The final day of PICNIC’s three day conference was themed “Rebuild” and focused on world-changing developments and the visionary people behind them. The day started with Start Breathing, a short presentation by independent writer and consultant Linda Stone. Stone told us about the importance of breathing and the dangers of a phenomenon called “E-mail apnea.”
E-mail apnea refers to when people hold their breath while reading and writing e-mails or text messages. Stone put a lot of research into this common condition, and was told by several medical specialists that irregular breathing can contribute heavily to stress-related diseases. Stone suggests that we do not suffer from information overload, but rather from information overconsumption. If you want to know more, check out her op-ed on the subject for the Huffington Post.
Next, Nicholas Negroponte delivered his keynote speech, which served as the highlight of the third day and possibly even of the entire conference. Negroponte is co-founder of the MIT Medialab and spearheads the One Laptop Per Child program. He’s considered a true visionary and, especially with OLPC, has been working on projects that literally change the world. Although it has been over 15 years since Negroponte asserted “computing is no longer about computers, it is about life,” the sentiment remains highly relevant today.
In our previous coverage of day 2 of the PICNIC conference, I skipped over Peter Molyneux’s session called Innovation in Entertainment because it warranted additional attention. In case you’re unfamiliar with his work, Molyneux is a computer/video games mogul who has been working in the games industry for over 20 years now. His work pioneered several genres of video games through projects like Populous, Theme Park and Syndicate for Bullfrog Production, now integrated into EA UK.
Molyneux later moved on to Lionhead Studios, where he created ground-breaking games including Black & White and Fable. Molyneux is currently the head of Lionhead Studios, which was acquired by Microsoft Game Studios in 2006. Since June 2009, Molyneux has also been head of the European division of MS Game Studios.
Molyneux started his speech by showing his passion for games and the games industry. He declared that games are one of the most creative endeavours in existence because they take technology and use it to present a story in the most engaging and immersive way imaginable. For Populous, this involved using a 5×4 pixel grid for a characters face, making it rather hard to show emotions. Molyneux noted that the distance between the screen and the player is still huge: current resolutions are still far from reality. Moreover, games today mostly seem to be for one of only two categories: either for corporate use, or for the hardcore gamer. Games require a lot of manual dexterity, use complicated controllers and create other barriers that prevent players from having an enjoyable experience.
This is where Project NATAL comes in. You have probably heard of NATAL, the new technology allowing you to use your body as a controller, from Microsoft’s showcase of at the 2009 E3. NATAL is not just a motion detection technology, however. It also offers the possibility of facial and voice recognition. Molyneux and Lionhead have been working on taking these technologies and combining them with advanced versions of the AI and adaptive learning systems used in games like Black & White to create a whole new entertainment experience called Milo. Milo is a little boy that lives in your Xbox who interacts with the user in several very interesting ways. The best way to get an idea of what Milo can do is to watch Molyneux discuss the project.
This article resumes our PICNIC coverage on day two of the conference, which focused on the theme of “Exploding Media.” The second half of PICNIC’s Exploding Media coverage explores branding campaigns, location-based entertainment, and the development of special effects.
Jessica Greenwood, deputy editor of trendwatching magazine Contagious, took the audience on a tour of innovative branding and marketing campaigns that are all on the frontlines of the changing media landscape. One of the quotes she used in her introduction was one of Douglas Adams: “Anything invented before you were 18 has been there forever, anything that turns up before you’re 30 is new and exciting, and anything after that is a threat to the world and must be destroyed.” Adams’ quote raises an interesting notion, indicative of how innovations are often received. Greenwood elaborated on several innovations in the marketing field that did receive favorable receptions, and, probably more importantly, were also quite successful in reaching their goals.
The first case was Virgin Mobile’s Australian campaign Right Music Wrongs, which kicked off with a video of musician Vanilla Ice apologizing for his music, asking the public to vote on whether he was guilty or innocent of ‘music wrongs.’ The project had an initial budget of only $150k, launching an engaging campaign around the musician and the concert he was going to give in Sydney in March ’09. It ended up reaching 22 million people and getting hundreds of thousands of people engaged in several online activities.
It’s time for day two of PICNIC, and a new day means a new theme: Exploding Media. The theme brought with it an exciting schedule, filled with more on social media, but this time focusing on trying to find parallels between social media and brands and marketing strategies, as well as on games and interactivity.
