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Q&A with Ahmed Siddiqui (Startup Weekend)

My name is Tina Santiago, and i’m a hack-a-thon-a-holic.  It’s been 6 weeks since my last hackathon.

Recently, I met up with Ahmed Siddiqui, StartUp Weekend Bay Area Leader by day, kids app developer by night and overall awesome human being all the time.  Here’s a brief Q&A:

Q: What is Startup Weekend?

A: Startup Weekend Bay Area, is an intense 54-hour event, which focuses on building a web or mobile application that could form the basis of a credible business over the course of a weekend. The weekend brings together developers, designers and entrepreneurs to build applications and develop a commercial case around them. With access to Silicon Valley’s best and brightest innovators, SWBAY offers a unique opportunity to connect and learn from leaders in the tech industry and provides an experiential education process for event participants.

Q: Why do you think the hackathon model for generating new ideas is effective?

A: Hackathons are really interesting because they encourage action.  I think a hackathon is the best type of un-conference that you can have because there is less talk, more action.  A traditional Hackathon starts off with an existing product and then challenges developers to come up with unique uses for that product.  I think it is a fantastic model for really observing what types of things come out of it, but rarely are these products commercially viable because there is too much focus on the hack, and not enough time spent on customer development or the business model.

Q: Why are hackathons a valuable sponsorship opportunity for companies?

A: In the Bay Area, we work closely with our partners such as AT&T, Microsoft, Kno, Grockit, TechShop, Autodesk, and Qualcomm, to put together unique experiences.  Every event has its own flavor, and we work closely with our partners to get the most value for them and our attendees.  A fantastic example is Microsoft, our partner for Mega Startup Weekend.  In this event we invite 300 participants to work in three different tracks.  This year, we chose Mobile, Gaming, and Robotics as our three tracks.  This event was unique because we invited the top engineers from Microsoft to mentor and participate.  We ended up having some businesses built on Microsoft Kinect, Microsoft Windows 8, and on the Microsoft EDDIE Robot.  This was an amazing event that gave our attendees access to bleeding edge technology and mentorship, and it gave Microsoft great exposure to our community of developers, designers, and entrepreneurs.

Q: How does Start Up Weekend continue to support the “winners” after the event?

A: We support our winners and any teams moving forward by providing them extended mentorship opportunities and introductions to potential customers and investors.  More recently, we have been having office hours for teams to come into our San Francisco office and work with us.  With almost 1 event a month, we have built a substantial network of entrepreneurs, developers, designers, mentors, and investors that all help each other.  Startup Weekend isn’t just a weekend event, it is a network and community.

Q: Any other thoughts?

A: I think this movement is wonderful, and proves that the costs of building businesses is going down, and these weekend long events are perfect for testing ideas.  Granted, it is too difficult to build an end-to-end business over a weekend with complete strangers, but I do feel that this is the best possible networking that you can do, especially in a learning environment that Startup Weekend provides.  It is okay to fail, just fail fast!

———-

Since I moved to San Francisco, I’ve given up four of my precious weekends to participate in a number of hackathons: Angel Hack at Adobe, Start Up Weekend at the AT&T Foundry, City 2.0 at California College of Arts, and Creative Currency at The Hub SF.

I have only positive things to say about my hackathon experience.  I’ve met some of the most brilliant and creative people in the Bay Area who who share an optimistic, can-do, will-do attitude.  To echo Ahmed, in my experience, hackathons give you a unique opportunity to fail fast, another way to describe accelerated learning. I’ve never learned so much about technology, design and business strategy in such a compressed amount of time. It’s like bootcamp for the brain.

After some reflection, here are a few lessons I took away about from the challenge of working in a boiler room with a group of strangers:

1. Spend time defining the problem.

Framing the problem you’re trying to solve is half the battle. Because each team member has a unique point of view, they may be speaking a different language to interpret the problem at hand.  On top of that, the number of data sets and APIs that are made available can be overwhelming, messy , complex.

This is where the design process becomes so crucial in framing the problem:  unpacking the business goals, the technological constraints and user needs can help to simplify and communicate the complexity.

2. Frame your conversations. 

Often, when friction ensues between team members, it’s because people are speaking in different contexts. It can be very frustrating when one person is generating ideas, while another person is shooting them down like a clay plate. These kinds of conversations can often get heated because of competing agendas, points of view and passions in the room. This is why it’s important to recognize the difference among opinions, ideas and data. In my experience, making collaborative decisions is always best when you can point to data to support the decisions being made.

Establishing the goal of the conversation can really help. For example, if you simply frame your conversations as a ‘brainstorm to generate ideas,’ this can really help to build creative momentum within the group. This is what is called building a divergent context. Of course, at some point, decisions need to be made. Again, it’s important to define this context and frame the conversation as a “convergent” one and point to criteria and data as much as possible to make decisions.

3. Find the right team.

Gathering a multidisciplinary team is key. The best teams are the ones that have a complementary set of skills. Putting a designer, an engineer and an entrepreneur in a cooker can have incredible results.

Needless to say, this can also be very challenging since everyone has an opinion and their own point of view. This is where the art of listening and the virtue of patience comes into play. I’ve been surprised and humbled by the amount of insight emerges when you take the time to listen and try to learn a different point of view.

