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I’m attempting to write up every single session I went to at SXSWi. Will be mostly about games, but also how tech can kill, neuroscience, digital anthropology, civic science and more.

A video introduction to the Public Laboratory of Open Technology and Science.

Public Lab: Mapping, DIY Activism & Civic Science

http://schedule.sxsw.com/2012/events/event_IAP9516

This session was an introduction to an extremely interesting organisation: The Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science (PLOTS). In their own words, they are “a community which develops and applies open-source tools to environmental exploration and investigation”. They provide simple tools and DIY solutions that enable people to collect data about their environment. The applications of this are absolutely fascinating and potentially very important.

As the panel explained, much environmental data is effectively owned by agencies and major organisations. Moreover, the standard tools for collecting this sort of information are expensive and proprietary, requiring serious investment in hardware or software. This creates an imbalance, especially in communities where the environment is under stress as a result of the action of big companies, think of the BP oil spill (more on that later). Those communities don’t usually have the means to collect their own data. PLOTS aims to change this.

They call what they do “civic science”: enabling projects which are community developed and community owned. They were keen to distinguish this from “citizen science”, which they defined as crowdsourcing data that then goes back to a big agency or research team, out of the hands of the people that collected it. The tools they develop are low cost and open source and information is shared under a creative commons share-alike license.

To give an example, during the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill, people along the Gulf Coast wanted their own monitoring tools to see what was really happening to their shores. They clearly mistrusted the official line, and wanted to see for themselves. So PLOTS provided the information and tools to do this, particularly in the form of aerial mapping, and funded the project via Kickstarter. The rig for the aerial mapping technology is deliberately basic, uses balloons, a soda bottle and a camera, and yet can produce data “an order of magnitude better than Google maps”, they claimed. You can see the rig here, and more information about the Gulf Coast project here.

The aerial mapping tools have also been used by protestors to monitor demonstrations. For example this article on The Verge has pictures of balloon rigs being used by Occupy Wall Street protesters. This and other mapping projects can be found on the Grassroots Mapping site. From the PLOTS website:

Maps are often used by those in power to exert influence over territory, or control territorial narratives. “Grassroots mapping” attempts to invert this dynamic by using maps as a mode of communication and as evidence for an alternative, community-owned definition of a territory. To date, our tools have been used to contest official maps or rhetoric by enabling communities to map sites that are not included in official maps. In Lima Peru, members of an informal settlement developed maps of their community as evidence of their habitation, while on the Gulf Coast of the US, locally produced maps of oil are being used to document damage that is underreported by the state.

Mapping can be hugely political, and as they say, this has traditionally been a tool only for those in power to wield. It’s exciting to see the tools being made available to try and redress this imbalance, but the challenges don’t end there. Firstly, it is important, they said, for people carrying out aerial mapping activity to consider how what they are doing might be perceived. After all, people may be unsettled by unmanned flying objects taking pictures of them if they don’t know what it’s for.

More significantly, though, there is the hurdle of getting your data recognised by authorities. Particularly, I imagine, if it is data that contradicts the official information. They have to be careful about the chain of custody for data to make sure that its legitimate and can’t be called into question. Also, they have to go through a legal process for advocacy which they described as “frustrating”.

But it sounds like they are doing good work, and it’s an inspirational idea. I did a bit of digging, but haven’t turned up any similar projects here in the UK. Anyone heard of any?

The whole session was recorded and you can listen to it here. You can also follow PLOTS on twitter: @publiclab.

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I’m attempting to write up every single session I went to at SXSWi. Will be mostly about games, but also how tech can kill, neuroscience, digital anthropology, civic science and more.

Trailer for TiltWorld

Heather Staker, Nicole Lazzaro and Scott Stropkay: A New Culture of Learning: Gaming, Tech, Design

http://schedule.sxsw.com/2012/events/event_IAP9607

This fascinating session invited us “to imagine a future of learning that is as powerful as it is optimistic”. It was a discussion on “exploring play, innovation, and the cultivation of the imagination as cornerstones of learning” with three speakers:  Heather Staker, of the Innosight Institute, a “a nonprofit think tank devoted to applying the theories of disruptive innovation to problems in the social sector”, which sounds pretty interesting; Nicole Lazzaro, founder of XEODesign, a “Player Experience Design” consulting company; and Scott Stropkay, a “Lateral-thinker, envisioneer, strategist, designer, prototyper, builder” and founder of Essential Design. You can listen to the whole thing on the link above, and I recommend it, but here are some of my highlights from the session.

