Editor’s Note: Daniel 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. This is part three of the report. We thank Daniel for his support of ARGNet and his wonderful report and pictures.

main_conference_hall.jpgOn to the Friday then, which, like last year, was divided into three separate ‘tracks’: Feel, Make and Play. Being on a mission to report on PICNIC for ARGNet, and not having encountered a lot of ARG-related topics yet, I naturally chose the Play track. It kicked off with a keynote address by Katie Salen, who is, among other things, executive director of the Gamelab Institute of Play. If you listened to episode 37 of the ARG Netcast series, you might have heard that the panelists were all especially looking forward to this presentation. Maybe this raised the bar a little too high, because I was fairly disappointed in Salen’s talk, but I think this had a lot to do with its length: it was only 30 minutes, which was just enough time to put forward some interesting notions, but not nearly enough to give an in-depth look at them. However, here are a couple of the things that stuck with me:

  • When designing a game, keep asking yourself, “What does the game want?” i.e. what does it desire or require from the player? Sometimes a game might surprise you in this area. Just as poker is a game that requires lying (bluffing), other games require collaboration. Keep in mind what you want your game to require and make sure that what you add to the game fits with how you expect the players to behave.
  • There’s the aspect of lusory (playful) attitude. If a game encourages players to take on an active attitude, you do not necessarily need to design or create as much yourself, as players will bring a lot to the game already. It is important, however, to keep in mind that this works best when there’s a transactional relationship between the game and its players: the players give to the game, but it they should also receive something back from the game in exchange for their input.

Salen ended her presentation with a nice example that demonstrated all the theoretical points she addressed: Karaoke Ice. It’s a project she did in the past which features a person in a giant squirrel suit driving around in an ice-cream truck which doubles as a karaoke bar. At first, onlookers were given free popsicles, but then they were invited to get into the back of the truck to do some karaoke. Against the expectations of most, people turned out to be more than willing to perform a few songs. One of Salen’s conclusions was that players of a game are generally willing to go along with, say, an alternate reality, if they understand that the point is that they are part of an experience.

This example was followed by some closing remarks regarding interactivity in play — interactivity only works when it’s meaningful, core interaction must be fun and audience/player expertise should be rewarded. I think these are some excellent points that easily apply to the ARG universe. Interaction for the sake of interaction is meaningless and therefore completely uninteresting. Interaction only enhances play if it’s actually fun and serves a purpose!

Following Salen came a series of speakers on the subject of The Near Future of Pervasive Media experiences, hosted by Julian Bleecker, who’s a professor of interactive media at USC. All of the speakers in this session were in one way or another involved with Bleecker on different projects. Bleecker himself also spoke briefly on the main subject of this session. More info on him and his endeavors can be found on his website.

First up was Fabian Girardin, a researcher at Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona, who spoke shortly on the impact of technology on pervasive media, especially when that technology fails us. He gave an insightful account on how heavily we rely on technology and how much more we will in the future.

Following Girardin was Nicholas Nova, a Swiss researcher for the Media and Design Lab at SIT. When it comes to an original take on gaming and media in general, Nova is your guy. He has been working on observing what happens when non-human beings interact with the digital world. A couple of the examples he touched on:

  • The infamous ‘Poultry Internet’ project done by Singaporean researchers, which enables you to touch a chicken through the internet
  • Having a real life dog play a digital pet in the MMORPG World of Warcraft
  • Developing a Twitter-application for a cat, which enables him to make a blog post by scratching a device around his neck

Ultimately, what Nova wants to be able to do is to create a more holistic gaming experience by introducing random aspects of real life into a gaming environment, such as animal behaviour or even the weather.

The third speaker was Dennis Crowley, who you might know from Dodgeball fame, or more recently from joining area/code, a company focused on producing urban games. Projects he worked on and talked about are PacManhattan and ConQwest and more recently Plundr which is about discovering and marking wifi hotspots in major cities, and Crossroads, which is about ‘capturing’ intersections in a city block by running around with two teams competing against each other.

augmented_reality_demo.jpgEach speaker is a frontrunner in his respective area and it was great to be able to have a look inside their worlds. After watching them collectively answer some questions from the audience during an intimate panel discussion, which they held sitting on the grass of the podium of the smaller Transformation Room where the ‘Play’ track was hosted, it was time to move back to the main conference hall for bits of the ‘Feel’ track, which hosted a session on Augmented Reality for Advertisers that sounded really promising.

As it turns out, the word ‘promising’ didn’t even begin to describe this session: the technology and the practical applications thereof that were demonstrated by three different industry leaders in the field, Eduardo Dias (YDreams), David Polinchock (Brand Experience Lab) and Jeroen Mol (Total Immersion) blew me away.

