May 2015 - Digifest

BUILDING MOMENTUM|A conversation with Jason Della Rocca

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In an interview with Digifest speaker Jason Della Rocca, co-founder of Execution Labs, Digifest blogger Marcello Ferrara asks about the current state of game development. The highlights of their conversation are below.

Q: What do you think is a serious misconception about game development?

That’s a good question – it really depends, if you ask an average person on the street, hey how are games made? They will have no clue.

Q: But what about the ‘average’ gamer?

I think ‘gamers’ are probably a little bit knowledgeable – ok there’s some artists, some programmers, and some designers coming up with ideas and they all put it together, and here’s this, you know, game. I don’t think people really understand how games are made. There’s just not as much awareness as, let’s say, movies. They’ll have better sense of it: oh you write a script, there’s a director, etc. They’ll probably miss certain points about costume design, all those little details, but they’ll have an overarching idea.

Q: Do you think that’s a problem with the industry not being transparent as others or not as popular?

I mean arguably games are as popular from a consumer consumption point of view. It’s different because it’s less human: in movies you see actors on screen, there’s just more awareness of the humanity behind it and I don’t think you have that as much in the game industry because we’re not on the screen. You don’t have television shows about where we go for dinner and vacation.

But that might change or will change as game creation becomes more mundane, the same way that taking a video of yourself and posting it was unimaginable even just a few years ago, whereas now everybody can be an amateur movie-maker or writer. If you went back several hundred years, and asked an average medieval person, how is a book made? I don’t know, there’s monks and they chant! Whereas now everyone opens up Word and starts writing.

So I think ‘in the future’ when anyone can say, oh I have an idea for something that’s a playful system, let me open up Game and I’ll just say new game and type up my ideas – then it will change.

Q: What do you think of about the current state of the Canadian game industry?

The game industry in Canada is quite robust. It has a very, very good reputation worldwide. We are known to make top-quality, critically acclaimed games. On the whole, I would say we’re doing extremely well and we’re well positioned globally. Historically, Canada has been more weighted toward the triple-A, big budget console games. And so there’s a bit of a rocky-road on the transition to new platforms and mobile devices and free-to-play business models. But that’s a rocky-road for everyone to migrate towards, so we’re still dealing with the challenges of that transition.

Q: You mentioned in your talk that you encountered a professor that didn’t know how to grade innovation. What about the current way we teach game development that you think could be improved?

We’re still in a world where most game designers have not been formally taught. The notion of a game design degree program is relatively new, probably from the turn of the century. I mean, now, of course, it’s much more prevalent.

I think the question of innovation is – what area of you innovating in? If I think of games, I tend to think of it through four different lenses: one is the technology, one is design, one is the aesthetic element, and one is the business side. We often talk about technological innovation – Playstation has this many chips and memory and speed, the next IPhone has x, y, and z new features! – we’re so comfortable talking about technological innovation, but the other areas less so. In fact, on the business side, there has been a tremendous amount of innovation from business models and monetization. Like massive. Like billions of dollars worth of value creation has come from business innovation in the game industry. On the design and artistic front, we often don’t articulate or identify what is gameplay innovation or what is cultural innovation.

Q: Why is the business end able to innovate far more than the ‘creative’?

I think what we see are certain companies building momentum on the rules of the games today. They optimize how to succeed. If you look at Electronic Arts (EA), they’ve dominated the retail channel, getting all their games on the shelves at Walmart and Best Buy.

Now things are getting digital, and those distribution channels become meaningless. You have new companies that come out of nowhere to innovate based on the new rules. Because games are so dynamic – and I don’t wanna say easy to produce – but if you put a bunch of artists and programmers and designers together and make a game, you can reconfigure the economic, business side of things relatively easily. So while EA is worried about shipping boxes to warehouses, you’re Rovio, with seven guys, saying, oh, this iPhone is coming out, let’s put our game on there – whereas EA would say, what the hell do I wanna put my game on a phone? Leave me alone, I’m busy shipping a million units to Best Buy.

Q: Do you see new revenue streams such as Patreon or Kickstarter as a potential sustainable source of revenue for independent artists?

Kickstarter has been revolutionary for games, really starting with Tim Schafer and Double Fine’s efforts. If you look at something like Star Citizen, they’re up to seventy or eighty million dollars. It opens the door to a whole different type of relationship between developers and fans – I think it’s challenging in that there’s no guarantee. It requires well-seasoned developers to leverage that platform. If you’re some bozo, and you think, I got a game idea, I’ll put it on Kickstarter and get a million dollars – it just doesn’t happen. You have to be so coordinated and organized and aggressive in terms of how you communicate. It’s hard work. Your job is the Kickstarter. For those who can coordinate themselves and have that tenacity, then it’s a very powerful tool, but I mean for everyone funded there’s another fifty that die on roadside.

Q: Given the recent madness with paid mods on steam, if Gabe Newell asked you, “Jason, what did we do wrong?” What would you say to him?