Nicole Lazzaro introduce us to her 4 keys to fun, or principles of game design, available as a poster. It sounds like XEO design do a lot of interesting research as part of their design process, including something called facial emotion coding (this?). She also mentioned the work of Clayton Christensen, author of Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns. And she introduced us to the new release from her company, Tiltworld, a iPhone game that aims to both educate players about the environment but also have a direct impact in that points gained result in trees being planted in Madagascar. Games in general were much discussed as effective learning tools.

The panel discussed innovation in the classroom. A good example, apparently, is work being done in Singapore where large scale efforts are underway to change the way kids learn. Another was the Carpe Diem school which offers online as well as campus learning and puts the emphasis on students taking control of their own learning. I liked the concept of teachers as coaches, helping individuals to “get unstuck”. The Carpe Diem school is an example of something called Blended Learning, which is based around using a mix of different learning environments.

Design based learning also came up, which sounds intriguing. It appears to be based around setting students problems to solve, which “empowers kids to think of themselves as creative problem solvers”. That from Scott Stropkay, if I remember rightly. This article seems like it may explain more. Somewhat inevitably, the incredibly successful Khan Academy was also brought up.

But currently, this innovation isn’t making it into the mainstream in the US, as Stropkay pointed out. Heather Staker agreed that it’s very hard to break into the traditional learning system, as it’s so entrenched. She also noted that we shouldn’t forget that actually not all students want to learn in this way.

Lots of food for thought, then, in this session, which opened my eyes to the possibilities for taking education in new directions. Listen to the whole thing here.

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I’m attempting to write up every single session I went to at SXSWi. Will be mostly about games, but also how tech can kill, neuroscience, digital anthropology, civic science and more.

Trailer for Peacemaker the Game.

Asi Burak: Games 4 Change: Great Power, Great Responsibility

http://schedule.sxsw.com/2012/events/event_IAP100354

A very interesting talk at the end of a very long day by Asi Burak, Co-President of Games for Change. As their name suggests, this non-profit organisation has a mission to, as they state: “catalyse social impact through digital games”. They run a conference/festival in June each year which I am a little bit gutted not to be going to, and have a Google group for discussions on the subject of Games for Change.

To kick off, Burak gave us a little background on himself, which he said was key to understanding how he came to be so convinced by the potential of games to do good. After serving in the Israeli intelligence corps for 5 years, he went on to join a mobile company working on location based services (if I recall correctly, it may also have had something to do with games). But the situation in the Middle East obviously troubled him, and he left for Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University where he studied Entertainment Technology. He mentioned the influence of Randy Pausch, whose Last Lecture, entitled “Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams” (and covering virtual reality and teaching kids to code) I am listening to as I write this. It’s worth a watch if you aren’t one of the millions of people who’ve already seen it.

With his experiences in Israel in mind, Burak set about creating a game about the Middle East conflict. The result was Peacemaker, the trailer for which is at the top of this post. In this game, your objective is to solve the conflict whilst playing as either the Israeli Prime Minister or Palestinian President. You have a number of options to achieve this, both peaceful and military. It’s a bold idea for a game, which I hope to try at some point. What was perhaps most valuable about the game, said Burak, was the discussion that it provoked afterwards. It’s actually being used as part of workshops in the region for that purpose.

Peacemaker was released in 2007, but not everyone at that time was so convinced about games. He mentioned Hilary Clinton’s quote from 2005 that video games were a “silent epidemic” amongst kids. But for Burak it was clear: games are a powerful tool for social change. They provide continuous engagement, unlike films, for example, and are hugely popular. He recommended reading James Paul Gee, who has published books on the subject.

Things have changed since 2007 and perhaps now, he said, we are actually at the “hyperbole” moment, where grand claims are being made for the ability of games to change the world. This is a bit over the top, he said, mentioning gamification and the evangelism of Jane McGonigal as being an example of this (in the nicest possible way, I think, especially given that she’s on the advisory board for Games for Change). In fact, he said, we’re somewhere in between. There’s some interesting stuff going on, but it’s not yet hit its potential. There is no distribution system for games of this type, for example, though I’d argue that they’d have more impact being distributed in the same place as other games. Perhaps not for teaching purposes though.

We were then given some other examples of “games for change”:

iCivics: this site provides resources, including games, on the subject of citizenship. According to their evaluation, 78% of students better understood the subject after playing, and a large proportion also wanted to play on at home.

