All posts for Tag: technology

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.

 

‘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 

 

See You There: Design Our Tomorrow, Screens, MeshMarketing!

We have a busy weekend and week ahead of us…we will be attending Design our Tomorrow, Screens and MeshMarketing.  Learn more about the events and our involvement below!  As always follow us on Twitter and Google+ to hear about how it’s all going!

 

The Design Our Tomorrow (DOT) Conference brings together the world’s greatest visionaries to inspire young people to create, innovate, and better the world. The topics covered include: technology, science, design, entrepreneurship, philanthropy, and the arts.  We will be showing two incredible IAEP prototypes at this event: Neighbourhoodie and The Quetzal!

The Quetzal (Creative Team: Michael Evask, Ryan Rizzo, and Mark Thoburn)

The Quetzal is an interactive narrative (story-game) interfaced via EEG biofeedback. Harnessing the latest in consumer-level EEG technology, The Quetzal weaves 2D illustrations and 3D game play into a rich narrative tapestry. Through the power of thought, audience members become actors in The Quetzal.

If you would like to be scheduled to be part of The Quetzal experience during Design Our Tomorrow please email myself (amallozzi@cfccreates.com) and I will let you know what time-slots are available.

Neighbourhoodie (Creative Team: Rose Bianchini, David McCallum, and Kathleen Climie)

Neighbourhoodie is an Interactive Hoodie and Game Platform for the iPod Touch and iPhone. This comfy, hooded garmet is fully outfitted with speakers in the hood, LED lights and other electronics, so that once plugged into an iPod Touch or iPhone, the world is turned into a video game through the use of light, sound and sensors. Neighbourhoodie combines the energy of street games with the thrill of interactive game play. Play games you know, enhanced with lights and sounds or create new games. Explore the gesture of pulling the hood up, not to withdraw from the world, but to enter into a world of collaborative experience. Be your own video game!

Details…

When: Saturday November 12, 2011. 10:00 am – 4:30 pm
Where: Bahen Centre (40 St. George St.) and Convocation Hall (31 King’s College Circle)
Register now: http://designourtomorrow.com/

 

SCREENS is a conference that is dedicated to mobile, tablet and set top box development. SCREENS is jam packed with information and a massive networking opportunity, SCREENS consists of presentations, demonstrations and panel discussions. It is one of the only events in the world designed for developers of all platforms of screen content.

Check out the schedule online!

 

meshmarketing is a one-day event focused on providing attendees with insight, perspective and information to more effectively embrace and capitalize on the fast-growing digital market. A morning of thought-provoking keynote conversations will be followed by an afternoon of interactive and engaging panels and workshops.

I will be attending MeshMarketing and live-tweeting from @cfcmedialab (follow us!) as well as writing an article for <STABLETALK>!  Stay tuned!

Amazing Toronto-Based Company in the Spotlight: GestureTek

In 1983 Vincent John Vincent and Francis MacDougall decided they would embark on developing technology to allow body gestures to control computers in a number of ways.  As these advancements were largely ahead of their time, Vincent and MacDougall would find themselves waiting for a number of advances, in both societal beliefs and technology that would enable them to produce this new technology.

After some success in producing gesture-based technology, GestureTek licensed it’s patents to Microsoft; where it is part of the Kinect, and they have also licensed their technology to Sony and Hasbro.

GestureTek has recently sold it’s mobile and consumer department to Qualcomm hoping to focus more on the healthcare and educational areas of the business.

They were profiled in The Grid TO this past week, GestureTek’s full story can be read here: http://www.thegridto.com/culture/gaming/control-freaks/3/

Images from: http://www.gesturetek.com/

 

See you there: Startup Festival

Another amazing festival you can’t miss is coming up!

The International Startup Festival is a two-day conference on the business of startups. It brings together industry veterans and fresh faces, thought leaders and technology giants from around the world, for a series of lean, fast-paced events. It includes startup launches, inspiring keynotes, and deep-dives into hot sectors like mobility, social networking, and gaming. The festival brings a global audience together to cover the entire startup lifecycle: early-stage innovation; scaling the business; and achieving a successful exit.

