argnetpicnic2008.jpgEditor’s Note: Daniël van Gool, an administrator at the Unfiction forums, was on the scene at PICNIC ’08 on behalf of ARGNet. We were impressed with Daniël’s work covering PICNIC ’07 and, as media partners of the annual cross-media festival, were invited to a number of special events in addition to the speaker sessions. This is the sixth and final part of Daniël’s comprehensive look at this year’s event in which he outlines the highlights of day three of PICNIC ’08. All pictures are courtesy of Daniël as well.

I arrived at PICNIC early on Friday the 26th. When I arrived, the main conference hall was mostly empty, but it was filled with the ambient noises one would expect at a picnic — crickets, a flowing creek, and the occasional buzzing fly. This is why I love PICNIC so much! The smell of fresh coffee slowly filled the building, even though PICNIC’s Espresso Factory was closed for the morning, and life was good.

The focus of day 3 of PICNIC ’08 was on the collaboration within the creative industry, which mean that there would be a ton of showcases by different entrepreneurs that are developing several innovative concepts that provide means for creativity and/or collaboration. Before this ‘parade’ of mostly very ingenious commercial concepts, Matt Costello gave a speech presenting his thoughts and ideas on creativity in games in a highly entertaining form. Costello is mostly known as a games-designer, having worked on The 7th Guest and Doom 3, and on several novels and games for TV (PBS, BCC, the SciFi channel). He introduced himself as somewhat of a cross media schizophrenic.

He started out by talking for a bit about the concept of Story, by telling a tale about a personal encounter with a shark that he had while diving. He then read a passage from a novel he co-wrote that used that personal experience to base the storyline upon and engaged the audience in a conversation about the differences.

He stated that the audience often knows something that the protagonist in a story doesn’t know, a point he illustrated by bringing two members of the audience on stage. His point was that a good story creates the illusion that something is going to happen, but then causes something else to happen, making the audience the surprised party instead of the protagonist. The unexpected and the unknown are two important factors in storytelling, interactivity and games.

Costello went on to demonstrate a lot of his other points by having members of the audience perform several tasks. Again, it is very hard to convey his points by merely describing what happened. During his address, I was chatting with people on IRC following along through PICNIC’s live feed, and I said the following:

<Gisk> yeah, Matt Costello is a fun guy
<Gisk> very good points he made about storytelling and gameplay
<Gisk> unfortunately, almost impossible to write up… you need to see his interaction with the audience and the creation of illusion to convey what he was talking about
<Gisk> which is exactly his point
<Gisk> so, figures 🙂

I guess this is the best summary I can give, so I’m afraid it’ll have to do.

picnic08_02.jpgMatt Hanson followed Costello, talking about collaborative creativity in an actual creative field: movie making. Hanson is working on an open source movie project called Swarm of Angels. It’s an experiment to see what works and what doesn’t when it comes to working together on an actual creative product and is based on the premise of “audience as author.”

Using crowdsourcing has been done for open source technology, but should also be possible with actual content. Crowdsourcing in this case means creator-led and member-powered. There’s a feedback mechanism in place that is in essence what helps shape the production: members post on the project’s forum continuously, contributing concept art, bits of script, developing visuals or other production ideas.

The best example of what Hanson expects Swarm of Angels to be capable of producing is a movie called Unfold. A member posted a piece of visually rather impressive concept art, so Hanson asked on the forum what people would come up with in relation to those visuals, and in a short while there was a script, movie posters and an actual movie. Hanson is confident that he will be able to reach great levels of creativity, because, again, creativity works much better as a collaborative result.

Up next, a highly commercial and successful application of crowdsourcing, or rather, in this case, crowdfunding. Pim Betist is co-founder of Sellaband, which is now one of the most copied business models on the internet. Sellaband allows unsigned artists to produce an album financed by their fans: if people believe in the music from a band that’s promoted on the website, they can chip in, and when the artist reaches €50,000, they can produce an album, the returns of which go to them and their “investors”.

The idea is that no longer is it only a small group of people at a record label deciding for millions of people which music gets produced, but potentially millions of people decide! Betist introduced the music of Julia Marcell, a Polish singer/songwriter who is one of the most successful artist signed through Sellaband so far.

Katarina Skoberne then elaborated on the idea behind her company OpenAd, “the world’s biggest creative department.” OpenAd provides professionally managed crowdsourcing: basically, you can outsource the development of creative advertising ideas to OpenAd, which in turn crowdsources this to everyone connected to their network. This provides a few interesting positives for companies: they do not pay for production costs of said creative ideas, yet you pay for the creative license to use the final material. Also, you can potentially get hundreds of ideas and proposals instead of just a few.

Another great innovation, one that has been around for a while now, is Blurb, the online publishing company. Eileen Gittins, founder and CEO, explained how the idea for Blurb started out when she wanted to release her photographic portfolio and couldn’t find a publisher willing to take on that project. Her take on books and reading is that they will not become superfluous because of the internet, but rather that the internet will enable more people than ever to create and publish their own books.

Last up in this parade of business ventures was Ton Rozendaal, founder of Blender, which develops tools for open source content creation. Blender made the animation movie Big Buck Bunny, created entirely with a cross-platform suite of tools for 3D creation, which offers freedom to use, distribute, study and change the platform to all of its users. Check out the wealth of other impressive movies produced by using Blender’s tools on their website.

Once more PICNIC returned to the subject of data visualization on the afternoon’s panel titled Can You See What I Know.