4. Be prepared to be unprepared.

No matter how much research you do before the event, you’ll never be prepared. That’s because you don’t know what will emerge. The hackathon experience invites serendipity and it’s best to be open to spontaneity and welcome new ideas.

5. Work backwards.

No matter how many sticky notes and white board scribbles you generate, it really means nothing until you have a story you can weave through. Before starting anything, it’s important to imagine the form of your story and output and develop a roadmap on how to get there. This is crucial for a weekend long event when time is of the essence.

I’m proud to say that my partner in crime, Patrick Keenan and I came out winners in two out of the for four. [Insert shameless plug] Thanks the GAFFTA Creative Currency hackathon, we’re continuing on with our project called SQFT, an online platform for pop up shops to find short term leases.

Special thanks to Startup Weekend and all the other amazing hackathon organizers for their amazing work in creating opportunity for new ideas.

 

From Pulp to Silicon

 

 

 

 

 

The ancient Greeks wrote textbooks as an instructional tool for teachers.  Since then, the book has been burned, praised, protected, worshiped, and even feared. For hundreds of years, the book represented the voice of “the expert”, implying that knowledge should transfered from one authoritative source to the layman.  The print publishers of today, such as Pearsons or Oxford Press, continue to hold this editorial and distribution control over how educational tools are written and disseminated.

[Enter the Internet]

This model is old school.  Paper textbooks are a vestige of a lingering industrial age.

In the same breath, I can download a lecture from iTunes U, I can download a book onto my Kindle at a click of a button, I can read the latest New York Times article on my iphone on my way to work. Amazon, Google and Apple have disrupted the publication industry by creating a more accessible network of electronic books. Gone are the days of the educated elite.

Are eBooks any different from Paper books?

There’s been huge buzz about the advent of e-authorship platforms, such as iBooks Author, Push Pop Press and Inklingwith claims that these platforms will ‘transform’ education. However, unless ebook publishers truly take advantage of their digital platforms, interactive books will be no different from those smelly dog-eared textbooks we once knew.  Most of the textbooks that have been published so far, such as Al Gore’s Our Choice  and E.O. Wilson’s Life on Earth  are certainly superior in content and design.  However, I hate to say it, but they are sprinkled with gimmicky interactions.

Cool, there are zoomable maps,  moving DNA molecules. a short video of a farmer. Is that really changing the way I learn and engage with this content?

These books are beautiful in their own right.  But how can we address the fact that this is just a microprocessor pretending to be a set of pages?  How can we create more meaningful learning experiences?

It is my belief that electronic textbooks will be truly disruptive when we start to understand how interactive platforms enable experiential learning.

Cognitive Scientists claim that we only retain

10% from reading
20% from seeing
30% from hearing 
50% from seeing and hearing
80% from doing
90% from teaching

These need not be exclusive, at least not anymore. The truly transformative interactive experiences will integrate these various forms of learning.

Four Principles on How to Make an Awesome eBook:

1. Don’t add gimmicky interactions for the sake of gimmicky interactions
Make sure your interactions are engaging and meaningful.  Interaction can be fun and engaging and that’s a great hook. But go beyond that. Think about how interaction will enhance the learning experience of your user.  Perhaps it’s an interactive case study, a thought experiment or a math problem. Whatever it is, design your interaction with a purpose.

2. Use Game Mechanics.
Provide instant feedback, create levels of expertise and make it fun!  Codecademy does any amazing job of this. They teach non-coders how to code in an easy, straight forward and effective way by rewarding their users with leveling up and badges.

3. Make learning social.
Encourage collaboration and conversation, both online and offline.   Your user will retain more information if they talk and ‘teach’ others.  Creating a forum for discussion, inquiry and exploration can help to socializing learning between and among peers.

4. Connect to the internet.
Link up and link often.  The web is gold mine of a diversity of thoughts, ideas and opinions.  Encourage your users to think critically about the information you’re presenting them by linking them to the network of perspectives.

With that, go forth and design a game-changing book!

——————–

Tina Santiago is a researcher, interactive producer and User Experience Designer.  In the last 9 years, she’s worked in Toronto, Geneva, and London in interactive media, design and sustainable business.  She hold a BSc in Cognitive Psychology from McMaster University and an MBA from the University of Geneva.  She is currently working as a UX Designer for Hot Studio in San Francisco.

 

For the Love of the Code

I first met Ben at Four Barrel Coffee in the Mission a couple of months ago.  Our paths crossed through SkillShare — I was meant to coach Ben through his presentation for Toronto’s upcoming FITC event on how Flash Developers can transition over to C++.

I’m pretty sure I learned more from him than he did from me.

Ben McChesney is 23 years old. Like most people in the Bay Area, he worked a day job to pay the bills, but hacked the night away to pursue his true passion: building shiny and fun interactive installations.  With the introduction of the Microsoft Kinect sensor, his focus has shifted from a flash web developer towards creating physical experiences, using Open Frameworks. After only 18 months on the market, the Kinect hack has spread like wild fire, attracting artists and programmers alike, to create new interactive experiences.

Kinect for Film Storytelling by James George, explores the notion of “re-photography”, in which otherwise frozen moments in time may be visualized from new points of view.