Yeah, they were too greedy. I think in places where you’re doing community driven stuff like mods, you have to be community minded. You have to look like you’re serving the users and not taking such a big cut. I mean, admittedly, I haven’t read the details, but I’m surprised that the splits would have been aggressive in favour of the companies. I think flipping it – Valve and Bethesda taking less of a cut – would have avoided a backlash, but the IP stuff is very tricky. Mods in many ways are meant to be labours of love, and they’re also combinatorial in that I grab your stuff and build something and then you grab my stuff, etc. But now, how do you divvy up the share if I built on your stuff, which is built on his stuff, which is built on her stuff, etc.? You see similar problems in the open source community.

Q: How do people in the AAA industry view the modding community?

Depends on who you talk to. If you go to someone like Id Software – they essentially pioneered the notion of mods – they’d probably see it as extremely valuable. For many games it’s a way to extend the lifetime of the game, keep players engaged, to leverage that subset of fans with amateur development skills. It’s also a pipeline for talent. If you look at Epic, Bethesda, Gearbox, they’ll go and hire some of the best modders. It’s like a proving ground for talent. Of course, not every game has modding capabilities or even makes sense for mods, so it’s not prevalent across all games, but I think on the whole it’s viewed as something very positive, very useful, and very valuable.

Q: Last year there were a number of big named releases that botched their launches – server issues, bugs, glitches – how does this happen and why do these companies release incomplete games?

Yeah, it would be fun if we were in the boardrooms of those companies to hear the conversations they were having. The challenge is that a lot of these companies are large, multinationals that report to shareholders. They have the stock markets watching them. There are certain timings that make it necessary: we have to get the game out by this date so it’s counted in this quarter. You can imagine they’re sitting in the boardroom saying, we have to get it out by this date, but we know it’s buggy – who knows. Because everything’s connected, they’re always the temptation, ah, we’ll patch it. It’s not like it used to be where you put it out and done.

Q: Why is video game marketing often better at engaging emotions than the actual game?

That’s a really good question – the best answer I can think of is that the advertising is made by ad agencies that have been doing this for decades. They know exactly how to pull all your strings and play with your emotions and deal with the human psyche, and they’re way more talented than we are as game designers. Or the medium allows for a different level of engagement.

That was a great commercial – the Gears of War – it was super potent: every moment was controlled and authored as drugs for your brain, whereas a game is much more loose, much more open, systemic, with all the variables in play, the user controlling the experience. It’s much more difficult in a long form interactive experience to really manage those emotions. The people in advertising have been playing with our emotions for a hundred years, whereas we in many ways are still figuring it out.

Q: What do you think it says about the time and culture of video games today that toxicity has become so excessive and aggressive?

That’s a tough one – on one hand the game industry is more diverse, both terms of who the creators are and what’s being produced, it’s more diverse than it’s ever been. You have mainstream blockbuster content, small studio production, punk-rocker type indie designers that are just making creative stuff for free. The creative and expressive power of games has never been more evident than before. I think what’s happening to a certain extent is that opening up of the art form comes into conflict with the historical norms of what game culture and game geeks were – the male dominated, shoot everything – the male power fantasy type experiences. You have that culture of the male power fantasy colliding with the much more expressive, open and diverse power of games. I think the old school feels threatened, like they’re losing what’s ‘special’ about games to them.

To look at the silver lining, it’s amazing that those conflicts are happening because it means the art form is evolving, flourishing and changing, expanding beyond what we could have ever imagined. But you do have that toxicity and trouble along the way. If it just remained this niche and nerdy subculture, that would be cause for concern more so than the fact that there’s conflict. As ironic as it may sound, I see that as positive thing, even though in the moment, of course, it’s extremely horrible and it sucks, but if you think of the long term trajectory of the medium, it’s a necessary step.

MORE INFRASTRUCTURE BUILDING | A conversation with Anthony Di Iorio

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In an interview with Digifest panelist speaker Anthony Di Ioria,CEO and Founder Decentral, Digifest blogger Marcello Ferrara asks the current state of cryptocurrency. The highlights of their conversation are below.

Q: Bitcoin is often framed as being in an early stage of development but what is the major lesson that you think we can learn in transition to the next?

Well, I think it is in the early stages, but it’s also moving much faster. I’ve never seen something move so fast. So it can be considered the early development stages, but I still think it’s moving much, much faster than the development of the internet was when the internet was first being developed.

Q: How is it even possible to regulate a decentralized system like bitcoin?

Well, you regulate it, like you’re doing any other type of system of financial transactions and whether or not people abide by it or not… I mean, you could say on one hand that it’s a little bit harder to enforce because it can be anonymous but it’s also traceable and people within the transactions can actually be seen by anybody. So it does offer tools in order to—for regulators or for law enforcement to actually track money flow. So that’s actually a positive thing in that sense. But yes, it is difficult to regulate it. And it’s up to, individuals afterwards to see whether or not they want to follow the certain rules.