Freedom HIV/AIDS: This set of 4 mobile games made by ZMQ, was developed to raise awareness about HIV and AIDS and was launched in India across 9 million handsets on its first day. Their evaluation demonstrated a positive change in attitude after playing the games.

He mentioned FoldIt, which I’ve written about before, and various initiatives to get kids making their own games, such as Gamestar Mechanic and the AMD Foundation. In contrast to Hilary Clinton’s earlier scaremongering about games, the Obama administration seems to have come around to the idea that games can be used for good as evidenced by the National STEM Video Game Challenge and there is now a games consultant at the White House.

We came on to games evaluation, a subject close to my heart. He used the example of Re-mission, a game for “young adults living with cancer”, which took game evaluation to another level. This game has been tested in a randomised control trial, published here, which showed that the game improved “treatment adherence, cancer knowledge and self-efficacy”.

So, a talk that gave me a lot to think about, and included some fascinating case studies. You can listen to the whole thing here. And now, as I’m getting to the end of writing this, I’m also getting to the end of Randy Pausch’s entertaining “Last Lecture”. He’s just told us about his “legacy”, Alice. Alice is free software for teaching students computer programming, and also worth a look.

 

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I’m attempting to write up every single session I went to at SXSWi. Will be mostly about games, but also how tech can kill, neuroscience, digital anthropology, civic science and more.

iPad water balloon game

Live the Game: A Lifestyle with a Gaming Sense

http://schedule.sxsw.com/2012/events/event_IAP12616

The SXSW schedule stated that this talk was going to “explore the cross pollination of games with life” and discuss “how the next generation of mobile local social games and lifestyle apps will create opportunities to experience new dimensions of life, and lifestyles with a gaming sense”. That isn’t really what I got from it, but I think I was either a little distracted or perhaps the session was a bit incoherent, especially the second half that involved flinging water balloons at iPads using a trebuchet. Never did get why that was happening.

The talk was by Peter Swearengen and Tish Shute of Stupid Fun Club Inc. This three year old start-up is the brainchild of Will Wright, creator of SimCity, The Sims and Spore. It’s not easy to figure this out from their terrifically annoying website, but they seem to be doing something with robots that operates across different platforms including the web. And possibly some other stuff. It’s not really clear what, exactly, but there is a little more detail in these interviews with Will Wright from Wired and CNET.

They discussed the huge power of creativity, not just in terms of what it can create but because it is sticky and because it is its own intrinsic reward. They used the example of Spore, which saw millions making their own creatures. This included the creation of 13 million penises in just two weeks, suggesting, depending on your point of view, that not all creativity is necessarily positive.

The highlight of the talk for me though was finding out about Storymaker, a collaboration between Will Wright, ex-Nickelodeon president Albie Hecht, and Current TV. This tool allows a community to create a story together, in this case a TV series call Bar Karma. The series appears to be no longer available on Current, but there are some more details on its Wikipedia page and a few pages on Current that still have related content. This article on hacktext talks about the Storymaker tool in more detail and this interview with Will Wright and others about the project gives a little more insight into the ideas and inspiration behind it. It does sound like a great idea, but from the very critical IMDB boards for the series it seems like the end show wasn’t that well received. It would be interesting to see a more in depth evaluation of how Bar Karma worked, how many people got involved and so on.

Next up for the company, they said, was storytelling the ambient environment: encouraging people to re-explore the places where they live. And then they set up a trebuchet and used it to chuck full water balloons at an iPad which had a sucker mounted handle to allow the user to try and catch the water balloon with the device. Audience members volunteered to have a go, donned some nominal protective gear, grabbed the iPad by the handle and tried to “catch” the balloon on the screen. A direct hit/catch caused the app to make a breaking sound and bring up an image that made it appear that the screen had been shattered.

Sadly, the audience found it too easy, no water was spilled and the demo was pretty underwhelming considering all the faff it required to set up. It would have been more interesting to get a better picture of what they were up to as a company and what the ideas behind it were, but I guess I’ll just have to wait and see what they actually do next.

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I’m attempting to write up every single session I went to at SXSWi. Will be mostly about games, but also how tech can kill, neuroscience, digital anthropology, civic science and more.