Dias and Polinchock are both involved in designing interactive experiences using augmented reality. Two things stood out: first, a movie-theatre commercial for Dove soap, made by YDreams, currently being shown in selected US theatres, consisting of displaying a video-feed of the audience with soap bubbles floating across the screen. People in the audience can actually interact with the bubbles by standing up and waving their arms and thereby ‘hitting’ or touching the bubbles: this moves them around or makes them pop. I was mostly amazed by the fact that this hardly takes any modern technology: all you need is a camera, a simple computer and some fairly basic software.

The second eye-catching demonstration was an Arkanoid clone developed by Polinchock’s company for NBC, where the audience controls the paddle by collectively leaning to the left or right. This too makes use of only standard hardware, and a live demo with the PICNIC audience proved that it worked remarkably well.

Now, while the demonstrations by Dias and Polinchock were quite amazing and a lot of fun, Jeroen Mol’s presentation was in an entirely different league. His company has developed a way of creating real-time digital modification of live images. It uses a setup where a camera and a monitor/TV work as a ‘mirror’. When certain items are held in front of this mirror, they become digitally enhanced on-screen.

Mol showed several practical applications for this technique, like displaying a 3D model of a car on top of a brochure. By tapping different parts of the brochure, the angle, color and various other aspects of the image could be changed. Another example was a box of LEGO: when holding it in front of the camera, a 3D model of appeared showing how it would look when assembled. He went on to demonstrate increasingly impressive stuff being projected over the footage of his own body, starting with glasses, a hat and quickly moving on to complete costumes and Stormtrooper masks, all moving completely in sync with his own (live!) movement.

I’m finding it quite hard to describe exactly how this looked, but I can tell you it was almost literally breathtaking. You can watch the session on augmented reality on the PICNIC website — Mol’s demonstration starts a little over halfway in.

After this visually stunning session of demos, we were treated to another great presentation, as Dick Hardt was given forty minutes to lay out his ideas on Identity 2.0. Hardt, renowned Canadian entrepreneur who is currently the CEO of his own company, Sxip Identity, has been giving talks on this subject for over two years now, and his style and humor have made him a much praised and sought-after speaker at conferences all over the world.

The idea behind Identity 2.0 is trying to create something in the digital world that is parallel to how identification works in the real world, which is typically asymmetrical. Going into a liquor store and showing ID to be able to buy a bottle of liquor (Vanilla Stoli if you want the literal example) is possible because of certain premises we take for granted: the relying party (the liquor store) implicitly trusts the issuing party of the ID in question (in Hardt’s example his driver’s license, issued by the province of British Columbia) and thus it can be used to confirm that the carrier is over 21. There is no contact needed between the relying party and the issuer to verify the validity of the ID.

On the internet however, this all works rather differently. Most of the time, when you need to identify yourself with a certain website or service, what you actually do is authenticate yourself by logging in, which you do with an account that was issued by the very party you want to identify yourself to. This is all good and well, except that this does not provide for any real digital identity: it’s not portable, it’s site-centric instead of user-centric, and it is not portable. You cannot, for example, take the reputation you built up as a seller on Ebay over to Craigslist. Hardt and his company are working towards ways of creating a portable, asymmetrical digital identity, Identity 2.0.

I advise you, nay, urge you to go take a look at Hardt’s presentation, which is fast-paced, humorous and very insightful. It’s on the PICNIC site, you just have to skip past the first 20 minutes as they attached it to the registration of a rather uninteresting talk from one of PICNIC’s sponsors, KLM. Read more about Dick Hardt and his ideas on his professional blog.

Rounding up the day and the conference was Dr. Neil Gershenfeld from MIT, who is also director of the Center for Bits and Atoms. Gershenfeld talked at length about how the idea of the Fab Labs, digital fabrication laboratories, was ‘accidentally’ born after he gave a lecture titled ‘How to make (almost) anything’. Digital fabrication is essentially the concept behind Star Trek’s replicator: creating stuff by arranging all the atoms in just the right way. Crude versions of such an apparatus are called 3D printers, which is one of the things the Fab Labs (set up all over the world, from Ghana to Barcelona) are working on. Actually, as a demonstration of how (relatively) easy such a device can be made, a mini Fab Lab was set up in the lobby of the PICNIC Club for the duration of the conference, working on assembling a 3D printer out of just $2000 worth of parts.

While not having a broad spectrum of practical applications yet, there already have been successful experiments with 3D printers, like printing a working flashlight, which shows that this technology could become practical and applicable to industrial production processes in the near(ish) future. It blows your mind!

Those last four words are probably a good way to conclude this report. PICNIC has been an immensely impressive and inspiring event in many ways and I am already looking forward to next year’s edition. Thanks for bearing with me through this long-winded account of my three days in Amsterdam, I hope you enjoyed it and I can heartily recommend coming to Amsterdam next year for PICNIC’08!