Q: What are the types of regulations you would want to see introduced?

I’d like to see more not just about which regulations, but to actually have them out there where people know what type of playing field they have – so they can know what they have to do instead of being in this grey area. So, I know they’re coming. It would be good to see them. I hope they take their time with it and I hope they don’t come too strong down on it. But, in general, I don’t know if there’s any that I personally care to see. People have different opinions but I kind of try to stay in the middle ground.

Q: What do you think the next step is for bitcoin?

More merchant adoption. A  Making it easier to for people to understand or use the technology—not necessarily having to understand it, but using the technology. Getting to the point where people understand that they can save a lot of money by using the technology. So, merchant adoption, more start-ups, more people building up the infrastructure.

Q: Just as a kind of fun question, maybe, are you familiar with the crypto-currency that was based off of Kanye West’s—

A: Yeah.

Q: Although it completely flamed out because he did not approve of it, do you see a point in the future where celebrities or sort of high-value individuals whose brand is very much a part of their monetary identity investing in crypto-currencies to sort of increase their revenue in the market?

Yeah, I’m actually surprised there hasn’t been more influx in branded coins for companies and individuals and artists to try to monetize by using the technology and I think we are going see them. It’s gonna be very strong in the next couple of years.

Q: So bitcoin and other crypto-currencies are often positioned as being sort of an alternative to the current financial quagmire that we find ourselves in. But with the technology that makes transactions faster and can cross borders without exchange rates, how do you see it not being taken over by multi-national corporations that already value that kind of high-frequency trading and that continually bump head with exchange rates and regulations?

Well, I think what’s so good about bitcoin is that you got tens and thousands—millions—of people using the technology so it’s very difficult for one organization to come in and try to take the lion’s share of it.

It’s not the best system—the mining system – the way it works is there can be a group that can potentially come in with vaster computers and try to disrupt the network, but they’re working on the technology of getting rid of that and making it more trustworthy so we don’t have to rely even on that system where it could actually be overtaken by a larger entity. So, it is one of the flaws and it is an issue. But I’m not too scared about it. They are working on ways to remove that and it will make it impossible for large organizations to try and get large shares of it.

Q: What do you think of corporations like Xapo that try to ground bitcoin in a centralized location and function as a traditional bank?

Yeah, I think there’s a place for it. I think people want it. I think there are larger organizations that don’t actually want to take the risk on of knowing how to hold their own bitcoins. That’s fairly similar to a bank, and they’re offering insurance on it and things that some people may want. So I think it’s just added choice that they can do and I think it’s just as important on the other end that people develop systems like mine where we don’t hold on to customer’s funds—we don’t have access to customer’s funds – but we’re still providing the tools necessary for them to tap into the network and use it without having to trust us with any of them.

Q: Can you talk about your work on your platform?

So what we’re bringing is a very basic platform that people can build easily on top of. And it’s not something you can do with bitcoin right now and it’s something that we’re developing by taking the bitcoin technology and improving upon it by creating a programmable scripting language that anybody with any language they know can go, or if they know C++, can go and build these applications on top of it by using our infrastructure. So they don’t have to worry about building infrastructure, they can worry about their product and getting it out there, without needing to think about building all this proprietary infrastructure and all these costs involved and things like that. That’s what we’re building. It’s a platform that anybody can build on top of and build these decentralized applications.

 

OCCUPY THE IMAGINATION | A conversation with Arthur Kroker

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In an interview with MEET THE MEDIA GURU keynote speaker Dr. Arthur Kroker, Canada Research Chair in Technology, Culture and Theory, Digifest blogger Marcello Ferrara learns what artists can do for politics. The highlights of their conversation are below.

Q: Thirty years ago, in your book, Technology and the Canadian Mind, you argue that Canada experienced the rise of technology “a restless oscillation between the pragmatic will to live at all costs of the Americans and a searing lament for that which has been suppressed by the modern, technical order” (p.1). Thirty years onward, how do you think the Canadian experience of technological development has changed?

I think it changed creatively for sure: there’s a young generation of artists who have directly confronted it in absolutely creative ways – as evidence by the work that goes on at Digifest. They’ve begun to think the question of technology and its relationship to human perception, questions of affect, creative imagination, and really begun to redeploy and rethink the question of our technological future itself. On the artistic level, Canada is a world leader in rethinking the question of technology that have amazing aesthetic and also ethical implications.

I talked about thirty years ago that tension between proximity to the language of power and intonation of a lament based deprival – really thinking – what’s been lost with an accelerated technological society? And in the years since it’s been intensified in very brutal ways. It’s played out, for example, in the question of fossil fuel energies in Canada: technologies which are multinational in character, interested in the Keystone pipelines, putting tanker traffic down in the pristine coast of British Columbia – it really represents one of the major ways in Canada where predatory technologies devastate landscapes and devastate the possibility of a country. And it’s given rise to exactly the opposite side of that equation, which is progressive groups in the country – as evidence by the recent Alberta election – and by groups around the country of people from many different points of view – environmental, political, indigenous rights – all thinking about a different culture and society, not necessarily rejecting the question of technology, but saying, let’s listen to the artistic imagination for a sustainable result in the future. And I think the discussion will deliver a profound maturity.