Details

When: July 13-15 2011
Where: Alexandra Pier, Old Montreal (Adjacent to Centre des Sciences)
Register Now: http://www.eventbrite.com/event/869924969/
Schedule: http://www.startupfestival.com/en/speakers/

AntiVJ at MUTEK: Projection mapping masters talk up unconventional visuals and running a “visual label”

Murcof + AntiVJ texture

Continuing our MUTEK interview series, we talk to AntiVJ artist Joanie Lemercier and producer Nicolas Boritch about their approach to mind-bending projected music visuals, their evolution from nightclub VJing to producing large-scale artistic collaborations, and their approach to working as a “visual label.”

Since 2005, AntiVJ has had a resounding influence on visuals in dance clubs, live music performance, and installations. Though they pioneered and perfected the usage of projection mapping – wherein carefully-aligned digital projections create illusions on unconventional surfaces – AntiVJ pledges allegiance to no technique, only a focus “on the use of projected light and its influence on our perception.”

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For-Prophet Technology

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the codification of innovation at Apple Inc. While examining the management hierarchies and creative clusters at work there, I began thinking about how one could visualize the larger web of technological influence stemming from a single corporation, or product. The latest iPad may be developed in a frenzy of behind-close-doors iteration, but its successes in the market and as a technological icon are ultimately dependent on a system of connections much larger than the one in which it was crafted. Slick advertising campaigns, generations of preceding and descendant products, and the effort of countless third-party software developers have all played an enormous part in ensuring the successful uptake and understanding of Apple’s product, for example. But above all of the Geniuses, engineers, and creatives at TBWAChiatDay there is another node in the system that exerts tremendous influence: the tech journalists.

In Kim Vicente’s book The Human Factor, the development of technological products and services is presented as a process often characterized by vicious combat between “wizards” and humanists. Many episodes from 20th century design and innovation are presented in the book as cases of wizards-gone-wild… savants running amok in nuclear power plants, planes, and hospitals with little consideration for the human side of design. But while the history of consumer technology is certainly spotted with examples of design-for-design’s-sake and dangerously complicated over-functional products, it is also the tale of a unique set of relationships between wizards and the rest of us.

Alongside growth in consumer technologies in the 20th century came the growth of accessible and decipherable technology writing. Popular Science magazine was first published 139 years ago, and popular scientific writing (or some form of content production) seems to have a bright future in spite of recent trends towards science by press conference.

Click for the full image at The Joy of Tech

Journalists like Walt Mossberg, Michael Arrington, and Leo Laporte are the old-guard of consumer technology journalism; working for decades alongside industries that have grown from insignificant to economically dominant, and challenging the value and detailed specifications of products released. An article by Alan Deustchman in May 2004′s issue of Wired looks at the life and times of Mossberg himself, calling him “The Kingmaker”. Complete with a chart of economic repercussions from Mossberg’s Personal Technology column, the piece contains some fascinating insights into the journalist’s philosophy and process. Mossberg’s ex-assistant even wrote his Master’s thesis at Georgetown about Walt’s influence on global innovation.

Of course, Mossberg steadfastly denies any “special relationships” with the titans of Silicon Valleys around the world. While he does bestow the king’s crown when it comes to consumer technology corporations, he also has journalistic scruples to account for. Perhaps his recent stern response to Shantanu Narayen was as much about steering Adobe in the right direction as demonstrating Mossberg’s ethics…

Any suggestions as to who – or what – constitutes the new guard of technological journalism are fiercely debated. Stuart Miles of Pocket-lint just started curating a list of “technology voices that matter” on the Say 100 site, and apparently the feedback has been incendiary enough to prompt a “We ALSO Love:” sub-list below the fold, and frequent reshuffling of the 10 finalists.

Humans aside, the formats associated with accessible science and technology writing are (as you might expect) receiving a bit of a makeover, as well. As new technological developments are released and integrated into mainstream culture at a faster and faster pace, new evolutions are taking place in terms of the frame of reference we establish for our technological prophets. Last month, the 8th Conference on Innovation Journalism took place at Stanford University.

The IJ logo reminds me a bit too much of a Light Cycle match...

David Nordfors, the founder of the conference, explains innovation journalism as the evolution of investigative writing on technology. Nordfors argues that as advanced information technology systems become ubiquitous, the standards and conventions that we use to evaluate and make sense of them must also expand. Siloed approaches to journalism that pump out narrow analyses of local news, business, and science, he argues, are less reputable and less enjoyable than approaches resulting in integrated reflections on what are actually surprisingly integrated products. Tom Foremski reflects on the IJ8 Conference over at ZDNet, and Nordfors has a PDF online of a paper he co-authored on the interplay of journalism and innovation.