 

There were actually three talks about improvision that sounded quite interesting at SXSW. I made it to this short, 15 minute presentation, but not the others. Fortunately, those other two have both had the audio posted online, though I haven’t had a chance to listen yet:

Change Happens: Improv for an Unpredictable World. “…how improv can increase your adaptability”.
http://schedule.sxsw.com/2012/events/event_IAP9388

Storytelling: From the Bar to the Boardroom. “Using techniques adopted from improv and sketch comedy – you’ll learn how to craft a story that your audience will remember long after you have gone.”
http://schedule.sxsw.com/2012/events/event_IAP8581

 

Brad Temple on Applied Improvisation: Preparing to Be Unprepared

http://schedule.sxsw.com/2012/events/event_IAP10449

Back to this talk, then, which was part of the Future 15 series of short talks. In it, Brad Temple of the Austin Improv Collective discussed the ways in which the principles of improvisional theatre can be applied to everyday life, and work in particular.

He started with a historical example from Xerox, who had been trying to create a full manual for their engineers. They found that the many combinations of possible problems across all their machines were impossible to fully document, it was too huge a task. They recognised that their engineers would have to be able to improvise, but that that was OK.

Some myths about improv, according to Temple.

  • It never fails
  • Only some people can do it
  • Improv is comedy
  • It doesn’t have frameworks or rules

What is true about improv?

  • It’s a process
  • It improves with practice
  • It’s usually collaborative
  • It’s a combination of making do, and letting go

There was, he said, very limited literature on the subject, or particularly good empirical evidence for its use, but he was obviously convinced it was a valuable tool. He did point us towards the work of Mary Crossan (I actually wrote down Mary Cross, but some research tells me Mary Crossan is more likely to be the right person!) who has written on business and improvisation. He also mentioned Viola Spolin, who was influential in improvisational theatre and used games to develop the relevant skills.

So what are the main principles of improvisation?

  • Teamwork, trust and support
  • Failure is not only OK but crucial
  • Making your teammates look good
  • Being in the moment
  • Not premeditating or dwelling on past mistakes
  • Listening and communication, really hearing what people are saying
  • Agreement, and building upon others ideas – “yes, and…” rather than “no, but…”
  • Minimal structures, maximal flexibility

Being such a short talk it was lacking in case studies and details that might have made it a bit clearer how this might work in practice, but still, some interesting ideas, I thought.

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I’m attempting to write up every single session I went to at SXSWi. Will be mostly about games, but also how tech can kill, neuroscience, digital anthropology, civic science and more.

Geekscape talking to Joss Whedon at SXSW about Cabin in the Woods

 

A Conversation with Joss Whedon

http://schedule.sxsw.com/2012/events/event_IAP100611

I just bloody love Joss Whedon, what an absolute legend. I wasn’t going to miss the opportunity to hear him talk at SXSW. I didn’t take lots of notes as I just wanted to sit back and listen, and I had faith that it would be fairly well covered, which it was. Some links to the coverage below.

He’d just opened the SXSW Film Festival with his new horror, Cabin in the Woods, which sounds like it went down a storm. My recommendation: do not watch the trailer, do not read ANYTHING about it, avoid all possible spoilers. I already feel I know too much. Opens in the UK on the 13th April, I personally can’t wait. Whedon + horror is a kind of geek perfect storm for me. Inevitably, he also spent some time discussing the new Avengers movie which I’m less excited about, not being a huge Marvel fan. I don’t see how a movie with 7 superheroes in it that isn’t Watchmen could be anything other than a mess, but if anyone can pull it off, he can.

I was most struck by what an incredible fount of creativity he is, moving between genres and media with a never ending stream of ideas and a totally infectious enthusiasm for what he does. For example, he had a week off after completing Avengers, so made another movie, Much Ado About Nothing. In a WEEK.

There was a nice moment when the first questioner said that they were playing SuperBetter (see my earlier post) and had a quest to high five Joss Whedon. Well, said Joss, we’d better do that then. And so they did. Someone did ask the Firefly question, to which he responded that he kept waiting for the suits to realise they could make some money out of a Firefly reboot and make that call to him, but it never came. My plea: for the love of God, someone make that call.

There is a really nice full talk write up at Flavorwire.

Hollywood Reporter covered the Cabin in the Woods premiere.

A live drawing from Unified and StumbleUpon.

A live blog of the session from leakynews.

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I’m attempting to write up every single session I went to at SXSWi. Will be mostly about games, but also how tech can kill, neuroscience, digital anthropology, civic science and more.

Adrian Hon – Creating the Code: A BBC Transmedia Documentary

http://schedule.sxsw.com/2012/events/event_FP990220

Since they started, I’ve been very interested in the work of Six to Start, founded by brothers Adrian and Dan Hon following their work for Mind Candy on the groundbreaking ARG (Alternate Reality Game) Perplex City. I was due to work with them on Spooks: Code 9 before I ducked off to join the Wellcome Trust instead in 2008 but have been keeping an eye on their projects in the years since. They always seem to be up to something interesting.

