobile.

There are APIs. You can create custom gestures, feed in from a camera, and out to a printer.

The unit is sensitivity-adjustable. I don’t know why it was set the way it was for the demo, but I’d want a lighter-touch setting more like iPhone. The screen I played with demanded I be firmer — heavier — than my natural state. It was not always easy to perform the necessary gestural pattern; and I wasn’t the only one who had trouble.

An interesting side discussion was about how the conductivity (? however it works) of the touch between fingers and screen varies according to skin colour and dryness.

We asked to see the system in action with a large data set, so they pulled out the fancy CNN-commissioned interactive US election history viewer, drawing on a petabyte of data. (I wonder if Antony Green has seen it.)

It sure would be ace to see some great Australian content on that baby – and not just political; cultural too.