To kick off the conference, the Stanford Centre for Innovation and Communication asked what the role of journalism was in a world with over 5 billion cellphones, 600 million Facebook accounts, and one billion Google search queries per day. As traditional journalistic media become less and less functional as gatekeepers of information, what becomes of their superhero icons, the $1,000,000-salaried celebrity humanists keeping an eye on the wizards?

Walt Mossberg has seemingly already begun to prepare for the crumbling of media steeples around him – he founded the All Things Digital online publication and conference with journalist Kara Swisher back in 2007. Chris Anderson, whose Sapling Foundation administers and curates the TED conferences, is also a journalistic ex-pat. Both TED and AllThingsD are brands that bring technological wizards (and business-minded humanists) direct to audiences around the world, lowering the latency on the newest and wildest intellectual signals. But in spite of their apparent passion for cutting out the middleman, Mossberg and Anderson have both written themselves into their events – the former interviewing Steve Jobs AND Bill Gates in a famous 2007 panel; the latter greeting and shaking the hand of every TED presenter.

Kinda makes you wonder what hangs about Steve & Bill's mantelpieces, huh?

Has dusk come to the era of these techno-journalistic prophets? Have we finally reached a point in the codification of innovation and evolution of technology where translators are simply no longer required? Will hordes of lead-users emerge on the web, hungry to articulate the value and design of totally new product categories, just as they’ve taken to reviewing the incremental updates from RIM and HTC that show up at your local Best Buy?

For all of the intellectual and creative decentralization that AllThingsD and TED bring to the table, they’re also shrewdly managed by those who have been closest to the pulse of the information technology revolution of the last few decades. Perhaps, although their power has been distributed slightly, these prophets of technology are with us for good. Journalists represent a social tool that enable us to richly contextualize our physical and informational surroundings. If we want to keep in touch with generations of innovation advancing faster than generations of human beings, perhaps we’d best carefully consider the value of technology journalists; and their unique ability to pass on the wisdom of the wizards, whilst poking holes in their magic.

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.

Amon Tobin premieres ISAM at MUTEK

Greetings! I’m Aylwin Lo, CFC Media Lab’s newest staff addition. As a Tech Coordinator, I provide technical and design support to many of the Media Lab’s exciting activities. Last week I took a trip out of the lab to attend the 12th edition of MUTEK, Montreal’s prestigious and groundbreaking festival for electronic music and digital art.

As in previous years, this year’s MUTEK promised an array of acts ranging from seasoned acts premiering their latest audio-visual work to up-and-comers making a break for it. One of our own current residents, Laurel McDonald, has performed at MUTEK and was recently featured on their website for her performance project combining vocals and visuals, Videovoce.

It was my privilege to be able to interview four of the acts performing at this year’s festival. We’ll be posting roughly an interview a week until they’re all up. Be sure to visit Stabletalk once a week if you aren’t already subscribed to our RSS feed or email updates.

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Frontline Documentary

On January 12th 2010, violent earthquakes ripped through the earth’s crust 13 kilometres beneath southern Haiti. Hundreds of thousands of people lost their lives, and millions more were displaced from their homes. Massive collapses took place across health care, transportation, and communications infrastructure systems. Within hours, this world ripped apart was descended upon by a sea of visitors from across the globe. Supplies and rescue personnel from the Dominican Republic arrived in Haiti alongside their equivalents from Iceland, China, Qatar, and Canada. One of the groups that arrived in Port-au-Prince on January 15th was made up of members of the Red Cross Field Assessment and Coordination Team (FACT).

The members of the Red Cross FACT Team had come to Haiti to manage and oversee logistics around the international disaster recovery. But they also brought with them a team of photographers and filmmakers, as well as a web content producer. The first group was intended to produce a three-part documentary for TVO on the challenges FACT faced in stabilizing the situation, and the second unit was dedicated to capturing additional individual and social stories for a set of interactive segments.

The documentary team attached to the FACT was capturing the chaos and upturned humanity of Haiti in the weeks following the earthquake for a project called Inside Disaster: Haiti – a densely populated and excellently designed multimedia information resource on the Haiti earthquake, and ongoing recovery efforts. Inside Disaster provides clean and understandable data on the history of humanitarian aid; media assets presenting objective views of the disaster; and interactive mini-documentaries exploring the experiences of survivors, journalists, and NGO workers.