Unnamed Sculpture is a piece that used a Kinect to record body movements and was then later put through a 3D softeware program.

SemanticMap, The Next Step In Public Information and Navigation On The Go is is a Digital signage prototype featuring proximity detection, face recognition and gesture interaction technologies developed in Microsoft Research Asia.

Puppet Parade is an interactive installation by Emily Gobeille and Theo Watson of Design I/O that allows children to use their arms to puppeteer larger than life creatures projected on the wall in front of them.

And of course, CFC Media Lab’s own Heart of Stars


A playspace where users become 3d avatars made of points of light. Created as an exploratory installation, this prototype seeds future iterations as a commercial game or practical tool.

And the list goes on.

For artists like Ben, there is no shortage of inspiring work that comes out of the Open Frameworks community.

“After attending a few meet ups, posting a few pieces of my work on my blog and putting together a kinect reel, I ended up at a start up called Helios Interactive. What’s been really exciting is to see my passion projects turn into my actual job…and to be able to push and set boundaries of where…this has real world applications”

Helios Interactive focuses on larger scale commercial trade shows and events.  Examples of their work include Bally’s Total Fitness and Cannes International Film Festival.

Ben gives credit to the Open Frameworks community for helping him find his dream job.

 “Open Framworks is based on the open source movement, which is built on a culture of gifting ideas…the community is made up of about 300 or so ‘hard core’ geniuses that spend hours of their brain power on developing code… and giving it away for free.”

If I were to draw a venn diagram of Ben, it would like like this:

What fascinates me about Ben is that he comfortably straddles two worlds: the not-for-profit-keep-it-real world of Open Frameworks community and the for-profit-real-world of commerce.  What’s even more fascinating is the approach that Microsoft has taken in supporting and incubating hacker efforts.  According to  NPR, Microsoft says the more hacking, the better.

The big guys are starting to take notice of the Bens in the world. They are starting to recognize a new generation coming into the work force. One that embraces openness and creativity, while being grounded in ‘real-world’ application. The Kinect is not only a tool to build shiny and fun interactive installations, a it’s a metaphor for what’s yet to come.

If you have tickets, check out Ben’s talk at FITC on Monday April 23 @10:00am. If you don’t have a ticket yet, get one. And make sure to follow him at @bendesigning

——————–

Tina Santiago is a researcher, interactive producer and UX Designer.  In the last 9 years, she’s worked in Toronto, Geneva, and London in interactive media, design and sustainable business.  She hold a BSc in Cognitive Psychology from McMaster University and an MBA from the University of Geneva.  She is currently working as a UX Designer for Hot Studio in San Francisco.

‘Do No Evil’ Doesn’t Cut It Anymore

‘Be Excellent’ is more like it.  Or so says the loose collective of San Francisco-based hackers who run Noisebridge – a co-working space like no other.

Noisebridge is an art & technology membership organisation run on a pay-what-you-can-but-if-you-can’t-pay-that’s-okay-too business model. Anyone who buzzes in is allowed in. Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.

The unassuming basement, located in the Mission District in San Francisco has a solder station, 3D printer and lazer engraver. There’s plenty of space to build, prototype, or hack whatever your heart desires. With free flowing WiFi, shared desk space and a full functioning kitchen, it’s hard to imagine why anyone would leave.

At Noisebridge, all decisions are made through consensus, based on the principles of ‘do-ocracy’.  Yup, it’s exactly what you think it is:  If you want something done, do it.  Let me paint you a picture of how this translates. I interviewed a number of “members” of this space, whom I will keep anonymous for the sake of their reputation – a currency equivalent to the Kuwaiti Dinar.

Because Noisebridge is a space for everyone, almost everyone drops by. The most recent incident worth gossiping about, is that there have been a number of homeless people dropping in and have started using the space to sleep, eat and store food.  Some members complained of security issues.  Others complained about a disturbance of the creative hacker energy of the space. Other members argue that these people should be welcome to stay on the basis that there’s a hacker in all of us.

One member had his own opinion. He practiced the principle of do-ocracy and ripped off the buzzer from the front door.   This, of course, sparked a saga of a discussion on their online wiki.  Philosophical arguments and bantering currently fill the forum on who should be allowed in and howThe most viable solution so far is to hack up a mobile app which can unlock the door using a daily pin code. Not a bad solution for a collective, especially because they can likely develop it overnight.

Why is this relevant to New Media? 

Noisebridge is a living example of a culture primed for innovation.

It takes a certain level of risk tolerance to be able to deal with the unknown.  Working on things that have never been done before is messy.  Working with people that you’ve never worked with before is messy. Very messy. Building a culture of radical creativity and innovation requires a certain level of confidence and trust in the community that builds it.  The limit at which we can push the boundaries of technology and creativity is bound by the constraints that we place on ourselves: the way we organise our ideas, how we make decisions, how we execute.  A community of innovators will only thrive when we start to become aware of these shared assumptions and how they shape our creative spaces.

‘Being excellent’ as a guiding principle seems to be a pretty good start.  Kudos to Noisebridge for taking the leap.