Q: How can artwork engage ethically and meaningfully in an industry that treats art as a packaged good, no different from a cheeseburger?

The main political battleground is controlling the language of human perception itself. You can see it at a festival like Digifest manifest, on the one hand, as digital commerce, which powerfully preys (in a predatory way) on the creative imagination of artists, in terms of branding, the development of consumer audiences, developing better emotional valences for advertising – the traditional forms of capitalism just remade and reconfigured in terms of the language of the digital imagination.

On the other hand, in the midst of that infernal, you have the continued and very real, profound vitality of the artistic imagination. Artists themselves, by virtue for the fact that they are artists, have not slid simply into brand consciousness; it’s given a rise everywhere to an explosion of unexpected and unpredictable remediations of aesthetics and affects in the time in which we live.

When I go around Digifest, I see so many interesting projects here that are doing that. And they’re not projects with borderlines: they’re not commercial or non-commercial. The interesting art projects are the ones that seek to reframe the circumstances of the time in which we live, and they attract evocative responses precisely to the extent that they successfully unframe things. But I don’t want to put that in a simplistic way: a lot of artists work in commercial industries and do creative work. It’s a question of power and aesthetics.

Q: Why is there such a difficulty for meaningful opposition to arise?

I think, politically, we’re in a time of transition. I would agree that these events like Occupy Wallstreet and Idle No More, that on the ground, it gives off an appearance that they haven’t sustained themselves, but I think we’re missing the point, because they’ve already occupied imaginations, and those imaginations have gone into waiting mode.

I believe there is a profound collective explosion waiting to happen in Canada, where people are drawing boundary lines between the country and the kind of country we want to live in. The evidence for that is the state has already taken preemptive disciplinary actions, like in the city of Montreal – a city I lived in for twenty years, a city where in the best and worst circumstances lots of creative artists congregate and create art within and against the language of the consumer spectacle – the state has already authorized police to break up demonstrations by young people if they don’t have authorization by city hall. These are preemptive actions based on the politics of fear. But at the same time, we have people rising to counter-reaction to the powers’ acknowledgement that the human imagination has moved to another place. And those who occupy the creative imagination will win in the long term. We’re just waiting for the tactics to be worked out.

FOCUS ON THE DETAILS | A conversation with Felix Kubin

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In an interview with international speaker Felix Kubin, electronic musician and artist, Digifest blogger Marcello Ferrara learns there’s more to music than just building loops. The highlights of their conversation are below.

Q: With music videos, sound tracked films, people have gotten use to thinking of music as a part of the audio/visual experience. What is the pleasure or benefit of the pure audio experience, especially with regards to narrative?

In terms of pure music, I think the difference is that you can hear a piece of music over and over again, whereas a film you usually watch once unless – this is my thesis – it has a very musical impact. A film like Eraserhead is really a sound composition, so I can see this film again and again.

The more an art or artist controls what you’re supposed to perceive, the less you want to see it or perceive it twice. I think that music and especially radio plays leaves enough space in your head for you to fill with your own compositions, your own memories, or your own thoughts. That’s why I like to engage with music again and again.

Q: I was going over last night an interview from the mid-1990’s Wire conducted with Stockhausen. They gave him a bunch of the who’s who from the electronic scene – Aphex Twin, Scanner, etc. – he said there was too much repetition in their music. As someone who works with loops, how much repetition is too much repetition?

There are different kinds of repetition. It’s true, there’s a big danger with loops. I think Stockhausen is right: if you can expect already what will happen in the next minute, it can be boring. But there are musicians like Terry Riley or Steve Reich who work exactly with this idea: the listener has an expectation, but then they change minimal things. They work with loops that are played live, so the loops are slowly changing. You become aware of the details. That’s something I like. It’s kind of a microscopy.

Some people would say Stockhausen’s music is repetitive if they’re unfamiliar with his kind of music, because it would all sound the same: there’s no melody, just sounds coming left and right.

Especially in video I can get bored of loops very fast. In music, it can happen pretty quickly because programs like Ableton Live, for example, encourage people to create looped music, and the people often don’t know how to modulate and filter the signals so that the combinations are always new.

Q: What is the importance of silence in your musical compositions?

I’m discovering silence more and more. There’s a fear of silence, especially in the loud times we’re living in – not only loud acoustically, but loud generally, from information coming everywhere. Silence has this element of embarrassment. When people are silent, we think, ‘oh they have a problem,’ or ‘they’re shy’. But I think silence is a good way to think about what just happened.

When you’re in a film or a composition, and you have a lot of action going on, you need some time to cope with what you’ve just seen. Silence gives you the possibility of creating an echo in your own brain of what you’ve experienced.