This week, I had the opportunity to sit down with Inside Disaster’s Web Field Producer, Nicolas Jolliet. We discussed his involvement in the project, and his understanding of the relationship between innovation and the evolving media landscape.

Presently, Nico is spending his spare hours pioneering the integration of numerous robotic and sensing technologies into a tool he has (in collaboration with whole communities of independent filmmakers) been dreaming of for years. After relocating to a nearby park, he demonstrated his newest creation to me: a helicopter-mounted DSLR camera rig capable of lifting several kilograms of equipment to altitudes of thousands of feet. While the rotors spin too noisily to let him track the birds migrating through Toronto this time of year, his helicopter (I suppose it’s technically a hexicopter) will be an invaluable tool for documentary production. The tool provides high quality HD footage (check out a tropical demo video on YouTube) along GPS-routed paths, at a meaningfully human scale that has previously been difficult to negotiate in the field – higher than a dolly or third-story window, and lower than a helicopter. It’s easy to find more adaptations of technological tools for the frontlines of filmmaking in a blog post Nico published for Inside Disaster, before the earthquake in Haiti even determined the project’s setting.

I shot this video of Nico testing out his hexicopter in a Toronto park.

Many new documentary filmmaking technologies, from super-light camera rigs to DIY cranes and follow-focus units, have emerged out of lead-user communities. Eric von Hippel coined that term in 1986 in reference to groups of hobbyists doing a better job designing products than product designers. Some of the earliest innovations in 35mm adapters for HD camcorders came out of indie filmmaker messageboards and fora. Companies like Redrock and Zacuto quickly realized that a product category had emerged, and that they could make quite a bit of money selling premium versions of what the cutting-edge filmmakers had identified as offering a significant competitive advantage. The DSLR revolution in independent filmmaking is presently closing the loop – offering the look-and-feel of 35mm cinema at a relatively low price, with minimal hassle (depending on your preference for P mode over M). Nico built a mind-blowing customized collapsible crane and dolly system for a documentary he shot in the Amazon a few years ago, but apparently you can already buy one that’s lighter (if not on your wallet) from one of the big DSLR rig manufacturers. There’s a great interactive slideshow on the Inside Disaster site that explores some technology specifically adapted for disaster recovery, as well.

One of the most interesting things I learned about Inside Disaster from Nico was how the crew challenged themselves to compress documentary workflows into live journalistic timelines. To produce content for the Inside Disaster website and social media channels, Nico was working 24-hour shifts of concept development, travel, filming, editing, writing, compression, blogging, and transmission. While documentaries used to be associated with months or years of incubation prior to release, new expectations in an age of always-on media have condensed the equipment and responsibilities of entire film crews down into the hands (and backpacks) of a single operator. Nico claims that backgrounds in languages, musical performance and production, photography, writing, and filmmaking helped land him the job as Field Producer.

In a recent piece for Point of View magazine, Katie McKenna, the producer of Inside Disaster, noted that the project launched in two phases – one entirely dedicated to logistics and pre-positioning within social media networks, and another dedicated to storytelling from teams in Haiti with a long tail made up of resequenced content for branching online interactive experiences. But while open-sourcing the marketing and distribution is one way to embrace emerging toolkits in documentary production, open-sourcing the production and storytelling is something altogether different.

In the world of ethnographic research, everything exists within a cultural context. In isolated or marginalized communities, just getting a realistic research understanding of the landscape in which cultural values are situated can be a difficult task. Photovoice, a participatory research method pioneered in the late 1990’s by Caroline Wang and Mary Anne Burris, operates through the provision of cameras to these communities in hopes that the process of taking and analyzing pictures will stimulate the community to engage in critical dialogue around the opportunities and challenges it faces. In a way, photovoice represents an evolution of the documentary form in the direction of open-source ideation and production. Inside Disaster hails from a different lineage, but broke new ground in other ways relative to the social commons. All of the photos and footage that Nico transmitted each night from Haiti are available under Creative Commons licenses from Flickr and YouTube. While there is plenty of context from frontline journalism and documentary cinema surrounding the Inside Disaster content, open-source status is itself a significant challenge to the patterns and structures of mainstream media.

