Monday, October 31, 2011

Locative Media Innovation Day

Bill Buxton opened a half-day conference on locative media this past Friday at Toronto International Film Festival's (TIFF) new building, by noting that it is not just realtors anymore asserting the importance of location, location, location.

Considering the importance of location and my propensity to begin conference recaps by discussing the event location, I would like to say that TIFF is the best conference venue in Toronto. It was my first time attending an event at TIFF's headquarters in downtown Toronto (although I did attend their Tim Burton exhibition and blogged about their use of QR codes). Their building, the Bell Lightbox, is located on the spot I used as a shortcut to my first ever Internet job. Formerly a lacklustre parking lot, it is now a centre of cinematic and new media culture.

Unlike other conference venues, TIFF's seats are comfortable and the leg room is fine. I find it hard (and boring) to sit still and silently for hours and listen to people talk at me, but it's even more difficult when the seats cause excruciating pain. The event was filled to capacity, which made it a bit stuffy and hot - but it was worth it to see so many people interested in locative media. 

The conference is a joint event between TIFF Nexus series on new media and Toronto's Digifest, a week long conference and celebration of digital innovation. Considering this broad mandate, there were a few speakers that strayed from the locative media focus, but the innovations presented were incredible so I didn't mind. Attendees represented a good mix of developers, artists, producers, educators, students, researchers, and vendors. This mix is so much more rewarding than most other conferences attempt to assemble.

Bill Buxton a principal researcher at Microsoft opened the event by noting that intelligence of technology lies not so much in the innovation itself but in its context. "I don't care about technology" he stated, "it a utilitarian thing that can be easily discarded". The important consideration is the fundamental human behaviour or need that technology enables. He cited an automatic door opener as being a prime example of intelligent technology - not because it is technically sophisticated (it isn't) but because of its "embedded intelligence". Its intelligence comes from where it is and how well it fits into the ecology of the physical system. As such, locative media creators should not get wrapped up on new abilities of a technology, but rather consider the different dimensions of human behaviour. For one, closeless is not necessarily physical proximity, Buxton noted. There are different types of closelessness such as proximity but also emotional, cultural, and relational bonds, as well as intermediaries or physical impediments that all affects closeness. So assuming that physical proximity is the lead or only factor for locative media may lead to technology that doesn't serve the needs of users.

The next speaker, Richard Lachman of Ryerson University, offerred some foundational concepts of locative media. As the term locative media is used rather nebulously, Lachman offers a definition that locative media is "annotating physical space with digital content". To Lachman, technology such as augmented reality, location based services, and QR codes are examples of locative media. I can see the importance of having consistency in terminology, but I wonder if the content being digital is a fundamental criteria. As I have blogged about before, there are many types of technology or media that annotate physical space, from plaques and posters to graffiti and flags. There are commonalities between these older media and digital media. I don't like to extend a term to the point of meaningless and Lachman's digital focus is consistent with contemporary usage, but I think this exclusive digital focus makes it easy for creators to forget the lessons learned from earlier efforts and to not adequately consider how a new technology is offering something new or improved.

Lachman continued to explain other fundamental qualities of locative media by offering examples of current innovations. Proximity can be personally useful in some imaginative ways, he demonstrated by showcasing iNap, an application to wake up sleepy commuters when they pass a predesignated zone so they won't miss their stop. Discovery Channel's SharkRunner is particularly interesting in how it combines game play with the real-world by having users interact with real GPS-tagged sharks. Citing the case of Nicaragua invading Costa Rica based on faulty Google Maps data, Lachman also cautioned about the need for applications to preserve our trust. Accuracy is not the only element of trust that is essential, as privacy concerns of locative media can also be disconcerting as the new technology is in wide use "before we had time to adapt our social practices or norms". Lachman described how locative media can not only offer push content (content that pops out at you based on your location) or pull content (geolocated data that one selects to receive) but can be an interface to our world. To do this we need to consider awareness, expectations, user experience, values, and design.

The creator of murmur, one of the world's first digital locative media projects, Shawn Micallef spoke next about why he feels locative media has something special to offer.  Upon moving to a new city (in his case Toronto), he realized that  his "mental map of the city had a lot of dark spots". He wanted to uncover these "mental hinterlands" and found that exploring the city as earlier psychogeographers had done enabled him to form relations to his new spaces. He also began tweeting while he explored the city and received tweets back within moments that offered personal experiences or histories of his location that enriched Micallef's understanding of the place. His project murmur is now in 25-30 cities and will be soon relaunching with GPS ability. Micallef cautions that current locative media applications such as Foursquare really need to examine the value of place. To Micallef, Foursquare is mostly spam as he doesn't care where someone is but it is people's more thoughtful and unique relations to place that are interesting.

After speaking, Micallef introduced a series of locative media creators describing their projects. Incredible projects were presented such as Ghostbusters, a location-based game; Sauga 2030, a futuristic tour of Mississauga, Ontario; Sousveiller, participatory surveillance identification; This Dark Encounter, a marketing effort using real world, bookstore interaction to promote a new book; and Rocket Radar, proximal public transit schedule updates.

Adam Schwabe of Rocket Radar effectively summed up the role locative media projects must play to offer the "right information, at the right time, in the right way". Schwabe, however, doesn't believe in users setting up preferences or customization, he believes that is a lazy solution for developers. Instead, he believe it is paramount to build a system that should know about the user and get it right the first time.

I mentioned earlier that I loved the location of this conference, the other great thing about TIFF is they computer labs on site so they were able to offer a round of hands-on workshops. I also mentioned that I find it boring to sit and be spoken to for hours on end, so these workshops were a welcome technique.

I attended a session allowing me to create my own augmented reality work through SnapDragonAR. The software was created by York University's Future Cinema Labs and now spun off as a private company, Future Stories. I was blown away with the software as within moments I was able to make a really cool augmented reality application that responded both visually and aurally to a user's location in space. Fisher describes her reasoning behind developing the software as she's not concerned with "what technology makes possible, but what it makes easy". The software is a great tool for prototyping and experimenting with augmented reality. But Fisher envisions it being extended to further facilitate it integrating with location-aware technologies to offer geotargetted augmented reality. She did caution that this technology needs to improve as users are not necessarily interested in holding a device up to a precise spot or going out into traffic to get content. Fisher encourages people to focus on "spatial storytelling" and to do this effectively she suggests creator think about: structure, grammar, poetics, interactivity, interface, narrative, immersion, presence, and proprioception.

The following sessions of the conference introduced developers in TIFF Nexus Peripherals Initiative creative jam project that provided funding for game developers to experiment with game play and the physical world. Although all the presented games were amazing, they mostly focused on new types of physical controls and as such weren't up my alley.

As one who studies locative media, I was excited to see my hometown clueing in to this growing area and displaying some impressive local thought and innovation. Shawn Micallef, the grandparent of locative media via his murmur project, summed up this remarkable change with his conference tweet: "When we started [murmur] in 2003, I don't believe the word 'Locative Media' existed -- now there are #TIFFNexus conferences on it. Fun."

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