Another week, another conference. Last week it was Thinking Digital in the Sage on the Tyne in Newcastle. The Thinking Digital conference was appealing to because of it’s sheer geeky ecclecticism, from big social media businesses to blue sky technology research and all the soft and chewy bits in-between.
The conference started with what they called Thinking Digital University where I signed up for the session on the visualisation language with Jer Thorp ( who has done a heap of the Wired infographics I believe ). The day was intensive but incredibly useful, it gave the ability to pretty much do all I would want to do with Processing before going to ask an adult for help. Jer emphasised the playful, exploratory nuances of the tool saying Processing gives you “a licence to suck”. There’s a tagline I can live with.
The next day I opted for the far more scary workshop… Singing. I was terrified and sweated profusely. It was great fun and although we didn’t get to work individually at all, which is what I’d expected and feared, we did end on “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” in three part harmony. The whole experience was strangely uplifting and refreshingly un-digital.
The conference began with me nearly passing out in the “cheap seats” up top. I boiled, then bailed and found a cooler chair in the “Live Lounge” which streams the conference to the people sensible enough to find the comfy chairs.
I can’t say I was too impressed with the initial sessions. Things weren’t boding well. Gerd Leonhard was presenting remotely and both for this content and style of presentation just didn’t work. It seemed stripped of life somehow, the ideas like washed up Wired covers with the meat of the articles missing. Maybe it was just that, for this crowd, futurology is a bread and butter subject and difficult to say anything insightful about. The session with the Tech Journalist seemed to work better, maybe because it was less formal and more chatty in a gossipy way. It was definitely funnier.
Atau Tanaka from Newcastle University told of a strange project that involved taking “digital” instruments to deepest, darkest Africa, having a party then leaving ( WITH their generator ). This talk actually got some of the delegates around me angry that this sort of stuff is paraded as research when to be fair, “holiday with computers” might have been a more honest description. I do often find issue with lots of arts/digital crossover stuff just because a lot of it isn’t very good. At all.
Walter de Brouwer gave a personable pointer to where medical data-logging is heading when we’re all monitoring everything all the time.
Nicole from Ogilvy Labs alluded to the cool stuff they’re doing and then showed a “sizzle” showreel… which again, could have actually been interesting but the surface was lacking in any take-away insights. Some of the projects skimmed over could have had depth, I know, I know, they’re in advertising, but instead we were given product rather than process.
Bobby Paterson shared his social media platform for helping people to develop “happy habits”… And whilst I totally subscribe to his broad goals, the whole idea of spending a time on a computer to be happier runs against my grain. In fact, I’d go as far to say as soon as all your friends and followers are explicitly demonstrating how happy they are is exactly the point I’d consider topping either myself or them.
Conrad Wolfram showed off some of the things that people as clever as Conrad can do with Wolfram Alpha. He put forward the idea that Wolfram Alpha is an “Answers Engine” rather than a “Search Engine”… and I think he has a point. I sometimes get the feeling that Wolfram Alpha isn’t for mortals though. Idiots like us unable even to properly define a question often struggle to get the answer we’d like.
Sam Martin presentation about “man spaces” left me wanting to go make one and fill it with musical instruments, paint and computers.
Steven Bathiche showed the “out there” research that Microsoft is doing, making computing surfaces and full-screen 3D windows and kitchen worktops that do the things sci-fi kitchens should do.
Nancy Duarte, one of the most obviously gifted public speakers came on and told us how she was raped as a child, then wove it into an explanation of story arcs – the classic: a. Likable character b. Overcomes obstacles and then c. Emerges transformed. She then went on to show how she’d broken down lots of successful and persuasive speeches and found common elements in them.
Erin McKean delighted everyone with her work on Wordnik, an online dictionary.
Heather Knight ( wore bright tights) and demo’ed her work and art related to Robots.
On the second day, having had “chair issues”, I discovered quite by accident that the front row had little cushions on them. Not knowing these seats were meant for the speakers I availed myself of less arse ache and was lucking enough to sit next to Matthew Postgate ( an old colleague from years ago ) who is now head of research at the BBC. It was nice to catch up and to get a peek at some of the interesting experiments. One that caught my imagination ( which means it’d probably never work ) was a sort of projection of what you would see from the corner of your eye around the TV screen with the aim to make a show more immersive. The projection was more abstract but requires a different form of film shooting … but results in effects like looming shadows on your lounge wall when someone is being followed. It was sort of a half way house between a full surround cinema and brought up a number of artistic possiblities ( if not answers ) that could be fun… They’d even experimented with using the peripheral projection stuff to show flashback sequences, almost subliminally… And whilst I don’t think this will necessarily go anywhere useful, I still found it fun to chew over what you might do with this approach.
Carlos Ulloa a 3D designer revealed how they’d made an iPhone app to design flowers and just let it loose on the world. I’m not sure where this was about, but somehow, the attention to detail, the sheer lack of definable purpose and charm somehow carried this along. I think Carlos kind of admitted that he didn’t know… and somehow it just didn’t matter.
Casper Berry tried to convince the audience that most of the worrying about uncertainty in our lives is misplaced simply because life generally slaps such unpredictable suprises in our way that our fears and plans pale in comparison. I’m not too sure about this myself…
I enjoyed Chris Hatala from Massive Black ( check their logo… snigger! ) who’s worked on the special effects for Lord of the Rings and the like. I loved how he de-mystified the animation work he does, making it seem acheivable by mere mortals but also flagged up how much of a team effort creating special effects is. There is one guy who is a 3D cloth expert… they just do cloth. Yes, cloth ( maybe hair too… which as it happens is just strands of cloth ).
Ewan McIntosh revealed some of the work, from a social media perspective, how he helped the SNP come to power in Scotland. Great talk
Vincent Li shared his research about angiogenesis, which looks at how certain foods help starve cancer cells of blood. EatToDefeat.org.
Jer Thorp’s ( the processing guy ) showed some of his visualisations of a ret-tweet, which showed how a news story might have a life and then be taken up and re-promoted by different communities. He also worked on the 9/11 commemoration pools and helped to layout ( or visualise ) the names of the victims. The families had asked that poeple have their names “near their friends” rather than be arranged alphabetically, which was strangely moving somehow.
Dan Serfaty runs a competitor to Linked in, Viadeo, which takes the approach that one size doesn’t come close to fitting all and that each region needs a business networking site that takes the local customs and cultures into account.
The only presentation that made me swear ( in a good way ) was Tan Le who showed some kit with which your brain waves could be used to control software ( or a wheelchair or a car ). Someone from the audience actually moved a box on screen by thinking about moving a box.
Tom Scott closed the conference in typical Digital Johhny Ball stylee showing how easy it was to trawl to social media accounts, filch and collate data and ultimately end with an entire conference saying hi on your ansaphone. Scary fun. Now go check your Facebook settings and delete your Twitter account.
The Thinking Digital conference was much more professional than I’d expected. I think I’ve got used to more grassroots events of late and I wasn’t sure how I’d take a more regular, old fashioned conference format… but I loved it and would definitely recommend it to anyone. I particularly like Herb’s friendly and laid back compering. I think he should make a few bedtime audio books.
My only minor criticism of the event can be applied to most events and that is to do with the information layout of the programme. This is ALWAYS an issue for me ( it gets worse when you’re attending two or three other conferences too ). For example, the workshop sessions were listed in a random order with varying date formats 25/05/11 and Thursday, 24th May etc… That nearly made my head explode then and there.
p.s I was going to nicely interweave my photos with the relevant paragraphs but the UI of WordPress has beat me ( what a pile of poo it is ) … so here in one lovely splurge are some pictures.