Q: A lot of musicians today struggle a great deal to make a living off of their art. What is your advice to those musicians?

I have two pieces of advice. The first: try not to compromise your work. Sometimes people give you a length they need, they say, “this piece cannot be longer than 20 minutes,” and that’s a compromise I have no problem with. I like sometimes to follow a certain set of parameters, but in my artistic expression – the way I want to express myself – I never compromise, and I never did. I think it’s important to maintain your pride and your independence.

The second thing is: don’t rest on your laurels. If you, for example, found a way of performing that attracts lots of people, it doesn’t mean you can make a living from it for the rest of your life. I think it’s very important to always explore new fields and not be afraid of disciplines that you’ve never been working with. You need to extend your skills. Most artists have a general talent for many things: they can write, they can sing, or they’re good performers – or they don’t, and then they develop some skills in the studio. But I think it’s always good to be permanently exploring things.

When it comes to the point when people have to pay you, you have to ask for your money. Despite all the silly discussions like ‘well it’s great that you as an artist can show your stuff to the world on Soundcloud,’ – whatever, I need fucking money to pay my rent, to pay my food, to buy food for my daughter, and to have a roof over our head.

As long as society doesn’t take care for the fact that everyone has a roof over their head, and you have to fight for it, to work for it, you have to insist on getting paid, and paid as much as possible for the quality of work you deliver. That doesn’t mean it’s always something for the masses. It’s more that you’re a part of developing a comment on society and cultural developments, being critical of it, and opening other doors. That’s something that can interest only fifteen people for the moment, but might be celebrated fifty years later. You never know.

Day 3 highlights at Digifest 2015

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No matter how many incredible ideas you fill in two days of talks, the experience will be linear and static. Thankfully, when the sun rose on Saturday, the doors swung open on Digifest 2015 and the public rushed in.

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The entire day was filled with exciting workshops: Brian Pullen hosted a workshop on smart watches: what they are, how they work, and when we’ll all be using them; Cinematographer Benoit Labourdette and then Jason Eaton described the best practices for filming with drones; and, finally, for those who missed the talks the days before, Zach Aysan of Venn discussed the future of privacy.

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Under the enormous ceiling of Corus’ main hall, over a baker’s dozen start-ups set up shop to inform and demonstrate their work. I mainly spent my time around of George Brown’s very own Neon Mountain Games, playing Space Booty, a mixture of the space battles from Asteroids and face-paced top-down combat of Hotline Miami. But beyond videogames, people could see experimental drones, rental management software and much more.

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In the Corus Performance Studio, the Pleasure Room was filled with a diverse set of experiences that explored how technology can engage the human senses: there was Perfect Woman, a Kinect game that asked players to mimic the arbitrary and impossible body movements of ideal women; there was the Mission Group’s clever ruse, ByoLogic, complete with a faux-testing zone for ByoMate; in the centre, you could play with Steve Mann’s Hydraulophone; if you ever wanted to know what it was like to punch fire out of your hands, Fists of Fury VR was a good approximation. I had never seen so many different and unique experience stacked in such a small square footage.

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The highlight of my day was Felix Kubin’s performance. Twenty or so people sat in a medium sized soundproofed room behind the stage, while Kubin and his daughter prepared the show. Kubin introduced himself and his work, a twenty minute song commissioned for a show in France. He stitched it together, he explained, like a patchwork quilt of sounds he encountered in his daily life. The twenty-minutes flew by quickly as a narrator counted down from twenty, popping in and out to introduce or bookend each section of sounds. She would say, “open the door,” and for the next thirty seconds, what sounded like an orchestra tuning mixed with a man furiously trying to open a jammed door. The entire piece lulled me into a trance, and by the time she counted down to one, and the piece ended, I was left with the echoes of all the sounds I heard, constructing a story in my head.

Saturday, in many ways, was similar to Kubin’s performance. Packed in the Corus Entertainment Building was an assortment of diverse and unique experiences, cleverly constructed for you to form your narrative of the future.

You Have to Have Something Else | A conversation with Brian Pullen

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In an interview with Digifest keynote speaker Brian Pullen, Design Director at The Working Group, Digifest blogger Marcello Ferrara asks about the current state of web design. The highlights of their conversation are below.

Q: You’ve gone from a designer, to the founder of your own company, and now a design director at The Working Group. How has your approach to design evolved over the course those transitions?

I think I just started to guide myself and make decisions on projects. As an entrepreneur, you focus on the business itself. So you blend design with other disciplines, which, I think, makes you a better designer.

Ultimately coming to The Working Group put me in charge of a large design team, and I focused on team management and team building. They’re unique experiences, but they all come together and use a lot of the same ideas and skills.

Q: How is the industry different now than when you started Playground Inc.?

