Fresh & New(er)

discussion of issues around digital media and museums by Seb Chan

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Sketchy notes from Picnic 10 (part 1 of 2)

September 25th, 2010 by Seb Chan

Picnic 10 has been very rewarding – Picnic is why I’ve been in Amsterdam delivering two presentations and helping organise three sessions on different issues in cultural heritage.

In the main pavilion in amongst interactive promotions from various major companies and a healthy smattering of startups was a pop up Fab Lab run by the Waag Society and a rather excellent pop up Instructubles Restaurant. In the Fab Lab people were using rapid prototyping tools and 3D printers to build all sorts of little creations whilst the Instructibles Restaurant made entirely from crowdsourced components and cooking up crowdsourced recipes from the Instructibles site. If anything shows the micro-industrial revolution occurring under our noses it is this. (And the food is tasty too!)

In a session on transmedia (games), Dan Hon who was responsible for such things as the We Tell Stories project for Penguin, bemoaned the genre formulas of transmedia productions. He posed whether the present would be radically different if the first transmedia production hadn’t been for Speilberg’s techno thriller A.I. but instead had been for the feelgood film of the same year – Amelie? Dan pushed this further. Is it possible to develop transmedia experiences for mass audiences – not just ‘puzzle geeks’?

These are real challenges for those trying to bring the opportunities of transmedia games to the cultural sector. Puzzle geeks aren’t our natural audiences and we are far more Amelie than A.I.

The next day i managed to catch a brief moment of Jeff Jarvis introducing his ideas of ‘entrepreneurial journalism‘ – an idea that probably has equal implications for the cultural sector. CUNY is now offering a Masters in the topic – where students not only learn journalism but are required to come up with a business model and sustainability strategy for their work. From this have already come several journalism startups’ although none have been ‘traditional journalism’ – instead have been about connecting and amplifying the things that matter to creation niche communities bounded by experience and/or geography.

Then it was off to present to the Hot 100 – 100 hand selected young entrepreneurs and graduates. I probably was a bit outside their usual scope but I hope the lessons around audience/user focus and continual refinement were universal. Also presenting in this session was Anab Jain from Superflux. I hadn’t heard Anab before and her presentation was one of the highlights of Picnic. Anab’s work – initially as an artist and now as a researcher and designer – centres on the cultural and shared social contexts of various technologies. Her early experiment in 2005 – Yellow Chair Stories – saw her sharing her wifi connection in London and striking up conversations with those who used it was wonderful. Similarly her prototype Sketch-A-Move for Mattel was totally inspired.

Anab later was part of the Urban Lenses panel organised by Adam Greenfield where she, again, presented some insightful views on the experience of connectivity in the city, contrasting the role of mobile technologies in Amsterdam with those of people technologies in cities in India.

After a non-existent lunch break, I presented again in our main event - the Beyond Tourism mobile discussion. The premise for this panel was to consider how cultural institutions and cultural content might be best delivered, adapted, and contributed to by a broad citizenry using mobile devices. Up until now, the rapidly expanding mobile space has considered cultural content as fodder for endless variants of tourism apps. Indeed, at Picnic itself, there were more than a few start ups pitching ‘interactive mobile tours’.

Gillian Schrofer opened by showing his QR code incursions around Amsterdam that when scanned, made visible the interiors of private residences that had had their interiors designed by his company. There was more than a little synergy with the kind of work that historic house operators have been considering – as his panoramic interior photos were hyperlinked to information about furniture and fittings.

My own presentation explored some of the failures we’ve been learning from at the Powerhouse – QR codes, URLs on object labels – and, the core problem of incentive (or lack of). My slides don’t make a great deal of sense without audio so I’m not posting them – suffice to say, my big hairy issue, despite seeing promise in a number of augmented reality apps, is that in every example thus far, a piece of physical tourist signage in location would be more effective in terms of reach and communication (just not as nerdy).

More importantly, my other issue with seeing the world as objects is that it diverts us from the core notion of storytelling – which is, in reality the only thing that will make any of these technologies truly compelling for users. In fact museums are rather good at storytelling and we’ve been diverted from our course by the lure of ‘liberating objects’ – which, on their own, are much less than when organised into a narrative.

On the storytelling meme, I also riffed around the need to transform the narrative of the ‘museum visit’ from one that starts at the door and ends at the door, to one that starts well before the visit, and ends well after the visit – each ‘chapter’ being a stage. If conceived of in this way, the ‘museum visit’ narrative is much more able to accommodate the idea of pre- and post- visit interactions. As a result marketing and promoting events and incursions that occur outside the museum itself should become far less difficult to conceptualise and implement.

Mike Edson from the Smithsonian followed me with his pitch for the Smithsonian Commons and what he saw as not being the future of mobile but the future as mobile. Mike and I had a bit of a discussion during Picnic about the potential for the Smithsonian Commons to potentially crowd out other initiatives globally through sheer scale and volume – or as was coined, the idea of ‘data imperialism’.

Jarmo Eskalinen spoke about open data especially at the city level and David Vogt from Mobile Muse spoke eloquently about the mobile web being, potentially, the first media technology to offer a intimate, participatory and social experience of media akin to our shared cultural understandings of the night sky. David’s short talk resonated with my feelings about the as yet untapped potential of mobile. I’ve included one of his slides which illustrates his claim for mobile.


(image from David Vogt’s slidedeck)

Tags: 1 Comment

  • http://kendallcopywriting.co.uk Leif Kendall

    I’m very curious about QR codes – haven’t quite got the point of them yet.