Tina Santiago is a researcher, interactive producer and UX Designer.   In the last 9 years, she’s worked in Toronto, Geneva, and London in interactive media, design and sustainable business.  She hold a BSc in Cognitive Psychology from McMaster University and an MBA in International Organizations from the University of Geneva.  She is currently living in San Francisco, California.  @tinasantiago | www.tinasantiago.com 

 

100% Organic Content

When I started my guest editorship of this blog almost a year ago, it was with a question about the relationship between tools and creations. Will new ways of doing things affect what it is that we do? To try and flesh out my feelings on that question, I’ve peeked into a number of fields where innovation is intense; from documentary filmmaking to game design, architecture to (my) marriage.

But there’s one branching network of innovation that interests me so much that it’s found a home in the roots of a number of projects I’m working on. It’s the realm of biotechnology, and the disruptions it could bring to the stories we tell and how we tell them are significant.

In his book Sketching User ExperiencesBill Buxton includes a number of figures exploring the ways in which various technologies have evolved: from university or military research projects, into skunkworks industrial concerns, then into consumer products and (sometimes) multi-billion dollar success stories. From the mouse to advanced gesture recognition to the Internet itself, numerous information technologies widespread today took twenty or thirty years to make any inroads in the mass market, and have enjoyed lifespans as long as the average human’s. While it’s possible we’re projecting our mortal uneasiness on to our digital creations, the more obvious implication (that Buxton also arrives at) is that getting things “right”, or even “OK”, takes an awfully long time.

See how long it’s taken the Human Genome Project and its forebears to gain steam? See how long it took gesture-based interface technology? See bright things in your future / bloodstream?

From Bill Buxton's book Sketching User Experiences, all rights reserved

If we keep this lag time in technological adoption in mind, perhaps looking to the nearest experimental physics laboratory for design inspiration isn’t the way to go… instead, we should be looking to the steaming pot of technological innovations from the last forty years, and trying to figure out what is right on the brink of boiling.

Time and time again, when I sit down and play this “Where’s Waldo” game, what I can’t help but getting excited about biotech – design and engineering endeavours bringing living systems and advanced information technology together. I’m certainly not alone – a 2005 report by the US National Science Foundation highlighted the ways in which so-called NanoBioInfoCogno revolutions could transform the world’s industries and societies rather extensively. There’s even an essay by Newt Gingrich sandwiched in the middle, if you’re feeling naughty.

What door do experience designers use to enter this party? Aren't soft skills a critical part of this convergence?

But while the technical breakthroughs and complex technical underpinnings of those transformations are exciting, what I find most interesting are the questions to do with products and services. And not just the economic and business model questions – the experience design questions, as well. What new stories will NBIC innovations allow us to tell? With what new tools will we weave them? Will contemporary models of interaction apply between form and content, or will we witness the mass emergence of invasive species and new food chains in our media ecology?

Should society take the red pill, or the blue pill?

In design fiction, the practice of creating artifacts and experiences from future hypothetical scenarios, biotechnology already runs rampant. Particularly in science fiction cinema and literature, it’s hard to put down your glass without spilling someone else’s cocktail of personalized medicine (with a wetware wedge). Paul Di Filippo refers to the domain as RiboFunk in his writing. Inception, The Matrix, A Scanner Darkly, Children of Men... these films and many more all have their narratives woven finely through a lattice of biotechnological products. In gaming the situation is similar, from Assassin’s Creed to Deus Ex (both intellectual properties developed in Canada… perhaps this is our thing?) Björk’s collaboration with Scott Snibbe, Biophilia, is an interesting new kind of cellular entertainment in a number of senses. The subject matter is even beginning to pervade the meatspace… I’m in the midst of building out an experience called ZED – it’s a transmedia biotech role-playing adventure that will unfold across Toronto over the next eight months, letting audiences take serious bites out of a story exploring the darker sides of our potential future.

If these are the stories exploring a world of ubiquitous biotechnology, what new tools might emerge to tell them? Some say those tools are technological – Rohit Talwar of the foresight consultancy Fast Future suggests that by administering narcotics and nootropics activated by electromagnetic stimulation, the DJ’s of the future could take us into personally curated altered states… with the requisite $20 cover, of course. The BioArt work of Steve Kurtz famously (and disturbingly) landed him an audience with threats of bioterrorism charges, setting an intimidating precedent for the use of living materials and systems in artwork exploring our relationship with technology. Nevertheless, I’m looking forward to the MakerBot Replicator of 2024… there’s nothing like printing a custom OLED slime mold  and enjoying interactive TV on all the walls (and ceilings) of your house.

On the other hand, perhaps the tools that most directly steer our relationship with biotechnology in the future will be our values. People have been using “organic biotech” drawn (and sometimes domesticated) from nature for the purpose of inducing altered states of awareness and interaction with information for thousands of years. The posthumanist movement adheres to the value of updating our neurological firmware for better adaptability to change, and on the conceptual level, it’s difficult to identify significant distance between their philosophy and that of an experienced shaman, or field ethnobotanist. That said, if the form of our future content creation suites is to resemble a patch, tab, or injection; we’ve got some serious social issues to address… at the speed of technological innovation.