Dan has since left the company, but Adrian remains and the company continues to produce things that sound intriguing and novel, the latest being the Zombies Run Game. Last year, it was The Code, a BBC show about maths, presented by Marcus du Sautoy, that contained a hidden transmedia treasure hunt created by Six to Start. I signed up for the kick off, which involved receiving a postcard which had part of a visual clue on it and would require collaborating with the other postcard holders to solve. I hate to admit it, but that was as far as I got, I didn’t immediately get what I had to do and put it aside and forgot about it.

When I saw Adrian was speaking about it at SXSWi, though, I thought I’d go along and see what I’d missed. And, as I’ve worked with the BBC previously on a similarly large project around a TV property, I was interested to see what their experience had been.

From my understanding, the postcard clue needed to be put together with all the other post card clues, which then formed a shape. The players did this via the Facebook fan page, and the animated composite image is here. When turned into a 3D model, this unveiled the shape of the prize, a mathematical sculpture by artist Bathsheba Grossman.

This was all part of the pre show/pre game build up. With the show transmission, the treasure hunt proper began. I’m not exactly clear on how this worked, but it involved looking for clues in the BBC show itself and there are more details here. There were also four flash mini games and a puzzle book to solve. The three finalists who were first to “crack the code” were invited to a live event at Bletchley Park (viewable here) where they had to solve clues against the clock to find the overall winner.

It sounds like an absolutely mammoth undertaking, so was it successful? From Six to Start’s own site, here are the stats for The Code:

  • 1,000,000+ players of The Code Flash games
  • TV show significantly outperformed benchmarks on iPlayer and 7 day viewing figures
  • 100,000+ treasure hunt players engaging in the overarching meta-puzzle
  • 300,000+ interactions on the Facebook fan page
  • 1000+ photos, videos, 3D models, and a wiki with 100,000 views and 2000+ edits – all created by users!

The whole thing was really involved and quite complex, not to mention on a traditionally unpopular subject, maths, so over 100k players for the meta-puzzle is impressive. I do wonder how many stuck through the whole thing, ie, how many truly dedicated players there were, and would be interested in more stats on that. But still, it does seem like quite an achievement.

To pull this off required quite an operation behind the scenes of course, and we heard some instructive stories about how they did it. It was especially impressive since it sounded like they had a not massive budget, with little in there for marketing, and had to rely on their own twitter following for the pre-game puzzle solving.

There were a number of advantages about working with a TV programme. There is crossover and synergy and a flow, between the TV and online audiences. The media are complementary – video is good for explaining science, but games can be richer. However, there are disadvantages too.

There is considerable uncertainty about what will make the final programme, and a huge uncertainty about the transmission date. TV schedulers often decide the TX date late on, and even then it can be changed at the last minute. They just had to be flexible to deal with this. To deal with the uncertainty about the edit, they made sure they picked out quite a lot more shots per show than they needed to use as clues, knowing that several would get cut and they’d be left with probably just enough.

Another problem with working with a TV show is that they are usually an entirely separate production team. Moreover, they are a separate production to the BBC commissioning team that you will be working with as well. Six to Start’s solution to this was canny, they embedded a producer at the BBC, and a web producer in the programme production team. That meant that they had someone who was effectively both part of each of the other teams as well as their own, and that the communication problems that could otherwise arise were averted. Smart.

These weren’t the only challenges with creating something like this though. The solution had to be kept secret, and Hon recommended that only two people should ever know the final answer, that it should never be written down and that data relating to it should be encrypted. That sounds a little extreme but I guess when you think that the whole project is scuppered if this is given away, it’s quite reasonable.

Balancing the game is a challenge. They needed it to be done within three weeks, but equally it couldn’t happen too quickly. So to keep it challenging they made multilayered puzzles, but also provided encouragement along the way (but no outright hints) such as suggesting that users set up a wiki. Though the game was challenging, he did suggest that you can never make it too easy to actually get into at the start.

Failure of some sort, he suggested, was inevitable. The puzzle would be broken in some way, people might do something unexpected, and things would go wrong. So it was important that they, and their partners, were all prepared for this.

Really interesting to hear all this, lots of great insight and a fascinating project. Sadly, it sounds like the BBC is likely to produce few one offs like this in the future, instead moving towards using just one platform for their online content of this sort. There wasn’t much detail on this, so if that’s true I’d love to be pointed in the direction of some more information about what this would be. Anyone know more?

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