Discussing these topics in Nico’s Toronto studio, it was difficult not to let my mind wander to the feedback loops linking new innovations and the tools that support them. Guitars and mixing equipment undulate across one of Nico’s walls, and a fully realized robotics bay juts from the other. While inspecting his newest hexicopter prototype (comprised of firmware, structural elements, and sensors tweaked from upon the shoulders of thousands of collaborating un-experts online), I asked Nico how he would feel about me outing him as a closet engineer. He laughed, and told me that it’s not really about engineering, it’s about using new tools to reach new levels of quality in production values and accessibility. “It’s about creating a Steven Spielberg film from your backpack.”

This year, Inside Disaster provided the world with unmatched views of a human and natural disaster. In order to meld the traditions and techniques of journalism and storytelling with the realities of an always-on media landscape, Nicholas Jolliet and the production team of Inside Disaster brought new innovations not only to their vision for documentary storytelling, but also to the tools required to realize it.

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.

Musea and Media

If you live in Toronto, you might be familiar with the renovations that have taken place over the last several years at the Royal Ontario Museum. A $270,000,000 budget resulted in an expansion opening up a total of nearly 388,000 square feet of redesigned exhibition space. If you’ve visited the Art Gallery of Ontario since they attempted a similar renovation, you might have learned that it cost them nearly the same amount of money to build a hall out of Douglas Fir as it cost the ROM to build one of awkward glass crystals. Inside both institutions LCD screens dot the halls, and in the AGO’s elevators, video installations by Vera Frenkel break up (or help hold) the silence between visitors to the espresso bar.

But in the shadow of these enormous structural renovations, dramatic changes to the interactive experiences on offer have been few and far between.

Museums are places that inspire a sense of grandeur in the context of human, and natural, history. But modern museums and art galleries are also institutions racing to keep pace with ever-accelerating advances in the uptake of digital technologies. The museum is a unique cultural artifact that acts as our interface with the deep past, with timeframes rarely considered in our day-to-day lives. But in relation to the ancient systems with which they interface, museums are actually rather young. The first museums in Europe began materializing only 500 years ago. The first public museum, the Louvre, opened a good 280 years after that. The “Golden Age” that museums have named in their honour, like the Mesozoic of the dinosaurs, is bordered by the late 1800’s and the First World War.

But the huge advances that have come in the last 50 years of digital technology, scientific practice, and design have created a strange situation for museums. As leading-edge innovation and research shifted to universities over the course of the 20th century, museums went from being centres of scientific research to institutions facing real existential dilemmata. If emerging technologies and scientific advances offered better insight into the past, museums would have to innovate and refresh exhibitions at a faster rate. And if audiences came to expect technology they’d experienced elsewhere within the museum’s walls, they would have to leap into a sprint in completely new fields of interpretation.

Museums have a number of unique relationships to digital media, some resulting from the their unique situation as a tool for interfacing with deep time; physically, informationally, and procedurally.

  • Museums have digital media artworks or artifacts in their collections.
  • Museums are among the institutions that will oversee the curation of the emergence of digital media.
  • Museums make broad use of digital media in the design of exhibitions and interpretive displays.

Some of the most interesting exhibitions or tools in museums and galleries today take a look at how these three unique ties can be brought together, or strummed in harmony. The traditional toolkits of museum operators, designers, and audiences are evolving.

The Google Art Project, launched earlier this year, allows web surfers to head inside 17 famous museums and galleries around the world using Street View technology. Over 1,000 high-resolution (some of them excruciatingly high resolution) artworks can be accessed through the service, and they are all accessible through either a catalogue or from a virtual wall of the museum in which they reside. The influence services like this will have on the museum industry in the medium term is difficult to forecast. Will a technology company wind up becoming a dominant museum designer, in an interesting flip of the curation of media history by cultural institutions? Will curators and technicians begin preparing works solely for online exhibition? Will artists respond to this shift in curatorial process by creating more and more gigapixel artifacts that live on an external hard drive rather than in the rafters of the few remaining Queen West lofts?

Within the stacked halls of MoMA in New York City, another interesting approach to revising the interactive experience of the museum has just been unveiled.