When it comes to biotechnology, industrially or socially, there is very little that isn’t still up in the air. The industry is only now becoming profitable; and in the coming years leaders, policy-makers, and just about everyone else will face numerous opportunities to interrogate emerging technologies and make decisions about their use. But as the DIYBio movement also surges, traditional stakeholders from industry and the media alike run the risk of being overwhelmed by a rogue wave of indie biotech experience designers. This is important to keep in mind – as a civilization we aren’t always very good at cross-generational and open-minded discourse on ethnopharmacology, as Richard Branson has been pointing out quite frequently of late.

Generally not a great thing to see at a biotechnology convention.

Of all the ways to think about what could result from the rapid adoption of biotechnology into niches currently filled by established material and information technologies, the use of stories strikes me as the most interesting. Films, games, and other narrative media act like mirrors trained on our social values and behaviours as much as bacterial growth on the surface of new gear. There was an issue of HorizonZero in 2005 that really got me thinking about how we treat this topic, it’s still a great read.

While biotech may ultimately be responsible for reshaping how we tell stories and design experiences, I think it’s just as likely that the ways we reflect on biotechnological themes and subject matter today will shape the form these disruptive and revolutionary industries eventually take. The best way to consider the relationship between form and content is as a feedback loop: it’s never too late to get in early, and no matter how far you push the boundaries, you’ll never be done.

Trevor Haldenby is an interactive producer and photographer living in Toronto. He has attended Wilfrid Laurier University, Rhode Island School of Design, CFC Media Lab, and is presently completing a MDes in Strategic Foresight & Innovation at OCAD University.
@trevver | www.longexposure.ca | www.zed.to

Show Me The Money

In my recent posts, I’ve investigated a diversity of situations where the design, development, and execution of new ideas has required the creation of new toolkits. But there’s one tool I haven’t devoted much attention to, and in many cases it’s ultimately the one that matters: MONEY.

Whether the new idea you’re interested in realizing is robotic lunar exploration, an iPad case that doubles as a retro television, or an art project that takes over the city of Toronto from a bird’s-eye view; new systems for securing funding are emerging that go against the current of traditional models while bringing people together socially in familiar ways.

It wouldn't be an X PRIZE without the giant novelty cheque, and Burt Rutan's awesome sideburns.

Let’s start at the scale of very, very big projects. Inspired by the 1919 prize offered by hotelier Raymond Orteig to pilots daring to fly non-stop from New York to Paris, the first X PRIZE was announced in 1996. The $10,000,000 prize value was an increase over Orteig’s $25,000 purse in order to accomodate inflation and modern entrepeneurial standards, and the context shifted from the transatlantic to the sub-orbital; but in essence the system works in the same way. The X PRIZE Foundation’s mission is to stimulate “radical breakthroughs for the benefit of humanity“, and in the sixteen years since its inception, the Foundation has overseen the launch of six specific prize funds. Rewards for increased automobile fuel efficiency, genomic sequencing speed, and breakthroughs in oil spill cleanup have all been specifically articulated as X PRIZES that will be rewarded over the next few years.

Dr. Peter Diamandis discusses the origins of the X PRIZE.

But while the X PRIZE Foundation is dedicated to the benefit of humanity, it’s never shied away from emphasizing the advantage of competition over simple hand-outs of cash after a lengthy application process. In fact, whether you look at the 1919 Orteig prize (won eight years later by Charles Lindbergh) or the X PRIZE for sub-orbital spaceflight, competitive teams tend to spend 10-15 times as much money competing for the prize as there is in the pot handed over the victor. More than $100,000,000 was spent by the teams workshopping new technology to win the Ansari X PRIZE; something that surely pleases Dr. Peter Diamandis, the Foundation’s entrepreneurial founder and chairman. How much more money would have been spent by governments and other funding agencies in order to spur on the construction of SpaceShipOne? How much longer might it have taken the teams involved to reach their goal in a less explicitly competitive context? How likely is it that Virgin Galactic would be on its way towards a 2012 launch for the commercial spaceflight industry?

The Awesome Foundation's monthly prize.

On a much smaller scale, there is a new entrant to the idea-funding game operating right here in Toronto. The Awesome Foundation for the Arts and Sciences (originating in Boston, circa 2009) is dedicated not to the creation of stellar mining industries or biotechnological wonders, but to crowdsourcing… well, Awesomeness. The Toronto chapter launched this January, and announced its first winner on February 25th at the Drake Hotel. The process the Foundation has set in place is pretty straightforward. Every month, 10 enterprising Torontonians get together and review submissions of wacky art interventions, civically minded installations, and other projects of significant relevance to those of us with esoteric interests. These Awesome Trustees (including my friends Geoffrey MacDougall and Martin Ryan) then vote for a project they’re particularly fond of, pool together the cash they’ve contributed as monthly dues, staple it up in a paper bag, and hand it over to whichever creator wins the vote. $1,000, no strings attached, for a project relevant to the people of Toronto… think of the Awesome Foundation’s strategy as funding the smaller and more manageable “x’s” of the world, rather than the X PRIZE Foundation’s paradigm shifting challenges (and rampant capitalization).

Stephanie Avery receiving her $1,000 from an Awesome Trustee. Photo courtesy of Gerrit de Jonge.