Well, I think they’re a lot of practitioners, a lot of agencies, a lot of freelancers: the last report I saw was a hundred and thirty thousand web design agencies in North America alone. It’s an incredibly flooded and competitive industry, and it’s causing the work we do to become highly monetized. Agencies who once commanded a higher price, or want to become more profitable, or grow their business beyond a handful of people, they have to offer something that no one else is offering.

So simply being a great designer, having good engineering, having good processes, those won’t get you anywhere – they’re a hundred thousand other businesses that have them, right? You have to have something else. And that can be very challenging.

Q: What is your advice to new or aspiring web designers?

Go into product work, not service work. Go work at a start-up, or a company that’s building a serious design team. Agencies might be good places to start your career, but it might not be the best fit for everyone.

Q: You’re running a workshop on Saturday about Smart Watches. There’s a lot of public skepticism surrounding the viability of smart watches. What do you see as the major hurdles for them to overcome to be a viable product?

I would actually agree that today smart watches are a niche product for an early adopter market, but I think there’s a great deal of promise for them in the near future.

What it requires is not more apps or more battery life, but more infrastructure: other pieces of hardware out there in the world that can communicate with the watch.

When the watch starts to become your key to the world – your gym membership or the way you start your car or your security badge at work or the way you pay – it’s what you want when you want it.

That’s going be an extremely compelling product, and I think that’s the vision of the world smart watch people are going for, but we’re just going to have to wait a few years to get there.

Q: The theme of this year’s Digifest is the intersection between privacy, money, and pleasure in the changing world of digital media and technology. How are you and your colleagues approaching these topics in your industry?

In the context of Digifest, privacy is for us is about preserving security, doing security right, and that’s not actually a very hard thing to do. I think you have to go out of way to do security wrong. Today most tools, most development practices, they strive to make things pretty secure. That’s the form of privacy we work on. From a design perspective, we are cognisant of not being overly aggressive with taking users data and using it, but if there is an idea that uses it, we will.

As for money, technologies like Bitcoin are making their way into our studio, working with them, researching the technology block chain, but realistically there is not a lot of clients that want it. It’s not mainstream enough for us to build a business off of. It is so early right now; universities, start-ups, they’re the ones doing that work. As far as pleasure is concerned, everyone endeavours to enjoy what they do. We’re certainly no exception to that.

What is Smart? | A conversation with Nastaran Dadashi

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In an interview with Future15 speaker Nastaran Dadashi, professor of Interaction Design at George Brown University, Digifest blogger Marcello Ferrara learns that we need to be smart about our definitions of intelligence. The highlights of their conversation are below.

Q: Your recent work studies issues in intelligent infrastructure systems, so you’re probably aware of the recent proliferation of the ‘Smart Cities,” like the nearly completed city of Songdo, Korea or the announced new capital of Egypt. What challenges do you see countries facing in their attempt to radically improve their infrastructure?

We assume the challenge is technology – but the challenge is never technology. The technology will catch up and that is something that developers don’t like to believe. No matter how high you dream, technology is going to catch up to that dream, sooner or later. So it’s good have a concept as advanced as possible. The challenge is not technology, but what is intelligence? What is ‘Smart’?

The same definition of a smart machine is not the same definition of a smart human being. We are expecting people be impressed by a stupid system that we think is very smart and that’s just not going to happen. The reality is that we spend huge amounts of money on this toy that we are very impressed with – it’s state of the art technology – and it’s not working because it’s not in tune with human beings. The challenge is finding what is smart in the eyes of the individual. And that is a very, very philosophical problem because different people have different definitions of how smart things are. So what is the shortcut? What is the tactic?

It goes back their cultural situation, their contextual awareness. ‘Smart’ in the Middle East is a different definition than ‘smart’ in the Western world. All of these subjective definitions that we want replicated in a smart system have different situational definitions, different contexts. That’s going to be the biggest challenge.

Q: What role do telecommunications companies like Cisco have to play in the future of intelligent architecture? What is the danger in leaving infrastructure expertise in the hands of the private sector?

The problem with the private sector is they won’t have access to the spread and network of data. It should be a distributed network of private and public because the private sector, in my opinion, are more effective in terms of implementing things and actually getting it done: there’s always a tight framework, there’s always a project that needs to be delivered, and there’s always a boss that demands it. But the public sector has access to huge amounts of data nodes that is required to make it an effective smart system. So it needs to be provided and supported by the public sector and driven by the private sector.

And then we get into the ethical situation of what we are sensing, what we are tracking, what we are recording of the public life and how that information passes to the public sector.

Q: Yesterday, Bill C-51, the so-called Anti-Terrorism Act, passed the House of Commons. What will the impact of these sorts of broad policies affect the future of intelligent infrastructure?

I don’t want to be cynical and say, ‘that information is already there,’ it’s just a matter of people wanting to get a hold of it. We sign up to living in the world of mobile phones and smart phones and every move, everything we do is, one way or another tracked. Governments using it for specific purposes… I’m not sure how I feel about that, but I don’t think it actually matters. That’s a separate thing that enables governments to justify what they want to do. We are living in an intelligent infrastructure world even without knowing it.