Microsoft Digital Art is a system designed to emulate the experience of painting on canvas, using a variety of different media. “Digital Art” (an interesting name to decide upon, given the recent trademark spats between MSFT and AAPL over generic terms like “App” and “Windows”) introduces to the high-end museum space an unusual and sometimes uncomfortable element: user-generated content. When I designed Painting The Myth: The Mystery of Tom Thomson with a group of collaborators at the CFC Media Lab in 2004, our efforts were concentrated on creating a new opportunity for museum and gallery audiences to engage with works in an institution’s collection. Painting The Myth told the story of a famous Canadian painter’s mysterious death, while enabling users young and old to paint through one of his works, as he would have painted it nearly one hundred years ago.

Microsoft Digital Art, by enabling visitors to paint their own digital masterpieces, affords museums the opportunity to acquire, curate, and utilize digital media in a single device.

With the three units MoMA has been loaned through the end of August, they could encourage the creation of tens of thousands of original artistic works. It is not clear from Microsoft’s mammoth Terms of Use whether or not painters retain ownership of their works, or if the cycle between creation and institutional acquisition in the art world is compressing similarly to the time between paradigm-shifting technological advancements.

Microsoft Digital Art’s presence at MoMA seems indicative of the museum’s commitment to curating the history and evolution of digital media. Talk To Me, an exhibition opening at MoMA this July, will focus on the nature of the dialogue between human beings and the objects we’ve created. The exhibition’s site is a mildly confusing and hyper-categorized list of projects and ideas, but here and there you can get some real insight into the ideas behind the show. The curators see Talk To Me as an exhibition about the relationship between form, function, and meaning. Dead languages of innovation and metrics of techno-cultural impact will be on display in the museum alongside early daguerrotypes (some with an eerie meta-meta feel to them). MoMA isn’t necessarily trying to create another Massive Change with Talk To Me, but the exhibition has potential.

But in displaying Microsoft Digital Art, MoMA is also making a few interesting statements about the role of large institutions in rolling out digital interfaces to their collections. I think it’s telling that the museum is using Digital Art to enable user-generated content creation rather than a more engaging experience with the works in its collection. This says to me that while they think digital toys are fun, and by all means at home in the Material Lab, they’re not necessarily going to replace the LCD screens and more traditional interpretive displays scattered around the rest of the museum. Although less trendy, those traditional displays are hot media; and although it employs cutting-edge technology and big brand power, the Microsoft Digital Art system is cool… that’s McLuhan cool, not auto-tune cool. Hot media are best used for dealing explicitly with the artifacts in the collection, whether in the form of a digital audio player with tour information or a plaque. Cool media are best rolled out as creative interventions, engaging experiences ultimately divorced from the collection of the institution itself. The Virtual Museum of Canada put out a call a few weeks ago for proposals dealing with augmented reality, geo-location, and various museum collections across the country… so perhaps there is still hope for exciting innovation in digital interpretation closer to home.

In a recent piece on Rhizome, Michelle Kasprzak kicked off a great conversation on cultural institutions in an age of intangible culture. Through an examination of recent attempts at creating virtual museums, Kasprzak interrogates the nature of the museum, and how recent online incarnations such as Adobe’s Museum of Digital Media have used the word itself as a signifier for the culturally authentic. Is this what happens when we start keeping all of our deep-time lenses in a single basket, so to speak? What are the consequences of concentrating our thinking about history and artifacts into one word – museum – which can then be tossed about and attached to cultural institutions of all sorts?

Standards are emerging around what makes a 21st century museum “good” – but it’s unlikely we’ll arrive at a monocultural agreement any time soon. The very activities that used to be tended to exclusively by museums and galleries (or by the very wealthy with a fondness for the esoteric or macabre) – historical and natural artifact collection, preservation, interpretation, contextualization – are rapidly being taken up by the masses. Wikipedia is a museum of sorts, but of ideas as much as physical artifacts. Flickr may not be the best gallery in the world, but it certainly has one of the largest collections. As Michelle Kasprzak noted in her article, the US Library of Congress welcomed billions of tweets into its digital archive last year… and they had the good sense to announce the decision via Twitter.

In my previous post, I advocated the idea that designing something new often requires a new toolkit. It’s been very interesting for me to consider museums in this context… as institutions responsible for preserving our relationship with deep time in an engaging, accessible and decidedly modern manner. Ever-accelerating evolutions in technology as well as the changing expectations of diverse audiences must make the decision-making process in any modern museum even more complicated.

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.

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