Editor’s Note: Daniël is an administrator at the Unfiction forums and was part of the team that created the Project MU Archive Book. He was on the scene at PICNIC ’07 as a representative of the ARG community and was kind enough to submit a report on his experiences, which we will release in parts over the course of the next few days. We thank Daniel for his support of ARGNet and his wonderful report and pictures.

picnic_club.jpgFor the second year in a row, I was able to attend PICNIC, the Crossmediaweek Foundation’s conference on media, internet, technology and creativity in Amsterdam. Once again, I went courtesy of ARGNet, and like last year, it was a blast! The past few days really flew by… I’ve been to my share of conferences, and the thing with PICNIC is, the moment you walk onto the Westergasfabriek site, where the conference is held, the atmosphere just grabs you.

The site is a rather peculiar place, or at the very least not the typical conference environment. The area consists of about fifteen small and large brick buildings, originally part of a natural gas processing plant, but now built to suit anything from dance parties to exhibitions and conferences. The first thing you notice when walking around is the high production value of the whole event — every area and room features a patch of grass, paths laid out with wood chips, plants and flowers everywhere, wooden picnic tables and of course the obligatory red and white checkered tablecloths.

There is also the PICNIC Club, the main lounging area where demos are being held, at which several sponsors have set up their booths, including artists showcasing their creations and a lot of other interactive stuff. Then there’s the Extraction Hall, the main conference hall, where the stage is actually a garden, complete with flower beds and 50-foot high banners hanging down from the ceiling, lighted in such a way it looks like see ants and other bugs are crawling around, to give you the real outdoorsy feeling. Very impressive.

For those of you not quite familiar with PICNIC, this is the second time the Dutch Crossmediaweek Foundation has organized a massive conference on cross-media and everything related to it. A lot of very interesting people attend, including many pioneers in media, technology, the Internet, and also (pervasive) gaming. This year, in addition to the three-day conference, there were many affiliated events planned as well. Take for example PICNIC JR, an attempt to get younger people interested in media and creativity, or the PICNIC Academy, a mini-conference intended for students. There was also the first Dutch edition of Come Out And Play festival, which turned the city of Amsterdam into a giant interactive playground. For more details about PICNIC and all these partner events, head over to the PICNIC website (http://www.picnicnetwork.org/).

Unfortunately, my time was a bit limited, so my visit to PICNIC was confined to the main conference, which started Wednesday September 26th in the afternoon.

main_conference_hall.jpgPICNIC focuses a lot on creativity in many forms. In putting together this year’s conference, they wanted to make sure that they would not just be letting designers, artists, and creators speak on creativity, but also the people who are creating the new tools that enable new forms of creativity. Therefore, the program for the first day was focused on technology, and the first keynote speech was given by Dr. Emile Aarts, Vice-president of Philips Research Laboratories.

Now, I heard Dr. Aarts speak at PICNIC last year, when his presentation was part of the ‘technology’ track and was given to just a small audience. Nevertheless, he impressed me back then with a lot of surprising stuff Philips was working on, and he gave an updated and extended version of the same presentation this year, this time for the full audience, and it was even more intriguing than it was last year.

Philips was founded well over a hundred years ago as a company which mass-produced light bulbs, and Aarts took the development of the light bulb as an example of a driver for innovation in technology: Ultimately, the light bulb was invented so people could read and write when it was dark, and be more productive this way. For some innovations, basic social need is still an important driver. Aarts showed some examples of products that Philips have been working on, like a light bulb that can be charged using solar power for countries with a less-than-reliable power grid, or special high-tech wood stoves for post-disaster areas that prevents the emission of poisonous gasses while burning wood.

However, one of the more successful recent innovations wasn’t driven out of a social need, or any other existing demand. It was the result of a creative brainstorm — the Ambilight-technology. This is a way of extracting image data out of a video feed in real time, and using it to control lighting. Commercially, Philips have applied this to flat panel TVs, resulting in a TV that colors the wall behind the display according to what is shown on-screen, creating a richer viewing experience. By selling over a million Ambilight TVs already, Philips has successfully added value to an already saturated market. The next step will be creating ‘surround light’, which will be much like the concept of surround sound. This will be a neat way to enrich the experience of watching a movie, but there’s a lot more potential for it in the gaming industry — just think of being immersed in lighting and light-effects!

Other recent innovations Aarts highlighted were things like photonic cloth, a cotton-like material with lighting fibres integrated into it so that you can light all sorts of textiles, and multi-touch screens. These screens will be ideal for digital board games, card games and multi-user interfaces for computers.

Aarts concluded with five remarks on the process of creativity:
1. Lack of freedom is the enemy – when you want innovation, you should relieve the stress of continuous performance, and creative minds should be given the freedom to pursue ideas without pressure
2. You shouldn’t try to manage creativity by directives, but rather by joint objectives
3. Exciting things often happen at the crossroads of existing areas or ideas
4. Creative solutions should fulfill unmet needs
5. Live your own future (experience it yourself rather than having it dictated to you)

Immediately following Emile Aarts was Blaise Aguera y Arcas, who is a mathematician and architect, the founder of Seadragon and creator of Photosynth (http://labs.live.com/photosynth/), an imaging software package recently acquired by Microsoft. He gave a very intriguing tech-demo showing what sorts of things Photosynth, which is built upon a new way of handling pictures, can be used for.

First and foremost, Photosynth is about organizing pictures, arranging them in a way independent of resolution, and making them scalable in a few different ways. Because the mapping application within Photosynth was written in such a way that it can make full use of a computer’s resources (“real code, not web browser code”), like graphics acceleration, which hardly gets used outside the world of gaming, it can do all sorts of nifty stuff like natural zooming and organizing pictures on curved surfaces while retaining full resolution.

Until Microsoft acquired Photosynth, there was no really practical application for the software. Joining Microsoft Live Labs changed that, though. They already had a project running that dealt with using computer vision techniques to geographically arrange photos, and Photosynth fit this niche perfectly. By combining the two, Photosynth has been made into an application that can infer relationships between pictures just by analyzing the pictures themselves. This part is rather technical, so the best thing to do if you want to know more about this is go and watch the excellent demo from Microsoft . Here, they take a series of pictures from the San Marco square in Venice, and have Photosynth analyze how they are related. This creates a 3D version of the square and enables you to navigate it in several different ways.

Photosynth’s power was also demonstrated by taking hundreds and hundreds of pictures of the Notre Dame off Flickr, and using them to create a 3D model of the cathedral that is scalable, zoomable and explorable in different ways. Seeing all this happen on the screen before my eyes was really impressive! Aguera commented that the web, which essentially started out as a simple idea to share documents, has a strongly underdeveloped visual and spatial aspect, and he is determined to change this. It will be interesting to see what the future will bring in this respect.

This was all I was able to see on the first day, which meant that unfortunately, I missed David Silverman, producer of The Simpsons, giving an insiders’ look at creating The Simpsons Movie, which kicked off with him emerging from the audience, playing the Simpsons tune on a tuba… must have been quite a sight. This seems as good a time as any to point out to you that almost all the presentations that were given during PICNIC can be watched and downloaded online, on the PICNIC website, so if you’re curious about Silverman’s talk, by all means go and watch it for yourself.

Watch for the next part of Daniel’s report, which will be coming your way soon!