Q: The theme of this year’s Digifest is the intersection between privacy, money, and pleasure in the changing world of digital media and technology. How are you and your colleagues approaching these topics in your industry?

Intelligent infrastructure enables people; it doesn’t necessarily need to collect personal information – I’m talking about intelligent infrastructures within railways, within asset management. Eventually when we have the mature definition of intelligence – how we can design for it properly – we get into more personal aspects smart technologies. It’s very beneficial because things are no longer linear; they are multi-agent, so intelligent systems are the way forward. They can help us in the same way as a washing machine helped the 19th century people to not waste hours and hours washing their clothes.

Intelligent infrastructure can – I’m being very idealistic – do the mundane stuff so that I can have a better life. Instead of washing
clothes, for example, you now have time to read a book. All of the innovative things of the beginning of the 19th century, the Industrial revolution freed the man from his time to dream, and I believe intelligent infrastructure is that next leap. But we are spending a hell of a lot of money in the wrong way, because we are just funding a technology, and the technology on its own will not make a smart system. What is smart? That is something we need still need to understand.

Day 2 highlights at Digifest 2015

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If Thursday signalled a near limitless landscape of possibility, Friday at Digifest was a much needed reality check, for better and worse. “The success of today hinders your success tomorrow,” said Jason Della Rocca, the profile of Darwin looming overhead. Jason is the head of Montreal’s Execution Labs, an accelerator based in Montreal that helps new independent developers bring their ideas to market. Ideas always seem great in the moment, but Jason underscored how few ideas turn into reality. Rovio, he cited, created over fifty defunct games before sketching out the concept of Angry Birds. Fail, Jason repeated, fail faster. His words, to an outsider, would seem harsh, but as the former executive director of the International Game Developers Association (IGDA), he speaks from experience.

One can only imagine the work and effort of the students’ work showcased in THE BEST OF THE BEST competition. Fifteen schools and students competed for first place prizes in web design and development, interaction and gaming, visual and interactive art, graphic communication, and mobile app development. The applause was ecstatic and it was overwhelming not to be charmed by the genuine surprise and humility of the winners.

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If you need to fail and learn from failure before you can succeed, then MEET THE MEDIA GURU keynote speaker Dr. Arthur Kroker, cultural theorist and political scientist, identified how we as a society are failing to address the ethical implications of our inventions. “Drones turn our sky into a warlike eye,” he warned. What happens when this “liquid eye of power” comes home?

Kroker characterized our time, caught between extremes: “What is utopian? What is dystopian?” He mentioned how drone pilots refer to kills as bug splats. This creates what Kroker calls a “long distance ethics.” Violence is carried out at a greater distance than ever before. “Ours is the culture that moves at the speed of a bug splat,” he said. So what do we do?

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Art, Kroker assured, can act as a counter-gradient to power. It makes burrows in our imagination, and stays with us, influencing every decision and opinion we make. Such was the task of Benoit Labourdette of Quidam, a filmmaker experimenting with commercial drones. “Technology is here and we have to face it,” Labourdette said. Labourdette showed his recent experiments in drone videography, a short film where students pretended like the drone was antagonist chasing them. The real time reactions of the students were equally hilarious, exciting, and empowering. One student stood before the evil drone, his arms crossed, and stared it down, as others joined behind him. “Vision from above is a political image,” Labourdette explained, and it’s easy to see why: the top-down perspective and speed of drone videos highlights the physical relationships between objects. At first subjects seem almost as unpredictable in their movements as the drone, but when a pattern is set, the setting of their movement and their place within it is evocatively illustrated.

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Friday capped off with the 2015 Digital Pioneer Award presented to Dr. Steve Mann. In the words of Dean Luigi Ferrara, “Mann is nothing short of a pioneer.” As the ‘Father of Wearables,’ he strapped portable computers made out of spare parts and vacuum cleaners to his body, creating the foundation for what companies today are trying to push as the next Big Thing. “Integrity is the most important thing in life,” Dr. Mann said on his philosophy. Dr. Mann is not shy to admit his love of root words, so I l decided to look up the meaning of integrity and it’s earliest mention.

Integrity has had many meanings over the years: in the 14th century it meant “innocence, blamelessness; chastity, purity,” but look deeper and you’ll find it derives directly from the Latin word integer – a whole number, as opposed to a fraction. Only at the end of Friday, when Mann took his bow, thanked the crowd and received his Digifest award, did I realize the entire day had been a study in integrity. Each speaker presented a fraction that only in concert with one another managed to create something close to a “whole” or “complete” picture of reality.

Of course, we’ll never “be complete,” but even as we fail, we give ourselves another lesson on our endless pursuit for excellence and success.