The first speaker was movie director Chris Burke, who is also the creator of This Spartan Life, the world’s first and only “talkshow in game space”. I hadn’t previously heard of This Spartan Life and thus wasn’t familiar with the show’s format, where a host (Burke) interviews a guest (in this case, Gerri Sinclair, CEO of the Center for Digital Media), while playing Halo.
Apparently, This Spartan Life has been a big hit since 2004 and has gathered quite a bit of praise for its innovative presentation. I can see how the concept might work well with smoothly edited episodes showing Halo game play supplemented by added voiceovers. However, as a live concept, I thought it came off as a forced way of trying something new. The Halo backdrop compounded by the clumsiness of Sinclair trying to master the controls of the game were so distracting that I hardly followed the actual interview.
Sinclair, hailed by Burke as a “gaming professor who actually knows what she’s talking about” has a great track record when it comes digital media and narrative . Most of the times when the interview took an interesting turn, though, the conversation got interrupted by shrieks of “Oh no! I fell of a ledge!” and “someone is shooting at me!” or with Burke trying to keep track of where his interviewee went in the Halo level. It’s a shame, because I would have loved to hear more of what Sinclair had to say on gaming and the changing ways of delivering narratives.
Onwards to part two of the first day of the PICNIC conference schedule–this section of three consecutive panels and presentations was all about the shifts in demographics: the role that race and ethnic background play in producing theatre on Broadway and in emerging online communities, and the role of a changing audience and the way that audience divides its attention on “traditional” media.
First off was a presentation by renowned producer David Binder, who talked us through his experience bringing Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 play A Raisin in the Sun back to Broadway for a modern day revival. As A Raisin in the Sun is a classic African-American play, Binder wanted to honor its roots, which to him meant that he had to find an African-American director. Broadway isn’t exactly brimming with diversity (of the 40 directors active on Broadway last season, 36 were men and only one person of color), so Binder had his work cut out for him.
What followed was a mildly interesting relay of his quest for a director (he ended up working with the then relatively unknown Kenny Leon) and cast (he managed to snag Sean Combs aka P Diddy for the lead role). I think my appreciation of Binder’s excited monologue was slightly hampered by the fact that my knowledge of all things Broadway is virtually nonexistent and the fact that as a European, I’m a lot less used to such a heavy emphasis being placed on race, so some of his points sounded (literally) rather foreign to me.
On a personal note, Binder gets a lot of credit from me for having the creative guts to bring The New Island Festival to New York City. The festival is based on two important Dutch theater festivals, Oerol and De Parade. From what I gathered from his talk, reviving a play like Raisin in the Sun took a lot more guts than that.
Not your ordinary PICNIC: that’s the tagline I found plastered all over the Westergasfabriek terrain during PINIC ’09. And PICNIC indeed is something quite out of the ordinary.
I arrived Wednesday around 11:00am, a few hours before the official opening of the conference part of PICNIC, which meant that I could take some time to explore the impressive central area of the festival, the PICNIC club. A place to meet, to eat, to tweet (there was a Twitter tree set up in the main area, with UTP cables hanging down its branches) and to look at all the interesting stuff that PICNIC’s official partners, including UPC and Microsoft, were showing off.
The area was brimming with activity. During the morning, several sessions of PICNIC Young had already started, which is a collection of workshops and seminars for teachers and students, exploring technology and creativity and their possible adaptation to school programs. PICNIC Young is only one of many “tracks” running alongside the main conference schedule of PICNIC, and if you wanted to cover all of it, you would need at least 5 or 6 people on the ground.
Other interesting events were also already going on at the various PICNIC Labs that were scattered among the conference area, like the Digital City Special, or the Augmented City Lab, exploring present and near-future adaptation of various mobile augmented reality technologies. I did not attend any of these sessions, but if you’re interested in what augmented reality can do today, check out the iPhone 3GS app that the folks at Layar have launched at PICNIC.
The main conference has a different theme for each of its three days. The first day’s theme was “Turning Points”, focusing on social changes that have their impact on society and social media, and kicked off with a familiar face: Israeli conductor Itay Talgam. I had heard Talgam speak at PICNIC last year and his ideas on leadership really stuck with me. The one-liner he kicked his talk off with this year: “In these times of insecurity and crisis, people are sick of leaders. It’s about communities now.”