The first project to receive Awesome Foundation funding in Toronto was a game called Connect-the-T-Dots, played via aerial photographs of a number of strategically placed painted circles across Parkdale’s roofs, and designed by Stephanie Avery. The second winner, announced last month, was Ken Butland of the Tourette Syndrome Foundation of Canada – his project is an online destination where people within the Tourette community can share the details of their tics with others. It’s a project idea that Ken has had trouble funding traditionally… exactly the kind of work that the Awesome Foundation is dedicated to enabling. April’s prize should be announced any day now, so stay tuned to the Foundation’s site, or submit your own idea for May!

From the very big to the relatively small, these are two examples of organizations imagining and implementing new funding structures and specific constraints in order to encourage innovation and creativity. But there’s a third entity that I think is worth mentioning here, and its runaway success can largely be attributed to its flexibility and openness.

No matter how hard Amazon and Kickstarter try, they can't keep the Canadians at bay!

Kickstarter is an online experiment with the threshold pledge approach to project funding. There are few limitations on the kinds of eligible projects, and everything from a statue of RoboCop for Detroit to a wristband case for the iPod nano has succeeded through Kickstarter funding. Project creators start by setting a goal for their project, as well as a timeline. If they raise the money they’ve asked for by the time the sand runs out, they walk away with 95% of the cash and all of their intellectual property intact. If they’re even a dollar short of their goal, none of the funds held in escrow are released – it’s an interesting way to encourage creators to maintain realistic expectations, and to necessitate meaningful engagement with hordes of pseudo-strangers throwing a dollar or twenty towards their projects.

While Kickstarter is one of many sites funding creative projects through micropatronage (a term popularized by Jason Kottke, but ironically coined by an anonymous contributor), and undoubtedly one of the most successful, one of its innovations has unfortunately left Canadians out in the cold in terms of presenting and selling their own projects. Kickstarter holds donor funds in escrow using Amazon’s Flexible Payment Service (often acronymized, perhaps just to confuse gamers), and the service is incompatible with addresses outside of the United States. We Canucks can always use IndieGoGo, but it remains to be seen whether the success of crowdfunded projects is determined by the number of eyeballs they get from site regulars, or slick social media campaigns.

Donate quietly, or there will be trouble.

Focusing on the very big, the very small, and the flexibly in-between; new tools for funding new kinds of creative endeavours seem to be erupting all around us. Some rely on the capital stores of large corporations, some on the kindness of strangers, and others still on the critical insights of small groups of trustees. While all three of these models embrace new structures to encourage fascinating new ideas, it’s interesting to note how each one has also drawn inspiration from historical precedent. Lindbergh’s transatlantic flight might not have taken place for another decade without the Orteig Prize, and patrons like the trustees of the Awesome Foundation have been around as long as incentives for them to give back to their communities. Even Mozart relied on sales of subscriptions to produce his symphonies, an approach that eventually evolved into the Street Performer Protocol and its various offshoots.

At the end of the day, I wonder what sorts of tools we might utilize to stimulate innovation in the field of funding systems themselves. Would it make sense to abstract the X PRIZE model, and concoct a reward for the funding agency that can produce the most consistently lucrative or societally beneficial projects? If you feel you’ve figured out a good way to articulate this particular challenge, you should consider submitting it to the X PRIZE Foundation.

In the meantime, perhaps we’d make the best use of our time and resources convincing American friends to start Kickstarter projects dedicated to lobbying Amazon to roll out an international version of its payment service…

Trevor Haldenby is an interactive producer and photographer living in Toronto. He has attended Wilfrid Laurier University, Rhode Island School of Design, CFC Media Lab, and is presently completing a Master’s of Design in Strategic Foresight & Innovation at OCAD University.

Retro Activity

It seems like wherever I go these days, I wind up looking at the past. Half of the photos my friends share on Facebook and Twitter are run through a gamut of filters to look like they were shot in 1969 (that’s even the name of one of Hipstamatic’s workflows), and now the same thing is happening with video thanks to apps like 8mm Vintage Camera.

While a major trend of late in digital content creation tools has been the retro styling of interfaces and artifacts, the last several years of PC and console gaming could be seen as a pilgrimage in the opposite direction. Solid Snake, Nico Bellic, and Nathan Drake all furrow their blemished brows and glower at us menacingly in 1080p… at least Master Chief had the decency to put on a helmet.

But not all games operate within this paradigm of photorealism – there are families of titles evolving on the plains outside of the Uncanny Valley, and groups of developers more interested in experimenting with gameplay than participating in the arms race of shader technology.

A great example of this trend towards retro visuals is the Swedish indie juggernaut known as Minecraft. The premise of the game is simple – wake up in a wilderness, prance about exploring for most of the day, find a way to build shelter before nightfall, avoid becoming dogfood for a menagerie of roving monsters – but the really interesting stuff at work in Minecraft is in the context of sandbox gameplay and open collaboration. You can work with friends online to architect elaborate in-game underground fortresses, treehouses, or even working arithmetic logic units; but everything you build has to be crafted from natural substances mined from the world around you and represented by blocks about one foot by one foot in size. While the world of Minecraft is vast, it’s also quite graphically granular. The experience looks and feels more like the result of some macabre mash-up of panspermia and Tetris than other sandbox games like Garry’s Mod, Little Big Planet, or Second Life. The easiest way to describe Minecraft’s gameplay to newcomers is as a digital version of Lego… a version where each block must be carefully smelted from elusive minerals at the core of the earth.