Marcello Ferrara
Guest contributor for Digifest 2015

Day 1 highlights at Digifest 2015

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“Pleasure should be free,” Trevor Haldenby said with a smile to the crowd at Digifest, “even if it’s at the expense of privacy.” Above him, on the large screen projector, the delightfully colourful banner of ByoMate shined brightly. The business, he explained, would be the future of pleasure: ByoMate will genetically enhance your sex life with a gene cocktail based on genome of underwater crustaceans.

People rolled their eyes, squinted with confusion, filled with anxiety, until Trevor, his smile nearly ready to burst, broke the news: there was no ByoMate. At the Mission Business where Trevor works, they conceive of new products to challenge our expectations about the future. They present all too familiar arrogant corporations with fantastical plans to completely alter the way we live our lives.

Trevor’s presentation was just one of fifteen quick talks on the cutting edge of products and research in digital technology. Whether it was Karma Laboratory’s new models of education, or Lynn Hughes of Concordia University’s explorations in pairing performance art with video games, or Janus 3D, a 3D virtual reality web browser, with just fifteen minutes, these presentations were able to show a tantalizing slice of the future.

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I kept the lesson of ByoMate in my mind throughout the day, reflecting on the opening keynote by Brian Pullen, Design Director of the Working Group. In less than thirty minutes, Brian described the successful strategies for getting your start-up to, well, start. He pinpointed the most common mistakes early start-ups make and how to avoid them. His underlying argument was simple: start-ups need to optimize the use of their time, not necessarily their funding. Startups need to select not only a competent team, but also a passionate one at that.

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Brian’s talk loomed over the It’s a Start competition at the tail end of the day, when fifteen startups competed for funding and incubation space. Some retained the fantastically arrogant rhetoric of Trevor’s ByoMate, but others let the passion speak for itself. The creator of Lüvle, an app for virtual cuddles, whipped out his iPhone in front of the panel and rubs his chest with it while it audibly purred in response. In the end, the teaBOT, an automated kiosk that allows users to customize their blends of tea and then serve it, took home the top spot. Three other startups secured smaller financing and incubation space: Suncayr, a special pen whose ink changes color know when you need to reapply sunscreen on your skin; Brizi, a drone camera that captures fan reactions and players for sports events; and ExVivo Labs, an incredible patch that functions like a pregnancy test but for allergies.

Seeing the passion of those startups provoke a thought, how does a core team of passionate and conscious creators evolve into the kind of ambivalent and disruptive corporation like ByoMate? How can it be avoided?

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Foteini Agrafioti, the last of Thursday’s keynotes, provided an answer: if you want to ensure the privacy of your users, design it in mind for the beginning. I came to understand why the start-up phase of a business is possibly its most influential: it sets the foundation for what you can and cannot do. Agrafioti is a biometric engineer, famous for her invention HeartID, an authentication service based on the user’s unique heartbeat. Agrafioti understands the inherent danger in biometrics: they’re irreversible, but so is bad design. Your product may fit within the market, she argued, but without design tailored to the needs of your customers, you will never succeed. Design your product to empower your customers, not rob them of what they value most.

Empowerment, more than anything, radiated from Steve Mann’s keynote on his notion of Priveillance. Mann has been strapping cameras and portable computers to his body since the 70’s. What was once in “the lunatic fringe,” as his former supervisor said, is now mainstream. He wore Google Glass decades before its first test kit. Beneath the entertaining showmanship and buzzword-heavy rhetoric, Mann’s had a real insight into the theme of privacy and surveillance that loomed over Thursday. Surveillance, he explained, derived from the French words sur (over) and veillance (sight) – or in other words, oversight. Surveillance is the veillance of hypocrisy, he said, they’re allowed to film you, but you are not able to film them.

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Unlike the one-sided nature of most products, Mann’s envisions a future where technology offers us a reciprocal relationship to power. Sousveillance, derived from the French antonym to sur, defines the perspective of the everyday person. How do we institute checks and balances to power? Allow people to constantly monitor that power. All of these insights were sandwiched in between a concert played with a water organ, a fictional and yet plausible dystopian corporation, videos of drones flying over cheering fans, and a security system authenticated by your heartbeat.

That’s the thing that makes Digifest so exciting: you can observe the promise and portents of tomorrow. Everyone is there to say, this is the way it is, and it is our job to react. And I can’t wait to see what the next two days have in store.

Marcello Ferrara
Guest contributor for Digifest 2015

 

Toronto is a twin city to Milan

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Luigi Ferrara, Dean Centre Arts and Design and Director Institute without Boundaries at George Brown College hosted Maria Marzia Mattei, founder of the Meet the Media Guru (Milan, Italy) who is here as a presenter for Digifest 2015 to meet the City of Toronto. Milan is twin city with the City of Toronto and this year the City of Milan host Expo Milan 2015. From Canada, George Brown College’s Institute without Boundaries will be one of the 140 participant countries in Italy.

Photo from right to left Luigi Ferrara, Councillor Michael Thompson, Maria Grazia Mattei, Major John Tory and Councillor Maria Angimarie

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