First off was Ben Cerveny who spoke on “The Alchemy of Understanding,” designating the CPU is the modern “philosophers stone.” Unfortunately, this comparison was dragged out over several hardly intelligible slides of presentation, which made me instantly forget approximately 90% of the points he was making. What I did pick up came from some of the examples he showed at the end of his rather tedious talk, from a company called Stamen Design, one of which particularly impressed me, a concept called Condensation that visualizes the news stories that users of Digg post. You can check it out at

It’s weird, but I can look at that pages for hours. I’ve had it running in a browser tab almost continuously since PICNIC, making me return to it every once in a while, just to check out what was going on. It’s such a novel way of making a website “come alive” as it were. Other examples of can be found at Stamen’s website.

Jose Luiz de Vicente, director of the Visualizar project from Medialab Prado in Madrid followed the presentation by Cerveny with some more examples of how visualization can be used as a means of communication. Interestingly, Fernanda Vigas is a colleague of De Vicente, and while her name isn’t particularly well-known, the system she developed to display the content of blogs or websites in the form of a ‘word cloud’ certainly is. One of the examples De Vicente highlighted was Cascade on Wheels which visualizes use of the average numbers of cars passing through streets in Madrid, trying to provide more insight into city development needs.

Finishing this section of the conference was Loic LeMeur, founder of Seesmic, which is a video microblogging service which he demonstrated to the audience, expressing the ambition that the internet would become the modern-day’s campfire.

Injecting some much-need spice into the conference, which was slowing down a little at this point, Michael Tchong from Ubercool spoke in a rather energized fashion about five of the ten ‘ubertrends’ he is seeing today. Summing up, these trends are:

  • Unwired: this generation is becoming the unhooked generation: wireless means freedom. DWT (Driving While Texting) is becoming the new DUI. Smartphones are becoming Crackberries, and we’re becoming addicts.
  • The Digital Lifestyle: LG is developing mobile phones with the touch of human skin, people call their laptop “their lappy.” Technology is literally becoming personal.
  • Time Compression: time is accelerating. Pictures are now instantaneous, and there’s more and more focus on instant gratification. We’re sleeping less — 2 hours less compared to 50 years ago!
  • We already have working vacations, now we see the concept of working dates emerging.
  • Gift-card economy: time is becoming more valuable than money.
  • Generation X-tasy: the experience economy is uprising. You don’t want to go to a party, you want to go to an experience. There are cruise ships with amphitheaters on board, the gaming industry has become bigger than Hollywood.

While a lot of people commented afterwards that Tchong’s so-called predictions were rather easy and recognizable trends that everyone already knows about, I though that the way he connected some of these trends to shifting trends in social interaction was pretty insightful and the whirlwind-style in which Tchong delivered his presentation was highly entertaining.

It was a good thing that the audience got an injection of energy before the next talk, that of Gisele Hiscock, Google’s EMEA Director for New Business Development. Her talk, titled “What Will Google Do?” reminded me a lot of how Lorraine Twohill’s (then Google’s European Marketing Director) presentation went at PICNIC’06: bland and highly predictable. It’s weird that a company that has such a reputation for creativity and innovation cannot find an inspiring speaker to address the very subject of creativity in a way that can capture an audience such as that of PICNIC.

She assured the audience that Google doesn’t want to adopt the “Mothership” model, in that one headquarters develops products and when a successful product is created, it will be spread out across the world from that one geographic location. Rather, Google wants to innovate globally. A starting point for such a strategy is a mission that can withstand time, and all of the rest of her talk comprised of elaborating on Google’s nine-point mission statement, that’s full of predictability and “audience-friendly’ one-liners like “Everybody can participate” and “Focus on users, the rest will come later”. A missed opportunity to actually give some insight into the world of Google if you ask me.

Allowed to wrap up PICNIC’08 was Werner Vogels who is CTO of Amazon and somewhat of a Dutch hero in the world of the Net. He was given the chance to talk at length about several service Amazon provides, mostly based around providing computational power and/or server space on demand. I was a put off a bit by the fact that his talk was basically a 45 minute Amazon commercial, but Vogels was still able to show that the impact of these service were rather significant: it provides start-ups with a much easier means of expansion.

Whereas in the past, CAPEX (Capital Expense) was the most important part of the business model of a start-up aimed at providing technological services, you can now start such a business owning no servers of your own, being completely reliant on the services provided by the likes of Amazon. This means there’s a shift from CAPEX to OPEX (Operational Expense), which is all variable. This means that you can scale up your activities simply by upscaling your Amazon service package. No upfront investment is needed, and the fee you pay if fully variable.

Vogels went on to demonstrate the practicality of this concept by a couple of showcases, the most telling I thought was the example of the Indy500 corporation. They have fifty servers operating throughout the year, handling web traffic and various computational tasks. This is more than enough under normal circumstances, but during large events, they suddenly need thousands of servers, so they source their peak capacity at Amazon. It is infrastructure on demand, and it will most likely radically change the way business will be able to emerge.

That was it — with Vogels’ talk, PICNIC was over! Those three days have inspired me, provided insight into what is happening right now and in the distant future in both online and offline worlds. It was fun to hear alternate reality games being mentioned in one of the keynotes, and the theme of online collaboration and communities was one that has close ties to the ARG community as well. It was fun to be able to see and hear some very insightful people speak on a wide range of topics and to have gained some more insight into what trends will rise and how they will influence our daily life. Once more, a great success!

Thanks again, Daniël. We’re looking forward to PICNIC ’09!