Trevor Haldenby's Minecraft Kingdom

My Minecraft Kingdom... not so meta-meta.

What could have compelled the game’s creator Markus “Notch” Persson to employ such a distinctly retro style in the creation of such an innovative game? And what features of the game are responsible for the sale of more than 1.8 million units in the last year?

Performance
Minecraft is built and sold as a Java application. As many have discovered, it runs in a corporate web browser approximately as well as it will on a dedicated gaming rig. 1999‘s Quake III finally moved into the browser as “Quake Live” last year after heavy modifications, but Minecraft was there from the start by drawing in the thousands of blocks making up each world dynamically and by not using particularly elaborate textures. You can customize your in-game character on the minecraft.net site using a 32×32 pixel image… about a third the size of what made for a decent LiveJournal icon ten years ago.

Familiarity
It seems like it’s often assumed that hyper-real graphics will feel good because they’re similar to how we perceive the world with the HD cameras embedded in our faces. The purveyors of gigabyte-packing graphics cards surely presume that visual accuracy is what’s behind the verisimilitude of a good gaming experience. But what about those of us who grew up under the supervision of the Super Mario Brothers and a 12” TV, or their ancestors from the Old Country of Atari? I think it stands to reason that 8-bit graphics and simplistic animations make the average 20 or 30-something gamer feel more at home than anisotropic filters.

Mechanics in Focus
When you’re playing a photorealistic 3D title you’re probably going to invest less effort into considerations of underlying gameplay mechanics than you might if you were enjoying a basement romp in a refrigerator box. Games defined by shiny pretty things certainly have a time and place, but when you’re playing a title that deliberately immerses you in a lo-fi look-and-feel, you’re more likely to be pleasantly surprised by the ingenuity or complexity of the mechanics at work.

Kenfagerdotcom's Minecraft Kingdom

Kenfagerdotcom's Minecraft Kingdom... meta-meta to the power of meta.

Minecraft isn’t alone in utilizing retro graphics to get audiences engaged, before challenging them with innovative gameplay concepts. Jason Rohrer and Daniel Benmergui are both developer-artistes putting out engaging and genre-busting titles with beautiful 8-bit looks.

Screenshot from Jason Rohrer's PASSAGE

Screenshot from Jason Rohrer's PASSAGE

If you’re hungry for a particularly well-executed experiment in innovation through nostalgia, there’s a brand new Toronto-bred iPad title you’ve got to check out: Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP, a collaboration between Capybara Games, the Superbrothers squad of visual artists, and Jim Guthrie. If you spent any time with Sierra’s King’s Quest in 1990 (itself a visual retooling of the Adventure Game Interpreter 1984 original, rebooted once more last year), you’ll feel eerily at home here. But after only a few minutes of play it becomes clear that Sw&Sw is about experimenting with social gaming features that the retro aesthetic might have prevented you from anticipating. For instance, all of the game’s dialogue takes place in the form of 140-or-fewer letter exchanges – enabling players to tweet conversations as they progress, from within the game’s HUD. It’s quite a clever little innovation, allowing players to share their progress through a game that doesn’t quite align with the High Scores ‘n Headshots model of friendly competition familiar to many console gamers. Even the title of the game is displayed on my iPad’s home screen as a hashtag.

Superbrothers Sword & Sworcery EP Screenshot

Screenshot from Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP

Could Capybara have gotten away with encouraging Sw&Sw players to tweet their progress in a photorealistic first-person shooter version of the game? Possibly. Could they have maintained as much of the delightfully corny Your Highness-esque dialogue with such an approach? Perhaps. But could they have made audiences from 15 to 35 feel immediately comfortable with the title while embracing its innovative idiosyncrasies? I’m skeptical.

For a particular group of gamers born in the final decades of the 20th century, 8-bit is the definitive visual vernacular – the lingua franca spoken by fans of racing, RPG, and shoot-em-up titles alike. Perhaps these audiences simply take comfort in the styles associated with a particular era of game development (just as classic rock inevitably trumps auto-tune in the minds of members of my parents’ generation), or perhaps there are valuable lessons to be learned here about how innovation can emerge from the juxtaposition of new ideas with the obviously ancient.

Trevor Haldenby is a producer and photographer living in Toronto. He has attended Wilfrid Laurier University, Rhode Island School of Design, CFC Media Lab, and is presently completing a Master’s of Design in Strategic Foresight & Innovation at OCAD University.

New Media Generation(s)

Trevor Haldenby is a producer and photographer living in Toronto. He has attended Wilfrid Laurier University, Rhode Island School of Design, CFC Media Lab, and is presently completing a Master’s of Design in Strategic Foresight & Innovation at OCAD University.


I would like to use my time as Guest Editor of to explore an idea that has stuck with me over the last ten years: designing something new often requires new tools.

The Strategic Foresight Group defines foresight as the merger of forecasting and insight. While I’ve long been a fan of clever enjambments in terminology, there really is some value to this one. Forecasting is an interesting tool, whether it’s being employed at the offices of brokers on Bay Street, at CTV’s meteorology desk, or on Yonge Street in the parlour of a psychic. All of these forecasters use specific models, methodologies, maths, and mantras in their process; and they each have unique sets of insights that provide the foundations for them.

Design is one of the areas where strategic foresight is really gaining traction, and in looking at the challenges presented by the evolution of digital media, you can see why.

While the weatherperson makes predictions that are influenced by climate change, his or her general assumption is that a new type of cloud will not suddenly emerge and wreak havoc upon Southern Ontario. Similarly, many of the traders on the TSE’s floor are thinking about change in terms of corporations and currencies, not sweeping economic models. When it comes to the design of new media and underlying technologies, you really do have to assume that what you’ll be working with in five or ten years’ time will be conceptually connectable to where you started, but changed almost completely in many other ways. When Tim Berners-Lee was developing HyperText Transfer Protocol and Universal Resource Locators, he probably didn’t think his technological darlings would even survive to become adolescent acronyms… let alone act as the foundation for petabyte-pushing video servers and social networks. Media (and media decisions, such as the CRTC’s regulations on bandwidth caps) may live long and tumultuous lives, or they may be swept away by the next disruptive technology on the block within just a few years. As people adapt their habits to match emerging media, they wind up inventing new behaviours and expectations that could generate boom or doom for existing media, and shape the subsequent generation profoundly.

Although change is a constant fact of life, big-picture change can be another beast entirely – it often involves a rewrite of so many of a system’s functions and processes that the result can be almost unrecognizable. This is what is happening in media at an ever-accelerating pace, making the ability to design for an ever-increasing pace of change more and more valuable… whether you work in climatology, or interface design.

Richard Dawkins made his name as a popular scientist in the mid-1970’s talking about the Selfish Gene, but his self-professed favourite work (and mine) is one that followed shortly after, titled The Extended Phenotype. The term phenotype refers in biological circles to the expression of genes in an organism that make it what it appears to be. You, me, and a fruit fly all have big complicated genes with surprising amounts of overlap. But the attributes that make us recognizable as humans and not as fruit flies largely result from what’s switched on in what order, not what’s scattered all over, genetically speaking. Dawkins argues in The Extended Phenotype that the ecosystems encompassing an organism and its behaviour are just as much a part of its phenotype as the colour of its eyes, or length of its fur. The beaver’s dam, for example, alters the entire surrounding landscape, and that dam is a direct result of the beaver’s more conventionally considered phenotype. You’re following along nicely if this idea of a single organism (think system) radically remaking the world around it (other interconnected systems) seems familiar – it sounds an awful lot like a certain Hominid and its relationship with technology, doesn’t it? The media phenotype, if you will, really can fundamentally shift every 10-25 years; and even if countless historical fads and meaningful innovations – like radio and television – remain present either conceptually or practically, the essence of the broader ecosystem may be fundamentally altered.

All analogies and biologies aside, there is a big question here: if the design of our media really can change the surrounding world within a generation, what are the best practices associated with making sure those media are the best they can be?

Fields of study dedicated to phenomena that are very big, very impactful, very interconnected, or all of the above are unfortunately few and far between. Economics and politics seem to fit the bill (occasionally), along with a handful of the arts and sciences. But at this point in time, it seems to me that strategic foresight exists natively at the intersection of the very big in time and space, and the very impactful. More succinctly, the field could be seen as being concerned with the creation of tools and best practices for dealing with the very important, in the medium and long term.

Through talking with Suzanne Stein, an expert in the world of strategic foresight, I’ve developed an appreciation of how diverse work in the field can be. Some proponents are interested in making sure that the verifiability of foreseen scenarios is what we focus on… others are more intrigued by using scenario generation techniques to understand group creative process. The CFC Media Lab uses scenario generation workshops to explore group dynamics and collaborative creation, and the focus of its resident-populated programs is iterative prototyping activity that might be familiar to fans of high-end design shops like IDEO, or firms like Changeist founded by Scott Smith.

When I was a resident at the CFC Media Lab in 2004, I set out to create a new kind of hands-on educational experience for museums and art galleries. The resulting prototype was called Painting The Myth: The Mystery of Tom Thomson. While I was learning about a huge diversity of prototyping processes and new tools during its creation, what really struck me was how my understanding of what to do next felt like it was coming to me intuitively.

As interesting as this field of strategic foresight is, it’s really only one way to think about identifying and shaping new possibilities. It’s only one way to look at the design of things that no-one has seen, or even thought of before. The new media landscape is full of people who have been innovating in a myriad of ways, sometimes through regimented process, and sometimes on intuition alone. What are their stories?

During Steve Jobs’ announcement of the iPad 2 last week, he reiterated how Apple’s existence has always been at the intersection of technology and the liberal arts. This reminded me of how unique the space I work within really is. The work to be done in designing and cultivating new media happens at the intersection of business, technology, and art. What can we learn from those who are only beginning to articulate their own way of working in the field? What can we learn about best practices for designing new media from products, people, and organizations that have conventionally been considered outside of its realm of influence – teachers, artists, venture capitalists, ecologists, primary school students?

My plan is to spend the guest editorship I’ve been offered exploring the new media growing up around us, and sharing observations about the creation and adaptation of new tools, the formalization of process that has heretofore only existed as intuition, and innovation that is taking place in strange and exciting new ways.